DIY Anthropology: Disciplinary knowledge in crisis

Adolfo Estalella and I take part in a thematic section of the ANUAC. Journal of the Italian Society of Cultural Anthropology, titled Changing margins and relations within European anthropology. In it we shift from a discussion around the geo-political identity of anthropology to its status as a scholarly discipline.

Ours is a situated account of how a particular setting and moment in time affected our anthropological practice: The beginning of the 2010s was a period of political unrest in Spain. Like many other countries, it suffered the harsh effects of the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. However, despite the crisis (or maybe because of it) cities experienced a moment of political creativity and urban inventiveness: People occupied empty buildings and unused plots of vacant land to create all kind of projects, refurnishing the city with an impulse to reanimate collective forms of life. All kind of knowledges blossomed in these initiatives. Our several-years-long ethnographic investigations were carried out in this period in Spain’s main two cities (Madrid and Barcelona)

Thrown into an urban landscape left behind by a policy of financial austerity, we worked intimately with architects, activist designers, and bodily diverse people. Singularly and unexpectedly for us, we found in them the companions we lacked in our local institutional academic contexts. They turned into epistemic partners: companions in the shared endeavour of producing anthropological problematisations. Under these circumstances, the knowledge we produced at the time emerged out of a moment of crisis: knowledge in crisis

We do not intend to argue on the European condition of our anthropological practice, neither we are interested in tracing geo-political frontiers of disciplinary imaginations. Instead, drawing on our ethnographic experience – and the collaborations we established with our epistemic partners in the field – we feel urged to problematize the disciplinary boundaries anthropology conventionally tends to assume

Hence, in the article we offer an account of the interstitial spaces that we both inhabited “in the vacuum of tradition” in the recent Spanish crisis, and how that enabled us to articulate singular relations with variegated epistemic partners with whom we set up distinct ambiances of care. In our ethnographic description we pay attention to the blurring of institutional and scholarly infrastructures and modes of togetherness. In describing the particular transformations – or “intraventions” – that these joint spaces enacted, we would like to intimate a different figuration anthropology took in our practice: Not a disciplinary field but a field of experimental collaborations.

As we show, treating our ethnographic counterparts as epistemic partners has the potential to retrofit our institutionalized settings and disciplinary practices. The anthropology we describe, hence, is one assembled from scratch, caring for the mundane issues that very often are forgotten and rendered invisible: an anthropology done with others, a DIY anthropology?

El Campo de Cebada CC BY 2014 Manuel Domínguez Fernández

Abstract

This is an account of the transformations in our anthropological practice derived from working in the many interstitial spaces that opened up in the wake of the recent Spanish economic crisis. Ambulating in void spaces of Madrid and Barcelona, our anthropological practice was there re-built in ways that blurred our disciplinary boundaries. What there emerged was anthropology not as a disciplinary field, but as a field of experimental collaborations. A practice that re-learnt its ways treating counterparts as true epistemic partners, and setting up distinct ambiances of care with them: not only to care for one another in situations of great difficulty, but mostly to care for our different forms of inquiry, addressing the very situations we were under. An anthropology done together with others, assembling from scratch a conceptual body, caring for the mundane issues that are very often forgotten and rendered invisible by disciplinary fields: A DIY anthropology?

Published in Anuac. Journal of the Italian Society of Cultural Anthropology, 8(2): 143-165 (co-written with Adolfo Estalella) | PDF

Repair as repopulating the devastated desert of our political and social imaginations

Drawing together a wide variety of contributions and approaches to different strategies of repair and recovery in post-crisis Portugal, Francisco Martínez has compiled the volume Politics of Recuperation, a comprehensive anthropological approach to the meanings of the crises in Southern Europe. As explained in the back cover:

How did Portuguese society recover after the economic crisis? Through a range of ethnographic case studies focusing on the Portuguese recovery, this book begins a conversation about the experience of recuperation and repair. It addresses how the recovery of relations creates something transcendental, adds a human dimension to the public sphere and expands our conception of what constitutes the political.

Located in the cracks and gaps between the state and society, recuperation appears as a social and infrastructural answer linked to reciprocity, critical urbanity, generational interweaving, alternate ordering and reconnection of different bodies and histories. With chapters looking at public art in Lisbon and recuperative modes of action, this collection takes a thorough look at a society in crisis and shows how the people of the community create micro-politics of resistance. Ultimately, Politics of Recuperation reflects on the meaning of personal and collective resilience in Europe today, as well as on the limits and interstices of contemporary politics.

Repair as repopulating the devastated desert of our political and social imaginations

In my contribution––originally conceived as a comment in a workshop where the different chapters were discussed, and here framed as a conclusion to the volume––, I reflect on how the different works resonate with a growing series of recent works addressing Southern Europe in/as Crisis. Indeed, the recent post-2008 crises have rekindled the fear of ‘going backwards,’ still very vivid in migration tropes from the 1960s–70s. However, this assessment of ‘backwardness’ unfolds a wider European genre of telling ‘what the problem is’, with peculiar connotations for Southern Europe: where ‘modernity’ and its alleged univocal drive towards ‘progress’ comes centre stage: Europe, here, appears as a particular poetics of infrastructure.

But these crises have also rekindled a ‘slight orientalism’ of Southern Europe: a nearby place conjuring images of the far away or, more precisely, a slightly far away nearby place. This slight orientalism has been over the years conveniently mobilised over and over again in the ways in which tourism is branded and marketed. Interestingly, it has also served later on to underpin the ‘exceptionality of Europe’ trope and its violent incarnation in the perceived threats of non-European migration: fierce – when not most of the time overly brutal – border and sea control, detention and containment or racialised police checks. Southern Europe as both leisure resort and boundary-maker of ‘Fortress Europe’.

However, beyond these tropes, and in a context of experimentation with ‘neoliberal’ forms of government the financialisation of life and the expansion of indebtedness have also brought with them other explanations for what the problem was and what to do about it. Indeed, to many, the Common Market, and later the European Union, have been quintessential mechanisms for that economic transformation. One in which the developmental issue of Southern and Eastern Europe was addressed beyond explicitly racialised terms, yet forcefully reinstating a particularly modernist ontology of the social: a scalar one, which not only classifies actors in terms of a grid of the big and the small (macro and micro; the state and the people; society/group and the individual), but also creates concomitant orders of worth and causality with regards to what it might mean to take political action.

Against this background, the works here compiled offer alternative accounts. Notably, the Portuguese verb reparar has a nuance that the English ‘to repair’ does not have: one that goes beyond ‘to fix something that is broken or damaged’ and ‘to take action in order to improve a bad situation’ (the two main definitions found in the Macmillan English Dictionary). Reparar also means ‘to observe’, ‘to pay attention’. The descriptive repertoire that this anthology brings forward would thus help us shed light on the distinct nuances that different groups, people and collectives might be bringing about, unsettling unified narratives around what might have happened and what to do with it. Observing, paying attention to the forms of repair, hence, might be the best antidote to ready-made explanations of the ‘what’ and ‘why’, and any ready-made concepts or frameworks suggesting what should be done and how: an unsettled response to an unsettling condition, perhaps?

In my opinion, what is at stake in the particularly reparative practices and relations beyond scale, assembled in this anthology (dances, moneylending, the retrieval of ancient legacies, caring for discarded goods or engaging in different forms of urban activism) is a dispute of the actual definition of ‘welfare’. In other words, the works here compiled might portray a reinvention of ‘welfare society’ that does not bear the mark of
disaster, but of hope: a hope that in these particularly disastrous times
of ours – when crises do not seem to have an end – they might be ‘repopulating the devastated desert of our [social and political]
imaginations’, to say it with Stengers.

As I see it, the allegedly small has never been more important to recasting our hopes, to repopulating our imaginations of the greater good, devastated by austerity and the path-dependency of neoliberal rule. Especially when everything seems lost, these modes of repair show the hopeful character of how things might be created anew: not going back to ‘what we were’, but
experimenting with modes of togetherness yet to be defined.

Published in Politics of Recuperation (pp.207-220). Oxford: Bloomsbury (2020, F. Martínez, ed.) | PDF

Diseño y Diáspora #79: Diseñando para la diversidad funcional

Estando en Helsinki para el NORDES tuve el placer de charlar con Mariana Salgado en Diseño y Diáspora sobre el cuidado como una activación de otros diseños posibles: aquellos que aparecen pensando desde la diversidad funcional en En torno a la silla o desde el re-aprender a diseñar para todxs.

Diseño y Diáspora: El podcast de diseño social en español y portuñol. Conversaciones entre una diseñadora y Otros: a veces amigos, a veces investigadores en diseño, la mayoría de las veces diseñadores trabajando en innovación social o en practicas de diseño emergentes. Desde Helsinki, con ganas por Mariana Salgado.

#79: Diseñando para la diversidad funcional

En esta charla Tomás Criado nos cuenta sobre su trabajo en el ámbito del diseño desde la antropología. Él es antropólogo con especialización en STS (estudios de ciencia y tecnología). Trabaja en la Universidad de Humboldt en Berlín (Alemania). Nos explica conceptos como el cuidado, la diversidad funcional y las tecnologías de la amistad. A la vez describe algunos proyectos de diseño concreto en los que se comprometió luego del 15M, en España. Nos convoca a pensar el diseño desde la incertidumbre y entender los vínculos que se producen en procesos de diseño colaborativos. Al final de la entrevista también hablamos de la enseñanza de diseño a partir de un proyecto donde exploró con alumnos el diseño en situaciones de crisis. 

Escuchar en Spotify | Escuchar en Anchor

DGSKA 2019 Konstanz – Plenary ‘Envisioning Anthropological Futures’

Under the theme ‘The End of Negotiations? / Das Ende der Aushandlungen?‘ the DGSKA (German Association of Social and Cultural Anthropology) celebrated it’s 2019 conference from September 29th till October 2nd at the Universität Konstanz.

Kristina Mashimi and Thomas Stodulka (on behalf of the DGSKA board) organised and moderated the following plenary session, to which they invited some of us “mid-career scholars” – Janina Kehr (Universität Bern), Sandra Calkins (FU Berlin), Michaela Haug (Universität zu Köln) and yours truly – to envision anthropological futures departing from our own experiences engaging in public, inter and transdisciplinary settings, their epistemic and methodological opportunities and limitations.

Below you could find further information on the session, as well as links to the videos / audio files of our interventions. Hope you enjoy it.

Plenary session IV: Envisioning anthropological futures

Tuesday, 1.10.2019, 9.00-11.00h, Audimax

In the wake of political, economic, and ecological transformations of the contemporary world, and the far-reaching impact of digitalization and mediatization, social and cultural anthropologists are challenged to continuously rethink their theoretical, methodological, and professional practices. Not only are they required to respond to the emerging topical challenges of globalizing, postcolonial research settings by engaging the expertise from other social science and humanities’ disciplines, the wider field of area studies, and the natural and health sciences. They also face growing expectations from their interlocutors, funding organizations, and their immediate professional environments in regard to shifting standards of research ethics and data management, the engagement in various modes of collaborative research, and meeting their responsibilities to society and the public.

This plenary assembles presentations from 4-5 early to mid-career scholars who discuss the challenges and tensions they face when doing anthropology today. They will outline their visions for future positionings of the discipline regarding its epistemological and methodological opportunities and limitations in inter- and transdisciplinary research settings. Furthermore, the panelists will discuss the discipline’s engagement in academic teaching and the move towards open access publishing, as well as its intervention in public debates. As a forum for innovation, the plenary session is less concerned with systematic reviews of previous disciplinary discussions than with the articulation of future visions for practice and collaboration in and beyond the context of anthropology (or, in the German-speaking context, Ethnologie or Sozial- und Kulturanthropologie). The contributions will be published in the upcoming 150th anniversary issue of the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie (ZfE, 2019) which will be edited collectively by the DGSKA board and is due to appear in time for the 2019 conference.

Videos / Audio files

Janina Kehr (Universität Bern): Crafting the Otherwise in Medicine and Anthropology

Tomás Criado (HU Berlin): Anthropology as a careful design practice?

Sandra Calkins (FU Berlin): Writing planetary futures: Plants, loss, and intersections of STS and anthropology in Germany

Michaela Haug (Universität zu Köln): Looking into the future through the lens of hope: environmental change, diverse hopes and the challenge of engagement

Care in Trouble: Ecologies of Support from Below and Beyond

In the last year, my colleague Vincent Duclos and I have been working on different versions of an essay that has just been given green light by the Medical Anthropology Quarterly. It’s been a hard process, but also a wonderful occasion to learn from the inspiring work of many colleagues and a joyful opportunity to experiment together with a conceptual writing repertoire.

Titled “Care in Trouble: Ecologies of Support from Below and Beyond” the article wishes to map out how care has proliferated as an analytical and technical term aimed at capturing a vast array of practices, conditions, and sentiments. As we argue in our exploratory orienting essay–rather than a deep dive ethnography–care seems to have also expanded to many other reproductive domains of life, where it has been mobilized as a conceptual lens that affords privileged access to the human condition.

This essay is premised on the conviction that, in spite of and perhaps also because of its rising popularity, the analytics of care is in trouble. Drawing inspiration from STS, “new materialist” work, and the writings in black, Indigenous, anticolonial, feminist, and crip studies, we suggest that discussions within anthropology might benefit from opening care from both “below” and “beyond” in what we are calling “ecologies of support.”

Ecologies of support are not to be mistaken for all-encompassing environments. Their protective effects more often than not are discontinuous and unevenly distributed. Thinking about ecologies of support entails placing a new focus on how different kinds of bodies are differentially supported, cared for, and capable of influencing their own conditions of support. Because spaces of care and safety can also easily morph into forms of containment and exclusion, what is needed are more accurate cartographies of the many intersections and frictions between the enveloping and the diverging, the protecting and the containing, the enduring and the engendering, as they play out in care practices.

Our proposal is for anthropology to not simply seek to represent or bear witness to these practices, but also to reinvigorate care by experimenting with modes of inquiry and intervention that operate along new axes of movement and new relational possibilities—a dynamic ecosystem if you will.

**

The article is now available at the MAQ. We would be happy and eager to learn from your comments and reactions to it, if you had any.

Picture CC BY 2006 Vladimer Shioshvili

Abstract

Over the last decades, care has proliferated as a notion aimed at capturing a vast array of practices, conditions, and sentiments. In this article, we argue that the analytics of care may benefit from being troubled, as it too often reduces the reproduction of life to matters of palliation and repair, fueling a politics of nationalism and identitarianism. Picking up the threads of insight from STS, “new materialisms,” and postcolonial feminist and indigenous scholarship, we discuss care from “below” and “beyond,” thus exposing tensions between the enveloping and the diverging, the enduring and the engendering, that play out in care practices. We propose “ecologies of support” as an analytic that attends to how humans are grounded in, traversed by, and undermined by more‐than‐human and often opaque, speculative, subterranean elements. Our proposal is for anthropology to not simply map life‐sustaining ecologies, but to experimentally engage with troubling modes of inquiry and intervention.

Published in Medical Anthropology Quarterly, doi:10.1111/maq.12540 | PDF

“The Lady is Not There”: Repairing Tita Meme as a Telecare User

Francisco Martínez & Patrick Laviolette have recently compiled the edited volume Repair, Breakages, Breakthroughs: Ethnographic Responses, which they explain as follows:

What does it mean to claim that something is broken? What is the connection between tinkering and innovation? And how much tolerance for failure do our societies have? Exploring some of the ways in which repair practices and perceptions of brokenness vary culturally, Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough argues that repair is an attempt to extend the life of things as well as an answer to failures, gaps, wrongdoings and leftovers. The set of contributions illustrates the strong affective power hidden in situations of disrepair and repair; broken objects often bring strong emotions into play, but also energising reactions of creative action.

In response to their kind invitation, I contribute with a short piece, summarising a chapter published in 2012 in Spanish as part of my PhD. In an ethnographic snapshot–in the vocabulary of the editors–I address ‘repair’ from the particular work of underpinning users in a telecare service for older people.

ABSTRACT

Repair has been addressed in the growing body of literature in the social sciences either as a restoration of social order or as a form of care for fragile things. Drawing from ethnographic work on a telecare service for older people in Spain between 2007 and 2011, I address here repair from the ‘flesh and bones’ side of it. In particular, I focus on the work undertaken by service workers, users and contacts alike that helps to maintain an infrastructure of usership: not a restorative form of medical rehabilitation, but a constant restoration of a web of embodied, legal and technical practices so that someone could be considered a user of a service. That is, an infrastructure creating and ensuring the conditions for (tele)care to happen or take place in compliance with contractual terms. Rather than as a form of ‘re-instauration’ (going back to square one, revitalising and polishing in practice the terms of the contract), I call their form of repair ‘underpinning’. It entails going with the flow, and acting thereon. Underpinning could be described as a form of repair that addresses habits as things going beyond the skin, in and through different mediators that connect uneven events and places. To underpin, hence, is to ensure on the go a certain topology of habit: a habitality.

Published in Repair, Breakages, Breakthroughs: Ethnographic Responses (pp. 67–72). Oxford: Berghahn | PDF

Can ANT be a form of activism?

Throughout the last couple of years Anders Blok, Ignacio Farias, and Celia Roberts have been editing The Routledge Companion to Actor-Network Theory.

As they conceived it, rather than as an hagiographic repetition of ANT ‘as is’, the companion has been crafted singularly so that each contribution shows and develops a question whereby ANT is mobilised, expanded, put to a test and taken further: In explorations and inquiries where all contributors have felt accompanied in different ways ‘near ANT’, as the editors describe in the introduction.

This companion explores Actor-Network Theory (ANT) as an intellectual practice, tracking its movements and engagements with a wide range of other academic and activist projects. Showcasing the work of a diverse set of ‘second generation’ ANT scholars from around the world, it highlights the exciting depth and breadth of contemporary ANT and its future possibilities. The companion has 38 chapters, each answering a key question about ANT and its capacities. Early chapters explore ANT as an intellectual practice and highlight ANT’s dialogues with other fields and key theorists. Others open critical, provocative discussions of its limitations. Later sections explore how ANT has been developed in a range of social scientific fields and how it has been used to explore a wide range of scales and sites. Chapters in the final section discuss ANT’s involvement in ‘real world’ endeavours such as disability and environmental activism, and even running a Chilean hospital. Each chapter contains an overview of relevant work and introduces original examples and ideas from the authors’ recent research. The chapters orient readers in rich, complex fields and can be read in any order or combination. Throughout the volume, authors mobilise ANT to explore and account for a range of exciting case studies: from wheelchair activism to parliamentary decision-making; from racial profiling to energy consumption monitoring; from queer sex to Korean cities. A comprehensive introduction by the editors explores the significance of ANT more broadly and provides an overview of the volume

In our contribution, Israel Rodríguez-Giralt and I mobilise the ANT-inspired repertoire of ‘activation’ to discuss not only how to study forms of collective action or techno-scientific activisms, but also–and mainly– ‘experimentally collaborative’ or ‘activated’ modes of research deriving from those engagements. Drawing from our several years long work together with the Spanish independent-living movement, and in particular with their activist explorations into the worlds of design, in our chapter we ask:

Can ANT be a form of activism?

CC BY SA 2011 Diversitat funcional BCN 15M

Abstract

In this chapter we search to think with a concrete set of activist practices: the En torno a la silla collective, and in particular the research engagement afforded by its intense social and material explorations in the environmental intervention and remaking of wheelchair users and their surroundings. We characterize this particular form of research activism as ‘joint problem-making’: comprising a series of social and material interventions to problematize, transform, and account for the worlds being produced together with others. Building upon this, the chapter analyses the impact it had on us as researchers: or, to be more specific, on our ways of engaging ethnographically, and to consider how this might inspire the ‘experimentally collaborative’ or ‘activated’ ways in which ANT researchers might engage in other activist ecologies. Our hope is that in exploring our engagements with activism, ANT could become a more open and nonconformist research space: an ‘activated’ practice, problematizing in newer ways the relationship between description and action, exploring the manifold ways of being an analyst or a researcher that might be available when engaging in activist settings.

Published in The Routledge Companion to Actor-Network Theory (pp. 360–368). London: Routledge | PDF