Things We Wish We Knew: Technological Mediation

Picture Credit: Wired Brain

With the advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics, technologies now permeate and engage with humans in a radically different manner. Technologies actively mediate how people relate to the world. Technological mediation rests on the centrality that objects help shape relations between human beings and the world. This approach of technology does not view material objects as opposed to human subjects, or as mere extensions of humans, instead, it sees them as mediators of human-world relations.

Why do we need to know technological mediation?

Technological mediation is a “post-phenomenological” approach in the philosophy of technology (Rosenberger & Verbeek 2015, p.vii). Post-phenomenology is partially opposed to the phenomenological tradition (Verbeek 2015, p.26). Although inspired by the phenomenological focus on the experiential, it distances itself from phenomenology’s romanticism toward technology, favouring empirical analyses of actual technologies. Technological mediation is a framework that first, rejects human-centred subjectivity to factor in displacing the human body by non-human others. Next, ontologies are mapped horizontally rather than vertically. Horizontal ontologies assumes humans as embedded in a natural-cultural-technological assemblage (Weiss, Propen & Reid 2014, p.xvii). This is similar to the conceptualisation of hyperobjects. Technological mediation offers four ways of human-technology relations:

  • Embodiment relation(I–Technology) > World
    • Refers to a magnification/reduction structure. For example, binoculars enable the user to see further. The repetitive usage of binoculars in a particular setting would gradually embody itself within the user. 
  • Hermeneutic relationI > (Technology–World)
    • Refers to a transforming encounter with the world via the direct experience and interpretation of the technology itself. For example, checking the weather from a smartphone requires the direct interpretation of the user that transforms numbers to weather forecast knowledge. 
  • Alterity relationI > Technology – (– World)
    • Refers to devices or interfaces that are designed specifically to mimic the shape of person-to-person interaction. For example, withdrawing cash at ATMs or conversing with Siri.
  • Background relation: Makes up the user’s environmental context and shares an indirect relationship. 
    • For example, central air conditioning that operates on its pre-set settings. (Rosenberger & Verbeek 2015, pp.14–18)

Still unclear?

Another example,

I feel at ease having Google Maps directing a guided path to my destination and allows me to monitor traffic conditions. Sometimes during peak hours, I just ignore its recommendations when I know the route through the back street is quicker.

I feel in control when Google Maps adapts to my driving even though I may have missed a turn. 

With Google Maps, my family has increased confidence in my driving as they entrust the app to get to our destination.

As shown, navigational app users engage in ongoing discursive practices with the app through negotiating and subverting information (Weiss, Propen & Reid 2014, p.23). At times, the navigational app supplements the user by providing traffic information and in turn, the user may choose to use the app supplementally when the information does not correlate to the user’s knowledge.

With this brief illustration, I hope to have convince you why technological mediation is important and to demonstrate what might the future of anthropology look like.


Rosenberger, R & Verbeek, P-P (eds) 2015, Postphenomenological Investigations: Essays on Human-Technology Relations, Lexington Books, Lanham,MD.

Verbeek, P-P 2015, ‘Beyond interaction: a short introduction to mediation theory’, Interactions, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 26–31.

Weiss, DM, Propen, AD & Reid, CE (eds) 2014, Design, Mediation, and the Posthuman, Lexington Books, New York, NY.

See Also:

Zane’s piece on Design Anthropology

Julia’s piece on Job Automation

Rita’s piece on Posthumanism

Lionel’s piece on Surveillance Capitalism

Things We Wish We Knew: Decolonisation

Decolonisation has become, as of these last few years, a buzz word! It is currently used in the context of popular anti-racist activism to mean the process of removing racist and hierarchical notions, vestiges of European colonialism, from all thought and action. This shift away from Eurocentric thinking and towards an anarchic, cosmopolitan, multi-centred view of the world and a respect for the perspectives and self-determination of its people, is to decolonise. But what does it mean to be Eurocentric?

To be Eurocentric means to embrace, consciously or not, a worldview centred and biased towards White European civilisation, with a general assumption of the authority, entitlement and superiority of White Europeans (Hobson 2012). See Imogen’s excellent exploration of the analogous notion of ethnocentrism, and anthropocentrism, here! This might seem a far-fetched notion that only White Supremacists would hold to, but it is a worldview that successfully dominated the planet for half a millennia, so there is reason enough to deduce (and evidence abounds) that it lingers, covertly, in much of our thought and discourse. But, how and why?

If Imperialism was the practice of building empire at home in Europe, Colonialism was the practice by those Imperial powers of invading and settling the peoples and lands beyond its borders, transforming Indigenous spaces into ‘colonies’ geared towards the extraction of wealth, and transforming Indigenous populations into subservient subjects (Howe 2002). To be colonial in thought and action is therefore to think and act in those terms; as if non-European life and culture is something lesser, to be dominated, colonised and extracted for wealth. On an intellectual level, the general theory of decolonisation is a legacy of Postcolonial studies, the literary, poetic and academic movement of mostly African, Caribbean and Asian writers from the 1950s onwards, which saw a wide-reaching and critical appraisal of the cultural legacy of European colonisation in all its forms and manifestations (Laurie et al 2019).

Firstly, a recollection of the context. White European domination of the world was long, violent and unparalleled in human history (Mignolo 2011). After some 500 years, colonial power variously weakened, and ideas of emancipation and freedom rose up in colonial spaces. Nationalist movements gained strength, mostly as a result of the miraculous and heroic struggle of the people and their leaders who endured immense suffering, and who fought, died and survived at incredible odds. From the late 19th century onward and particularly following the Second World War, European powers subsequently retreated and new nations were forged independent from colonial rule.

The process of decolonisation had thus begun; the governmental and social adaptation to self-determination, with the implementation of large-scale changes in economy, infrastructure, industry, legislation, and so on. Many of these nationalist projects were smooth and successful, many resulted in unimaginable bloodshed, but the result of it all was our contemporary world today (Glassner 1980).

One could say that with the collapse of European empires and their colonial control, the decolonisation of the world has thus been completed – but the type of decolonisation we are talking about refers to something different. Even in our post-colonial age, colonisation persists as a haunting psychological force; a habit of superiority and domination, and of trauma of subjugation, influencing the thoughts, behaviours and general culture of both former colonisers, and the formerly colonised (Pushkala 2015).

Frantz Fanon

One of the first major literary and theoretical demonstrations of this was by Frantz Fanon, a trained psychiatrist from Martinique, whose writings gave an account of the lingering psychopathology of oppression, and the necessity for an ‘inner’ decolonisation (Fanon 1961). The essays and poetry of Aimé Césaire (1955) expressed similar sentiments, while Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in Decolonising the Mind (1986), called explicitly for the realisation that despite the retreat of European colonial power, colonisation continued to dominate the mental universe of the formerly-colonised through reification in thought and language.

Then, in the late 1970s, Edward Said wrote Orientalism (1978), and changed the face of Western scholarship forever. He demonstrated in great detail the patronising and racialised way in which Europeans had always represented non-Europeans, suggesting that European selfhood and the basis of its scholastic thought, like its historical economic base being in colonial extraction, had always been dependent upon the subjugation of the non-White other. He suggested, therefore, that Western scholarship wise up to this deeply-ingrained cultural habit, and eradicate orientalism from its thinking. To eradicate orientalism from thinking, in this context, is thus an aspect of how an intellectual discipline might engage in decolonisation.

That decolonisation as a term and discourse has been successful in entering popular parlance suggests that the anti-racist struggle has moved beyond the influence of the overt struggle of Civil Rights-era equity, and into the covert space of linguistic and ontological critique referenced in Postcolonial literature. This suggests that it isn’t just personal, conscious behaviour that creates racism and division, but the subconscious structures of thought, habit and tradition.

Colonisation, like trauma, haunts from the past; but everyone is a winner when it is addressed intelligently. Of recent years, many writers (Harrison, 1993; Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999; Land, 2016) all reference, in the titles of their respective works also, the earlier calls by Fanon, Césaire, Thiong’o and others to decolonise their respective scholarly disciplines – to engage in processes to identify the attitudes, sentiments and modes of thinking and existence, conscious or not, that perpetuate colonialist domination in thought, language and action. To decolonise is therefore to engage in those practices as an object of discovery; how and why the notion of domination and disrespect of the self-determination of the Other might pervade and limit our thinking. So, decolonise now!


Césaire, Aimé (1955) Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Fanon, F. (1963) The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.

Glassner, M. I. (1980) Systematic Political Geography 2nd Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Harrison, F (1993) Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation. Washington D.C.: Association of Black Anthropologists – American Anthropological Association.

Hobson, J. (2012). The Eurocentric conception of world politics: western international theory, 1760-2010. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Howe, S. (2002) Empire: A Very Short Introduction. United States: Oxford University Press.

Land, C. (2015) Decolonizing Solidarity. London: Zed Books.

Laurie, T.; Stark, H.; Walker, B. (2019) ‘Critical Approaches to Continental Philosophy: Intellectual Community, Disciplinary Identity, and the Politics of Inclusion’, in Parrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy, 30 (1-17).

Mignolo, W. (2011) The darker side of Western modernity : global futures, decolonial options. Durham: Duke University Press.

Pushkala, P. (2015) Crafting qualitative research : working in the postpositivist traditions. London: Routledge. 

Said, E. (1978) Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Thiong’o, N. (1986) Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature. New Hampshire: Heinemann Educational.

Tuhiwai-Smith, L. (1999) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (2nd ed). London: Zed Books.

Things We Wish We Knew: Animism

Animism refers broadly to the varieties of ‘nature religion’ of the world’s Indigenous peoples. But animism is not a religion – what even is a religion? In our materialist and scientific age, any assertion of a belief or knowledge in the non-material world is considered ‘religious’, yet religion was and is associated specifically with social and political phenonema; referring more to faith-based ideology that binds a community together (Morreal & Sonn, 2013).

There is still no scholarly consensus on what religion actually ‘is’, for it only emerged as a concept in the 1600s in the Enlightenment period as a distinction from ‘science’ (Nongbri, 2003). In the case of animism and in the Indigenous contexts it is found, that kind of division doesn’t exist. Anthropological study of it, due to confusions of it as a ‘religion’, has thus been fraught with contention. But can it be a religion? Maybe, but there is still something missing.

The first anthropological use of the term was by Edward Tylor, who used it to denote the various practices of non-Western Indigenous peoples who seemed to share the belief that everything in the world was alive and possessed a soul (Tylor, 1871). Anima means ‘soul, breath, or life’ in Latin; it is where we get the term animal (from animalis, ‘possessing life/soul’) and the word animation (the action of ‘imparting life’).

Tylor therefore chose animism against the earlier-proposed term spiritualism, because of the potential confusion with the then popular Western occult practice of Spiritualism, with its ouija boards and séances – the Victorian precursor to New Ageism. Tylor spent some time with them, too – remarking how it seemed to be a ‘survival and revival of savage thought’ (Bird-David, 1999). Check out Abbie’s post about Spiritualism here!

The word is thus an entirely anthropological construct, a theory proposed by Tylor to explain something he didn’t understand, and it is perhaps the first term, or neologism, to be coined in the discipline of anthropology in general. It is therefore surely one of the most important, precisely because it can help us understand how anthropology has come to understand Indigenous people, and how little this has changed in the 150 odd-years since.

According to anthropology and our scholarly categories, perhaps until recent times, every belief system that isn’t European scientific rationality, or isn’t part of or associated to some extent with, the world’s designated ‘major religions’, is said to be animism of some kind or another. The reason this logic seems incomplete is because it is.

Surely all the world’s indigenous peoples don’t believe the same thing about reality? But, if we really are all the same inside, wouldn’t it make sense that there are connections across cultures? There are, and the connections and categories shared between many Indigenous peoples designate the theory of animist ontology today, ever since the work of Tylor.

That everything has a soul, that humans-as-persons co-exist in a living world with other non-human persons, that a person’s consciousness transforms into something immaterial after death. That ghosts exist, that spirits exist, that it’s possible to be possessed by a malevolent spirit, to be cursed by someone with malevolent intent, and basically every other ghost story and supernatural and/or paranormal idea you can think of. These things are the bread and butter of animism, and despite great cultural distinctiveness and difference everywhere, these same patterns of belief and practice are found all over the world.

If we’re not going to be racist, then how can we dismiss these ideas outright, when they form the bedrock of so many cultural traditions? How can we accept animist ontology if it seems so irrational to our categories? These are the questions that have troubled anthropology since Tylor and, in essence, since the beginning of the Colonial encounter.

Tylor, like James Frazer and many others after him, was an evolutionist – he firmly believed in the idea that this animism was an evolutionary precursor to monotheistic religion and scientific rationality, which equated to the truism of pre-20th century European thought; that all Indigenous peoples were ‘children’ in the face of ‘adult’ Europeans.

Tylor thus dismissed animism as delusional, and this remained relatively unchanged in anthropology, despite many sociological and rational explanations for it (Durkheim, 1912; Evans-Pritchard, 1937) for decades. Hallowell (1960) revived, to some degree, a consideration of animism with a study of Canadian Aboriginal Ojibwa ontologies, while Levy-Strauss transformed anthropology and philosophy alike forever in the 1950s with a generalised theory of Structuralism, as a result of fieldwork in the Amazon basin. The variety of words that emerged in these studies, following Structuralism particularly; shamanism, totemism, spiritism, spiritualism; all essentially relate to the broad category of animism, or animic ontology (Sahlins, 2014).

In the past two decades in anthropology, animism studies has seen a revival. With the discipline’s increasingly decolonial impetus, new anthropological work is now filling in huge gaps in our knowledge of the metaphysics of the non-Western world (Bird-David, 1999; Viveiros de Castro, 1998; Descola, 2013).

According to the recent work of Descola and Viveiros de Castro (of which there is some dispute between), one of the many things that can be said about animistic beliefs is the striking reversal they pose to many of ‘our’ society’s core concepts of modernity, such as the agency, intelligence and personhood afforded to things in the natural world. Where modern capitalist civilisation and the values of the monotheistic tradition uphold humanity’s power and entitlement over nature (nature our object to do with what we will), animism holds the flattening of such hierarchies; we are the object of nature.

Where modernity holds the material nature of reality, animism holds the immaterial. Where modernity holds the unitary and cold image of the natural world, animism holds it to be multiplicitous and alive. Where modernity holds the plural and relative nature of human culture and the human mind, animism holds the unity of it (see Viveiros de Castro’s concept of multinaturalism, 2013). Where modernity holds that the source of human consciousness is the physical world, the physical body and the brain, animism holds that the source of the physical world and the physical body is consciousness .

Anthropology, like all scholastic pursuits, is rooted in post-Enlightenment scientific rationality. The anthropology of animism, as a pursuit to understand the nature of this seeming cosmological reversal, infers a natural encounter with radical alterity (Hage, 2013); it offers a unique opportunity to challenge our categories. Both epistemological; how it is that, through history, modern civilisation has constructed knowledge about the natural world and the self, and ontological; how it is that we experience and embody the world around us. As our culture progresses and we attempt to move towards an age of increasing justice, harmony, co-existence, and biological, cosmopolitan peace – perhaps we all too, shall become animists.


Bird‐David, N. (1999) ‘”Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology’, in Current Anthropology. 40 (S1) Special Issue Culture, February 1999, S67-S91. The University of Chicago Press.

Descola, P. (2013) Beyond Nature and Culture. University of Chicago Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1937) Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford University Press.

Hage, G. (2012) Critical anthropological thought and the radical political imaginary today, in Critique of Anthropology 32 (3) 285–308. Philadelphia: Sage.

Hallowell, A. I. (1960) ‘Ojibwa Ontology: Behaviour and World View’, in Culture and History, ed. Diamond, S. New York: Colombia University Press

Morreall, J. & Sonn, T. (2013) ‘Myth 1: All Societies Have Religions’, in 50 Great Myths of Religion, 2–17 . New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.

Nongbri, B. (2013) Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. Yale University Press. 

Tylor, E. (1871) Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom Vols 1&2. London: John Murray.

Viveiros de Castro, E (1998) ‘Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism’, in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 4 (3) (September, 1998), 469-488.

Things We Wish We Knew: Ontology

Ontology is branch of metaphysical philosophy concerned with the study of the nature of being (Merriam-Webster, 2019). It is also broadly related to categorisation; how knowledge about the nature of reality is linked together.

The key to understanding it is to understand that, as a general term, it does not relate to a scholastic or scientific discipline per se, but instead refers to the general orientation to understanding reality that anyone, or anything, might be guided by. This admission alone suggests the possibility of many ontologies; that all the world’s peoples, that all ‘sentient’ things, may have their own ontology.

But it sounds like it just means philosophy. Wrong! It can be reasonably argued that philosophy is something more culturally orientated; a literary field or discipline, or manner of communication, related to questions about life and existence, about the meaning of life, the fundamentals of human existence, about morality, and so on. Within the field of philosophy there might be three general areas; Epistemology relates to questions of knowledge, Axiology relates to value. Ontology then relates to that particular aspect of any kind of intellectual inquiry, philosophy included, that asks questions about the actual nature and substance of reality and the self (Devaux & Lamanna, 2009).

But isn’t that science? Yes, ‘science’ is and has always been concerned with discovering the makeup and substance of the physical universe. At the time of Isaac Newton, the founder of the scientific method, it was called ‘natural philosophy’.

Metaphysics, then, is concerned with the makeup and substance of the universe beyond the physical – the realm of mind. But can’t neuroscience, the positivist scientific study of the nervous system and the brain, explain the nature of the self and of awareness? The simple answer is no – it hasn’t been able to, and it can’t. Ontology, then, is any inquiry concerned with the intersection of both of these – how it is that mind and awareness interact and coexist with the physical universe.

But that still sounds like science! Maybe it is? Positivism means that only what can be proven is true. Well, no method of scientific observation can prove that awareness exists, no scientific observation can find where the observer is in the human brain. Yet, here we are. It seems, therefore, that something is missing. Our inquiry has become ontological.

Notice, as anthropologists are keen to notice, the seeming separation between nature (science) and culture (mind, awareness, metaphysics) in this equation. This demonstrates that the epistemological framework I have been using presupposes a division between the physical and metaphysical, between nature and culture. This framework I am using, how it is that I am thinking about what I know, is thus informed by something else – ‘an ontology’. That is, an overall ‘way’ in which I am positioned and am orientating myself in relation to my thinking mind and the world around me.

So, ontology just means how and what you think and believe about the world? No! That would be an epistemology, a philosophy, or an ideology. The ontological is something even more than that – how we live and experience, not merely how we think.

A way of life is an ontology.

Going back to its definitions of the categories of things, ontology is concerned with the way our categories and our knowledge, our epistemology, is linked together not by the way we think, but by the way we are. It isn’t merely a ‘world-view’, so much as how we experience and live out what constitutes the world and what constitutes the viewer, the act of viewing, and the nature of the viewed. Samkhya, the Indian philosophy underpinning the Yoga tradition, is an example of an ontology – it features an emanating, categorical map of the world, the mind, and the self (Larson et al, 2014).

The fundamental architecture of Samkhya darshana (perspective/philosophy)

So why is this relevant to our field of anthropology? Because! The more we understand about cultures different to our own, the more we understand that they have entirely different ontologies, not just epistemologies; different ways of experiencing the categories of things, different ways of discerning what is human, what is individuality, what is relatedness, what is kinship, what is nature, what is culture, and so on. They have different ways of thinking about these things that are entirely rational, just a different kind of ‘being rational’ than we are used to – just as they have different ways of experiencing things that are also as ‘rational’ as our own (Holbraad et al 2014).

Perhaps then anthropology is the apex discipline of understanding ontological difference, and of understanding the possibility of what we are not­ – and therefore, what we have the potential to be. I would agree!


Devaux, M & Lamanna, M. (2009) ‘The Rise and Early History of the Term Ontology (1606–1730)’, Quaestio Yearbook of the History of the Metaphysics. 9 (2009) 173–208.

Larson, G.J.; Bhattacharya, R.S.; Potter, K. (2014) The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Volume 4: Samkhya. Princeton University Press.

Holbraad, M., Pederson M. A., & Viveiros de Castro, E. (2014) The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions, in The Politics of Ontology. Society for Cultural Anthropology, June 13 (2014). Accessed 11th June <;

Merriam-Webster (2019) Ontology, accessed 10th June 2019 <;

Things We Wish We Knew: Temporality

Studies of temporality consider experiences of time, and how experiences of time are mediated. This mediation could be variously through objects, materials, institutions, interactions and categories. With this list alone, you already start to sense how most anything can be studied in temporal terms. This is why temporality is an crucial concept: it pervades the social world.

I’ll start sketching temporality with a concrete example. The example comes from design anthropology, an area often foregrounding temporality. But keep in mind you can attend to temporality in almost every anthropological analysis.

Making Time

Contrasting a product design studio with eco-home builders, Anusas and Harkness (2016) show how ways of making things ‘invoke or at least encourage’ different temporalities (p. 55).

The design studio was in a large UK city, with many projects running at once (Ibid. p. 57). Due to pressure from clients, faster design methods were favoured (Ibid., 61). Getting projects ‘off the books’ quickly also meant sustaining the business (Ibid.). Designers focused on what was about to occur or would soon occur. Rarely did they think in time frames greater than weeks (Ibid. p. 58). Coping with projects this way, the designers’ experience of the present can be called ‘close-present’ (Ibid.).

Close-present temporality could be seen in ‘much of the verbal, bodily and material sociality’ of the studio (Ibid. p. 59). For example, the designers often said ‘time is in short supply’, gesticulating to convey this shortage, and leading them to favour speedy design tools such as 3D printing (Ibid. p. 61). Note that a preference for certain tools also means a certain relationship with those tools.

Harkness’ fieldwork was with Earthship builders in Scotland and New Mexico. For these builders, temporality wasn’t sensed as either close-present, nor in short supply (Ibid. p. 61). Earthship builders seek to create sustainable new dwellings, taking a preference for ‘natural’ and recycled materials, along with renewable energy. In turn, these builders make new ways of living, with ‘impulses towards creating alternative futures’, ‘to bring change to the world, to shift the ground, to alter the rules’ (Ibid. p. 62).

An Earthship in construction.

Anusas and Harkness call the temporality made by Earthship building a ‘far reaching present’. Sustainable materials and a shared awareness of environmental issues gave a means to make this temporality ‘real or manifest’ (Ibid. p. 65). In other words, the action of building also made experiences of the present. This included relationships with humans, nonhumans and materials. Though the studio designers had similar environmental and ethical concerns, commercial restraints hindered an experience of the present as far-reaching (Ibid. p. 66).

Let’s look to the history of temporality in anthropology, to contextualise Anusas and Harkness’ approach. In the early 1990s, Nancy Munn (1992) gauged anthropological research on temporality. She found a neglect for one factor. Anthropologists had written too little about temporality as being constantly mediated through everyday life (Munn 1992, p. 116). For instance, Evans-Pritchard (1940) argued the Neur perceive time through local seasonal categories, the main two being tot and mai (p. 96). But this focus on abstract concepts led Evans-Pritchard to neglect how temporal experiences are mediated everyday through mundane social life (Ibid p. 96).

The design studio/Earthships contrast shows how temporal experiences are mediated through mundane practices like making and labouring, as well as through materials and things. Temporality does involve high-level abstraction. But it cannot be grasped only at an abstract level. Nor can it be grasped solely through obvious materials and things like clocks and calendars (Bear 2016 p. 48) or lunar cycles (Munn 1992 p.96).

Temporality pervades social life. Nurturing a sensitivity to the temporal will add nuance to your anthropological literacy, so start thinking temporally!


Anusas, M and Harkness, R 2016 ‘Different Presents in the Making’, in R Charlotte Smith, K Tang Vangkilde, M Gislev Kjaersgaard, T Otto, J Halse and T Binder (eds), Design Anthropological Futures, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 55-70.

Bear, L 2016, ‘Time as Technique’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 45, pp. 487-502.

Evans-Prichard, EE 1940, The Neur: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Munn, N 1992, ‘The Cultural Anthropology of Time: A Critical Essay’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 21, pp. 93-123.

Rabinow, P and Marcus, G 2008, Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, Duke University Press, Durham.

See also:

Can we think about the design studio/Earthships example in relation to the art/science debate? Is the art/science distinction helpful here? Can anthropologists study experience in a scientific way?

Rob mentions categories in his post on ontology. Is temporality a category?

Next time your ice-cream is melting, think about temporality!

Thing We Wish We Knew in First Year : Art/Science Debate

AnthropOLOGY. It is the ‘ology’ that often misleads those unfamiliar with anthropology to assume that it is a science. It is indeed a social science, but the degree to which it can be considered truly scientific has long been a subject of debate, mostly within the discipline itself.

This is the art/science debate, in which some use the data-collection, theory-based analysis and systematic ordering of the world within anthropology to argue that it is a science, and others use the intimacy of participant observation, literary description and subjectivity of it all to call it an art. While it would seemingly make sense to just decide that anthropology is perhaps both a bit art and and a bit science, there are important political and ethical implications to which side one approaches the discipline with, in theory and in practice.

There are prominent anthropologists on both sides of the debate, and sometimes their arguments are published side by side, like with this Harris and Geertz debate (Endicott and Welsch 2005). Marvin Harris argued that anthropology should be used to discover ‘verifiable laws’ of culture, like a scientific method, through his theory of cultural materialism (an evolutionary model). Geertz conversely says that anthropology is about creating deeper interpretations of culture, and that it should not be concerned with proving or disproving things. The politics of these different viewpoints become clear when observing a cultural setting; will you look at a scenario as something in which evolutionary functions of cultural forms can be identified, or will you prioritise the investigation of meaning and symbolism? As a researcher, are you a scientist seeking to prove objective fact? Or are you a glorified tourist armed with critical theory?

I would personally take pride in embodying the latter, but how you interpret the scope of anthropology is, as always and wonderfully, entirely up to you.


Endicott, K.M. and Welsch R.L. (2005), Taking sides: clashing views on controversial issues in Anthropology (third edition) Iowa: McGraw Hill, issue 9, pp. 168-191.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year : Ethnography

The word ‘Ethnography’ can etymologically be broken down into two root concepts: the writing (graphy) of people (ethnos). ‘People’ in this sense, refers to their culture and systems of meaning.

Though ethnography can be written for a variety of reasons, and any piece of writing can be ‘ethnographic’ in nature through an attention to describing culture, ethnography is most explicitly linked to social and cultural anthropology as the product of anthropological investigation and qualitative research. It is a transcription of observation in which the experiences of the anthropologist are recorded with varying emphasis on the participatory presence of the ethnographer themselves in their research environment; it may be autobiographical or make no mention of self at all, with every degree in between as a possibility.

In origin ethnography is often attributed to Bronislaw Malinowski (a name you’ll hear a lot if you’re studying anthropology), who in his Argonauts of the Western Pacific was one of the first to write descriptively from an attempted emic , or insider, perspective. Ethnography is produced from participant observation in which the researcher is immersed in a group, sometimes without hypotheses to test, instead forming their theory from what is observed and from existing cultural theory.

The proliferation of ethnography as a common academic text since Malinowski’s work has lead to the emergence of too many revered publications and academics to count. As anthropology has shifted its focus and experienced philosophical ‘turns’, so has the content and form of ethnography transformed. Postcolonial, postmodern and feminist discourses in the latter half of the twentieth century paved the way for current forays into multi-sited and multifocal research, meaning that the people or culture written about in ethnography might be drawn from multiple locations, transnationally, from the digital world, or even using the absence of location. The focus of the research can also be interdisciplinary, with ethnography providing a descriptive supplement to something else.

Each of the contributors to this blog are likely to use some form of ethnography in their honours theses, but a text that can be described as an ethnography proper will generally be a product of months to years of immersion in ‘the field’ (physical or otherwise), and culminate in a long published piece as a book or in an academic journal.

Check out these ethnographies for some of the greats of the past century of ethnographic writing (ordered by year) :

Malinowski, B. (1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific : an account of native enterprise and adventure in the archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. Routledge & Kegan Paul

Evans-Pritchard, E.E.  (1937). Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mead, M. (1943).  Coming of Age in Samoa: a study of adolescence and sex in primitive societies, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Turnbull, C. M. (1968). The forest people. New York, Simon & Schuster.

Taussig, M.  (1980). The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, University of North Carolina Press.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1993).  Death without Weeping: the violence of everyday life in Brazil, University of California Press.

Graeber, D. (2009) Direct action : an ethnography. AK Press.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Participant Observation

Image result for participant observation cartoon

“Not sure if stalking, or participant observation”

Anthropologists and sociologists claim participant observation to be a method that distinguishes their fieldwork from other types of social science. Whereas quantitative methods involve cold hard numbers (which seems boring, to be honest), qualitative methods are more based on feelings, observations and language. Yet participant observation is still a rigorous method! A participant observer tries to immerse themselves in new experiences whilst suspending all judgement and being open to new experiences. This is a difficult feat for anyone, it takes a lot of patience and self-critique.

The general order to participant observation is that a researcher will connect with a group or community, then integrate into this group in order to watch and learn about social structures, patterns and behaviours. Participant observation is usually overt, the participants know that the anthropologist is observing them with the intention of writing about them, and have given informed consent. In the past, anthropologists have been more covert, but this raises a whole host of ethical issues around such deception and extraction of knowledge. The researcher is responsible for minimising any potential risks that might be inflicted upon the participants from the research, the Australian Anthropological Association has a code of conduct for more information on this matter.  

Participant observation can change depending on the field, but the standard depiction of it, is of a researcher joining in on the everyday or routine tasks of their participants. It also might involve some conversations with participants, scribbling observations in notebooks and waiting around. During this time, the researcher often monitors their internal thoughts and prejudices. This might include considering how their own identity and experience effect their feelings and interactions with participants, which they sometimes record in a journal of self-reflection. The researcher must also be mindful that participants behaviour may change, since the participant know they are being researched. For example, they might subconsciously try to mirror what they believe the research is about. The researcher will often check with the participants to see if they feel as though they are being represented accurately.

You don’t have to do participant observation in a faraway place, you can do it in your own community. There are different types of participant observation, ranging from complete involvement, where the researcher is already a member of the group, to passive involvement. For some more information about how complete participant observation is used by activists, see this post.

At the end, the researcher will remove themselves from the situation and often compile their observations in the form of an ethnography. Through this deep sense of engagement with a group of people, participant observation can unveil things that might be below the surface level, that are subconscious, taboo or rarely talked about amongst a group of people (Guest et al., 2013). This means that participant observers are able to shed light on different experiences of being human, which not only generates knowledge about the world but also fosters empathy and openness.


Australian Anthropological Society. 2019, Code of Ethics. Retrieved from;

DeWalt, K. M. DeWalt, B. R. 2011, Participant observation: a guide for fieldworkers. Rowman & Littlefield. pp 2-11

Guest, G., Namey, E., & Mitchell, M. 2013, “Participant Observation” Collecting qualitative data 55 City Road, London: SAGE Publications. pp. 75-112.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Reflexivity

Image courtesy of author

‘Reflexivity’ is about acknowledging the relationship between a researcher and their subject, and to what degree the researcher influences the outcome of their research (whether in social sciences or natural sciences) (Salzman, 2002). Within anthropology this requires reflecting on the biases and impact of the researcher, as an active social actor, in the field. Reflexivity, or the ‘reflexive turn’, in the discipline emerged out of criticisms of the supposed scientific objectivity of mainstream anthropology, primarily by postcolonial and feminist scholars in the 1970s and 80s (Salzman, 2002). The kinds of questions that reflexivity asks include:

  • To what degree does an ethnographer shape the actions of their informants?
  • In what ways does the history, and identity, of the ethnographer influence what they see as important (or see at all) in the field?
  • Are there things that researchers are unable to see in their field because of their gender, for example, or class?
  • Is objectivity possible? Or does it just reflect the views of the writer (historically white and European).
  • Does the attempt to achieve objectivity, or the authoritative voice, perpetuate power relationships between ethnographer and informants, and in doing so maintain colonial relationships?
  • Can writing truly describe a culture or social system?

Reflexive research has become the norm in contemporary social science, but how one goes about achieving reflexivity, as well as the relative weight of objectivity/subjectivity that is possible, is still a grey area to be negotiated by every anthropologist. There is an argument that ‘reflexive’ research can become narcissistic and self-defeating if it just consists of a subjective reflection by the researcher, (Madden, 2010, p. 26). Madden argues for a reflexivity that has a commitment to producing better research data (by factoring in the researcher’s effect on the field) while also dealing with the identity and socio-political position of the researcher:

“The overall point I want to make about reflexivity in ethnography is that, despite the strict meaning of the term, reflexivity is not really about ‘you, the ethnography’; it’s still about ‘them, the participants.’” (2010, p. 26)


Madden, R., 2010. Being Ethnographic: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Ethnography. SAGE.

Salzman, P.C., 2002. On Reflexivity. American Anthropologist 104, 805–813.

For classic examples of ethnographic reflexivity see also:

Behar, R., Gordon, D.A., 1995. Women Writing Culture. University of California Press.

Clifford, J., Marcus, G.E., 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. University of California Press.

Geertz, C., 1988. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford University Press.

Maton, K., 2003. Reflexivity, Relationism, & Research: Pierre Bourdieu and the Epistemic Conditions of Social Scientific Knowledge. Space and Culture 6, 52–65.

Rabinow, P., 1977. Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco. University of California Press.

Rosaldo, R., 1980. Ilongot Headhunting, 1883-1974: A Study in Society and History. Stanford University Press.

Sangren, P.S., 2007. Anthropology of Anthropology?: Further Reflections on Reflexivity. Anthropology Today 23, 13–16.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: The ‘Field’


Where do anthropologists do anthropology? Where do they participate and observe and collect data from which to write ethnography (link)?

The field!

Fieldwork is what anthropologists do, alongside constructing and analysing cultural theory, in order to answer the questions they construct. The field can be a village, a town, a city, a neighbourhood, a country, a border, a journey, a combination of any of these things simultaneously, a political debate, an archive, a multi-player online game, a social media platform; it can be anything where people are, physically or otherwise. It can be a literal field, if that is where people are doing something interesting. Some academics defy even that caveat of human presence, exploring multispecies ethnography to tackle anthrocentrism (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010), or probing the possibility of an anthropology of absence and the ‘spectrally resonant spaces of culture’ (Armstrong 2010).

Gupta’s writing on ‘the field’ as constituting site, method and location in anthropology is useful for unravelling the various dimensions of this term. Gupta argues that locations in anthropology are political and epistemological, rather than a physical locality (1997, p.38). A conscious construction of this kind of conceptual location by a researcher proves more useful for understanding complex contexts than an assumptive geographical location, which a researcher relying on the empirical might set their ‘field’ to be. The mobility of the anthropologist is also crucial to describing ‘the field’, because of the intent that shapes a researchers moving in and out of the field. Gupta describes this intent as a ‘motivated and stylized dislocation’ (p.37). The field is as much constructed by the positionality (link??) of the researcher entering it as it is defined by geographical location.

Gupta claims that the idea of the field is in constant change due to its different manifestations in ethnographic practice, regardless of conscious debates in the discipline, which makes an un-wielding adherement to Malinowskian fieldwork traditions futile and unproductive (p.39). The traditions referred to here are that of early anthropology and colonial contexts; the Western scientist sailing to some isolated island and learning the ways of the ‘primitive’ people in order to better understand their own societal development. In the 21st century the possibilities of the field are now seemingly limitless, and rightly so.


Armstrong, J. (2010) ‘On the Possibility of Spectral Ethnography’, Cultural Studies, Critical Methodologies, 10(3), pp. 243–250.

Kirksey, S. E. and Helmreich, S. (2010) ‘The emergence of multispecies ethnography’, Cultural Anthropology, (4), p. 545.

Gupta, A. (1997) ‘Discipline and Practice: ‘the field’ as site, method, and location in anthropology’, In Gupta, A. and J. Ferguson (eds) Anthropological Locations: boundaries and grounds of a field science, p. 1-46.