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 <;

Art + Anth (a multidisciplinary conversation) Pt. 2

A dialogue between Rob and Anatol on multiple lives and multiple disciplines.

In the present as were I still (installation view), Anatol Pitt, 2017, Photo: Christo Crocker

A: How does your art training influence the way you think about anthropology?

R: What strikes me is that much of the theory, the general sensibility even, of contemporary art, and of avant garde history in general, is concerned with a kind of qualitative research of our basic humanity. I totally agree with what you’ve said just now, I went through all kinds of disillusionment with ‘art writing culture’ and even art itself, as it has become gutted of the spirit of the avant garde in general, I feel. But now that I’m firmly in an academic discipline, the social sciences even, I maintain now more than ever that literary, artistic, cinematic, musical and theatrical modernism remains the forefront of human knowledge. An absolutely brazen statement, but I think it’s true.

Someone who has paid close attention to (the right kinds of) art, literature, cinema and music culture and so forth in the mid to late 20th century, has an innate sense of many of the insights of contemporary anthropology. That’s because artists don’t laboriously articulate the visions they have in analytical language, they use their imaginations to express what are in essence deep ontological insights. We the audience then allow ourselves to be impressed by these insights, in our act of viewing, or listening. Berger’s Ways of Seeing, as you know, is crucial in contemporary aesthetic theory and is now a few decades old, yet it has much to offer contemporary anthropology too, particularly in sensory ethnography and in some of the ‘ontological’ work of recent years.

But more than just the literature and theory around art and aesthetics, it is, as you say, just the ability to relate to artworks and to enjoy and consume artistic culture which I think has a lot to offer. As such, I think exposure to and a keen enjoyment of aesthetic cultures are essential for an intelligent understanding of the human and non-human world.

But the culture of writing is what we’re talking about here I guess. What do you think about disciplinary schisms?

tanpura study #2 (sa, ma, pa in C#) (installation view), Robert McDougall, 2014
found ceramic pots, wiring, lights, SD speakers, cotton, television, DVD with sound
Pepperhouse Studios, KOCHI, Kerala, India 2014
documentation video:

A: Schisms between disciplines or within disciplines? I do get frustrated by people not taking other disciplines seriously, or not trying to read very widely. I think a lot more people should have a better understanding of contemporary anthropology, but you can say the same about every discipline (be it physics, maths, law, geography, history, philosophy, gender studies, neuroscience, economics, biology etc etc.). I do sometimes worry about a lack of natural science literacy within the humanities and arts departments. I’m a big fan of interdisciplinary dialogue—though I understand that a lot of interdisciplinary research can lose the specificity or expertise that specific disciplines can bring.

Did you have a specific schism in mind?

R: I did in this context mean between art and anthropology, but yes I really agree that interdisciplinary dialogue is essential. I was talking this over with a visiting anthropologist recently, she was saying how another contemporary anthropologist was referencing something from Ancient Greece but got it totally wrong. Her husband is a Classics professor and realized as such, and they both remarked how pretentious it was, yet how no one seemed to notice because their/our anthropological peers aren’t expected to be versed in those kinds of studies. I went to a public Philosophy lecture here at Unimelb a few weeks ago on the subject of transformative experiences, and the visiting speaker, an esteemed Yale professor, seemed to be making claims in a parallel world where Arnold van Gennep’s rite de passage and Victor Turner’s subsequent work on liminality didn’t exist. It was in the same building as where I learned about those things!

In art school I guess we are really trained to try and look at everything, there are artists everywhere making work about everything, its amazing, and its common to meet artists who are experts in certain fields, and also common to meet artists who are real polymaths. They inspire me the most. But yes I find the lack of dialogue between philosophy and anthropology particularly fascinating, as if they are talking about different things – but that is a long historical story. This would include art history and theory, well versed in French philosophy, but often illiterate of anthropology – which I think has a lot more to offer, in so many ways. The artistic pursuit lends itself to anthropology and vice versa; art because of its imaginative and poetic ability to ask big questions, anthropology because of its basis in ethnography; the real world.

Art + Anth (a multidisciplinary conversation) Pt. 1

A dialogue between Rob and Anatol on multiple lives and multiple disciplines.

singled-channel excerpt from The Sokhumi Elegies, Robert McDougall, 2017

R: Both of us have backgrounds in Fine Art, which includes academic study of art history and theory, and anthropology. How and why did you decide each of these?

A: Well I grew up in a family in which art very important. My mum, brother and sister are artists. I actually got into art history through reading John Berger, who’s still one of my heroes (which reminds me that I haven’t read him in a while). Berger is also quite anthropological too, now that I think about it. Anthropology, as I mention in my bio, was kind of accidental. I had no plans to study anth originally but my girlfriend at the time was studying a 1st year anth unit on the history of capitalism and globalisation (this was at UWA in Perth) that I ended up transferring into.

You went to art school first right? Do you see your art practice and your studies/research as separate or that they dovetail one another?

R: Yes, I did an undergrad in Fine Art and then an Honours year, took a couple years doing residencies and exhibitions and then started with anthropology – my work was becoming increasingly anthropological in nature. The Sokhumi Elegies (2017) was a large-scale work I made in Georgia and the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia, about the War in 1992-1993. It was made up of collaborations with my friends, and my partner at the time also – all refugees from the War. I did what amounted to a year of solid fieldwork, in the Caucasus and beyond. I started to think about anthropology as a personal discipline I could commit to around that time – although there’d been a buildup to it for many years.

Actually I would consider myself foremost an artist, and artist-as-researcher, and anthropology is an aspect of that. Then again I plan on an academic career in anthropology, incorporating insights from art, culture and aesthetics. Then again, I consider myself foremost a philosopher (but in the medieval Alchemical sense, not in terms of the academic discipline), and as such my artistic and musical work, and the anthropological work I am now doing, is all an aspect of that. Hopefully that pretentious idea is applicable to academic tenure…

Sergei Paradjanov, the Armenian-Georgian Tbiliseli filmmaker, once said in an interview his greatest inspiration as an artist was ‘love, God and ethnography’, I would say at some point I started feeling the same. But interestingly now with this anthropological study the involvement of aesthetics is limited, such that I feel in unfamiliar terrain.

What about you? Why do you think they assist each other, and do you think anthropologists should know about art theory, do you think artists should know about anthropology? Berger was and is a great place to start!

A: That’s actually a difficult question. Firstly everything I do is informed by studying anthropology, it really has changed my orientation to the world. But on a literal level I think my artworks are informed so many of my interests (my current works I’m making are very ‘archaeological’), and more often than not trying to connect a wide variety of material/data I’ve come across, as well as my previous studies.

For example I did a series a few years ago that created stark landscapes by close-up photographing drawings I made on Japanese paper, using paint and white charcoal (see image below). They are about the relationship between drawing and photography but the technologies of vision of landscape documentary photography and how you can construct images through the process of documentation. Yet the title of the series (and accompanying video) is Enfoldment, which came from my interest in David Bohm’s theories of quantum physics in the 1970s, in which he theorised space-time as inherently deeply connected holographically to itself.  

TanDEM-X, inkjet print, Anatol Pitt, 2016

As far as if anthropologists should know art theory, I don’t know, but I definitely think that everyone should be more practiced in relating to artworks? I think art, at its best, can open you up to such a wide range of sensory experiences as well as many different ways of thinking about such a wide range of ideas. That’s a very clunky phrasing… I suppose I’m saying that the degree of freedom in art is good?

I love art because, on some level, it always exceeds language and interpretation. But maybe that’s just my excuse for not liking to talk about my own artwork ha.

Becoming a Person

In a previous post, I describe the notion of personhood.

I’m browsing skincare online when a chat window pops up from the bottom left corner of my screen.

>Hi! I’m Jessica. Is there anything I can help you with today?

I hesitate. The cynic in me is unsure, to begin with, whether this is one of those useless bots who will “refer” me in endless cycles to imaginary “colleagues”, none of whom can answer my query, or if there’s an actual person on the other end of the line, waiting, desperately, for someone to reply.

I decide to write back.

>Do you ship to Australia?

>Sorry, I can’t answer that. Let me refer you to one of my colleagues.

OK, “Jessica”, if that’s even your real name, refer me to one of your “colleagues”, or should I say, fellow bot

>Hi! I’m Gabby. Jessica forwarded your conversation to me. We do ship to Australia, but it’ll take a bit longer, around 2-3 weeks.

Well. She’s real. “She”? I couldn’t possibly know for sure. I was raised on the Internet playing avatar-based games, and spent the latter half of my teenhood in cyberspace communities; assuming an embodiment that doesn’t match one’s own is nothing new to me. How do I know that the skincare company isn’t just exploiting the probable femininity of their customer base? And, yeah, isn’t it weird that the majority of robot assistants – Siri, Alexa, Cortana – are “female”?

If this encounter with the unknown (and indeed, unknowable) seems familiar to you, you may also have ventured tentatively to imagine who else is “really” behind the screen. Like my mum, when she first discovered I was hanging out on the Internet: “Who are you really talking to?” It could be a bot, a human being with a real or fabricated persona, multiple people masquerading as a single user, or the reverse – a single person commanding multiple accounts.

A catfish, surprised by your sudden appearance on this blog. In the context of online dating, a “catfish” denotes a fictional persona created to lure others into a relationship.

Growing up, I spent most days at home with my sister watching VCRs, reading, and spending countless hours watching her play video games.

I was appointed the all-important role of repeatedly mashing a key to unleash a flurry of attacks on monsters who were just out of counter-attacking range in a certain side-scrolling massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG).

I remember my sister being married in-game to another user in the U.S., a guy named Nate, who would send her in-game gifts that cost real-life money. My 10-year-old brain, primed to squawk “stranger danger!” at any unfamiliar interaction, couldn’t comprehend the exchange. They had never met in real life, never even seen a photo of each other, and the extent of their marriage beyond the game consisted of MSN chats and illustrations of their avatars dating that my sister made.

Boellstorff’s (2008) exploration of intimacy, sexuality and love in the online virtual world Second Life prompted me to reflect on the virtuality-reality continuum; do virtual feelings mirror or eventuate in real feelings? What kinds of activity, both online and off, might “sustain or threaten the gap between actual and virtual?” (p. 172) For example, Turkle (1995, p. 241) observed that a person in a real-life relationship participating in an erotic online role-play who had no intention to de-virtualise (i.e. make real) the in-game romance, didn’t consider this an act of infidelity. Is this because the roles weren’t considered persons, merely characters in a fictional play?

On the other hand, Boellstorff found that a genuine emotional and romantic bond formed online would very much constitute cheating on one’s partner; in fact, some felt that it would be “worse to cheat [online] than in [real life],” because in “[real life] it’s a physical thing, but here it’s your mind.” (2008, p. 172).

Josan Gonzalez

Throughout my teens, I was a user of a microblogging platform and became friends with people from all over the world. I finally appreciated the kind of relationship you can have with only a username and text on a screen: as Tufekci calls it, “words without bodies” (2012, p. 32). I ended up meeting some of these friends in real life (thankfully no catfishes), and I’ve stayed in contact with many of them on other social media platforms.

In 2018, the exposure of Russian-sponsored propaganda campaigns that resulted in the termination of 201 accounts stunned our community. Documents had been leaked from the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a pro-Kremlin group labelled a “troll farm”. The documents revealed that Internet sockpuppets (online identities intended to deceive) were involved in a disinformation effort to sway American political discourse with propaganda geared specifically to Black American youth.

I remember in the aftermath of this event, some people expressed disbelief at having ever imagined a sense of friendship or solidarity with these accounts. They felt betrayed because they had actively endowed credibility and personhood and opened their community up to beings that were not really persons at all.

The online realm illustrates the plurality of personhood, not merely because it offers another platform for performing the self, but also because these varied manifestations of personhood have always existed in other less systematic forms that couldn’t exploit personhood in the same way. In thinking as we sometimes do in binaries of selves – the “self as a body” and the “self that is built by society” (Durkheim 1914, p. 318) – virtuality provides different ways for “being a person”…for better or worse.


Boellstorff, T 2015, Coming of age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton University Press.

Durkheim, É 1914, ‘Le Dualisme de la nature humaine et ses conditions sociales’, in Durkheim 1970, pp. 314-332; trans. 2005, Durkheimian Studies no. 11, pp. 35-45.

Tufekci, Z 2012, ‘We were always human’, in N Whitehead & M Wesch (eds.), Human No More, University Press of Colorado.

Turkle, S 2011, Life on the Screen. Simon and Schuster.

See also:

Maddie’s article, Subtle Diasporic Traits, for more insight into how the online is altering conceptions of the anthropological field.

Loaded Prepositions

A history lecturer once asked our class a question which disturbed me. Processing this question took some time.

Why, the lecturer asked, are we always learning about India and never learning from India?

I’ll preface with a qualification. The course was part of an interdisciplinary area studies program, associated with ANU’s South Asia Research Institute. So ‘India’ here could variously refer to ideas currently emanating from Indian citizens, ideas from canonical texts like the Bhagavad Gita, or ideas around political organisation, and so on.

The premise of this ‘learning from’ question may offend people for many reasons. University learning is pitched in terms of accumulating knowledge and ‘critical thinking’ skills. We learn about people. We learn from lecturers.

And learning from India in particular seems culturally and politically problematic: New Age spiritualists and other wealthy white people have a tendency to fetishize India. You might be thinking of Julia Roberts self-discovering herself via ‘India’ in the film Eat Pray Love, in a colonial and imperial way (Chandra 2015).

But a little historical research will reveal that not-learning-from can be equally troublesome. British colonisation of India was justified in part by pushing the idea that Europeans indeed had nothing to learn from ‘India’ (Nandy 2003 p. 15).

Julia Roberts and Swarmi Dharmdev.

A key tactic in British colonisation was convincing the population across the globe that Europeans were more ‘progressed’, and thus morally compelled to rule (Ibid.). India presented an exceptional case, however. The British had to reconcile with thousands of years of ‘civic living, a well-developed-literati tradition… and alternative traditions of philosophy, art and science’ (Ibid. 16-17) So the British claimed the subcontinent was degraded, having fallen from a prior superiority (Ibid. p. 22). In short, British superiority was declared through establishing there was nothing to be learnt from India.

Reframing the Question

So Julia Roberts is learning from India in a way that carries a colonial history, and yet not-learning-from was key to colonisation? What should we do?

Prepositions (from, with, about etc.) come loaded, so we can be more thoughtful about which ones we use. We can also reframe the question.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2009, p. 194) asks ‘what happens when one takes indigenous thought seriously’? Though he is discussing the radical alterity presented to us by indigenous worlds, his argument can be applied to peoples anthropology studies in general.

For Viveiros de Castro, there are several tendencies which preclude anthropologists from taking indigenous thought seriously. Explaining indigenous thought in terms of ‘belief’ and ‘systems of belief’ is especially detrimental. ‘Belief’ tends towards taking indigenous thought as an opinion or a proposition (Ibid. p. 194-5). Thinking in these terms leads in two directions: people are rendered either irrational, or as voicing ‘some inborn esoteric science divining the inner, ultimate essence of things’ (Ibid. p. 195).

Instead we can allow the philosophies of others to disturb our own thinking. We can allow indigenous thought to deprive our own concepts – like temporality, design, or emic/etic – of their universality (Skafish 2014, p. 18). Adopting this stance can help working towards decolonisation, because it undermines academia’s ability to claim ultimate intellectual authority (Ibid.).

Let those categories be thrown into disarray!

We can now return to the question raised at the beginning of the post, accompanied by Vivieros de Castro. Learning from India can be problematic if we get caught up in legitimating or valorising ideas, even if this seems like an ethical move. Instead, we can let go of the intellectual authority to validate or invalidate the philosophies of others, and allow the ideas of others to undermine the concepts we take for granted. 


Chandra, S 2015, ”India Will Change You Forever’: Hinduism, Islam, and Whiteness in the American Empire’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 40, no. 2, pp. 487-512.

Nandy, A 2003, The Intimate Enemy, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Skafish, P 2014, ‘Introduction’, in E Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp. 9-33.

Viveiros de Castro, E 2009, Cannibal Metaphysics, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

See Also:

Check out Lani’s critique of self-discovery. She describes Eat Pray Love as great for an anthropology student to watch ‘for all the wrong reasons’. Lani has also contributed a post on cultural appropriation.

Reflexivity can also offer us better understanding of how we learn. You can read Anatol’s post here.

Allowing our concepts to be undermined can be disorientating and disconcerting. I write about this in another post, ‘Being Disconcerted’.

Thinking with Tim Ingold

Sometimes when talking about anthropology, we can tend to talk about the discipline as though it is singular. Perhaps this is shorthand: we need a generalised ‘anthropology’ to make possible a general debate.

It’s also crucial not to obfuscate the diverse range of research methods, concepts, and ethical stances. So, what can we do to keep the anthropology’s diversity in mind?

One option: looking to thinkers whose style of doing anthropology diverges so much that some would wonder whether we can still call it anthropology. In this regard, I think Tim Ingold is helpful.

For some time now, Ingold has been trying to decouple anthropology and ethnography. For a discipline often defined through its use of ethnography, this decoupling presents a serious epistemological affront. 

For Ingold, ‘the collapse of anthropology into ethnography has deflected the discipline from its proper purpose’ (Ingold 2017, p. 21). What ‘proper purpose’? He offers a definition: ‘anthropology, I maintain, is a generous, open-ended, comparative, and yet critical inquiry into the conditions and possibilities of human life in the one world we inhabit’ (Ibid., 22). Ingold claims:

‘in finding ways to carry on… no specialist science, no indigenous group, no doctrine or philosophy already holds the key to the future if only we could find it. We have to make that future together, for ourselves, and this can only be done through dialogue. Anthropology exists to expand the scope of this dialogue: to make a conversation of human life itself’ (Ibid.).

To qualify this statement, I should stress that such a conversation could come in many forms. It could be between a student and the anthropology of gender, focused on alternatives and possibilities. A conversation can also happen on a much larger scale. In the Unites States during late 1920s, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa started a large-scale conversation around the perceived difficulties of adolescence (Shankman 2009, p. 116). It’s imperative, in holding such conversations, to think about who might be excluded or not listened to.

How can anthropology best contribute to discussions about the future?

So why Ingold is so down on ethnography, when he’s so hopeful about anthropology? What would anthropology be, if not for ethnography?

Ingold doesn’t want to banish ethnography from anthropology. His concern is with misuse of the word ‘ethnography’. He thinks its misuse has negative effects. Encounters with people are not intrinsically ‘ethnographic’, rather, ‘what we could call ‘ethnographicness’’ is cast retrospectively after encounters’ (Ingold 2014 p. 386). Herein lies a temporal distortion. Casting encounters as ethnographic ‘consign[s] the incipient – the about-to-happen in unfolding relationships – to the temporal past of the already over… it is though, on meeting others face-to-face, one’s back is already turned on them’ (p. 386).

Ingold argues that anthropologists in the ‘field’ don’t experience the present as ‘ethnographic’. He suggests anthropologists should instead think in terms of participant observation. The reason for this is because participant observation asks anthropologists ‘to join in correspondence with those whom we learn or among whom we study, in a movement that goes forward rather than back in time’ (p. 390). In this way, anthropology can participate in dialogues of making futures.


Ingold, T 2014, ‘That’s Enough About Ethnography!’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 383-395.

Ingold, T 2017, ‘Anthropology Contra Ethnography’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 21-26.

Shankman, P 2009, The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Concept, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

See also:

Want to further explore anthropology’s purpose? Check out Maddie’s post ‘So What’s the Point of it All?‘.

Being Disconcerted

As a young boy, I was feminine. Or maybe I was just indiscriminate, loving both My Little Ponies and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Luckily, my parents didn’t police me as I neared the dress up box, pulling out some of the gaudier items. But my inability to obey the rules of gender would soon cause some problems. I would struggle with these problems, until a transformative moment in second year anthropology.

The Playtime Police

Being indiscriminate wasn’t grounds for suspicion during kinder, at least with the other kids. But by primary school the cohort had truly bifurcated. Without exception, the boys were playing with boys and the girls with girls.

Left in a kind of gender limbo, and with no friends, I decided to approach some friendly-looking girls during a sunny recess. Group ring leader Stacey Peterson* intercepted me before I could enter the cubby, duly notifying me her posse didn’t play with ‘gay people’. I didn’t know what gay people meant, but I can remember feeling ostracised. Not long after labelled a ‘gaybo’, this kind of policing would continue through to high school. For example, Matt MacDonald* took it upon himself to habitually sing Shania Twain’s ‘Man! I Feel Like a Woman’ whenever I was within earshot.

Reading Anthropology

I had intuited something not-quite-right about the rules shared by Stacey, Matt and their contemporaries. But with the help of anthropology, it became easy to see the strictures of gender as culturally and historically contingent. Elsewhere, particular gentials aren’t determining people as male or female (Helliwell 2001) and people are going about their lives quite capably without any mandate to keep things ‘natural’ (MacCormack 1980). We could also take these ideas towards a more speculative anthropology (Anderson et al. 2018): in another place, or another time, boys will play with My Little Ponies and no one will think twice, much less police, reprimand or taunt them. And nor will Shania Twain be co-opted.

A re-enactment of me reliving the Stacey Peterson encounter: textual healing.

Conceiving of This Encounter

There’s a few ways we could think about my encounter with the anthropology of gender.

Ghassan Hage (2012) has noted that, throughout the 20th century, people have sought social and political change with reference to a critical sociology that has ‘helped us see… relations of power and domination’ (p. 287). Hage calls this sociology-inspired politics an ‘anti-politics’.

In contrast, the kind of politics that might emerge from anthropology he calls ‘alter-politics’ (p. 288). Coming into contact with the radically different, whether through fieldwork or reading,

‘such difference disorients us to begin with and in the process of helping us reorient ourselves within it and in relation to it, anthropology widens our sphere of what is socially and culturally possible’ (Ibid.)

My experience reading about gender is a bit different to this, however. I had already felt an ongoing sense of disorientation with gender, and anthropology provided some tools for a further disorientation, eagerly received, followed by reorientation with new possibilities. This experience led me to pursue further disorientation throughout my bachelor’s degree.

Helen Verran (2013) has grappled with similar issues to Hage. Sketching experiences of disorientation and reorientation, Verran frames this in terms of epistemic disconcertment (p. 145). Marisol de la Cadena (2015) lucidly summarises Verran: ‘this disconcertment… is the feeling that assaults individuals – including their bodies – when the categories that pertain to their world-making practices and institutions are disrupted’ (p. 276).

For Verran, knowledge is not only cognitive, but variously located in ‘institutions, categories, arranged materials and communitive protocols’, meaning ‘the multiple pulls of these intense habits of knowing are felt bodily’ (p. 145-6). This is something I wish I knew in first year. As you encounter radically different worlds, remember that it is not only your brain being pulled around.

*not their real names


Anderson R, Backe E, Nelms T, Reddy E and Trombley J 2018, ‘Speculative Anthropologies’, Theorising the Contemporary, Fieldsites, December 2018.

de la Cadena, M 2015, Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds, Duke University Press, Durham.

Hage, G 2015, ‘Critical Anthropological Though and the Radical Political Imaginary Today’, Critique of Anthropology, vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 285-308.

Helliwell, C 2001, ‘Engendering Sameness’,  Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, vol. 6.

MacCormack, C 1980, ‘Nature, Culture and Gender: A Critique’, in C MacCormack and M Strathern (eds), Nature, Culture and Gender, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 1-24.

Verran, H 2013, ‘Engagements Between Disparate Knowledge Traditions: Towards Doing Difference Generatively and in Good Faith’, in L Green (ed), Contested Ecologies: Dialogues in the South on Nature and Knowledge, HSRC Press, Cape Town, pp. 141-161,

See also:

I mentioned speculative anthropology. Cultural Anthropology has a series of short blog posts on this topic. Sarah’s Anthropozine post on ‘interplanetary anthropologist’ Ursula Le Guin also considers the imagining of future worlds.

You can listen to Ghassan Hage speak about alternate worlds and multiculturalism in this Familiar Strange podcast.

Design Anthropology Pt. 2: A New Style of Knowing

Design benefits from looking to anthropology, and vice versa, as noted in part one of this post. But how does can this meeting make for a new and distinct ‘style of knowing’ (Otto and Smith 2013)?

A key reason is that design and anthropology have different temporal orientations (Kjaersgaard et al. 2016). Design is by definition concerned with the future, setting out to create new things and solutions (Ibid., p. 1). In contrast, anthropology has ‘traditionally been concerned with the analysis of past and present realities (Ibid., p. 4). As Pink (2014) notes, ‘designers address issues that, as anthropologists, we have conventionally been taught are beyond our (and perhaps anyone else’s) reach’ (p. 16).

Moving anthropology towards the future opens it up to design. But doing this requires altering and reinventing anthropology’s research styles (Kjaersgaard et. al. 2016, p. 5). Let’s look to an example.

Rachel Smith is a design anthropologist who worked on an exhibition experiment titled Digital Natives (Smith 2016). The exhibition focused on how young people use technology. At the same time, the project asked how museums might engage young people with cultural heritage in a digital era. Smith worked collaboratively in a team of curators, interaction designers, and young people aged 15-19. In order to grasp Smith’s work as being design anthropology, it is important to note at the outset that the process of mounting the exhibition was in many ways more important than the final exhibition.

Design activities and ethnographic research were embedded throughout the process of creating the exhibition (Ibid. p. 24). For instance, early in the project a mock-up exhibition allowed the teenagers to engage in conversations with the interaction designers. Contrary to the assumptions of the interaction designers and curators, the teenagers did not fit the popular mould of tech-savvy youth, instead using technology in fragmented ways specific to their personal interests. For instance, one girl was a keen Facebook user, though kept a clear separation between her social media use and her passion for film. She achieved this separation via practices of storing and organising data, and through organising her time and her interests (Ibid. p. 24).

Thus far, Smith’s project isn’t veering too far from regular ethnographic research, nor has the future come into the frame. We have something akin to ethnography being used for design, albeit in a museum context, and in a collaborative manner, rather than out in the ‘field’.

Again, focusing on process will be helpful. The mock-up allowed the teenagers to become more aware of their use of technology, through directed discussions, sketching and other activities. In this regard, the process was interventionist, asking the teenagers to explore their subject positions in relation to digital technology, at the same time as they imagined design solutions (Ibid., 26). Rather than focusing on the past/present, this interventionist approach saw Smith ‘moving forward with people in tandem with their desires and aspirations rather than looking back over times past’ (Ingold and Gatt 2013, p. 141).

Later, the team put together a list of principles for the project based on research insights. Moving away from ‘‘formal’ heritage [and] the ‘static’ and confined exhibition space’, the list directed the teams’ focus ‘towards a dialogic and open-ended conception of the exhibition as a ‘processual’ and ‘hybrid’ experience, that centrally engaged the audience and took point of departure in continually emerging cultural practices’ (Otto and Smith 2013, p. 25).

Fully outlining the process of the Digital Natives exhibition is beyond the scope of this post, but these details are enough to show how design and anthropology can transmute. Here, research and creation are not separate parts of a process (Gerber 2015 p. 1), as in anthropologies of design and anthropology for design. Being cyclical and collaborative, it is not that the future is made amenable to conventional ethnographic research methods. Of course, the future remains unknowable. Instead, emergent social forms cyclically inform design processes, making design anthropology more ‘present-emergent’ than ‘past-present’, as with most anthropology.


Gatt, W, and Ingold, T 2013, ‘From Description to Correspondence: Anthropology in Real Time’, in W Gunn, T Otto, and R Charlotte Smith (eds), Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 139-159.

Gerber, A 2015, ‘Exploring Anthropological Imagination’, Design Anthropological Futures, Copenhagen, Denmark, August 14th-15th 2015, The Research Network for Design Anthropology, 1-4.

Kjaersgaard, M, Halse, J, Smith, R, Vangkilde, K, Binder, T and Otto, T 2016, ‘Introduction: Design Anthropological Futures’, in R Charlotte Smith, K Tang Vangkilde, M Gislev Kjaersgaard, T Otto, J Halse and T Binder (eds), Design Anthropological Futures, Bloomsbury, London, 2013, pp. 19-36.

Otto T and Smith R 2013, ‘Design Anthropology: A Distinct Style of Knowing’, in W Gunn, T Otto, and R Charlotte Smith (eds), Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 1-32.

Pink, S 2014, ‘Digital-Visual-Sensory-Design Anthropology: Ethnography, Imagination and Intervention’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, vol. 13, no. 4, pp. 412-427.

See also:

Here’s a video of one of the exhibition installations, DJ Station.

If you want to read further, check out Uncertainty and Possibility: New Approaches to Future Making in Design Anthropology by Pink, Akama and Sumartojo. It’s available through the library as a PDF.

Cultural Anthropology has a great series of blog posts under ‘Keywords for Ethnography and Design’. Ton Otto discusses the emergent present, and Lucy Suchman asks ‘how we might design ethnographically’.

PLANTS IN SPACE! On Botanical Colonialism and Selecting “Acceptable” Plants for Space Habitation

Space: The Final Frontier. The final colonial stomping ground for the rich and the entitled and the predominantly white. The phrase “colonisation of space” – and all its associated connotations of conquering and civilising – has long been in use in both science-fiction and real-world references to the future of humanity, as envisioned in the great starry plains of the cosmos. (The first “original” use of the phrase is difficult to ascertain). Undoubtedly, from the so-called “Space Race” of the 1950s to the 1970s, to Elon Musk’s present-day SpaceX program, the modern world appears particularly enamoured with the concept of exploring and, eventually, inhabiting space. Earth’s own moon, and the red expanse of Mars, are especially coveted as the site(s) for this proposed future habitation, as the planets deemed to have atmospheres most resembling Earth’s (from within our own solar system). At least, if not entirely resembling Earth’s, the atmospheres of the moon and Mars are deemed the most “manageable”; the most “conquerable”, and, indeed, the most “colonisable”.

Certainly, living on either moon or planet would require extensive “terraforming” of the landscape to allow the human physiology to survive. Science-fiction novels, movies, and television shows abound with images of domes and underground bunkers; great white spectres amidst otherwise barren landscapes.


Yet beyond merely being able to walk and talk and breath within these habitats, the primary concern centres around our ability to grow food. That is, to grow plants: agricultural foodstuffs such as wheat, maize, vegetables, fruits, herbs. Plants not only for our own (human) consumption but for the potential consumption of livestock as well. Without these, humanity simply will not survive a long-term habitation of space.

Plants – both agricultural, and of the garden variety – have historically been tied to many of the “original” colonization efforts of Earth nations and peoples. It is likely the same will be true of the colonisation of space (Slobodian 2015). What has been deemed the “Anthropocene” has been heavily influenced by the ‘biotic upheaval’ (Mastnak, Elyachar & Boellstorff 2014, 364) of both plants and animals (and fungi and bacteria and…) associated with Earthen colonialism, and its subsequent ideological ‘remaking of relations among humans, plants, and place’ (ibid.). For colonialism was foremost seen as a conquering of land for European empires; and only subsequently the people and animals and plants that happened to reside on that land. As European powers created settler colonies in these lands, they brought with them the plants and animals of their home countries, producing an intensive “biological expansion of Europe” (Crosby quoted in Mastnak, Elyachar & Boellstorff 2014, 367). Plants and animals once “native” to Europe (critiques of the concept of native/alien aside) can now be found across the world. In this way, colonialism and its “conquering” of foreign landscapes through human, botanical, and zoological means, arguably represents ‘the greatest biological revolution’ (Mastnak, Elyachar & Boellstorff 2014, 374) of the modern world. Space proves to be no different. For ‘how could one ever think that, on a remote planet, our environmental care would be any different’ (Calanchi, Farina & Barbanti 2017, 213) to what it has historically been on Earth?

So, let’s take a cue from science-fiction, and envision a future a hundred years from now, or two or three or four. Let’s say humans have set up habitations on Mars; we’ve figured out how to grow food plants, and to grow them well, and the first “pioneering” outposts have now expanded to great cities of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. Undoubtedly these cities will be built to resemble the cities of Earth (Calanchi, Farina & Barbanti 2017), including its plant life: one can picture parks and tree-lined streets; rooftop gardens and window boxes filled with flowers. Just as Earth colonialism “imported” the plants of settler’s home countries to new lands, so too will the colonisation of space indubitably import Earth plants to the terraformed landscapes of Mars, or the moon, or whichever other planet(s) we decide to “conquer” and “civilise”. Beyond the “practical” agricultural plants mentioned previously, what other plants might be selected for space expansion, and why? How do we decide which plants are “worthy” of inter-planetary expansion, and which should remain on Earth? The botanical and zoological concepts of “native” and “alien” would gain new meaning, as the human experience becomes, literally, extra-terrestrial. Who would make these botanical decisions, and based on what criteria? What would such choices say about our relationship with the chosen plants, and with the unchosen plants, and with the Earth (as a planet) more generally?

These questions and more, coming soon to an Anthropology near you.

Featured Image Source:


Calanchi, A., Farina, A., and Barbanti, R. 2017, ‘An Eco-Critical Cultural Approach to Mars Colonization’, Forum for World Literature Studies, Vol. 9, Issue 2, pp.205-216

Mastnak, T., Elyachor, J., and Boellstorff, T. 2014, ‘Botanical Decolonization: Rethinking Native Plants’, Environment & Planning D: Society & Space, Vol. 32, Issue 2, pp.363-380

Slobodian, R.E. 2015, ‘Selling Space Colonization and Immortality: A Psychosocial, Anthropological Critique of the Rush to Colonize Mars’, Acta Astronautica, Vol. 113, pp.89-104

See Also:

Mary Douglas’s Garden

Ursula Le Guin and the Ethnography of Future Worlds

The Anthropo Scene Part I

The Anthropo Scene Part II

Design Anthropology Pt. 1: Anthropology of Design, and for Design

Maybe you just read the words ‘design anthropology’ for the first time. It might be easy to imagine what this new branch of anthropology involves. People design things like computers, buildings and cars, launching them out into social worlds. Ethnographic research seems like a rich way for learning about the social lives of these designed things. Or you might have imagined a designer reading anthropology texts, on topics like liminality or ontology, to inform or inspire their design practice.

These are indeed aspects of design anthropology. People and companies are using ethnography to inform design, including Volvo, which is using ethnography to inform the design of autonomous vehicles. And anthropological knowledge is being co-opted for design (for instance, Anastassakis and Szaniecki 2016), along with social theory more broadly (for instance, DiSalvo 2012; Fry 2012). Anthropologists are also taking cues from design – for instance, by creating new concepts using a design workshop ethos (Rabinow and Marcus, 2008).

A concept for an autonomous car, the Volvo 360c Exterior, released in 2018 by Volvo.

But design anthropology also goes a step further, shaking up the two disciplines. Design and anthropology transmute. For me, this is the most exciting aspect of design anthropology.

To get at this exciting and transmuting form of design anthropology, taken up in part two of this post, it’s helpful to first differentiate between anthropologies of design and design for anthropology (Murphy 2016).

Anthropologies of design take design as a research topic, following the ‘anthropology of x’ formula, like An Anthropology of Scientific Things. For Gatt and Ingold (2013), anthropologists have two options for doing an anthropology of design. Design can be taken as an innate human capacity, similar to language or symbolic thought (p. 139). Alternately, design can be approached as something done by people who identify professionally as designers. Murphy notes (2016) anthropologists have historically tended to focus on the ‘forms, meanings and social effects’ of designed things like buildings, spaces and clothing. This focus has led to a neglect of actual practices of designing, up until very recently (p. 437). Murphy’s recent (2015) Swedish Design: An Ethnography falls into the latter category. He shows that Swedish design practices are informed by social democratic thinking, with design seen as ‘the basic starting point for crafting a just society’ (p. 11).

A major aspect of anthropology for design involves using ethnography to ‘try to look into what people do, what tools they use, and how they think’ in order to design with more sensitivity to local contexts (Salvador et al. 1999, p. 35). Anthropology for design also involves using anthropological concepts and texts to inform the design process, including but not limited to the above-mentioned anthropologies of design.

This is part of what design anthropologists do: they use anthropology and ethnography to bolster design. But, as mentioned above, some design anthropologists take this a step further, mixing design and anthropology, and creating a new ‘style of knowing’ (Otto and Smith, 2013, p. 11). This is taken up in part two of this post.


Anastassakis Z and Szaniecki B 2016, ‘Conversation Dispotifs: Towards a Transdisciplinary Design Anthropological Approach’, in R Charlotte Smith, K Tang Vangkilde, M Gislev Kjaersgaard, T Otto, J Halse and T Binder (eds), Design Anthropological Futures, Bloomsbury, London, 2013, pp. 121-139.

DiSalvo C 2012, Adversarial Design, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.

Fry T 2012, Becoming Human by Design, Berg, New York.

Gatt W and Ingold T 2013, ‘From Description to Correspondence: Anthropology in Real Time’, in Gunn W, Otto T and Charlotte Smith R (eds), Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 139-159.

Murphy K 2016, ‘Design and Anthropology’, Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 45, pp. 443-449.

Murphy K 2015, Swedish Design: An Ethnography, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Otto T and Smith R 2013, ‘Design Anthropology: A Distinct Style of Knowing’, in Gunn W, Otto T and Charlotte Smith R (eds), Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 1-32.

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

Salvador T, Bell G and Anderson K 1999, ‘Design Ethnography’, Design Management Journal, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 35-41.

See also:

Imo interviewed people about where your anthropology degree can take you, including Katie, who completed a Masters in Design Anthropology.

Here’s a short lecture about design ethnography from Sarah Pink, Director of the Emerging Technologies Lab at Monash University.

If you’re interested in ethnography outside academia, you could also check out EPIC, a member-based organisation which brings together ethnographers working outside academia. Looking at the EPIC job board might give you some ideas about where you can take your anthropology degree.