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.

Ursula Le Guin and the ethnography of future worlds

The late Ursula Le Guin could be called an interplanetary anthropologist, since her stories are the twilight zone between ethnography and science fiction. They include anthropologist characters, descriptions, and most importantly, glimpses of possibilities for our planet through the exploration of what appear to be faraway futuristic worlds.

There already are many similarities between works of fiction and ethnographic texts in general. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz even said that ethnographic texts are more-or-less fiction (1973), since they are inevitably shaped by the ethnographer. How about exploring the other side of the coin, that science fiction books could be anticipatory anthropology?

Le Guin’s worlds are so believable because her way of writing about culture is informed by ethnographic writing. Many of her stories include thick description and detailed accounts of cultural practices, so that they may be are accessible to readers who are outsiders to these ways of life.

Her utopias are also never depicted as perfect places, spaces, or social systems. Every society is challenged in different ways, but “the real utopia in Le Guin’s work is […]the act of self transcendence and cross cultural understanding” (Baker-Cristales 2012, 25). As anthropologists know, the endeavour to transcend bias is like the vision of a “utopia”, it is not a place that can ever be reached. But above all, it a task that is worth pursuing.

Le Guin’s writing goes beyond imagining exotic or magical worlds through rich language or fictional tropes, the stories experiment with social structures and human possibilities. Her books also appear realistic because they abandon the gender and race stereotypes that were standard in the fantastical novels in her era. They often portray people of colour and people who are gender fluid, which was fairly radical for the 1980s science fiction scene. The plots also stray from the fantasy and sci-fi tropes that revolve around great conquests and adventures and instead meander through the hum drum lives of inhabitants of other planes.

Latour made a grand claim that the “task of anthropology is to account for how worlds are composed” (2013, 274). Le Guin’s book The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia accounts the social structures of whole planets, it traces a scientist who leaves his anarchist home planet to visit an Earth-like planet. The Dispossessed is similar to a good ethnography in that it makes current social systems appear unusual, throwing our own world into question and experimentation. Viveiros de Castro says in Cannibal Metaphysics that fictions are alternate realities which should be taken seriously. He makes a departure from Latour’s claim, to say that task of anthropology “is not the task of explaining the world of the other, but that of multiplying our world” (2014, 196). Le Guin shows how nothing is permanent or universal, and that people have the power to shape the world.

It is this reason that Le Guin often worked with anthropologists such as Anna Tsing to create works such as Arts of Living On A Damaged Planet. This anthology weaves fictional texts with anthropological texts and works from other disciplines to confront the oncoming storm of our entangled world.

Anthropology is moving further away from trying to represent “realities”, and towards representing what exists in imagined worlds. What is the future of ethnography? Le Guin’s work can raise a lamp to the murky vision of anthropology, which will involve discipline and genre-blurring work in anticipation of the future. For an example of imagining how anthropologists might imagine future worlds, see Dyan’s post PLANTS IN SPACE! On Botanical Colonialism and Selecting “Acceptable” Plants for Space Habitation.

What the literature of Le Guin and the discipline of anthropology both share is a they practice empathy and try overcome the barriers towards mutual understanding. Her work fulfils a vision of cultural anthropology, to make the strange seem familiar and the familiar seem strange. How distant are Ursula Le Guin’s imagined worlds? They may be as distant as we want them to be.


Baker-Cristales, B. 2012, “Poiesis of Possibility: The Ethnographic Sensibilities of Ursula K. Le Guin”. Anthropology and Humanism. Vol. 37, Issue 1, pp 15–26.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 3–30. New York: Basic Books.

Senior, W. 1996, Cultural Anthropology and Rituals of Exchange in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Earthsea”. Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, 29(4), 101-113.

Viveiros de Castro, E B. 2014, Cannibal metaphysics : for a post-structural anthropology. Minneapolis, MN :Univocal, pp 196.

See also:

Maddie’s post on myth and storytelling in ethnography

Imo and my post on the Anthropo scene part II, which discusses Haraway, who was a friend of Le Guin and a fan of speculative anthropology.

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