The Politics of Ontology

Much energy has been devoted over the last decade to the so-called ontological turn in the social sciences, and in anthropology in particular. A number of statements, critiques, and discussions of this position are now available (e.g., Viveiros de Castro 2002; Henare et al. 2007; Jensen and Rödje 2010; Pedersen 2011; Holbraad 2012; Ishii 2012; Candea and Alcayna-Stevens 2012; Blaser 2013; Paleček and Risjord 2013; Scott 2013), and its implications for anthropological research are being concertedly explored and passionately debated (e.g., Venkatesan et al. 2009; Alberti et al. 2011; Viveiros de Castro 2011; Laidlaw 2012; Ramos 2012; Pedersen 2012; Strathern 2012). The following set of position papers represent contributions to a well-attended roundtable discussion held at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Anthropological in Chicago. The purpose of the roundtable was to explore the theoretical positions and methodological projects pursued under the banner of ontology, focusing particularly on the political implications of the “turn,” including its potential pitfalls. 

The participants were invited to address such questions as, Why have social scientists turned to the concept of ontology in the ways that they have? Why is the move as controversial as it is proving itself to be, at least among anthropologists? What explicit and implicit political projects does the turn to ontology (as well as various critiques of it) evince? Does the ontological turn open up new forms of cultural critique and progressive politics, or does it represent a “closet-culturalist” and potentially dangerous rehearsal of past essentialisms? What, in short, does the ethnographic commitment to ontology “do”—for our engagements and collaborations with the people with whom we work, and for anthropology’s role within the global intellectual and political landscape at large?

To instigate the discussion, the session’s organizers, Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen, joined Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who also contributed to organizing and chairing the session, to write a position paper addressing these questions. The paper was distributed to the participants in advance (and in hard copy to members of the audience on the day of the discussion) as a concise and synthetic statement of the three authors’ position on the politics of the ontological turn. Inevitably, as is the way of jointly authored papers (and making full virtue of the necessary brevity of the genre), the position is “more than one and less than many.” Remaining faithful to the spirit of a roundtable discussion, the participants’ subsequent statements are reproduced here more or less as they were presented in Chicago, with the addition of similarly brief statements by Marisol de la Cadena, Matei Candea, and Annemarie Mol, who were unable to participate. Some participants chose to respond directly to the organizers’ position paper, while others refer to it only obliquely or not at all. In what follows, the statements appear in the order in which they were presented in Chicago, with the three further contributions added at the end, in alphabetical order.

The table of contents for the statements appears below.

References

Alberti, Benjamin, Severin Fowles, Martin Holbraad, Yvonne Marshall, and Christopher Witmore. 2011. “‘Worlds Otherwise’: Archaeology, Anthropology, and Ontological Difference.” Current Anthropology 52, no. 6: 896–912.

Blaser, Mario. 2013. “Ontological Conflicts and the Stories of Peoples in Spite of Europe: Toward a Conversation on Political Ontology.” Current Anthropology 54, no. 5: 547–68.

Candea, Matei, and Lys Alcayna-Stevens. 2012. “Internal Others: Ethnographies of Naturalism.” Cambridge Anthropology 30, no. 2: 36–47.

Henare, Amiria, Martin Holbraad, and Sari Wastell, 2007. Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically. London: Routledge.

Holbraad, Martin. 2012. Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ishii, Miho. 2012. “Acting with Things: Self-Poiesis, Actuality, and Contingency in the Formation of Divine Worlds.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2, no. 2: 371–88.

Jensen, Casper Bruun, and Kjetil Rödje, eds. 2009. Deleuzian Intersections in Science, Technology and Anthropology. Oxford: Berghahn.

Laidlaw, James. 2012. “Ontologically Challenged.” Anthropology of This Century, no. 4.

Paleček, Martin, and Mark Risjord. 2013. “Relativism and the Ontological Turn within Anthropology.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 43(1): 3-23.

Pedersen, Morten Axel. 2011. Not Quite Shamans. Spirit Worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Pedersen, Morten Axel. 2012. “Common Nonsense: A Review of Certain Recent Reviews of the ‘Ontological Turn.’” Anthropology of This Century, no. 5.

Ramos, Alcida R. 2012. “The Politics of Perspectivism.” Annual Review of Anthropology 41:481–94.

Scott, Michael W. 2013. “The Anthropology of Ontology (Religious Science?).” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19, no. 4: 859–72.

Strathern, Marilyn. 2012. “A Comment on ‘the Ontological Turn’ in Japanese Anthropology.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2, no. 2: 402–5.

Venkatesan, Soumhya, Michael Carrithers, Karen Sykes, Matei Candea, and Martin Holbraad. 2010. “Ontology is Just Another Word for Culture: Motion Tabled at the 2008 Meeting of the Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory, University of Manchester.” Critique of Anthropology 30, no. 2: 152–200.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2011. “Zeno and the Art of Anthropology: Of Lies, Beliefs, Paradoxes, and Other Truths.” Common Knowledge 17, no. 1: 128–45.

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Posts in This Series

The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions

What an Ontological Anthropology Might Mean

Anthropological Metaphysics / Philosophical Resistance

Geontologies of the Otherwise

Critical Anthropology as a Permanent State of First Contact

The Political Ontology of Doing Difference . . . and Sameness

Practical Ontologies

Equal Time for Entities

Anthropology as Ontology is Comparison as Ontology

Onto-Methodology

Archaeology, Risk, and the Alter-Politics of Materiality

The Ontology of the Political Turn

The Politics of Modern Politics Meets Ethnographies of Excess Through Ontological Openings

Other Words: Stories from the Social Studies of Science, Technology, and Medicine