Anthropology in Times of Radical Unease

From the Series: Book Forum: A Possible Anthropology

Photo by Anand Pandian.

The days before us feel both eternal and fleeting,” Andrés Romero (2020) observes in his introduction to these generous and compelling reflections on my recent book, A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times (Duke University Press, 2019). It is hard to shake the sense that there is nothing beyond the uncertainty of this yawning present. There is also the existential challenge of maintaining a foothold, when caught in the midst of a daily flood of fresh displacements: most recently the surge of antiblack racism and police brutality in the United States, violence built on centuries of dehumanization and denial, making the question of a livable future beyond the pandemic all the more fraught and necessary, as uprisings throughout the country have insisted.

The writers in this forum remind us of what is at stake in these troubles, the difficult realities of contemporary life woven into the texture of the pandemic and its lockdowns: racism and fortified borders, exploited labor and profound inequality, tepid and familiar thinking but also the promise of radical culture and imagination. “The pandemic is a portal,” Arundhati Roy (2020) has said. In this book, I argue that our field can help to pry such portals open.

Anthropologists around the world have engaged closely with the trials of this particular moment, organizing relief efforts, writing dispatches and op-eds, bringing the lessons of the field to bear on patterns of exposure and danger. With reflection, circumstances that seem utterly singular and unexpected turn out to have been anticipated by many warning signs and parallel problems. “Fifteen years of pandemic preparedness seem to have evaporated into thin air,” Carlo Caduff (2020) recently observed. And, as Adia Benton (2020) has pointed out, "we’ve seen this movie before: fear-mongering presented as expert analysis, racial scapegoats, the politics of disgust, xenophobia, and national security theatrics."

Even at the most basic level, there is something curiously familiar about the enforced hiatus that so many of us are living out. An uncanny ordinary, both familiar and strange. A life pitched between avid sociality and deep isolation. The sense of too much happening at once, but also insufferably little. The sharp feeling of exposure that comes from everyday uncertainty and the absence of any refuge, as work, life, and family seep inextricably into each other. An impulse to stories to make sense of it all somehow. What happens when life itself begins to feel like fieldwork, like a situation that eludes control yet still demands understanding?

“The pandemic is forcing us to refine our understanding of what counts as an anthropological question, our understanding of what counts as the ethnographic present, and our responsibilities as a discipline to those who produce research and to those directly affected by it,” Wenner-Gren President Danilyn Rutherford (2020) writes in a lucid discussion of the very possibility of anthropological research at this time. Our methods are designed to make understanding possible through the vicissitudes of radical experience and exposure. The coming months and years will submit these approaches to a difficult test.

Indeed, one can hardly imagine a field more profoundly dislodged by the needs of this moment than anthropology. How to pursue a style of inquiry founded on intimate social encounters with strangers, when distance is the most responsible way to meet them? The problem can perhaps be recomposed if we relinquish the idea of anthropology as an endeavor solely to record and represent the cultures and lives of others, as I suggest in A Possible Anthropology. Think of the discipline instead as a more intimate and collaborative practice of cultural transformation, and the question turns to what can be done now, under these conditions, and in the company of whom.

An anthropological disposition is one of embodied vulnerability,” Juliana Friend (2020) writes, one that depends on the cultivation of a double-edged quality, transformative but also possibly incapacitating. “How to loosen the contours of self,” she asks, “without coming undone completely?” This vulnerability, this condition of being open and exposed, seems even more fraught when people are asked to arm themselves with protective gear, to imagine each other as vectors of contagion.

Anthropology cannot happen unless such vulnerability is habitable. Friend’s account of a student strike in California gives one way of conceiving this possibility. It turns on the emergence of new coalitions, an “openness of collectivity” that can arise in the form of an outward spiral. Finding company in the vulnerability of others, she shows, can help to pry open the dispositions of those armed against change, working to sustain the lives of those more vulnerable than oneself. Becoming “disarmed,” as Yana Stainova (2020) says, allows the emergence of something new.

One name for this transformative movement, Stainova reminds us, is hope. Hope may be hard to muster in times when we are “seemingly poised on the constant brink of apocalypse.” But what she invokes here, with hope, is less a naïve faith that things will get better, than an affective impulse that lends a dynamic quality to situations that would otherwise remain fixed and given, a “prospective momentum,” as Hiro Miyazaki (2004) has written. As I argue in the book, anthropology teaches us to approach empirical situations with an imaginative spirit, to seek out and work with the openings those situations carry, however elusive and imperceptible they may seem.

This openness, as Gabrielle Cabrera (2020) emphasizes, is a condition often “fraught with frustration, uncertainty,” most especially for people like her undocumented interlocutors, caught in a American situation that denies their belonging yet still demands their labor. What is possible can be paralyzing, even deadly. How to engage “during a state of urgency, where one cannot wait for the horizon and when the hope, the imagining of a future isn’t enough,” Cabrera rightly asks. So much seems to turn on the way that aspiration and possibility are structured, the particular circumstances that people are given to experience, the shape of that momentum, for better and for worse.

We are led to confront the limits of that ambiguous horizon of anthropological inquiry, the sense of a common humanity. The human, as Dorinne Kondo (2020) recalls, is “racialized from the start, forged in histories of colonialism.” Is it possible to cultivate any idea of a shared human condition without posing an outside, without negating those who cannot be recognized within its boundaries, as both Kondo and Romero ask with Singh (2018) in mind? I read this question as a demand to radicalize the practice of anthropology, to acknowledge the necessity of its decolonization. For a sense of fellow feeling with others unlike oneself remains one of the most powerful insights we can nurture.

Even now, the profession itself largely remains a kind of “white public space” (Brodkin, Morgen, and Hutchinson 2011), in which racial others “can be seen and still be missed, be visible yet vacated,” as John L. Jackson (2020) observes in this forum. And this is a circumstance that makes for both “constitutive contradictions and productive complicities,” as Kondo warns, cautioning against any straightforward celebration of the discipline and its potential. These reminders are sobering and essential. Then again, if we think to the peculiar qualities of the “Anthroman” (©™®) that Jackson invokes, we also find some unexpected prospects.

For anthropology depends, as he writes, on a “gift of palpable evanescence.” Our learning relies on a certain kind of “vanishing power,” an uncanny ability, frankly disturbing, to be seen and unseen at the same time. The racism of our scholarly heritage depends on such sleight-of-hand, the authority to bring self and other in and out of view. Curiously, however, facility with such techniques also makes possible a more unusual form of understanding, a way to reckon with phantom presences at large in the world, things that are palpable but also elusive, circumstances enlivened and haunted by ghosts, gods, and demons.

The reality of such a world, which is in fact our own, Jackson suggests, can only be grasped through a different kind of vision, a capacity “to see what is otherwise invisible.” Think, for a moment, about all the confounding stories and images from elsewhere that anthropologists have been mobilizing lately, in response to overly generalizing narratives about the current pandemic. I’ve been struck, for example, by the collective practices of village self-rule revived in rural south India as a response to the pandemic, as I recounted in a recent op-ed on stay-at-home orders around the world (Pandian 2020).

These times remind us of the importance of what Kondo (2020) calls “reparative creativity,” critical strategies that acknowledge abiding legacies of violence and exclusion, while also striving to reveal “life-giving ways of being otherwise.” The cross-hatched texture of such conditions is best engaged through creative work in expression, performance, and intervention, as she argues, through techniques that “move people affectively, kinesthetically, politically.” In his lucid introduction to this forum, Andrés Romero rightly asks what it would take to invest such efforts with greater scope and credibility, in the face of disciplinary habits that still privilege peer-reviewed research articles as the most rigorous and essential form of academic work.

Multimodal work is “seriously playful,” as Romero (2020) writes: often playful, yes, but seriously so. At stake in these experiments is a “politics of invention,” as Gabriel Dattatreyan and Isaac Marrero-Guillamón (2019, 220) have noted, tasked with “enacting new relations, new narratives, new possibilities.” Imagine what might begin to happen if this spirit came to the fore in the discipline, as we saw with the energy and creativity manifest in the recent #distribute2020 biennial organized by the Society for Cultural Anthropology and the Society for Visual Anthropology.

Here was an anthropology conference organized as a collaborative cultural production, rather than as a series of dry reports on distant others elsewhere. Teachers and students of anthropology shared the virtual platform with activists, filmmakers, and culture workers from many countries. Many of the most powerful moments in the conference—like the keynote by the Miyarrka Media (2020) collective from Australia—charted lessons inextricable from the sensory and relational matrix in which they took shape. “You can see, you can feel and you can know,” the makers of this video essay say, describing the production as an invitation to participate in an indigenous Yolnu “art of connection.”

“Whether on a boat or through a book, whether caught in the twists of an unfinished sentence or captivated by the charge of a classroom tale,” the tangible force of such encounters matters, I write in A Possible Anthropology, whether felt up close or from afar (Pandian 2019, 74). Multimodal methods and platforms can sharpen this effect, despite the physical distances they often involve. Recently, I recast one section of the book—on the reading practices of Claude Lévi-Strauss, their confounding of the divide between armchair and field—as a video essay, as a montage of written word, visual image, spoken voice, and fragments of music. And lately, like most of us, I’ve been wrestling with how best to teach, from a distance, a discipline so committed to immersion. For we’ve all been taken now to multimodal anthropology, whether inclined this way or not.

Throughout this last academic year at Johns Hopkins University, I taught a service learning course in partnership with a local environmental organization here in Baltimore, Friends of Stony Run. In this course, “Social Ecology,” students developed interpretive materials for the Stony Run stream and parks that run along the edge of the campus. Everything came to a sudden halt with the pandemic and the university closure. Students forged gamely onward with approximations of the community projects they originally had in mind. I was still left with the question of how to teach a class that had taken us, week by week, on field trips throughout the watershed.

I began to take my smartphone with me on foot and by bike and car, connecting with the class via Zoom from rocks beside the stream, local bridges and parks. It was an interesting stopgap, but still a limited and frustrating form of environmental contact. At the same time, the virtual platform, and the fact that most everyone was at home, made other encounters possible. We were joined online during the semester by a teacher, a graphic designer, and a community activist. Students shared their work in a community meeting held online. Nine fifth-graders joined us one afternoon to check out an environmental education protocol that the class was developing. The circumstances, however exasperating, also made room for a more lateral and collaborative classroom practice.

For the last day of class, we read Paradises Lost, a novella by Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the central figures in A Possible Anthropology. The story of a space voyage over many generations to a distant planet, the 2002 novella stands up as an allegory for this moment: people locked away in an aseptic bubble, uneasy about leaving this shell for a strange world to come. A hard spring storm had hit that April day in Baltimore; it was pouring rain, and the stream had turned into a raging torrent. I decided to take the class by video to the point where the channel is buried underground.

All of it—the rushing water, the black mouth of the tunnel, the murkiness of what lay beyond—felt like a powerful semblance of the moment itself, the flood of circumstance that had caught hold of us, the question of where we would find ourselves when we emerged. I spent some time with a tripod on the streambed, imagining, with the class, what it might feel like with the camera thrown into the water, whether we weren’t already there somehow, given the rush of what was happening—

“It’s really dramatic, how areas like this change radically when the rain comes down,” one student later reflected. “We tend to take for granted the still nature of how things are under ‘normal’ circumstances. Now when we look at the stream, it feels more powerful and violent. But really it’s just our perception, and how we come to normalize that which is around us.”

Who can say what the fall semester may bring, let alone the months thereafter. This is, therefore, a time to reconsider what we’ve taken for granted in this discipline, anthropology, but also in the academic institution that sustains it, the university. As Michael Jackson (2020) observes in his contribution to this forum, the hallowed traditions of thought on which this institution is founded represent no more than “one particular human strategy or coping skill for making life viable and bearable.”

As this viability and tolerability of human life remain stubbornly in focus, the basic lessons of anthropology—that “thinking is not the sole property of European philosophers but an inalienable aspect of every human being’s psychic life and everyday existence,” as Jackson puts it—will remain essential. Efforts to keep our field on a viable footing in the years to come will only succeed if the university itself can be bent toward such awareness. More than any other discipline, anthropology insists on the necessity of bridges between classroom learning and the pulse of a wider world: the need for other ways of study and the “alternative modes of world-making” they can enable, as Eli Meyerhoff (2019, 5) suggests.

“A world is somethin’ ain’t never finished,” Zora Neale Hurston (1935, 120) wrote in Mules and Men, thinking with the imaginative resources of her African-American interlocutors and kin in Florida. To tend this insight, and the openings to which it gestures, we will need to cultivate what Juliana Friend calls “an alternative ethical ecology,” nurturing new forms of collective activity and imagination, within and beyond the university. I take heart in her vision for “a university yet to come,” in Gabrielle Cabrera’s commitment to “make anthropology home and the academy habitable,” and in Yana Stainova’s radical challenge: “How can we turn care into a priority of our academic interactions?

Say we took this moment as a chance to imagine and to build a truly lateral anthropology, one that no longer pretended to know the world and its people from on high, or from a distance. Say we committed to thinking and working side-by-side, instead, with the critics, activists, public citizens, and cultural producers who enliven the local worlds we care about? Like, for example, the abolition study list made and circulated by anthropologist Ashanté Reese as a resource for the current #blacklivesmatter protests. Yes, this may happen, for some time, through virtual portals and networks and devices and relays of various kinds. But say we began to do this work anyway. When the driving pressure of this moment begins to ebb, as it will, where might we find ourselves? What kind of anthropology will we have made possible?


Benton, Adia. 2020. “Race, Epidemics, and the Viral Economy of Health Expertise.” The New Humanitarian.

Brodkin, Karen, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson, “Anthropology as White Public Space?American Anthropologist 113, no. 4: 545–56.

Cabrera, Gabrielle. 2020. "In the Meantime." Fieldsights, Visual and New Media Review.

Caduff, Carlo. 2020. “What Went Wrong: Corona and the World after the Full Stop.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly.

Dattatreyan, Ethiraj Gabriel, and Isaac Marrero-Guillamón. 2019. “Introduction: Multimodal Anthropology and the Politics of Invention.” American Anthropologist 121, no. 1: 220–28.

Friend, Juliana. 2020. “Pedagogy at the Picket Line: Vulnerability and the Expanding Collective.” Fieldsights, Visual and New Media Review.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1935. Mules and Men. Philadelphia, Penn.: J. B. Lippincott.

Jackson, John L. 2020. “The Invisible Anthropologist.” Fieldsights, Visual and New Media Review.

Jackson, Michael. 2020. “Rehabilitating the Concept of the Human.” Fieldsights, Visual and New Media Review.

Kondo, Dorinne. 2020. “Imagining (Disciplinarity) Otherwise.” Fieldsights, Visual and New Media Review.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 2002. “Paradises Lost.” In The Birthday of the World and Other Stories. New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins.

Meyerhoff, Eli. 2019. Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Miyarrka Media. 2020. “Making Worlds Otherwise.” Distribute Virtual Conference.

Miyazaki, Hirokazu. 2004. The Method of Hope: Anthropology, Philosophy, and Fijian Knowledge. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Pandian, Anand. 2020. “Staying at Home on Planet Earth.” The Hindu, April 14.

Romero, Andrés. 2020. "Introduction, A Possible Anthropology Forum." Fieldsights, Visual and New Media Review.

Roy, Arundhati. 2020. “The Pandemic is a Portal.Financial Times, April 3.

Rutherford, Danilyn. 2020. “Funding Anthropological Research in the Age of Covid-19.” In “Covid-19 and Student Focused Concerns: Threats and Possibilities,” edited by Veena Das and Naveeda Khan, American Ethnologist website, May 1.

Singh, Julietta. 2018. Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Stainova, Yana. 2020. “On Hope.” Fieldsights, Visual and New Media Review.

William, Bianca C. ed. 2015. "#BlackLivesMatter: Anti-Black Racism, Police Violence, and Resistance." Hot Spots series, Fieldsights, June 29.