Introduction: Disability as Rupture

From the Series: Disability as Rupture

Close-up photograph of a piece of knitting. The photograph focuses on unraveling red loops of yarn poking out of black fabric. Different patterns of red, green, and black knitting appear in the foreground and background of the photograph.
Image by Rebecca-Eli Long.

In this Theorizing the Contemporary collection, we invite anthropologists to engage disability and to consider its ongoing presence in the discipline. In so doing, we adopt an expansive approach to disability and include its proximities—from personal disability experiences to the experiences of the disabilities of loved ones, research participants, and strangers. This inclusiveness allows us to ask: What happens when we permit disability to be present in these ways to create frictions in anthropological methods, fieldsites, writing, and relations more broadly?

We foreground the notion of rupture because it allows us to surface how disability appears and disappears in anthropological work and the discipline at large (Ginsburg and Rapp 2020); it enables us to explore disability’s ambivalent register in anthropology. This collection also considers how the refusal of disability—the refusal to engage with the concept while embracing norms that make the lived experience of disability as a scholar difficult or impossible—maintains ableist and exclusionary ideas about the human, society, and ethnographic methods (Durban 2022).

The collection’s authors demonstrate how disability-as-rupture offers a generative way of conceptualizing the ordinary and taken for granted tools of ethnography, including working with human subjects review boards, conducting participant-observation, attending to research participants’ “voices,” entering into and accessing fieldsites, and engaging technologies of presence. Disability-as-rupture moves beyond locating disability in specific bodies to understand disability (and ability) as produced in and through interactions of people, contexts, and institutions and the power relations they crystallize. If disability is often implicitly understood to be a form of lack (Kafer 2013), where disabled people lack full access to and exist on the borders of shared worlds, disability-as-rupture flips the script and demonstrates how disability serves as a foil to rupture everyday expectations of bodies and their capacities. At the same time, disability-as-rupture asks us to think critically about who and what is ruptured. Rupture is a source of creativity, and it can be accompanied by new kinds of ethical responsibilities. Rupture opens possibilities for repair.

As a mechanism to point toward emergent and normative expectations about bodies, environments, and interactions, rupture serves as a dual method. Disability-as-rupture is the lived experience of individuals who rupture social norms and disciplinary expectations through their disabilities. It is also a means to situate the category of disability at the center of research designs, methodological toolkits, and institutions, attuning ethnographic attention to sites where ruptures occur. In this sense, ruptures are an ethnomethodology (Garfinkel 1984) enacted by and in relation to normative expectations. Such ruptures in the fabric of the everyday can be purposeful, serving as sites of praxis that call normative assumptions into question (Garland Thomson 1996); they can also be accidental, as individuals encounter embedded norms that become apparent only through unanticipated interactions between disabled bodies and the world they inhabit (Davis 2002).

Essays in this collection call into question “normal” research practices (see, especially, Fernandes and Rogers). In each case, authors accept that disability ruptures research plans, expectations, and norms, but by situating the rupture as the basis of their work, demonstrate how such ruptures offer critiques of embedded forms of ableism in ethnographic practice and the discipline of anthropology. In the moments that disability ruptures expectations and norms it offers a window into how the social fabric of everyday life has been woven to exclude disabled people and marginalize their networks of care; such ruptures also provide a demonstration of what produces disability in a specific context.

Put otherwise, this collection directs attention to disability’s potentialities. Disability has an inherently experimental quality: as disabled people interact in new situations, they find the norms inherent in social forms and sociotechnical environments revealed through the exposure provided by the idiosyncratic needs of a specific disabled body or a disabled group (Mullins). The collected authors show how engaging with disability becomes an experiment for the ethnographer and their research communities, creating moments of surprise (see Geurts and Komabu-Pomeyie, Jones, and Ma on this topic). The essays demonstrate how long-held norms are ruptured through engaging the capacities of disabled people at the center of an ethnographer’s practice.

Because the infrastructures of everyday life are often predicated on “normal” bodies and their capacities, when disabled bodies interact with those infrastructures, the friction that results exposes the underlying norms that guide social life. In this way, disability is always rupturing; the lived experience of disabled people serves as an immanent critique of ableism in society even as “access” has become a key heuristic in conceptualizing the confrontations between disabled bodies and their sociotechnical environments (Hamraie 2017). Contributors consider how the rupture of access creates new conditions of possibility and helps to reconfigure what the anthropological project might be and how it could be enacted otherwise (see especially Friedner and Moodie). New ethnographic methods rupture disciplinary norms by creating novel conventions and genres and objects and subjects of inquiry.

Disability-as-rupture also surfaces questions about—and ideologies of—capacity, particularly in relation to communication and ideologies about the duality of minds and bodies and boundaries between humans and non-humans (Dokumaci, Long and Quinn, Malcolm, and Wolf-Meyer). The authors think critically about the diversity of concepts that anthropologists employ to analyze so-called challenging persons, situations, and engagements and in so doing they rupture concepts that might appear expansive but lead to analytic impasses. Across all contributions, “normal” capacities are challenged as the basis for personhood, subjectivity, and interaction, and disability-based perspectives critically open up possibilities for retheorizing each of these anthropological concerns.

Accepting the ruptures that disability experiences entail has the potential to reconfigure the anthropological project in more inclusive ways—and to reconfigure our practices as ethnographers. A focus on disability and its potentials opens up anthropology to more capacious ways of theorizing personhood and subjectivity; “intrinsic” and “natural” human capacities; and thorny social problems like the role of the state in social life, everyday infrastructures of exclusion, and the possibilities of knowing and communicating across difference. Disability is central to contemporary anthropology.


Davis, Lennard. 2002. Bending Over Backwards: Essays on Disability and the Body. New York: New York University Press.

Durban, Erin L. 2022. “Anthropology and Ableism.American Anthropologist 124, no. 1: 8–20.

Garfinkel, Harold. 1984. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.

Garland Thomson, Rosemarie. 1996. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ginsburg, Faye, and Rayna Rapp. 2020. “Disability/Anthropology: Rethinking the Parameters of the Human.Current Anthropology 61, S21: S4–15.

Hamraie, Aimi. 2017. Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kafer, Alison. 2013. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.