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VIDEO DOI: https://doi.org/10.48448/ykg3-xt71


AAA Annual Meeting 2021

November 18, 2021

Baltimore, United States

What Could Go Right: Anthropological Engagements with Optimism





This roundtable seeks to spark ongoing conversation regarding the roles optimism might play in anthropological research and its dissemination. In an era of extensive ecological disruption and social distress, we contemplate the responsibilities of anthropologists who conduct research among individuals seeking to improve the conditions of their lives, communities, and environments. Eschewing outmoded illusions of objectivity and moving beyond reflexive cultural critique, cultural anthropologists increasingly acknowledge their ability•and even their ethical duty•to bring brighter futures to the populations they study and contribute to relevant policy debates (Speed 2006; Bryant and Knight 2019). Engaged, public, and activist interventions have become accepted aspects of anthropological practice. At the same time, the “dark anthropology” that infused our disciplinary training has been joined by an “anthropology of the good” that explores how people conceptualize their own wellbeing and how quests for fulfilment constitute their daily lives (Robbins 2013; Ortner 2016). Eve Tuck’s (2009) call for Indigenous and other marginalized communities to suspend “damage-centered” research and turn instead to forms of knowledge production capable of capturing their desires now resonates far beyond her original audience. So too has anthropology abandoned its formerly steadfast devotion to the past in favor of a new enthusiasm for futurity (Appadurai 2013). As always, turns in anthropology are inseparable from trends in the world at large. We live in an era of multiple, conjoined crises. The horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic served to underscore the larger, longer-term catastrophes of climate change, ecosystemic collapse, and social injustice. Exceedingly few anthropologists feel comfortable observing passively while their research communities face unrelenting waves of un/natural disasters. We need to act. But we also need to hope; as humanity’s collective sense of risk and unpredictability intensifies, the discipline has directed attention to this and other forms of future-making (Kleist and Jansen 2016). Anthropology has long specialized in making alternatives visible, in demonstrating to students and the public that other, better worlds are within our reach. As Margaret Mead observed in 1971, “it is possible that the greatest contribution that anthropology can make is to keep men’s sic imaginations open” (Mead 2005). This assessment of anthropology’s role appears equally profound today. Within the broader engaged social science community, increasing numbers of social scientists and policy makers now maintain that making examples of feasible, attractive, and equitable low-carbon lifestyles visible may be the most promising way to replace outdated behavioral models with more sustainable ones (ISSC/UNESCO 2013). Taking inspiration from our ethnographic practice, anthropology has the capacity to illuminate a tapestry of affirmative global alternatives and, as the field of anticipatory anthropology posits, to imagine desirable futures at the first step toward achieving them (Textor 2005; Collins 2007). In today’s complex theoretical, methodological, and global context, we thus ask: What is the anthropological value of focusing on positive experiences and expectations? How can success stories and optimistic visions be presented in creative and compelling ways? And what are the broader impacts•and ethical entanglements•of anthropological engagements with optimism on the communities we study?


Transcript English (automatic)

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