Engaging the Material: Challenges to Anthropology

International workshop arranged by the Anthropos and the Material project

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo

Anthropology has had a long and checkered engagement with the material - collected as manifestations of cultures in ethnographic museums, treated as the foundation for evolution in the form of technology by Morgan, and used by Engels to rethink kinship and social formations from bands to states. These approaches were again challenged by post-structuralist critiques that treated the material as effects, as more or less empty vessels on which meaning could be inscribed. Now, contemporary approaches claim to return to the material in the form of a non-dichotomous natural-social world, focusing on what the material does in the world, and how it is done differently by different actors. At the same time, scholarly engagements with vitality, sustainability and environmental futures have opened up new debates around politics and the material.


None of these theoretical developments have however simply replaced previous theorizations, leaving us with a mix of diverse and often competing epistemological and ontological groundings for engaging material worlds, as is reflected in how the words materials, materiality and materialism are often used to connote quite distinct meanings and competing engagements.


In this workshop we invite contributions that critically engage anthropology and the material by taking an active stance in contemporary debates on the future of anthropology and the role, if any, materials, materiality or materialism play in that, as well as papers that reflect on past conceptualisations. Papers could address issues such as labour, ritual, domestication, energy, the body, and non-humans or other topics in which anthropology and the material is foregrounded. Examples of issues that could be raised include but are not limited to:


  • What work does the material do in our analyses?
  • What is lost from view or gained when we engage specific forms of the material, materiality, or materialisms?
  • What do analyses of the material do to conceptions of the anthropos and society?
  • How do engagements with the material, materiality or materialism relate to histories of production and representation?


The workshop will be organized around in-depth discussion of pre-circulated papers and the number of places is therefore limited to twelve participants with papers. In addition there is room for a few participants without papers, but everybody will be expected to have read all papers and contribute to the discussion. Professor Anna Tsing and Professor Penny Harvey will take part in the discussion.

Published June 23, 2014 1:36 PM - Last modified June 25, 2014 3:07 PM