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Elemental anthropology: social alchemy in times of extinction 
Laura Roe (University of St Andrews)
Sonja Dobroski (University of Manchester)
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Monday 29 March, -
Time zone: Europe/London

Short Abstract:

This panel meditates upon social life as it is composed through the elements of fire, earth, water and air. We ask how do humans respond to and employ these elements in times of crisis and extinction? We ask how the elements engage with one another in various social worlds to both build and destroy.

Long Abstract:

Returning to the “fourfold roots” of Empedoclean philosophy, later expanded by Aristotle, this panel considers the elements of water, earth, fire and air. The relational character of these elements has long been an object of study in anthropological explorations of human social life, but we find they have new relevance in consideration of the Anthropocene and threats of mass extinction. While fire has been instrumental in maintaining human life, we continually witness unprecedented forest fires that have eradicated both human and respective social life. Humanity has ultimately depended upon these elements for existence, not in isolation but as constituent components of natural and social worlds. This panel asks: how do humans engage with the four elements to challenge, repair, and subvert imagined future extinction, and how might threats to one jeopardise others? How do humans respond to and deploy these elements in both the everyday and the eventful? Responses to and engagement with water, earth, air and fire are generative of imagined futures and potentials; each composed in continual processes of social alchemy. We use the term social alchemy to indicate the human intervention in these forces: a processual and conscious relationship with the crafting and manipulation of the elements to create, imagine, and destroy. The panel engages with the premise of the ontological character of non-human forces and potentials, and holistically examines the imbrication and collision of these elements in contexts of crises and extinction. We welcome papers from a wide variety of regional and ethnographic contexts.

Accepted papers:

Session 1 Monday 29 March, 2021, -