Accepted paper:

The very large and the very small: perspectives from animism and astrophysics


Istvan Praet (University of Roehampton)

Paper short abstract:

This study compares how Chachi Indians of NW Ecuador and astrophysicists based at the European Southern Observatory in Munich conceive of phenomena beyond the human scale. It emerges that the persistent idea that one scale can be more fundamental than any other is rather peculiar.

Paper long abstract:

This paper compares animistic and scientific ways of conceiving phenomena that unfold at different scales. First I examine how Chachi Indians of NW Ecuador envisage different magnitudes of misfortune: everyday anxieties and more exceptional catastrophes. Victims of fearful encounters with ghosts are treated with minimal effort (uttering a short spell suffices) but occasional earthquakes or floods are followed by much more elaborate rituals. Yet, the degree of elaboration is never understood in terms of varying complexity. Ordinary instances of fear are - so to speak - miniature catastrophes while 'big' catastrophes are merely enlarged versions of 'small' fears. This implicit refusal to distinguish between the simple and the complex is a key feature of animism; no scale is more fundamental than any other in this context. However, the belief that it is possible to make such a distinction pervades contemporary science. For example, there is a broad but curiously unquestioned consensus that the quantum world is more fundamental (and hence ultimately simpler) than everything that takes place on, say, the human scale or the galactic scale. By means of an ethnographic study of astrophysicists at the European Southern Observatory in Munich, I examine that deep-rooted assumption. More specifically, I focus on their usage of the Very Large Telescope, an advanced, ground-based optical instrument located in the Atacama Desert (Chile). A central question is: in how far is their way of dealing with immensely large astronomical phenomena imperceptible with the naked eye different from animistic techniques of dealing with the invisible?

panel W083
Social interaction, shifting scales of analysis and anthropological theory. Interaction sociale, jeux d'échelles analytiques et théorie anthropologique. atelier bilingue / bilingual workshop