Accepted Paper:

Culture trouble  


Alice Elliot (Goldsmiths, University of London)

Paper short abstract:

Tracing how archetypical anthropological notions such as “culture” and “ethnography” play key roles in contemporary discussions about “Islamic State,” I reflect on what happens when “the public” hijacks anthropology’s conceptual tools.

Paper long abstract:

How can anthropologists engage with the public when a "public event" such as "Islamic State" explodes on the scene? What happens when concepts considered anthropology's speciality (e.g., culture) and methodologies imagined as the discipline's trademark (e.g., ethnography of everyday life) suddenly become of public domain - debated and implemented by and through unexpected parties, institutions, agendas? In this paper I trace how archetypical anthropological keywords such as "culture" and "ethnography" are playing a key role in mainstream discussions about "Islamic State," and reflect on the theoretical and political "immobilising shock" resulting from a sense of having one's conceptual tools hijacked by "the public." Drawing comparatively on now classic anthropological discussions of post-9/11 "culture talk" (Mamdani), as well as discussions of the "public afterlife" (Fassin) of anthropological research, I attend to how (what anthropologists consider) anthropological concepts and methods are increasingly mobilised by terrorism experts and heads of state, political journalists and non-academic actors. In particular, I trace the peculiar inverse trajectories of "the public" and "anthropology" when a composite event like "Islamic State" emerges, with the former progressively moving toward "culture" as explanatory framework, just as the latter carefully moves away from it. Reflecting on what this disciplinary impasse reveals about the anthropological project, I draw on my research on North African migrations and trace how my interlocutors themselves discuss such troubled times often in terms other than "culture" and "religion," effectively opening alternative ways of imagining the very trajectory of anthropological (public) thinking.

Panel Plenary C
Early Career Scholars Forum: anthropology in interdisciplinary settings