EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Possible/plausible/probable/preferable: concepts and techniques for realising futures [FAN]
Location U6-1D
Date and Start Time 20 July, 2016 at 14:30
Sessions 2


  • Simone Abram (Durham University) email
  • Magdalena Kazubowski-Houston (York University ) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

The FAN panel explores how anthropology might conceptualize, study, and intervene in futures as modes of world making. It engages with ethnography as a means of interrogating the possible, the mundane, and the speculative, asking what/how cross-disciplinary ethnographic approaches might be crafted.

Long Abstract

EASA FAN's manifesto describes the network as 'stubbornly transdisciplinary and transnational', 'building on traditions and reflecting on pasts'. Responding to the EASA 2016 conference theme "Anthropological Legacies and Human Futures," the FAN panel explores how anthropology might conceptualize, study, and intervene in futures as modes of world making. It specifically engages with ethnography as a means of interrogating the possible, the mundane, and the speculative. It seeks to initiate a conversation on what/how cross-disciplinary ethnographic approaches might be crafted that both account for the future and envision interventionist and anticipatory anthropology. The panel invites papers with a critical disposition to anthropology's historical underpinnings, a focus on lived experience as well as imaginaries, and a cross-disciplinary appreciation of ethnography, who are neither possessive nor defensive about anthropology's methods and ideas. The panel asks: What can we learn from how others use ethnography to investigate the future? What can the anthropological attention to the mundane and the experience-rich offer other disciplinary approaches? What would intervening into futures entail both conceptually and ethnographically? In particular, the panel considers ethnographic border crossings as techniques for researching futures, including visual, auditory, performative, embodied, sensory, and literary experimentation within and outside of anthropology. Themes may (but need not) consider futures as world making, frail futures, future anthropocene, the technical sublime, fiction-archaeology, creation of desire, financial and commercial imaginaries, unsettling ethics, prototyping or scenarios, and future activisms.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Sustainability/maintenance/endurance: progressive alternatives for future-making in the post-industrial era?

Author: Felix Ringel (Durham University)  email

Short Abstract

Different times evoke different relations to the future. Most recent additions look discouragingly conservative: sustaining, maintaining, enduring describe processes that look like preventing change rather than provoking it. But what if they created an otherwise that looks radically like the present?

Long Abstract

During neo-liberal times, new tropes for imagining the future have emerged. At first sight, they look discouragingly conservative: sustaining, maintaining, enduring all describe processes that look like they are aimed at preventing change rather than provoking it. However, should we not also take those conserving practices into account as radically progressive alternatives for imagining the future in times of post-industrial shrinkage and decline? If so, what kind of futures do they help us and our informants to envision? And do these futures necessarily have to be 'otherwise' - and otherwise with regards to what: the state of the present or the doomed, dystopian expectations of worse futures? Based on material from Germany's poorest city, a prototype post-industrial city, I explore my informant's seemingly meager and disappointing attempts of stabilizing their present. Hit by a series of post-industrial crises since the mid-1970s, the citizens and officials of this North German habour city have over the last decade tried to build up a fully sustainable economy, and to become a Climate City. This transformation has been stagnant over the last five years. Recently finished economic, ecological and social infrastructures already turn out to be less sustainable than expected, requiring yet further investments. Recent tourist attractions already face closure due to dwindling visitor number. Has the future-city-making failed? Against which other potential past and present futures can we assess this maintained effort of urban revitalisation? And does our current analytic toolkit suffice for that?

The promise as a way of engaging ethnographically with probable urban futures

Author: Alexa Färber (University of Vienna)  email

Short Abstract

The promise is a performative gesture that allows to engage with ethnography’s futurity. I will question the techniques of the “elusive promise” of urban planning (Abram/Weskalnys 2013) and analyse effect of synchronising ethnographic research with the temporality of urban development’s promise.

Long Abstract

The promise is a performative gesture that contains empirical and conceptual aspects to engage with ethnography's futurity. Its particular temporal structure - relating an actual articulation to a probable future - relates to the question of the FAN-panel: How does ethnography interrogate the possible/probable - and thereby realise futures?

1. Unfolding the overlapping promises that are inscribed into an urban development site, I propose to analyse how the probable is articulated through the cultural form of the promise as a mode of futurity. The HafenCity Hamburg, Europe's largest urban development area, contains the promise of implementing urban life into the area of the former dockland area: work and dwelling shall intertwine, touristic infrastructures shall become local attractions while public and private universities would contribute to the liveliness of the not yet fully realised neighbourhood. Despite these promises are coming true, HafenCity is widely perceived as an office district, an empty and exclusive public space without any urban atmosphere.

I will question the techniques of this typically "elusive promise" of urban planning (Abram/Weskalnys 2013) from different angles based on an experimental photo-ethnographic workshop held in 2014, a commissioned ethnographic study for the development agency in 2015 and a follow-up study that has just been commissioned.

2. I will point out the conditions for ethnography to engage with these probable futures of (this part of) the city in analysing the expectations attributed to ethnography in this context. I will further analyse the effect of synchronising ethnographic research with the temporal structure of urban development's promise.

Exploring sustainability the dirt-way: collaborative confusion among Future Makers

Authors: Eeva Berglund (Aalto University)  email
Cindy Kohtala (Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture)  email

Short Abstract

Though dominant views increasingly reduce research activity to numbers and formulae, there can be no formula for making better or more sustainable futures. We draw on our ethnographic engagements with activists to argue for the virtues of learning in collaborative confusion - the 'dirt way'.

Long Abstract

Maker culture (grassroots digital fabrication) communities and others who self-consciously design more sustainable futures are increasingly the subject of research. In studying such citizen-led 'DIY' practices, however, it is often unclear what has been learned, and implications for socio-environmental sustainability may be difficult to articulate.

To borrow from educationalist Rogers Hall, learning and world-making here progress in a 'dirt-way'. The metaphor conveys the ad hoc, dialogic, embodied and experimental way small-scale activist projects try to define and reach sustainability-supporting objectives.

We look at the dynamics of ethnographic research in this context and suggest that it maintains its usefulness as a method that is tolerant of such messy situations, but also tolerant of the way a researcher intervenes in these. As she seeks to make sense of activists' change making efforts, the ethnographer's task is partly to participate in local confusion - over values and the definitions of sustainability, but also about what constitutes useful knowledge and for whom. Here ethnographic engagement involves productive dialogue that builds on an insider-outsider role for the researcher, in our case as design researcher and freelance anthropologist.

The simultaneously overlapping but divergent questions of ethnographic researchers and activists may foster confusion but the collaborative nature of the process also provokes sharper reflection as it travels across 'fields'. Quite possibly such ethnographic work will help make the experiences of future makers count in the politics of sustainability, despite dominant views that tend to reduce research activity to numeric indicators and formulae.

The art of left and right: between contingency and necessity

Author: Andrew Irving (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores how small actions, such as turning right or left, can have radical consequences for the future. In doing so it considers how the uncertainties of life are negotiated, understood and acted upon in a world shaped by power but rooted in happenstance, action, contingency and necessity.

Long Abstract

"One of the most significant facts about us" declared Clifford Geertz "is that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end up in the end having only lived one" (1973:45). This suggests how human existence is based in a kind of double contingency, encompassing both chance and necessity, for example in the form of random encounters, luck and happenstance—but also the circumstances of one's land of birth, nationality, ethnicity and economic status—all of which are played out and understood in terms of forces such as fate, destiny, divine providence, world events and the machinations of the global-political economy. This paper explores how small actions, such as turning right or left, can have radical consequences for the future, in order to consider how the uncertainties of life are negotiated, understood and acted upon—including how people come to terms with the relationship between the life they could have lived and the one they ended up living -in a world shaped by power but rooted in action, contingency and necessity.

On de-metropolization and mutable futures in smart thing's design

Authors: Debora Lanzeni (RMIT)  email
Elisenda Ardèvol (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya)  email

Short Abstract

Future as a lived category should not be pre-configured before to embrace the fieldwork. Rather, research on future and design is an opportunity to re-think how concepts are being transferred from theory and sociological common sense to ethnographic fieldwork and anthropological analysis.

Long Abstract

"Future arrives sooner here", Suchman listened at the radio while driving to her Palo Alto research institute (2011). In our societies future is usually connected to technology development and to the arrow of progress. Research Institutes "live in the future" because they are developing the technology that will become sooner or later part of our daily life. In this paper we want to question this assumption by de-metropolizating the concept of future at the light of our ethnographic experience among smart thing's designers. It implies two different analytical movements: First, to recall that, anthropologically speaking, there is no singular, universal future, nor it can be explained by different representations of the same reality, but that what future is must be actively worked out in each concrete fieldwork context (Hodges, 2014).

Second, to avoid to conceive future in relation to the metropolis - at the centre of "design industry" - evacuating it from the periphery of the ordinary life. That means to outcast future from its space-time relationships to recast it as in the place of action and the ongoing making of ordinary people-designers, engineers, anthropologists, makers, CEOs and managers, etc. Then, future is not out from the world we inhabit, future is not always arriving, and we are not going right "there". Rather, future is a tool to make things, and its texture is mutability, as Nielsen (2008) taught us in the case of the Maputo's house builders as we will explain here, in the case of smart technology developers.

Scratching surfaces: a quest for new creative anthropological approaches in exploring and representing existential possibilities of migration and movement

Author: Alexandra D'Onofrio (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

How do unexperienced existential possibilities relate to our past, our present and our future? How can anthropologists have access to these imaginary realms? This presentation aims to reflect on these questions by exploring creative practices such as storytelling, documentary film and animation.

Long Abstract

My paper is a methodological investigation into people's interior and imaginative worlds, as they form part of the stories that they construct to narrate their lived experiences of migration. One of my main theoretical standpoints consists in arguing that if we are to understand human experience, as anthropologists, we need to find ways to investigate other realms of being, which go beyond the visible, the factual and the verbal. Throughout my fieldwork in Milan with three Egyptian migrants and many years of working with people traveling without documents, I have realised that when recounting their own stories my informants have often made reference to perceptions that fell out of the linear structure of a coherent narrative, and went beyond a predictable temporal succession of events. The main methods I based my analysis on varied from creative storytelling practices, to filmmaking and animation.

For this presentation I would like to share some examples from our practice, and parts of the stories that can help us rethink ordinary ethnographic practices and representations in order to create space for what in people's experiences lies within an imagined possibility, constantly fluid and often beyond our grasp.

Agency and dramatic storytelling: roving through pasts, presents and futures

Author: Magdalena Kazubowski-Houston (York University )  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines dramatic storytelling as an affective ethnographic research methodology for researching and knowing how futures are lived, imagined, and acted upon in everyday life. It also considers how dramatic storytelling might help to re-envision an interventionist anthropology of futures.

Long Abstract

This paper examines dramatic storytelling as an embodied and affective ethnographic methodology for researching, knowing, and theorizing how futures are lived, imagined, produced, and acted upon in everyday life. Drawing on the emergent interest in the imaginative, experiential, affective, and embodied realms of everyday experience; and recent ethnographic experiments situated at the intersections of imagination, performance-centered research, and storytelling, I consider how dramatic storytelling might foster agentic practices of reimagining and transforming futures and, ultimately, help to re-envision a collaborative, reflexive, and engaged interventionist anthropology of futures. At the centre of this discussion is my research project that employed dramatic storytelling as a form of ethnography to study the impact of post-EU accession migrations on the lives of Poland's non-migrant elderly Roma women. The quality of life for Polish Romani minorities has deteriorated in recent years due to prevailing prejudices, economic crises and resurgent nationalisms. Consequently, many Roma have migrated to the west since Poland's entry into the European Union in 2004. This has left many of Poland's Romani communities populated primarily by elders, unable to travel abroad due to advanced age and poor health. This paper explores how the dramatic storytelling sessions mobilized affective agency by facilitating a space wherein the Roma women imagined, constructed, and intervened in their futures.

World-making with smartphones, unsettling ethics, and utopian directions

Author: Karen Waltorp (Aarhus University)  email

Short Abstract

With an on-set in fieldwork and filmmaking among young Muslim women in Copenhagen, I argue that the smartphone as a fieldwork device affords a window onto the multiple futures at play in negotiations across the digital and physical dimensions.

Long Abstract

With an on-set in fieldwork and filmmaking among young Muslim women in Copenhagen, I argue that the smartphone as a fieldwork device affords a window onto the multiple futures at play in negotiations across the digital and physical dimensions. I discuss how these fieldwork devices have become means of interrogating the (im)possible, the mundane, and the speculative in its emergent forms, and often manifested in glimpses: Interaction with interlocutors through the Snapchat platform - a photo and video messaging application for mobile devices where the content ceases to exist after 10 seconds - is one example of such ephemeral glimpses of futures being built, anticipated and altered.

My research areas are entwined with political debates about integration, gender roles, and democracy in the Danish context, which I share with my interlocutors. In terms of future-orientation, ethics seem unsettling, and the stakes are high: How to research and write in a climate where it seems everything you write about your interlocutors can and will be used against them? I use the figure of "utopian world-making" in discussing a future-oriented anthropological practice where conceptualization, study, and intervention in futures are inextricably entwined: an ideal non-existing practice worth striving for, even if it can never be (found).

Within the reach of the imagination: mundane technological futures

Author: Sarah Pink (Monash University )  email

Short Abstract

In this paper I examine the implications of accounting for how mundane technological futures are imagined in everyday life contexts.

Long Abstract

In this paper I examine the implications of accounting for how mundane technological futures are imagined in everyday life contexts. Drawing from recent video ethnographies about washing machines in Indonesia and self-tracking technologies in Australia I show how mundane ways of anticipating or imagining that which has not yet occurred but might be possible, are embedded in everyday life.

I argue that by accounting for these ethnographically we are able to gain deeper understandings of where the future resides in the moments through which the present is lived out. As such this offers ways to think about how mundane futures are imagined and constituted as part of processual and emergent everyday environments.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.