EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Revisiting the culture/nature divide under the conditions of global forces
Location U6-26
Date and Start Time 21 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Hana Horáková (Metropolitan University Prague) email
  • Carole Lemee (Université Bordeaux & UMR 5319) email

Mail All Convenors

Discussant Anke Tonnaer; Catrien Notermans

Short Abstract

This panel seeks to unpack the current dynamics of human-environment relations with the emphasis on cultural understandings of the environment under the ideology and practice of neoliberalism.

Long Abstract

A great fault line separating Culture from Nature as one of the classic logocentric oppositions in Western thought anchored in the legacies of anthropology, has been discussed in a number of works in the last few decades. Though the ethnographic record of the relationships between nature and human societies resists the imposition of a nature/culture dualism and tends to see them as "reciprocally inscribed", the idea of an opposition thrives.

By looking back at one of the key issues in anthropology, this panel seeks to overcome the duality by showing how the elements are shaped differently in different "cultures". The aim is to unpack the current dynamics of human-environment relations under the ideology and practice of neoliberalism.

Since environment is viewed as intrinsically anthropocentric we invite ethnographically-embedded contributions that examine diverse problems of cultural-environmental relationship, with the emphasis on cultural understandings of environment vis-à-vis global forces. The influences of environment on human behaviour are never purely material or "natural" but are always in part cultural since they are mediated by the culturally determined ways in which they are perceived. There are three complementary conceptualizations of the environment: 1. as cultural landscape, 2. as the organization of space, time, meaning and communication, 3. as a system of settings within which systems of activities take place. Hence, the possible topics include the commodification of natural resources and changing livelihoods and consumption patterns; "intersections" between cultural and environmental concerns, including place/space, agency and ecocultural identity/difference; cultural displacement and deterritorialization.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Interiority of nature and exteriority of culture: culture of empire and regimes of identity

Author: Sahar Sadjadi (Amherst College)  email

Short Abstract

This paper argues that in contemporary debates over the origins of identity in the United States, the nature/culture dyad is reconfigured as internal/external. It situates this conception of natural as interior, and thus authentic, within the neoliberal governance of social life and the culture of empire.

Long Abstract

Today, in the Unites States, the cultural appeal of inborn and natural notions of identity, located in biological entities such as the gene and the brain, is palpable. Based on ethnographic research on biomedical approaches to gender and sexual identity, this paper argues that the "gene and brain talk" relies less on the appeal of biological explanations per se but on particular spatialization of the gene and the brain inside the body, and their temporality extending to prior to the social life. When people emphasize the naturalness of gender or sexuality, they are not interested in the role of air and water and trees and bacteria (elements of nature) in shaping them. The nature/culture dyad is reconfigured as internal/external — the natural conceived as internal, stable and thus authentic and the cultural as external, malleable and thus spurious. I situate this inward turn in American culture and the scientific studies of social difference within the neoliberal governance of social life. I draw on the work of historian Dror Wahrman who traces the emergence of the modern Western self as an innate core characterized by interiority, depth and stability, and the role of natural sciences in such a shift, to the socio-cultural developments of the late 18th century and the crisis of British Empire; I propose that the current regime of identity in the U.S., with its retreat into the self, should be analyzed in relation to the conditions of the Empire.

The "virtual heterotopias": reimagining the nature-culture relations

Author: Mihai Burlacu (Transilvania University, Brasov)  email

Short Abstract

In my paper, I focus on the ways in which the nature-culture relations are mirrored, signified and reimagined in 'virtual heterotopias'. I examine them using six principles of Michel Foucault's 'heterotopology' (1967).

Long Abstract

Revisiting the complex dynamics of the culture-nature relations should take into consideration the juxtapositions between multiple spaces, times and meanings that constitute the current understandings of the concept of 'environment'. In the last four decades, as digital technologies were progressively incorporated into the ways in which the influences of the environment are perceived and reimagined, a new type of places appeared: the 'virtual heterotopias'. These places typify contemporary conceptualizations of the environment by simultaneously connecting and differentiating multiple spaces and times. In my paper, I draw upon the theoretical groundwork developed by Michel Foucault (1967) regarding heterotopias, and his 'heterotopology', as an analytical system. Based on a research project in which I approached the 'virtual heterotopias', I focus on the ways in which the nature-culture relations are mirrored, signified and reimagined in virtual worlds (i.e. MMOW). I examine them using six principles of Foucault's 'heterotopology'. Consequently, I argue that the accessibility of the 'virtual heterotopias' built with digital technology entails a form of 'hyper-illusion', in which the digital counterparts of real elements from the environment seem more 'real' and 'compelling' than the originals. The virtual worlds are actually far from Foucault's heterotopia of the mirror. Nevertheless, they can be considered multileveled heterotopias, because they render various representations of the environment into a multi-faceted 'reality'. I conclude that the new ways in which 'virtual heterotopias' are built in order to represent and/or reimagine multiple dimensions of the environment contribute to redefine heterotopias' epistemological and anthropological relevance.

Examining the circulation of nature-cultures in Japanese NGOs

Author: Catherine (Annie) Claus (American University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines intersections and conflicts among international conservation non-governmental organization (NGO) staff members, illustrating how EuroAmerican nature ideals are upheld by staff members in Japan in spite of the prevalence of different nature ideals there.

Long Abstract

Staff members of international conservation organizations comprise "epistemic communities" that constantly exchange information about the status, approaches and progress of their conservation programs. Their ability to recognize diverse natures and communicate about them across cultural boundaries makes them agents of social change. Based on 18 months of fieldwork in a Japanese branch of an international conservation organization, this presentation analyzes various ways these epistemic communities fracture unexpectedly across scales and geographies. I analyze Japanese discourses of exceptionalism with respect to nature, and describe the kinds of conservation interventions that conservationists argue emerge from and are appropriate to protecting and managing these "Asian" natures. International organizations like WWF are embroiled in diverse types of work, some tied to wilderness ideals and some not. I illustrate how Japanese staff members of the NGO police the boundaries of dominant EuroAmerican nature ideals, failing to circulate their own nature ideals around the international network. Those entrenched ideals will pose increasing challenges for environmentalism in the Anthropocene.

Reconnection: the Tahitian case

Author: Małgorzata Owczarska  email

Short Abstract

The paper will present a Tahitian concept of "nati” – a knot of multidimensional relations bounding humans, non-humans, and space-time. By abandoning western nature/culture division, the island’s activists reconnect to their identity ("iho tumu") and face the global ecological destabilization.

Long Abstract

Drawing form the Tahitian intellectual legacy (D.Ra'apoto, H.Hiro), and indigenous activism that is both cultural and environmental, I will present the notion of "nati" (tah. knot) a knot of multidimensional relations. Over 200 years of colonialism culminating in the nuclear trials brought rapid socio-economical changes to the French Polynesia. This last event introduced subsidized, cash economy and consumptionism. It resulted in a postcolonial identity crisis. Simultaneously, current destabilization of climate strongly influences the fragile ecosystems of the Pacific islands. Indigenous activists join efforts to address these problems, which are actually one phenomenon. The islanders define it as disconnection from the land, the sea, and the ways of ancestors. Therefore not only do they care for their surroundings, or reach out for green technologies, but also they reconnect to the ancestors, the pre-colonial ontologies, and reclaim the modes of inhabiting the island and the sea. This has been given strong conceptual, symbolical and ethical frames like: "aroha" (mutual caring); "fa'afaite" (reconciliation); "nati ra'a" (bounding of people [living and not], time, spaces, non-humans, stability and mobility). To illustrate it I will mention the examples of modern use of traditional navigation and pre-Christian temple "marae". This paper aims to show conceptualization of human and non-human relations emerging from the field work. It gives methodological tool to describe the story of the people who live in the postcolonial and global reality, and try to overcome the crises enrooted in it. Can the Polynesian case be an inspiration for the Rest?

Lapis Specularis mines: when the history breaks into nature

Author: Andrea Benassi (Simbdea Società Italiana museografia e i beni demoetnoantropologici)  email

Short Abstract

The gypsum's Park is created for preserve the landscape from contemporaney mining extraction. This create a different perception between original landscape and a mining one. What happen when an archeological discovery transform the natural landscape in an ancient mining district of Roman Empire?

Long Abstract

This paper starts from an ethnographic fieldwork done in an Italian Natural Park: The Romagna's gypsum mountain park. A place where geology and rocks have a special identity and heritage status. With the creation of the Park, the gypsum as a rock becomes a valuable geological landscape in itself: a perception and vision that coexist with a large quarry of the same mineral; a presence able to generate an antithetical mining's landscape. In this perspective there is a dialectical conflict between different actors. Farmers, politicians, environmentalists, cavers, tour operators and government officials are competitors in imagining the true nature of gypsum and drawing up a moral code. The anthropological fieldwork has led to an unexpected archeological discovery that give a new temporal dimension about landscape and mining activity. Places thought as pristine Nature, have changed their status becoming archaeological sites of an intensive pre-industrial and long-time mining activity by the Roman Empire. The entire territory of the park appears today as the ancient site of extraction of a particular kind of transparent gypsum, called by the ancient romans Lapis Specularis. A rare and precious material used in place of glass in the windows of all imperial luxury houses. This ancient trans-mediterranean trade shifts in the deep time the mining vocation of the area and totally changes the perception of natural and un-natural geoscape. The Lapis Specularis, from geological object becomes historical actor, able to link different times and have agency in the contemporary human relationship and policies with the landscape.

Crafted natures: an urban beach seen by its fishers

Author: Francisco Maya-Rodriguez (Pablo de Olavide University)  email

Short Abstract

This presentation draws from the results of an ongoing doctoral thesis on an urban beach, analyzing local fishers’ environmental perceptions and concept of nature in order to understand the ways they develop discourses to legitimate their activity and roles in the urban coastscape.

Long Abstract

Today, many european cities are still struggling to reinvent their development model in response to the effects of deindustrialization. It is in this context that nature, landscape and heritage are gaining more and more importance within leisure and tourism based urban models. This is the case of Cadiz, a small city in southern Spain where La Caleta, a beach located at city's downtown, has become one of the main touristic icons of the city. Due to its particular location, history and morphology, this small beach boasts a vast diversity of ichthyofauna, being also an important local heritage site which, alongside, functions customarily as one of the city's most emblematic, active and dynamic open public spaces.

Drawing from the fieldwork results of an ongoing phD thesis, this presentation analyzes local fishers' environmental perceptions of the beach and their notion of nature in order to understand the ways they develop discourses to legitimate their activities and roles in the urban coastscape. By doing so, I show how this perceptions are percolated by urban conflicts derived from the adaptation process taken by the city to transit from an industrial to a tourism based development model.

In search of a "better" way of life in the Swiss Alps

Authors: Viviane Cretton Mballow (University of applied sciences and arts, Western Switzerland)  email
Andrea Boscoboinik (University of Fribourg)  email

Short Abstract

This contribution is based on an ethnography done in Valais in the Swiss Alps since 2011. It will point at the relationships between new lifestyle migrants in search of a « better quality of life » and the « natural » alpine environment they have chosen to live in.

Long Abstract

As a recent phenomenon of international concern, amenity or lifestyle migration is also globally widespread in the mountains and particularly in the Alps (French, Italian and

Swiss). For 2 decades, individuals and families are attracted by living conditions they consider to be superior to urban conditions. Based on data collected in Valais in the Swiss Alps since 2011, this contribution will point at the relationships between new amenity migrants or lifestyle migrants in search of a « better » quality of life and the « natural » environment they have chosen to live in.

These types of migrants are not forced to migrate. They usually are native from rich countries like the USA, France, UK, and they are mostly wealthy.

In search of living conditions they consider not finding in their country, these new migrants depict their « better quality of life » as the result of living in the mountains, close to the nature and in a safer, healthier and relax environment.

Ideology and representations that frame the alpine world, - like the idea of an egalitarian society that lives out of time and in full harmony with nature, - has been questioned by regional ethnology in Switzerland since the seventies. This paper will point at the current underlying ideology behind such urban and upper classes conceptions of the « nature » that is worldwide widespread and specifically embedded in the Swiss Alps.

When nature outpaces culture: ecological identities in disastrous North Bihar, India

Author: Luisa Cortesi (Yale University)  email

Short Abstract

Problematized with a multiplicity of ecologies, the synchronic polarization between nature and culture and its implications on identity illuminates how people in North Bihar, India, know their environment and their disasters vis-à-vis global technologies and the neoliberal state.

Long Abstract

In the floodplains of North Bihar, flood-control measures have, instead of curtailing, multiplied and worsened the types of floods that occur in the area. At the same time, they have restructured the landscape in two different geographical spaces associated with two reciprocally constructed socio-cultural groups. Juxtaposing ethnographically-grounded narrations of place and space as well as of disaster, this paper reveals how local inhabitants interpret their cultural, political, environmental, and epistemological tension through the dichotomy between nature and culture.

Aware of the critique of structural, static, and logocentric dichotomies, the argumentation does not abide to a simplistic polarity, but qualifies it through a multiplicity of nuanced ecologies, and their dynamic spatio-temporal alignments and misalignments. Yet, the structural polarization of these multiple eco-cultural spaces becomes all the more significant through the analysis of local ways of coping with the changing pattern of disastrous inundations, the central policies and capillary powers of the neoliberal state, as well as global technologies of environmental management and their embedded knowledges.

Taking seriously these local categories also illuminates how people build, contest and perform their identity in the nature/culture opposition, and vis-a-vis disaster. This is particularly salient when, validating the agency of nature, the assumed synchrony between nature and culture is overturned. The paper concludes by pinpointing the limits of political ecology when severed from both the epistemological intricacies and the cultural tensions of a disastrous landscape.

Creating a balance: how Bedouin villagers in Dubai respond to challenges of urban expansion

Author: Anne Kathrine Larsen (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)  email

Short Abstract

The Bedouin villagers on the outskirts of Dubai have clear notions of desert versus build-up areas. Still they transcend the borders between them in creative ways which question the nature/culture dichotomy. New challenges emerge as recreational projects are developed in the village surroundings.

Long Abstract

This presentation will focus on how Bedouin villagers in Dubai relate to their surroundings. When they decided to settle four decades ago, they opted for a location in the desert rather than on the outskirts of the city, but still close enough to reach it within half an hour by car. In this way they sought the best of two worlds, the city with job opportunities, various services and entertainments, and the desert which they truly cherish and where they keep livestock on nearby farms tended to by immigrant workers.

The borders between the built-up area and the desert are changeable, but may also be transcended. The villagers build their houses so as to shield the family from outside view. They have moreover arranged desert sand along the sidewalks and inside compounds for decoration and as seating pads, often in conjunction with a tent or tent-like structures. These are areas where women meet. A favourite pastime is to travel to the nearby desert - usually near the farms - for barbeque or camping, and the health conscious women readily point out the sand's healing properties. Young men will go further into the desert for motor sports, hunting etc.

The built-up area, however, gradually expands towards the village, and various public recreation projects are developed in the vicinity. This alters the surroundings and further challenges the villagers' perception and use of the environment. It is questioned whether the nature/culture dichotomy may be deceptive in the understanding of their creative interaction with the desert.

Land Art as a means to negotiate the culture/nature divide in the desert of the UAE

Author: Melanie Janet Sindelar (University of Vienna)  email

Short Abstract

This paper looks at the practice of land art within the UAE as a means to negotiate the nature/culture divide in the context of neoliberal acceleration policies.

Long Abstract

"This paper investigates the mediation of cultural-environmental relationships through art production in the United Arab Emirates. Since the discovery of oil, the UAE has become the prototype for neoliberal success. This success transformed the natural coastline into concrete ports and palm-islands. It seems that the “backwater” of the UAE is not the sea, but the desert beyond the cities, remembering us of Baudrillard’s “America” (1988). He insisted that American culture is “heir to deserts”, but deserts are not “part of a Nature defined by the contrast with the town”. These deserts, where human-natural relationships are negotiated under extreme conditions, have received increased attention from Land Artists. Land Art is an intervention transforming land into art, leaving signs of culture visible for nature to look on. But such interventions work both ways, nature is not only a “passive recipient of human agency”, as Gingrich (2014) reminds us. How come Land Art is practised in a place like the UAE? Why are most of its practitioners Emirati? Three-quarters of the UAE’s population do not hold UAE citizenship - and the booming local art scene is reminiscent of that. This paper will contribute to the culture/nature discussion by arguing that such oppositions still matter to anthropology insofar as their real-world implications effect the phenomena we study, and that the debate can be enriched by a focus on new ethnographic examples, as these may inform a “Third Space” (Bhabha 1994) that moves beyond dichotomies. The paper is based on fieldwork in the UAE in 2015 & 2016. "

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.