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Conference Reflections: European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) 17th Biennial Conference: Transformation, Hope and the Commons

Posted by C3W Admin on August 25 2022

Sarah Howard

After years of seeing only heads and shoulders on screen at academic events, it was great to attend the EASA conference in person in July in Belfast. As well as the two panels I will discuss in more detail below, panels on street level bureaucrats, on the governance of labour and on post-socialism and the post-social provided particular food for thought for the Connecting Three Worlds project and for my in-progress monograph about labour, aspiration and the low level state in rural Ethiopia. To mention just two papers: Yonas Tesema Amaya was very interesting on the shifting and gendered dynamics of industrial and agrarian labour in Ethiopia, while Borbála Kovács provided an excellent overview of discussions about social trust and varying levels of agency and autonomy among bureaucrats. It was also a delight to catch up with old friends – Goldsmiths Anthropology alumni were well-represented – and to meet new people, including a number of colleagues whose research concerns Ethiopia.

Poster displayed in the Ulster Museum’s ‘The Troubles and Beyond’ Gallery






The conference was well organised – all sessions were hybrid, with minimal technical hitches – and the programming of panel sessions, films and other activities was varied and interesting without being overwhelming. Of course it was impossible to attend every panel of interest in real time, so the opportunity to catch up online later is a great innovation. Special mention to the almost unbearably moving film Barzakh by the late film-maker Mantas Kvedaravičius, killed in Mariupol in March 2022, and to Dominic Bryan’s walking tour of Belfast.

A gaggle of anthropologists on a walking tour of Belfast.

Finally – with apologies for the tågskryt (‘train brag’) – I can highly recommend the non-flying route to Belfast from London, via Liverpool and the Birkenhead-Belfast ferry. Counter-intuitively, it involved less time away from home than the available flights, cost marginally less and included two nights sleeping like a baby in a blackout-dark gently swaying cabin.

Absurd States

This panel explored absurdity through a range of ethnographic cases, ranging from immigration policy in Britain (Rine Vieth) and Italy (Stefano Pontiggia) to absurd forms of labour (Charline Kopf, Christian Schirmer).  Ståle Wig drew on research in Cuba to argue that certain politico-economic formations – namely, those characterised by authoritarianism and lack of accountability – provide fertile ground for states of absurdity. Konstantin Biehl, meanwhile, made the case for absurdity as central to forms of solidarity among Kenyan athletes. Writing about longterm fieldwork in Ukraine (and how her field-site has now shifted to her home in Germany, as Ukrainians flee conflict at home), Deborah Jones argued that absurdity not as absence of meaning but a distortion of what is most meaningful. Similarly, the paper I presented argued that absurdity in public service is far from meaningless; rather, it is central to how state power is understood and enacted, as state employees make absurd and illogical – or ‘illegible’ – policies legible through their labour. 

Acting as discussant, Catherine Alexander highlighted how the ethnographies in the panel showed the pull between excessive meaning and absence of meaning, or the incongruence and dissonance experienced through lack of logic. As also brought up during the Q&A session, she talked about how absurdity can be experienced as uncertainty – when rules don’t work as they should; acting ‘as if’ – or as indeterminacy, when temporality is felt as absent or asynchronous. In conclusion, she asked where worth, meaning and dignity could be located alongside absurdity, when the papers seem to describe some kind of ‘good life’ that external absurdities disrupt. As participants inquired: what does absurdity generate, and who does it benefit?

There are plans for papers from the panel to be published as a special issue, so watch this space for a journal edition that reflects and expands upon these papers and discussion. 

A Manifesto for an Anthropology of History 

Organised by Helen Cornish and Giovanna Parmigiani, this roundtable was a stimulating precursor to the setting up of a new EASA network to be provisionally called the Anthropology of History network. The discussants raised a number of questions on the topic of the intersection of anthropology and history at methodological, conceptual and ontological levels. Nazlı Özkan asked how we can anthropologise the archives, and how to deal with the archives we ourselves produce as anthropologists, while Diego Maria Malara suggested we need to attend to voice as a vanishing trace that may be vulnerable to disappearance, and to be wary of the material turn that seems to swallow everything. Jeanine Dagyeli discussed historicity in terms of destabilising of the Western origins of various categories of thought, and Nina ter Laan asked what type of knowledge non-linear histories could make possible, and how that can be reflected in how we practise ethnography. 

The floor opened to participants, who contributed a number of provocations. Dominic Bryan (from the perspective of Irish history) questioned why historians are so much more visible as public intellectuals than anthropologists, despite what he described as often poorly theorised approaches to history. Building on his point, Wesam Hassan posited that historians frequently lack training on self-reflective approaches and positions, and Khalid Mouna remarked that anthropological attention to reflexivity and intersubjectivity is not reflected in historians’ attachment to a supposed objectivity. Meanwhile Ed Pulford suggested that anthropology needs to ask what is ‘the edifice’, rather than paying too much attention to the edges and the margins, and asked whether this might be a reason for history’s dominance in the public domain. I would be interested to hear my Birkbeck History Department colleagues’ responses to these lines of thought, and hope that participation in the network will bring about opportunities for anthro-historical dialogue in the future.

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