AAS Conference 2016
The AAS Annual Conference will be hosted by the University of Sydney from 12-15 December 2016.
AAS Conference Theme 2016: Anthropocene Transitions.
The 2015 United Nations Paris Agreement achieved a surprisingly unanimous statement on the ‘urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet’ posed by climate change, as well as the need for deep and accelerating reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the lack of mandated targets or pathways, the Agreement is an affirmation of the limits of human adaptation in a future scenario of biosphere decline.
Since their evolution towards the end of the Pleistocene epoch, modern humans have always encountered negative environmental change such as extreme weather events, shifts in regional climatic conditions, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, epidemic disease, depopulation, loss of food sources, pestilence, and pollution. Many of the cataclysmic changes have been anthropogenic. Now human activities are changing geophysical processes on a planetary scale, prompting atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer to envision a new epoch fusing geophysical and human agency. In 2000, they coined the term ‘Anthropocene’ to refer to the epoch they identified starting in the eighteenth century when humankind began to remodel the planet’s ecosystems with the chemical revolution and invention of the coal-fired steam engine, the emergence of industrialised societies and modern forms of capitalism.
The idea of Anthropocene goes to the heart of anthropological enquiry. It pushes practitioners to rethink fundamental boundaries, values and suppositions, including expectations of the perpetuity of homo sapiens and the prospect of extinction. It lends urgency to the task of widely communicating our knowledge about the limits and potentials of human adaptive capacities. Climate change may be the ultimate experience of entropy for Anthropos and other living beings, as planetary systems become increasingly disordered. The process deepens existing inequalities.
Anthropologists explore the practical materiality of human survival across the planet’s ecosystems as well as the varied worlds of language and imagination in which humans dwell. Our research engages with activity in life worlds that connects with processes of transformation, inequality and exploitation. Those lifeworlds, their transformations, and our research now have a finite horizon.
This conference calls on anthropologists to bring our skills, knowledge and wisdom to bear on a fleeting and fragile moment in the human career, when the species condition of Anthropos intersects with the transitional epoch of the Anthropocene. Our disciplinary understandings recognise new forms of environmental change as phenomena that span many dimensions of human experience and institutionalised practices. Anthropos may resist or misrecognise climate change reality but Anthropology can recognise and name our species’ capacities for a constructive response to its complexities.
For conference details, visit the conference website. For society details visit the Australian Anthropological Society website.
Reports on Previous Conferences and Workshops
Workshop: Traditional Knowledge: Emergent Forms and Meanings
By Ute Eickelkamp
On 8 October, the Department of Anthropology at the University of Sydney hosted a one-day workshop on the theme, Traditional Knowledge: Emergent Forms and Meanings. Guest speaker, Professor Sylvie Poirier (University of Laval, Quebec), known for her inquiries into Australian Aboriginal and Native Canadian ontologies, introduced her collaborative project with the Atikamekw Nation of Quebec – the development of an interactive website that supports the contemporary circulation of traditional knowledge. The crucial point of enabling live inquiry and cultural recognition especially among young Atikamekw rather than fossilizing knowledge was well taken by responding Australian colleagues working in Aboriginal communities.
John von Sturmer (Institute of Postcolonial Studies), James Weiner (ANU) and Ute Eickelkamp (University of Sydney, workshop convener) extended the problem of defining and locating ‘knowledge’ historically, when there is no documented consensus about what it was – or is. Two Anangu educators from the APY Lands had been invited to speak from their Sidney Myer Memorial Lecture on what kind of knowledge young Anangu in Central Australia need today; unfortunately, they were unable to come.
We Aboriginalists grappled with the politics of cultural knowledge that Indigenous Australians live with and anthropologists participate in: the state-sponsored traditionalism that is especially pronounced in land rights and Native Title claims, the artifice “genealogy” that valorizes the biological/genetic identity within a legal framework (Weiner), the distortion of an Aboriginal historicity through the demand of showing uninterrupted and ‘deep’ historical connections to the land, the effect of Indigenous corporations to regionalize knowledge, the academic privileging of ‘knowing about’ when ‘knowing with’, as von Sturmer emphasized, is a crucial technique of announcing the self that Indigenous people employ as a means of regulating conflict in the local public sphere, the dynamics of language ecology and its effect on the nature of knowing (von Sturmer), and the shifting narrative traditions as reflected in the production – in book form – of first person accounts of knowledge acquisition and loss by Aboriginal people (Eickelkamp).
Senior scholars as well as postgraduates – Petronella Varzoon-Morel and Eve Vincent (NYU Sydney), Jennifer Biddle (UNSW), Jeremy Walker (UTS), Gillian Cowlishaw, Gaynor Macdonald, Linda Connor and Belinda Burbidge (University of Sydney) – ensured a lively discussion throughout the day. All felt the meeting was very productive and there are now plans to establish one-day workshops as a regular event at Sydney Anthropology.
The Department of Anthropology's Annual Symposium Examines the Anthropos of Anthropology
Ryan Schram, Lecturer in Anthropology, "Post-Human World" Symposium Co-organizer July 4, 2013
On June 13 and 14, anthropologists and other scholars came together to debate the concept of the human in the social sciences at a symposium hosted by the Department of Anthropology. The title and theme of the conference was "A Post-Human World?: Rethinking Anthropology and the Human Condition." Posthumanism and related concepts have been percolating in the social sciences in humanities for some time. Although they seem to promise a radical new foundation for humanistic inquiry, they have mainly been used in the fields of science and technology studies, environmental studies and communication studies. The discipline of anthropology, as the study of humanity, has a special interest in debates about the anthropos. Thus the conference invited people from all fields within anthropology to reconsider their own work in light of arguments around posthumanism, deep ecology, and animality. The conference consisted of 30 presentations from scholars from across the country and New Zealand, each taking a different view on what defines the human and what alternative definitions there could be.
The conference also featured two distinguished lectures by Marianne Lien, professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo, and Nikolas Kompridis, professor of philosophy and political theory at the University of Western Sydney. On the first day, Lien argued that anthropological analysis of food, subsistence and ecology is often framed implicitly by a narrative of domestication as a singular event. She introduced a new conception of domestication as an ongoing process of co-evolution between humans and plants. She also emphasized that such processes are open-ended and nonlinear, which led to a more general conclusion that anthropology's ontological category of the human itself should be more open. The next day, Kompridis presented overview of his own philosophical anthropology. Revisiting debates over essentialism and antiessentialism, he made the case for a concept of the human defined the capacity for receptivity, being both a unique attribute of the human mind, yet also inherently social and relational. In these presentations, in plenary presentations by David Trigger (University of Queensland), John Morton (La Trobe University) and Lorraine Mortimer (La Trobe University), in the breakout sessions and in the informal breaks, people framed the issue in terms of a contrast between theory and ethnography. While many theoretical conceptions of the human in anthropology could be critiqued, ethnographic knowledge, based on both participation and observation, has always been open to alternative modes of being because it leads ultimately to verstehen (understanding) through interpretation. Thus anthropology itself, or perhaps simply qualitative social science, is the best tool for discovering new ontologies.
Some of the other topics discussed in the conference sessions were: human-animal relationships, the production of scientific knowledge, environmental politics, and the different ways that cultures represent and relate to the natural environment, place and landscape.
The conference was generously supported with funds from the Department of Anthropology, the School of Social and Political Sciences, and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
Culture and Rights: Scepticism, hostility and mutuality
A summary report
This symposium was the product of our sense that the unresolved tension between culture and rights based perspectives continues to condition many aspects of contemporary anthropology: our on-going debate about the nature of culture, the relationship between anthropology and broader terrain of social science, and the politics of anthropological practice. That sense was grounded in a number of everyday engagements: the on-going politics of indigenous identity in Australia, the teaching of a Development studies program, the nature and politics of disability, the concrete circumstances of fieldwork for many of our postgraduate students. The work of contemporary anthropologists such as Merry, Engle, Englund, Riles, Humphrey helped us sharpen our conceptualisation of this tension. At the same time we were particularly fortunate to have as a keynote speaker Dr. Samuel Martinez from the Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut. He brought to our discussions a deep understanding of the shifting quality of human rights instruments, of the strategic nature of their engagement and of the capacity of both culture and rights claims to conceal as much as they challenge. Martinez’s proposal of a “para-ethnographic” in which ethnographer and human rights investigator function as simply one kind of expert ‘among several’ finds echoes with a very diverse array of plurality of expertise, manifested as both partnership and conflict, that this symposium brought together. The theme of indigenous rights claims and who controls their language and their recognition featured particularly strongly here, across a wide range of regional and national contexts (Australia, Ecuador, Nepal, Papua New Guinea). Other nexes around which the themes of papers converged included tensions between the generalising and universalising tendencies of rights language with the situational specificities of recognition of personhood; the implication of rights claim and recognition within the production of state power; the mutual implication of rights, culture, health and well-being; the relationships between human rights and property rights; the gendered tension between the discourse of victim of rights abuse and that of activist claimant of rights; violence as the ground of rights claims; the strategic deployment or rejection of a rights based language.
On the evening before the symposium, at the Macleay Museum, the session Voices of the Denied, and the launch of One Life, Two Stories, a story told by Nancy de Vries of her life since being taken from her Aboriginal mother at the age of 13 months, gave direct voice to the experiences of violence and marginalisation that make the contemporary politics of human rights such an urgent issue.
We were enormously pleased and stimulated by the response to the symposium and would like to thank all participants and presenters for the way they gave our sense of an issue form and substance.
The details of the symposium, including the abstracts of papers and the keynote address will continue to be found at: http://anthropologycultureandrights.wordpress.com/abstracts/
Report on the 2011 Anthropology Symposium:
Young Lives, Changing Times – Perspectives on Social Reproduction
8-9 June 2011, New Law School; The University of Sydney
This year’s Sydney Anthropology Symposium explored Young Lives, Changing Times: Perspectives on Social Reproduction. It was a lively and timely event. Over two days, early career researchers and senior scholars from six Australian and two US universities portrayed the diverse pathways of growing up in the contemporary world. The variety of disciplinary backgrounds (anthropology, sociology, political science, cultural studies and geography) matched the variety of research locales and contexts. The speakers portrayed the lives of African migrant youth in Australia, the meaning of violence for young people in a Colombian barrio, ideologies of parenting in the US, the self-understandings of Aboriginal youth in remote Australian communities, the cultural logic in the ‘unruly’ behaviour of young males in Bougainville, the significance of schools as sites of cultural production, the moral encoding of childhood in the context of transnational adoptions, young Indonesians reworking ‘tradition’ as they become cosmopolitan, cultural identification and inventiveness on Easter Island, and legal and ideological constructions of sex work in the Phillipines.
The two keynote speakers, Professor Cindi Katz from the City University of New York, and Associate Professor Gary Robinson from the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin, gave us different, but complementary, perspectives. Cindi’s presentation, “Accumulation, Excess, and Childhood: Towards a countertopography of risk and waste”, explored changes in the position of modern children as postindustrial states try to deal with economic crises. She is observing a disconcerting ‘trade off’: if not always directly, the well being of children in some parts of the world is achieved through the deprivation of children in others. Gary’s paper, entitled “The State, Cultural Competence and Child Development: Perspectives on intervention in the North of Australia”, described a parenting program that aims to improve the relationship between children and their caretakers in Indigenous Tiwi families. The location of culture, he argued, cannot be simply found in a catalogue of traits or elements of reified traditions. Rather, in order to grasp cultural competence, we need to first look at the social and emotional dynamics of concretely lived relationships, especially between mothers and children. And further, the viability of any support program hinges on that – genuine relationships between program implementers and families. This reflects a cultural logic and practice that contrasts sharply with the Northern Territory Emergency Intervention.
Key themes that emerged across papers include suggestions that young people are mobilising elements of their cultural heritage in order to deal with profound contradictions in their lives. Some of these derive directly from global developments that are transforming domestic and market economies as well as images of a ‘good’ future. One of the consequences is the adjustment of parenting. American families from all class backgrounds, for instance, now seek to raise ‘flexible’ children, both with a view to work and intimate social relationships. Equally important, there is evidence of resistance (political, cultural) and the grasping of new opportunities among young people in different parts of the world. However, social systems are not necessarily equipped to foster such creative self-assertion. A challenging task then is to safeguard spaces for recuperation and creativity in face of ever-increasing levels of interventions into children’s lives. Finally, while the Department brought a strong anthropological perspective to the debates, the need for interdisciplinary and comparative perspectives was pinpointed with this concluding question: By what conceptual and technical means can we capture the intersections between systemic forces and lived experience?
The symposium proceedings are available online: http://youngliveschangingtimes.wordpress.com/symposium_proceedings/
Anthropology and the Ends of Worlds Symposium
A Symposium, Thursday 25th and Friday 26th March, 2010
Conveners: Linda Connor, Sebastian Job
Hosted by the Department of Anthropology, School of Social and Political Sciences - University of Sydney
What is entailed in casting a specifically anthropological light on the ends of worlds, and how might anthropology itself be changed in the process?
Ethnographic fieldwork is often conducted at “worlds’ ends,” or in social worlds whose negative transformations are experienced as endings. Among the world’s comparatively wealthy and culturally dominant the fear that everything is coming to an end sits shoulder to shoulder with security, comfort and optimism. Technological advances and post-industrial affluence coexist with apathy, denial and indifference, as well as anxieties about danger, loss, risk and looming catastrophe. Anthropology has long contributed to differentiated and pluralised understandings of cosmologies of destruction and renewal. These eschatologies - such as Apocalypse, Kali Yuga, Doomsday, or Mesoamerican calendars - also operate as visions of transcendence.
How do end-time doctrines, myths and prophecies articulate with the domain of scientific rationality? How are they caught up in other dimensions of the “global process” such as economic and ecological interdependence? Are there signs of converging demands for a world process that reveals itself as having a purpose, a good “end” to which it must be directed - lest it “really, finally, end”? How is cultural anthropology situated in relation to this persistent quest for a human telos and the prospect of world endings?
These were the questions tackled in the 2010 Symposium Anthropology and the Ends of Worlds. Within this broad theme papers drew on empirical areas as the lived experience of economic crisis; environmental destruction; religious mutations; new political formations; postcolonialism; or the loss of vernacular languages.
The keynote speaker for the symposium was Professor Michael Taussig, from the Department of Anthropology, Columbia University, New York. The symposium is envisaged as a conversational and intellectual exchange among participants.
The symposium proceedings are published online on our webpage: