The University of Sydney Anthropology Symposium 2014

From 4 November, 2014 to 5 November, 2014
9 - 5pm


4 – 5  November 2014, John Woolley Bdg. Camperdown Campus, The University of Sydney

Hosted by the Department of Anthropology

Conveners: Dr. Holly High and Assoc Professor Tess Lea

Featured Speakers: Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Chris Gregory, Gillian Cowlishaw, Greg Downey, Leonardo Rodriguez and more


Things fall apart, or so we regularly hear these days. Real or impending disorder is one of the key rationalizations given for major decisions today: think austerity economics, the politics of crisis and radical interventions in response to shocks. Self-help books, no longer content to inform us of how to be sufficiently flexible for the demands of roving capital, now instruct us on how to be “anti-fragile”: how to not only survive but thrive in disorder.

Anthropology has its own entanglement with the concepts disorder and order. It is a tried and trusted technique of ethnographic writing to describe a puzzling encounter or observation, and then to show how this is not so puzzling once the ethnographer makes clear a certain underlying order: usually a cultural order, a Durkheimian “society” or an ordering “belief,” although lately we also hear of larger “political orders” or “economic orders.” In this technique, it often seems to play out as if disorder is to order as illusion is to reality, the transitory to the enduring, the dragon to St. George’s victory, and it is the anthropologist’s task to wrest the latter from the jaws of the former.

In the breadth of contexts studied by anthropologists, it is evident that disorder is a recurring preoccupation in human thought. The theme of an original disorder that precedes and threatens the familiar order is frequently found in myths. Non-biomedical healing practices often treat illness as a symptom of a larger, often social, disorder. The term is also essential in the latest DSM, with controversy around whether mental health problems are merely “disorders” or are actually orders of a particular kind. Development interventions in the world’s poorest nations are framed at times as responses to the disorder of expanding markets but also, in a contradictory vein, to the disorder imagined to reside in primordial poverty. The concept of disorder seems to attract such confusions.

At a crucial period in the discipline’s formation, Mauss conceptualised “the gift” as that which establishes social solidarity out of an original and always possible disorder: and it was the gift that was taken up as one of the key fields of anthropological enquiry. But what if we had started from the other side of the coin? What if we assumed that disorder is the enduring reality and what we encounter in the field are only temporary and often frail and illusory orders? What if the relationship between order and disorder is not coin-like at all?

This symposium seeks an anthropological account of human understandings of disorder and an interrogation of the discipline’s own relationship with the concept. Original ethnography, bold new readings of themes evident in the ethnographic record, or reflections on social theory are particularly welcome.

Submission of abstracts will open 1 May 2014 on the webpage.

For more information please contact:

Location: Room N384, N395 and S325, John Woolley Building

Contact:Katarina Ferro