Anthropology has developed within three theoretical frameworks over the last three hundred years. The Enlightenment world view dominated from the early eighteenth to the mid nineteenth century; Evolutionary models triumphed from Darwin and Marx through to the late 1980's; a Global vision is the one we now inhabit. Investigating the reasons for these paradigm changes, the lecture will consider the relative power of nations (imperialism and industrialism) as one factor. Another has been the growth of 'modernity', defined as the separation of institutional spheres (Wealth, Power, Society, Ideology). Recent shifts in world power and the re-shaping of 'modernity' through technological change are redefining the task of anthropology in the twenty-first century.
The lecture is available here. A video of the lecture is also available here.
We are, among many other things, the mathematical animal. That is a fact about human nature, a fitting subject for anthropology to address. How did mathematics become possible for a species like ours, in a world like this one? That is a question in ecological history, and prehistory, to which many disciplines are now offering fragmentary answers—cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, neurology, and developmental psychology, for example, but also the history of science. I shall discuss how ethnography and ‘the archaeology of mind’ can contribute to understanding this aspect of being human.
On the Materials of Mats: thinking through design in a Pacific society
This paper examines the selective use of plant materials in design in the Pacific. It explores – through an analysis of pandanus leaf mats in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea – how makers select fibres on the basis of their capacity to articulate social relations to varying temporalities before their natural decay. J. J. Gibson’s theory of affordance and Donald Norman’s concept of mapping are critically applied for this purpose. This approach emphasizes how social and temporal relations are condensed into objects, refocusing anthropological attention towards the design process as the dynamic locus of agency [entangled in both cultural and natural processes], rather than on objects as stable entities.
Cultural Anthropology and the Question of Knowledge
Although it helps to be aware of what philosophers think about knowledge anthropologists can neither simply relegate their epistemological problems to, nor find solutions in, philosophy. In anthropology knowing what and how we know is a practical, not just a theoretical problem, one we face in all phases of our work, from field research to writing (and teaching). Historical recollections of debates since the nineteen-sixties are followed by giving attention to two aspects of the knowledge-question in our discipline: Knowledge of what? and Whose knowledge? Guided by reflections on knowledge and survival, the lecture will end with an attempt to assess the present and future state of the question.
Humanity between gods and beasts? Ontologies in question
Wherein lies the humanity of human beings? Many conflicting answers have been attempted in ancient and in modern times, with many focussing on the triadic relationship between humans, gods and beasts. This lecture will review a wide range of suggestions, from those of ancient Greeks and Chinese, to recent anthropological proposals (by Viveiros de Castro and Descola in particular) of alternative ontologies. We have every reason to take rival human understandings seriously, but that should not be thought to lead to radical relativism, let alone to a breakdown of mutual intelligibility. Rather, they offer resources for exploring the substantive questions and for reflecting on the propensity of human beings to entertain or presuppose strong views on, precisely, what makes humans human. While evolutionary biology, ethology, cognitive science and anthropology itself have all contributed to an increased recognition of the complexities of the question, we need the input not just of those disciplines, but also of philosophy and of history, to evaluate potential answers. In that spirit the lecture offers an interdisciplinary commentary on the problems.
Historical Photographs, Maps and Manuscripts of the Archives of mission 21 / Basel Mission - Long-term Perspectives of Web Access
A seminar and talk by Barbara Frey-Näf on the history and process of digitisation of the significant archives of Mission 21, Basel, Switzerland, which took place at the Britsh Museum's Centre for Anthropology on 4 March 2010. The photographic collection has been on the web since 2002 and was relaunched at the University of Southern California in 2008 (see www.bmpix.org).
Barbara Frey-Näf is an anthropologist and historic photo curator working with the collections of the Basel Mission since 1990.