Hope or Resignation: the Future of Anthropology

By Matthias Teeuwen

Standing at the end of my Master’s, the topic of this year’s anthropology day particularly spoke to me: Futures. What can I expect of the future as a newly trained anthropologist? What professions will open up or close off for me? Will my skills be any useful in fifty years time? The future, being the future, is not here yet, so I can’t tell. The attitudes we hold toward the future, however, are more immediately accessible. As Ton Salman observed in his closing statements of the day, these move more or less between optimism and hope and pessimism and resignation.

No lack of optimism in the workshop on future professions of anthropologists. Various possibilities for anthropologists in business, journalism, policymaking, and education were identified. Anthropologists, with their reflexiveness and holistic approach, have good chances at dealing with social complexity and conveying it or translating it to useful models or policy recommendations. Still, there is no denying that there is no obvious or easy transition from an anthropology education to the job market.

More photos on the Facebook page of the ABv. Credits: ABv.

The workshop on the future of anthropology teaching was similarly hopeful. The talk here was of innovative ways of teaching anthropology. Kristine Krause of the UvA showed how theatre practices might open up new ways of looking at fieldwork data. Putting this into practice, we ‘staged’ or ‘re-enacted’ a fieldwork encounter and mused about all the possible meanings it held.

Sterre Herstel presented possibilities for infusing anthropological teaching with anarchic and nomadic aspects. This makes sense because anthropology lacks a step-by-step method for deriving data from social situations and instead requires that we learn on-site and on the go. Creativity and openness are warranted.

More photo’s on the Facebook page of the ABv. Credits: ABv.

Taking a step back, and looking at the future more as an object of research than as a situation that lies ahead of the discipline, there’s the possibility of an anthropology of the future. In the keynote lecture, Rebecca Bryant laid down the groundwork for such an endeavour. Drawing from her fieldwork experience on Cyprus, she notes that different ‘kinds of time’, such as times of war or times of peace, hold different collective experiences of time.

She draws attention to ‘temporal affect’ in relation to the future. The future invokes the presence: now is now because it is not then. But how is the presence invoked? Does it press into the future or is the future bearing into the present? And what does the sense of an ending, a telos, do for time? Pointing out some analytical tools, Bryant calls for anthropology of the future that pays attention to ‘vernacular time spaces’, ‘epochal thinking’, and ‘teleo-affect’.

More photos on the Facebook page of the ABv. Credits: ABv.

In the final panel the irresolution between optimism and resignation that Salman noted was most clearly felt. Menno van den Bos, a freelance journalist, was optimistic and saw possibilities for anthropology now and in the future: providing transparency in times of fake news for example.

Dimitris Dalakoglou of the VU painted a stark picture of the end of capitalism and the world as we know it. Yet he surmised that with the breaking down of infrastructures new opportunities for anthropologists will emerge. Anthropology, after all, has ample knowledge of life outside of or before capitalism.

Eileen Moyer of the UvA had a similar dark view of the future after climate change. But she also thought that perhaps research into the relationship between humans and other species (even viruses) could provide pointers to what life will be like after the Anthropocene.

All in all, it became clear that the future is an inexhaustible topic, as Salman noted. For all that we expect, anticipate, and speculate, we’ll just have to wait and see – whether there will be societies left after capitalism, humans after climate change, and anthropology after decolonisation.

Matthias Teeuwen is student of the Social Science Research Master at the University of Amsterdam and editor at Standplaats Wereld. His research interests include religion, language, and the philosophy of science.

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