Porous social orders

by ILANA GERSHON

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Many cultural anthropologists today share a common theoretical commitment: to view the people they encounter during fieldwork as living among multiple social orders that are interconnected and contingent. When social orders are multiple, ethnographers are quickly faced with the question of how people construct the boundaries between these social orders to be both durable (enough) to keep social orders distinct and porous (enough) to allow people, objects, forms, and ideas to circulate across them in appropriate ways. What counts as appropriate is, not surprisingly, often hotly contested. Despite contemporary ethnographers’ varied intellectual trajectories, a crosscutting set of theoretical assumptions unites their work and shapes how they approach familiar anthropological foci, such as circulation, ritual, scale, and power.