Spring Conference | 23-25 March 2023 | Princeton University

This year’s AAA spring conference (March 23-25, 2023) is committed to exploring the nature and dangers of indeterminacy.  The time has come for indeterminacy to be interrogated, not least for the ways it prevents a rush to judgment, enables prurient behavior, and creates blind spots towards injustice.  Yet if anthropology is to avoid retreating to a high moralizing stance, it must leave itself open to forms of indeterminacy that enables existence, trespass, and interruption for those living in subjugation and systems of oppression.  Pedagogy and education, both formal and informal, have to struggle with communicating the necessity of indeterminacy for improvisation and newness.  Indeterminacy and ambiguity are also often the wellspring of insights into the divine. Thus, at the same time we interrogate indeterminacy, we must also acknowledge that everywhere we live with indeterminacy.  Such is the coil of a mode of academic inquiry that takes the social for its object and is thereby inextricably bound up with its polarities and oscillations.  Is there a way to think of indeterminacy without resolving matters once and for all? 

Topics for consideration range from issues of what is taken as a fact (for example, where perceptions of relative indeterminacy in climate science is leveraged to create doubt about anthropogenic climate change) to those of meaning (as in the case of multiple sexual harassment and sexual abuse cases with sufficient cause for ambiguity in the law reducing the blunt of charges of violence and transgression to a he said/she said melodrama, thus, pandering to a form of toxic masculinity). Some areas where indeterminacy seems to have paralyzed scholarly analysis are those relating to the nation-state, whether it is still a form with which to tarry or has it merely become a handmaiden of capital?  If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that no hegemonic power lets a good crisis of predictability go to waste.  Is social media a force for the good or the bad?  Given the global uptake of conspiracy theories of many kinds and the violence that they have produced, time has come for some genuine soul-searching about our desire for instant translatability or communicability.  Do AI and robots pose a challenge to labor and forms of work?  Ask people working for Amazon.  Are we in an interconnected world or in separate worlds?  While the trans-border movement of pollution and waste provide one vantage, the differential spread of suffering around the war in Ukraine provides another.  And then there is the indeterminacy that comes from the unfinished business of the past or the complete obscurity of the future that may not be in people’s consciousness but that erupts into the present insistently.  It reminds us of our immersion within other structures than those of which we are aware, other strata of time than that of the present alone, and the changeable nature of our own susceptibilities.  Perhaps one way to think of forms of indeterminacy is to ask what sustains them, what do they sustain, and what are the prices of establishing certainties in their wake?

This in-person conference will take place between March 23-25, 2023 at Princeton University. It is being co-hosted by three subsections of the AAA: AES, APLA and CAE. The schedule for this conference is now available. Please consider attending.

COVID guidelines:  Princeton University’s visitor guidelines apply to all attendees of the conference.

Hotel information is now available.  Please use this linkto make your hotel booking at the Westin Hotel at Forrestal Village.  Those wishing to come in on Wednesday, March 22, should be able to get the conference rate for that night but it will require you to call the hotel directly.  There will be shuttle service between the hotel and Princeton campus during the conference.  There are places to eat on campus during the day on Friday (find map of campus here).  You can find a list of local restaurants here.  You are advised to make advance reservations for lunch or dinner.

The nearest airport to Princeton University is Trenton-Mercer (TTN) Airport which is 9.7 miles away. Other nearby airports include Newark (EWR) (34.9 miles), Philadelphia (PHL) (45.3 miles), New York JFK (JFK) (50.7 miles) and New York La Guardia (LGA) (51.2 miles). The most conveniently accessed international airport is Newark Liberty International.  The University is easily accessible by train, which runs along the Northeast Corridor line and also stops at Newark airport. Both Amtrak and NJ TRANSIT trains stop at Princeton Junction. Travelers can then transfer to a single-car train operated by NJ TRANSIT, known locally as the “Dinky,” for the five-minute ride to Princeton Station. The station is located on Alexander Street at the southern end of campus.

Full Schedule

Registration and check in to start by 2.30pm | Aaron Burr First Floor near Lounge

Time: 4:30-7pm

AES Opening Plenary: Facing the Law | Aaron Burr Hall 219

4.30-6 pm, to be followed by a reception ( 6-7 pm) (registration and check in to start by 2pm)

On Friday, June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overthrew Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 landmark legislation that made abortion a federal right.  In his arguments for why this needed to happen Justice Samuel Alito pointed to the weakness of its legal arguments, the abuse of judicial authority and the damage to constitutional law.  In other words, the overturning of the law had apparently little to do with fundamental rights, shared values, common visions and changes to them but everything to do with indeterminacies within the law that was now felt to be intolerable and sought to be determined.  One might call this a cynical deployment of technical reasoning but it nonetheless provokes us to ask how does law, any body of law, embed, proliferate and discipline various kinds of indeterminacies?  How do we sense these out?  How do we live with them? And what finally makes them intolerable? 

Plenary Speakers:

Monica Bell, Professor of Law at Yale Law School and Associate Professor of Sociology at Yale University

Sameena Mulla, Associate Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Emory University

Annelise Riles, Professor of Law, Executive Director of the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Studies and Associate Provost for Global Affairs, Northwestern University


Chair:  Anna Wherry (JD), graduate student, Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University

Registration and check in to start by 8am | Aaron Burr First Floor near Lounge

Time Slot 1 (9-10.15am)

Panel 1: Indeterminate Environmentalisms | Aaron Burr Hall 216

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant: Cindy Isenhour, University of Maine

Eva Steinberg, CUNY Graduate Center, “Saving Seeds, Making Futures”

Seed saving has emerged to preserve dwindling plant biodiversity, most commonly through ex-situ cryopreservation, in which a seed is removed from its environment and frozen until some point in the future. Given a seed’s inherent propensity for change through relationships with its environment, a key question emerges in these scenarios: Why do we assume these seeds will be able to grow in these unknown and unpredictable futures? In this paper, I interrogate the ways in which ex-situ conservation relies on control and purity through technoscientific intervention to reproduce seeds and security, and juxtapose this method with in-situ conservation. In-situ seed saving maintains a seed’s relationship with its environment, but risks genetic drift and erosion through open pollination and natural mutation. Through a case study of “ultracross okra” and collard breeds developed by the Utopian Seed Project, this paper advocates for embracing these moments of impurity in seed saving as essential to promoting and maintaining biological and cultural diversity. More broadly, I make an argument for a shift in the emphasis of “saving” from reproducing the past to ensuring future potential, even if it entails impurity, change, or hybridization.

Christopher Morris, George Mason University, “It’s Not the Eskom Issue—That’s Coming Later Today”: Studying Chemical Shedding While Load Shedding in South Africa”

Scientific interest in bisphenols has grown considerably over the last decade, driven by the presence of the chemicals in consumer materials and the knowledge of their potential health risks as endocrine disruptors. And while bisphenols are increasingly ubiquitous as contaminants in the environment, their specific sources can be difficult to trace. In South Africa, the scientific study of the indeterminacies surrounding such chemical shedding encounters the indeterminacies of electrical “load shedding.” Like everyone in South Africa, scientists in the country contend with a precarious power supply and scheduled-but-intensifying power outages. This paper goes inside a research-oriented NGO in South Africa studying the presence of bisphenols in fish and shellfish in the country’s coastal waters. Drawing upon ethnographic interviews I conducted with two of the NGO’s scientists, I explore what it means to do pressing, cutting-edge science in a context of infrastructural constraint and uncertainty.

Caitlyn Bolton, Boston College, “Climate Behavior: Seaweed Farmers, Tabia, and Islamic Ethics during Zanzibar’s Offshore Search for Fossil Fuels”

“Promising to make the islands the “Dubai of East Africa,” the Zanzibari government contracted a gas company from the UAE, who subcontracted Chinese boats to trawl through coral reefs in search of that fateful substance that promises fantastical wealth at the expense of planetary health. Sitting just inland of the boats drilling for seismic testing, a group of women lay out their harvested seaweed to dry under the hot equatorial sun. Tossing aside the bleached seaweed—diseased from rising ocean temperatures—they complain of the similarly rising cost of electricity, which had arrived in the village just thirty years ago alongside the cash from seaweed to pay for it. Perhaps, if the boats find oil, the women can abandon their plots and their dying seaweed to bask in the country’s newfound prosperity. Perhaps Zanzibar could finally gain independence from mainland Tanzania, no longer dependent for energy on the underwater electrical cable tying the islands like an umbilical cord to the African continent. Or perhaps oil will turn out just like tourism did: owned and run by outsiders who dispossess them of their land and privatize the ocean. But instead of kitesurfing tourists crashing through their farms, it will be oil spills. These potential futures do not, in the villagers’ estimation, actually depend on what the ocean may or may not be hiding beneath her depths. An op-ed in a local newspaper declared that “the problem is ‘tabiawatu’ (‘people-behavior’) not just tabianchi (climate)”—drawing on the multivalent concept of tabia, a Swahili word that simultaneously means nature, an individual’s moral character, and interpersonal behavior. Proper tabia, it is understood, is primarily developed through Islamic education and pious practice. This paper examines the way that Zanzibaris draw on the concept of tabia to make claims for the ethical co-construction of self, social relations, and the environment to shape an uncertain future under the shadow of fossil fuels.”

Amanda Wetsel, Dartmouth College, “Certainty, Indeterminacy, and Arboreal Value”

In response to the number of trees felled in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, a group of environmental activists designed a project to measure how trees the city reduced heat, noise, and dust. As part of their efforts to preserve urban green spaces and promote the planting and care of trees, they wanted to assign a monetary value to the trees’ contributions. Two years later, they collaborated with the mayor’s office to inventory the city’s trees and attach an ID tag to each tree. This paper explores how the activists express what they can and cannot know about trees in the city. 

Sumin Myung, Johns Hopkins University, “Complexity and Shallowness: A More-Than-Human Politics of Geomorphological Indeterminacy in South Korea”

For forest scientists in South Korea, “complex geomorphologies and shallow soil depths” have been the definitive characteristics of mountainous forests (sallim), which cover about 63 percent of the country’s landscape today. Drawing from my 34-month archival research and fieldwork, this paper explores how these qualities of forest soils—complexity and shallowness—have defined and refracted technoscientific interventions in forests, which were devastated by local overuse, Japanese wartime extraction, and the Korean War. During rapid, large-scale reforestation campaigns in the 1970s under the military dictatorship, complexity and shallowness had to be overcome swiftly through labor-intensive interventions, such as implementing aggressive soil erosion controls and planting billions of fast-growing trees such as Japanese green alders (Alnus firma) and black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia). As a result, certain trees and human laborers have become together what I call “biogeomorphological engineers.” These more-than-human assemblages participated in not only the greening of national landscapes but also the reconfiguration of human-nature relationships in the midst of postcolonial nation-building. Recently, however, complexity and shallowness have challenged forest scientists and policymakers once again in relation to new critical concerns: promoting carbon sequestration and biodiversity through scientific reforestation to fight climatic crises and forest degradation. Following scientists in the field, conference rooms, and archives, this paper shows how geomorphological qualities have enacted or frustrated more-than-human assemblages over time. Through these assemblages, I suggest, complexity and shallowness have referred not to (deterministic) conditions or realities but to (indeterministic) attributes of forest geomorphologies, through which human labor, tree species, and soils make new relations and enable “horizon work” (Petryna 2022) in times of ecological uncertainty.

Panel 2: The Threat and Promise of Digital Infrastructures | Aaron Burr Hall 213

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant: Lyndsey Beutin, McMaster University 

Nida Kirmani, Brandeis University, “The Promises and Perils of Social Media: Digital Activism against Enforced Disappearances in Balochistan”

The practice of enforced disappearance is one of the most extreme manifestations of state violence and exemplifies the opaque nature of the state, particularly with regards to the peripheries. Pakistan is one of many countries where this practice is widespread. According to the state’s Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, 8,100 cases have been filed with them since 2011 of which 5,853 cases have been ‘disposed of’; rights groups contest these figures, arguing that this is a gross underestimate. A large number of those missing are from Balochistan—the country’s most underdeveloped province, which has been the site of an ongoing insurgency for several decades. Despite the thousands affected, this issue rarely makes it onto the national media. For this reason, activists and family members of missing persons increasingly relying on the digital sphere, particularly Twitter, to call for the return of their loved ones and to highlight the state’s violent practices. This paper analyzes how social media is being used as a tool to resist state opacity and end the practice of enforced disappearances by Baloch activists and family members of missing persons. Interview findings demonstrate the double-edged nature of social media, which is also used by representatives of the state for the purposes of surveillance, to further their narrative, counter critique, and frighten critics into silence. The paper highlights the ambiguous nature of the digital sphere—one that is laden with both promise and risks for members of marginalized groups.

Hope Bastian, Wheaton College, “Mothering in 4G: WhatsApp, Social Networks and Challenges to Authoritative Knowledge of Birth, Breastfeeding and Postpartum in Cuba”

“Based on research from 2018-22, this ethnography identifies emerging frustrations and resistance to the exclusive technocratic biomedical management of birth and postpartum in Cuba. In the early 1960s, the Cuban Revolution expanded access to prenatal care and hospital birth to 99% of pregnant women in both rural and urban areas. Women receive state support in the form of medical care, parental leave, and extra food rations, and the country’s low infant mortality rates are often celebrated as advances of Socialist modernity. However, the supremacy of the biomedical model often subjects mothers to violence and denies agency to make decisions about their births, bodies, and babies. Increased internet access since 2019 has exposed some women to alternative models of birth and parenting. New virtual spaces of sociability, and the relationships forged through them, allow women to question the health system’s authoritative knowledge and adopt alternative birthing and parenting practices. These women talk about the importance of networks of peer-to-peer solidarity and information exchange through WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook groups that connect them with movements beyond the island, constructing new subjectivities around slogans like “teta es poder”, that celebrate breastfeeding as source of knowledge and power. I place these agentive practices in the context of recent political changes, an example of how Cuban civil society is gradually moving from virtual spaces to institutional places, to challenge their subordination to patriarchal control of the biomedical system and the state. I also follow the responses of the public health officials, media, and individual healthcare providers to this online activism, as experts in local primary care clinics, maternity hospitals, and the Ministry of Public Health headquarters are interpellated to respond to alternative practices presented by emerging social movements around birth and breastfeeding.

Onur Arslan, UCDavis, Wiring the Legal: The Birth of Electronic Justice in Turkey


As of the 2000s, the infrastructures of law in Turkey have transformed in two interconnected ways. First, giant buildings dedicated to law has been erected throughout the country. Second, the law’s physicality has been networked with the help of emergent digital technologies such as Judiciary Informatics System (UYAP) or video-conferencing technologies. As the new technologies (screens, cables, computers, etc.) have digitized words and appearances and made them transferable across different spaces, daily legal practices, including being in the courtroom, have become feasible on-line and remotely. Taken together, this was a cyber-spatial intervention into the country’s legal system that has been problematized for decades as fragmented and cumbersome. Based on 27-months of fieldwork, this paper investigates how Turkey’s legal terrain is reshaped at the interfaces between experts, legal technologies, and epistemological assumptions on legal objectivity. Specifically, it asks: what happens when the courts are no longer bound to a site? What and who exactly is rendered remote through new electronic technologies? What politics do they materialize? How do they alter our sense of legal knowledge and the way the law is practiced? 

Panel 3: The Indeterminacy of Anthropological Translations | Aaron Burr Hall 209

Organizer: Andrew Brandel, Pennsylvania State University

Chair and Discussant: Andrew Brandel, Pennsylvania State University

Panel Abstract: This panel explores the indeterminacy of translation not as an abstract problem, but by looking at concrete practices of translation in particular contexts. More specifically, it trains attention on anthropological translations and the danger of their tacit reinforcement of the inequality of languages, including our picture of what language at bottom is. Drawing on descriptions from a range of regions and settings where they are conducting ethnographic fieldwork, contributors show how what counts as translation depends itself on the context of practice, and that it is boundaries are often fuzzy.

Tobias Kelly, University of Edinburgh, “Conscience, Translation, and Indeterminacy”

This presentation focuses on the indeterminacy of conscience. It does so through an examination of attempts by British conscientious objectors to military service to prove the sincerity of their convictions. In going so, the presentation will examine the ways in which the indeterminacy of translations – between personal biography, ethical commitments, legal form and anthropological knowledge – can be productive of new social relations.

Milad Odabaei, Princeton University, “Translation Praxes in Revolutionary Iran”

Since the 1990s, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and amid ongoing cycles of revolt and repression, the translation of continental philosophy and social theory has witnessed an unprecedented growth in Iran. In this presentation, I reflect on the proliferations of translation praxes and its relation to political and epistemological indeterminacies of a revolutionary society. I describe how translation of philosophy and theory emerges as a form of political activism, exacerbating existing political antagonisms, and how it gestures to a politics to come. I conclude by drawing on my study to reflect on anthropological debates about translation.

Gili Kliger, Harvard University, “Translation and the Circulation of Concepts”

Translation, we might assume, facilitates the movement of a concept from one language to another. If you can find a rough equivalent of a word in another language, you help the concept it expresses travel into a new language context. On this view, a word that resists translation would seem to block this movement. This paper draws on examples from the history of anthropology to explore the possibility that the opposite is true: it is only when a word refuses or resists translation that new meanings and new ideas circulate. Paying attention to the history of particular “untranslatables” shows us that it is precisely when no easy equivalents are found that words continue to circulate untranslated, and, in so doing, prompt sustained inquiry into the ideas they seem to express. 

Lotte Buch Segal, University of Edinburgh, “Sensing Similarity, Betraying Particularity?”

In this paper I wish to pause with the indeterminacy of translation zooming in on ethnographic instances of loss where an experience, an expression, or an atmosphere hereof seems to open up a sense of similarity; of understanding the phenomenon at hand by drawing on ethnographic knowledge from a spatial or temporal elsewhere, or when they physiognomy of a concept suddenly seems to fit , both sharpening and changing it’s allegedly original meaning. How, in such instances does it help or hinder to think of these as acts of translation and what are the consequences of doing so, and does the concept of translation itself hold the capacity for indeterminacy that anthropological translation necessitates if we want to pay allegiance to the meaning of a word, to everyone who uses it. What is lost in such a movement, and might there be a way to think about that loss not as a lack but a shift in tonality instead.

Panel 4: Citizenship, Solidarity and the Futures of Non-belonging Part I | JRRB A12

Organizer: American Ethnologist

Chair and Discussant: Susanna Trnka, University of Auckland

Panel Abstract: Citizenship is not a stable entity. In many parts of the world, both the meanings and the legal provisions commonly attached to citizenship are shifting. Covid/post-Covid politics have markedly reshaped healthcare and welfare, border policies, labor and manufacturing and distribution chains. So too have Brexit, the legacies of Trump, and climate change. This panel interrogates the various forms of belonging and nonbelonging that we might expect, and demand, as part of national, regional and global futures. Simultaneously an enchanted concept, promising much more than it can entail, and a bureaucratically-driven line in the sand entailing the most mundane paper trails that nonetheless potentially carry life and death consequences, “citizenship” has come to symbolize and materialize a huge range of facets of life, inclusive of but extending beyond the allocation of rights within contemporary state forms. Examining a broad range of inter-personal and political struggles over the indeterminacies of belonging and the various forms 21 st century solidarities might take, the panel probes whether or not “citizenship” is even the right rubric for asking questions about political rights and inclusion. Panellists’ papers reflect on the deepening scars of post-plantation economics, global stops and flows of diasporic labour – and the actual people such “flows” involve, human–non-human relations, freedom, religious nationalism, COVID-19 containment measures, post-petro citizenships, youth activism, and the disavowal of differently abled personhoods. The panel’s speakers propose new ways of considering how racism, sexism, mental and physical ableism, religious exclusion, globalized climate and energy crises inflect the indeterminacies of 21st-century forms of solidarity and nonbelonging.

Deborah Thomas, University of Pennsylvania, “Authority, Vulnerability, and Surrender: Fugitive Forms of Belonging”

“The organizers of this panel, in their abstract, provocatively ask whether “citizenship” is the right rubric for asking questions about political rights and inclusion? My comments today will take off from this question to ask whether “political rights and inclusion” are the right rubrics through which to explore forms of world-building we might call freedom. Scholars of the political across disciplines have been increasingly attentive to stances of refusal of the language of sovereignty and citizenship, and to the ways people seek forms of affiliation outside what Leela Gandhi calls “possessive communities of belonging” (2006:10). I am interested in thinking through and from the ritual space of kumina in Jamaica – or more specifically, from the network of kumina practitioners who are loosely organized as the St. Thomas Kumina Collective – about the practice of belonging. My reflections will not constitute an ethnographic interrogation, but rather a conceptual one, as I am interested in the non-linear and unexpected ways something that feels like freedom circulates and is transmitted from one to another, today, yesterday, and maybe tomorrow. I want to think through three problem-spaces – freedom without autonomy; authority without sovereignty; surrender without subordination – in order to reframe belonging as a mode of vulnerability grounded in embodied practice, process, and dialogue, rather than in the political and social possibilities imagined to follow from recognition, inclusion, and the extension of rights.”

Neha Vora, Lafayette College, “Entangled precarities: human-nonhuman kinship and urban belonging in the Arabian Peninsula”

The Covid-19 pandemic hit the GCC (Gulf Cooperative Council) states particularly hard in 2020, leading to hundreds of thousands of immigrants losing their jobs and having to leave the country, people stranded as borders closed, and a rise in xenophobia. But humans were not the only ones impacted by these changes. Animal abandonments skyrocketed, shelters were at capacity, and street animal populations grew as people lost their livelihoods and relocated to their home countries leaving their pets behind. Meanwhile, Dubai banned the feeding of stray animals, which led to heightened anxieties among residents who regularly feed stray cats around their homes and workplaces and had developed relationships with specific animals who depended on their care. The pandemic exacerbated precarities among immigrants and animals, as well as highlighted their entanglements. This paper, part of a larger research project in its early stages, discusses human-nonhuman relationships in the United Arab Emirates, particularly the forms of care and affection between immigrants, who occupy a liminal space of permanent temporariness due to their dependence on renewable short-term work visas, and stray cats, who also exist liminally, in-between domestic and wild, owned and ownerless. I explore the importance of these human-nonhuman bonds for mitigating the isolation and out-of-placeness that these groups of urban dwellers often experience. For many immigrants, these relationships and care practices have been a source of kinship and intimacy, a way to build social networks with other humans, an opportunity to make political criticisms of state and society, and a site for the articulation of racial and cultural differences. I highlight how a transspecies approach to Gulf urbanism is essential to understanding forms of belonging and exclusion, particularly in the wake of structural upheaval.

Damani Partridge, University of Michigan, “Legal Impossibilities”

What work does the law do for the noncitizen? How does one organize amidst its constraints? Could the law ever be a source of liberation or must one organize in spite of its regulatory force? This paper thinks from the perspective of dispossession in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Berlin. Amidst histories of land grabbing, mass incarceration, and death, what should come next? What new forms of political possibility can one imagine? What possibilities are already in effect? Can these forms be mobilized transnationally or are they only relevant to particular contexts?

Panel 5: Analogical Indeterminacy: On the promise and limits of non-human analogies | JRRB 399

Organizer: Victoria Nguyen, Amherst College and Vinicius de Aguiar Furuie, University of Toronto

Chair: Victoria Nguyen, Amherst College

Discussant: Jerry Zee, Princeton University

Panel Abstract: In recent years, anthropologists have extended ethnographic inquiry “beyond the human” (Kohn 2013, Tsing 2015, Haraway 2016), highlighting how such analyses can help us better understand social life and the anthropos. Analogies have been vital to this process, helping to resolve the interpretive dilemma non-human subjects pose. In this sense, analogies help to capture ineffable connections, detachments and displacements; facilitating comparison even as they admit fundamental differences (see Raffles 2010). This panel explores the role of analogies and “analogical thinking” in creating meaning in and across zones of indeterminacy. We explore how analogies are used to navigate the space between what anthropology has deemed “incommensurate realities” (see Povinelli 2001) or zones of “ontological conflict,” (Blaser 2013), attending to how they configure or prefigure understandings of more-than-human relations. How are both human and non-human subjects constituted through analogy? How does analogy work to render subjects familiar or strange? What are the promises and limits of such analogies, and how might non-human-knowledge-as-analogy assert affinity even as it bolsters differences? 

Vinicius de Aguiar Furuie, University of Toronto, “Fishing Families: Moral analogies and human-animal-state relations”

The fisherfolks of the Iriri river—in the Eastern Brazilian Amazonia—talk about the tucunaré with a great deal of reverence. They admire the fishes’ “family values”: their loyalty to their partners and vigilance of their offspring. Seen as entities imbued with moral agency, the tucunaré are not just a natural resource or a commodity. Through a form of analogical thinking that relates the tucunaré’s family values to their own, the fisherfolk calibrate the relation between themselves and the fish, imposing limits on how many fish they catch by weighting their obligations to their families against those of the tucunarés to theirs’. This moral analogy also affects relations to state agencies that regulate fishing: fisherfolk’s accounts of self-sacrifice resonate with the tucunaré’s, but are not recognized by the state. This paper positions the relationship between fisherfolk and tucunaré alongside other anthropological accounts of human-animal relationality in anthropology. Examining moral analogy alongside ascriptions of reciprocity, eroticism, violence, predation and domestication, I argue that it opens a space of in-betweenness between the “ideal hunt” (Willerslev et al 2015) and the “alternate ontology of hunting” (Nadasdy 2007).

Victoria Nguyen, Amherst College, “Intimate Invasives”

In 2002, the emerald ash borer—a dime-sized, iridescent Asian beetle—was discovered in Canton, Michigan. Since then, it has decimated tens of millions of ash trees, making it the most destructive and costly insect to ever invade North America. Engaging the discursive and technical strategies of emerald ash borer representation and mitigation, this paper explores how the constitution of this insect as invader relies upon both historic and novel analogies to animate ideas of threat and endangerment. In this way, I show how the management of invasive species shapes and is shaped by cultural imaginations of nature, urban belonging, state sovereignty, and global security (Helmreich 2005, Subramaniam 2001, van Dooren 2011, Catellino 2017). Yet, asking after the productivities and limitations of cross-species analogies, the paper interrogates how such comparisons inform our understandings of both human and more-than-human worlds. Considering the insect-analogy’s various ordering logics, I suggest the formation of the ash borer as a contemporary biological, economic, and sovereign threat is as much dependent on historic fears and recycled rhetoric as it is upon the work of analogy in rendering the insect both strange and quotidian.

Amy McLachlan, Independent Scholar, “Something like this world: Analogy, substitution, and provisional kinwork with Uitoto migrants”

What is the relationship between analogy and kinship? This paper explores the generative limits of analogic thinking in the curing work of Indigenous Uitoto migrants navigating the hazards and possibilities of (re)making kinworlds under displacement. Uitoto kinwork (the work of making and repairing relations) is mediated and managed through the force of ancestral beings whose bodies are plants. Living far removed from their home territories in the Colombian Amazon, Uitoto migrants are compelled to test the limits of analogic kinships, through the adoption and adaptation of new kinds of kin, new forms of kin reckoning, and new plant kin (Miller 2019) as media and mediators of those relations. Navigating a constant play of substitutions for the substances that materialize kinship, Uitoto migrant curing involves a particular approach to the ‘moral project in perpetuity’ (Londoño 2012) that characterizes much Amazonian kinwork. What do these creative, adaptive, and frustrated forms of kinwork disclose about the limits of the analogic expansion of relation as the basis of ethics beyond the human? What might a perpetually provisional kinwork offer to anthropological approaches to more than human relations?

Panel 6: Unspoken Secrets and Unsettled Pasts |JRRB 301

Organizer: Suvi Rautio, CUNY John Jay College/University of Helsinki

Chair and Discussant: Suvi Rautio, CUNY John Jay College/University of Helsinki

Panel Abstract: This panel probes into the “unspoken things” that are pervasive in power and interpersonal relations. Each paper considers unspoken secrets and unsettled pasts – from the unnamed and withheld information by authorities to the silences and absences embedded in biographical narratives and family histories. In studying these themes, secrecy becomes a proactive investment in relationships to mark exclusionary sociality. Members of a collective ‘know what not to know’ and silence becomes an expression of loyalty to the inner group. The “unspoken” can build both trust and break down relationships; protect and endanger groups and individuals; give control and create vulnerabilities; provide a means to mediate between untrusting persons or groups. Beyond interpersonal affairs, secrets represent that which remain hidden and unseen. Undoing their concealment can lead to fatal consequences. Secrecy is thus integral to power, and although that which remains ‘unsaid’ are sometimes known, they cannot always be articulated (Taussig 1999) and remain phonetically unattainable to outsiders (Derrida 1995). This panel examines the epistemological, emotional, methodological and ethical issues that researchers can come to terms with when confronted by other people’s secrets. Rather than seeking to settle and close unfinished stories of the past, the “unspoken” offers multiple approaches to understand the workings of indeterminacy.

Suvi Rautio, CUNY John Jay College/University of Helsinki, “How Secrets Shape Ethnography”

The objective of this paper is to unpack the relationship between the anthropologist and her interlocutors by considering the role that secrecy plays as a proactive investment in people’s social encounters. Looking at how things left unsaid maintain secrecy and trust, as two connected attributes, this paper asks the following: how does secrecy shape ethnographic research? The material this paper builds on is framed around my previous work with the Dong people of Southwest China to analyze the ways that secrecy and silence became a vital component of our social interactions. I then compare these engagements with my current project that looks at the role silencing plays in the transmission of memory. In combining ethnographic material from two very different projects that both focus on China, the objective of my paper is to unpack the micro-politics and cycles of power that anthropologists enter into when conducting research to bring into sharper focus the roles that secrecy, silence and positionality play in ethnography. In disentangling these cycles, I show how grappling secrets is not about waiting for their sudden exposure, but about adapting to different ways of looking, listening, and paying attention. 

Diana Marre, Autonomous University of Barcelona and Hugo Gaggiotti, University of the West of England, “Suffering in Silence: Stolen Babies and Children as Unspoken Public Secrets in Contemporary Spain”

Since the 2000’s, several scholars and European organizations (Council of Europe 2005, 2006, United Nations Human Rights Council 2014, 2017) have alluded to an unidentified number of children that have been displaced from their birth families through irregular adoptions that took place in Spain during the Civil War (1936-1939), the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975) and the first decades of democracy (1975-1995). This paper discusses why, in Spain, this enforced displacement of children between the 1930’s and 1990’s remains unrecognized and as an unspoken public secret, unnamed and excluded from public and private conversations. The paper elaborates on the concepts of state of exception (Agamben ([2003] 2005) and necropolitics (Mbembe 2003) to justify the implementation of a reign of terror (Taussig 1992; Green 1994) that displaced children and stolen babies face by erasing their identities via social death or more “condescending” approaches. A state of exception that bases itself on a fear that is unnamed, invisible, silenced and secret (Bellman 1981; Taussig 1999) is made to appear as normal and, therefore, is accepted as a way of avoiding fear (Taussig 1992). Hereby, our paper considers how silencing and “un-naming” things become technical devices to support fear.

Nerina Weiss, Fafo Institute for Labour and Social Studies, “Dangerous knowledge and proxy-reasons: therapeutic attempts of a former PKK fighter”

A sunny noon somewhere in Turkey, Jihan finds herself sitting on the balcony and contemplating suicide. Her friend happens to pass by and convinces her to seek medical help. Indeed, Jihan is allowed to jump the queue and is taken in as an acute case. The doctor immediately realizes that Jihan has experienced some trauma, however, which is unclear. Jihan on her side remains unwilling or unable to tell of her past as a guerrilla fighter and her experiences during prison in the 1990s. Based on biographical interviews with Jihan, a former PKK guerrilla fighter, this paper explores the limited access Kurdish activists in Turkey have to medical and psychological support for their health issues caused by violence and trauma. Theoretically I draw on the literature of ignorance and not-knowing (Dilley and Kirsch 2015), as well as on Das’ (1996) concept of poisonous knowledge to explore Jihan’s meeting with the medical sector in Turkey. Her experiences of war, torture and imprisonment constitute dangerous knowledge, which is difficult to share in a context where the therapeutic safe room cannot be taken as a given. After all medical stuff have been actively involved in the torture of political prisoners, and political cleavages also exist in the therapist-patient relationship today. Jihan – and probably also the doctor – therefore navigate a therapeutic setting vested with mistrust and silences and explore the unsaid traumata and proxy-reasons in an attempt to cope with the traumata and violent experiences unsaid. 

Marta-Laura Haynes, CUNY John Jay College, “Untrusting: The gendered labor of winning ‘hearts and minds’”

Trust in the police is commonly seen as a major indicator of a ‘healthy’ democracy. Hence, building trust has become the centerpiece in community policing efforts worldwide, including in Rio de Janeiro and Recife, Brazil. However, in a country where a ‘George Floyd’ is killed by police eight times per day, trust in the state is always a political project of subjugation and, ultimately, white supremacy. In these landscapes, trust presents itself as a historically fraught, gendered, and racialized concept. It must be read as more than a moral commitment, a character disposition, or a dynamic set of interests negotiated between transacting parties (Jiménez 2011). Rather, contestations around trust—and its ever present shadow distrust— allow us to think through the precarity of Black life in the wake of the plantation (Sharpe 2016). By approaching trust as a verb rather than a noun (Coates 2019), this paper explores not simply what trust is but the gendered labor it performs in police units and favelas subjected to ‘democratic’ policing efforts. My research suggests that trust has become but a placeholder for a process of racial passing and is feeding into an underlying racist power structure. What if we let go of trust in policing and embrace distrust as counter-hegemonic resistance and articulation of care? In regions where policing results chronically in violence instead of public service, my research shows the devastating consequences of the highly racialized, gendered, and frequently hidden reality of trust.

Andreas Bjorklund, University of Oxford, Secrets, silence and creativity among stateless Kuwaiti Bidoon asylum-seekers

In the European asylum context, truth-telling is expected to discern the ‘genuine’ from the ‘bogus’ refugee through credibility assessments (Liodden 2019) measured against ‘objective country material’. The latter (e.g. UKHO 2016) has dichotomised stateless Kuwaiti ‘Bidoon’ asylum-seekers into two ‘types’, whereby one is more likely than the other to be granted refugee status. This ‘labelling’ (Zetter 1991) becomes productive of specific communal relations that pit individual needs against collective understandings of history and claims for justice. But some specifics of how this happens cannot be said lest it disqualify people for protection. Here, the unspoken paradoxically reconstructs and erases communal boundaries. Nevertheless, the ‘unsaid’ is in fact often known – a ‘public secret’ (Taussig 1999) – leading the sociological function of the secret to become a primary concern (Simmel 1950) as opposed to the content of the secret itself. Danger mostly arises when known secrets must explicitly be articulated. This all presents problems for ethnographic portrayal and the production of knowledge about a community whose identity is under question. It also causes ethical dilemmas for engaged anthropologists and others who participate in the asylum process, for example before asylum tribunals. Drawing on Sarró’s (2022) analysis of the secret as an ‘imagination trigger’ that inspires creativity, this paper explores how secrets contribute to ambiguities that distribute benefits and risks unequally and unpredictably. In doing so, I argue for both a literary ethnography as a mode of writing, and an engaged anthropology recognising its limits to voice clarity where silence prevails.

Roundtable: Revisiting Rappaport’s Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity |JRRB 397

Organizers; Michael Lambek, University of Toronto and Jacob Bessen, University of Toronto

Chair: Michael Lambek, University of Toronto

Abstract: It is now over 20 years since the publication of Roy Rappaport’s magnum opus Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge University Press, 1999). It is time for a retrospective on this important work, one which perhaps has not received the attention it deserved — and continues to deserve. At once a profound analysis of the formal consequences of ritual and an elaboration of the relation of humanity with the world we all inhabit, the book also examines the creation of truth and certainty within life conditioned by indeterminacy, alternatives, and the possibility of deceit. Participants will offer a range of responses to the book, emphasizing its relevance to current conversations and directions within ethnographic theory, the opportunities it offers our social and political engagements, and informed critique.


Keith Hart, Goldsmith, University of London

Thomas Csordas, UC San Diego

Ellen Messer, Tufts University

Jacob Bessen, University of Toronto

Michael Lambek, University of Toronto

Vlad Naumescu from CEU (Central European University)

Salon: Severance |Aaron Burr Third Floor Lounge

Organizers: Ilana Gershon, Rice University, Nelle Mole Liston, NYU, and Caitrin Lynch, Olin College

We invite people interested in a wide-ranging discussion about the Apple + television show, Severance.  We will explore what the show reveals about how capitalism has shaped the moral economy of time and affect and the kinds of selves neoliberalism enables.  We are especially interested in the critiques of corporate life and management practices embedded in the show.  Please join us if you have watched the show, and long to talk about it with fellow anthropologists.

Panel 1: Enacting Climate Knowledge and Politics in Global Climate Institutions | Aaron Burr Hall 213

Organizer: Jessica O’Reilly, Indiana University

Chair and Discussant: Cal Biruk, McMaster University

Panel Abstract: Activists and advocates often invoke the motto “follow the science,” whether their cause is climate, vaccines, or fiscal policy. This slogan suggests that solutions are readily discernible from scientific research. But while decision-making may proceed from an apparently authoritative body of knowledge, both producing and enacting this knowledge involves navigating indeterminacy, both as a challenge and as a site of possibility. Panelists will explore how both climate knowledge and climate politics are formed, contested, and enacted in global climate institutions, with a particular focus on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 27th Conference of Parties (COP27), held in November 2022 in Egypt.

Charles Nuermberger, Princeton University, “Evaluating the Existing Documentation of Youth Climate Activism”

We surveyed documentation of youth activity in relation to the UNFCCC, to evaluate their claims of political engagement. For the purposes of this archival analysis, we centered mainstream newspapers, UNFCCC programming, independent media outlets, and youth NGO websites. We found that, though rates of youth participation with the international climate process are increasing, this engagement has been inadequately documented. To involve youth more substantially as actors in the process, we advocate for the use of genre writing to capture under-examined youth voices, in addition to more standard forms of documentation. 

Jessica O’Reilly, Indiana University, “Anticipating 1.5 degrees”

At COP21 in Paris, UNFCCC leadership issued an invitation to the IPCC to produce a special report on limiting global warming to 1.5°C. The assessment report, known as SR1.5, has driven the international conversation about climate science and policy since its publication in 2018. SR1.5 mapped the notion of carbon budget—itself a fraught signifier that indicates how much more CO2 can be emitted without exceeding a temperature threshold—onto time. Specifically, the report estimated that the world would exceed the carbon budget to limit warming to 1.5°C somewhere between 2030 and 2052. Activists picked up on the 2030 number as a “deadline,” and the countdown began immediately: as of 2018, activists declared, we had “12 years left.” Several IPCC leaders and authors—many of them well-versed in interacting with governments and communications strategists—have expressed frustration with this message. First, there were not 12 years left to act if we want to limit warming to 1.5°; the time to act was instantly. Second, while the timescale might help people comprehend the urgency of the issue, it also suggests that we will move, in a linear fashion, toward a threshold that we will cross, or not cross, at the projected time. In fact, climate change is not unfolding in a linear way that we can, at some point, simply stop. What’s more, improvements in measurement and models meant that, between the Special Report (2018) and the AR6 assessment (2021), we missed the mark. In retrospect, we had already blown the 1.5°C target as the number was being negotiated. Scientists are engaged in a difficult, collective balancing act of precision and politics, as they seek to underscore the urgency the climate crisis demands without giving up their own professional credibility.

Naveeda Khan, Johns Hopkins University, “A Tale of Global Climate Negotiations”

With a focus on the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), the means by which countries are to report on their carbon emission reduction targets and the pathways by which to achieve them, this paper describes common tabular formats for reporting as the central way the Paris Agreement seeks to corral countries to combat climate change. The accounting regime that is at the heart of the Agreement is excavated to show how it indexes, however feebly, the entangled and often violent histories of colonialism and extractivism without providing a clear pathway to redressing these.

Cindy Isenhour, University of Maine, ““Just” or “Just” Numbers?: On Climate Justice Advocates’ Quest to Expose the Indeterminacy and Injustices of Climate Accounting”

Climate negotiators rely on reports of each country’s emissions to make decisions about how to best avoid dangerous climate change and assign responsibility for mitigating its worst impacts. Compared to some negotiation spaces where issues of justice are central, conversations about emissions accounting have always been understood as technical, apolitical spaces focused on “just the numbers.” But anthropology has always understood the indeterminacy of numbers, despite their sheen of objectivity and the way they can mask and reproduce injustices. In this paper, we draw on five years of observations at the climate negotiations to explore the recent emergence of tensions around climate accounting on the international stage as climate justice advocates increasingly insist on “just” methods of accounting that allocate the remaining carbon budget fairly —with an eye towards distributional justice. And yet, it is the indeterminacy surrounding what might replace current accounting methods that seems to close down more ambitious and just possibilities for both negotiators and activists. 

Panel 2: Interlocutors’ Pragmatic Production of Indeterminacy and Unknowability |JRRB 397

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant: Michael Lambek, University of Toronto

Marco Motta, University of Neuchâtel, “The Vagueness of Concepts: Lessons on Ordinary Language from the Perspective of Haiti”

In this paper, I will show that vagueness and opacity are, more often than not, precisely what concepts need in order to be what they are and to do what they are meant to do. Drawing on fieldwork in Haiti, I will show how certain ways of using ordinary language are precisely meant to cultivate a kind of indirectness and indeterminacy, notably over what is taken for fact as well as what is considered context. Indeed, there are ways of speaking that destabilize our confidence in a stable and determinate knowledge of the world. Moreover, the often allusive, equivocal, and ambiguous character of the use of language seems to doom any effort to draw sharp lines between concepts. What this puts into question is not only the idea that for concepts to be concepts, they need to be clearly delimited and defined; it also questions our drive to certainty. And though vagueness may at times serve specific or even strategic purposes (like in courts or love affairs) this is not always the case. In fact, vagueness is inherent to language as a whole, thus to a whole form of life. Through a few examples, I will show the aesthetic and political importance of the improvised, playful, and poetic dimensions of everyday speech.

Seema Golestaneh, Cornell University, “Indeterminacy as Epistemic Practice: Mysticism, Knowledge and Precarity in Iran”

In my research among Islamic mystics in Iran, I encountered a number of individuals and collectives who embraced a particular form of mystical knowledge called ma‘rifat. While much has been written on the concept of ma‘rifat over the years, my focus is the particular hermeneutic stance of my interlocutors— the Iranian Nimatullahi Sufis. I translate ma‘rifat, in their sense of the term, as “unknowing”. In affirming the unfathomability of God, unknowing operates as an engaged awareness that we (humanity) know very little, approximating nothing. Yet this intense awareness of the limitations of human cognizance is not thought to impede intellectual contemplation; rather it is an opportunity to position oneself at a precipice, the limits of knowability, which becomes a point from which it is possible to develop new epistemologies. Just as indeterminacy speaks to an acknowledgement or emphasis on that which is ambiguous and unsettled, so too does unknowing involve an engagement with that which is fundamentally inscrutable and beyond our reach. In this paper, I will first consider how unknowing is articulated and practiced by Nimatullahi Sufis as an epistemic practice. I will then examine their embrace of unknowing in light of the fact that the position of Sufis within the Iranian socio-political sphere is both tenuous and unclear, with significant implications for their ability to practice freely. I will conclude with a brief speculative discussion on what insights unknowing might offer into the production of anthropological knowledge as a whole.

Ahona Palchoudhuri, Brown University, “The Indeterminacy of a Request: Rain-Making Rituals in Rural Bengal”

What is it that we know and don’t know when we say “please”? Linguistic anthropologists (Levinson 1983) have studied how strategies of request often deploy an aesthetics of doubt via which petitioners adopt tones of uncertainty and indirectness as ways of mounting affective pressure on their addresses. Rather than reducing the petitioner’s uncertainty to a culture of politeness (Felix-Brasdefer 2005), I consider how the forms of doubt built into a request also enable the mutability of its content. Such an open-endedness of what it is that one needs is characteristic of life lived in material precarity, in which an unpredictability of circumstance often demands an everyday renegotiation of  aspiration and resource. I situate my examination of the relation between doubt and request in an ethnographic study of rain making rituals in the Bankura district of rural West Bengal, where minor fluctuations in the daily tempo of rain often determine whether there will be a drought or a flood. I find that rain-making rituals in Bankura are structured so as to simultaneously request the presence and absence of rain. 

Bilal Nadeem, Stanford University, “Between Piety and the Everyday: Islam, Faith, and Reason during a Public Health Emergency”

The Covid-19 pandemic gave rise to new epistemic struggles and discursive possibilities at the nexus of theological modes of reasoning and public health rationality. Conducting ethnographic research in the UK during Covid-19, I illustrate how some Sunni Muslims brought religious ways of knowing to bear on the indeterminacies of pandemic life. First, my interlocutors granted a cardinal place to concerns for their tawakkul (trust in divine plan). Yet, they articulated different notions of what constituted reliance on God, ultimately translating these notions to a spectrum of attitudes towards vaccination, social isolation, and quarantining. Second, amid protracted uncertainty engendered by the pandemic, these Muslims attempted to locate divine wisdom within disordered physiological processes associated with coronavirus, the efficacy of public health restrictions, and broader social transformations consequent to the pandemic. All in all, in concerns related to their tawakkul and their explorations of divine wisdom, my interlocutors attempted to vest secular, scientific knowledge and everyday life under a public health emergency with sacred meaning in ways that destabilized paradigmatic divisions between piety and the everyday. 

Panel 3: Legal Figurations |Aaron Burr Hall 209

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant:  Tobias Kelly, Edinburgh University

Smoki Musaraj, Ohio University, “Remittances, Kinship, and the Rule of Law: An Ethnography of Judicial Reform at the European Periphery?

Judicial reforms have become important rites of passage to European Union accession. Mandated by transnational bodies and implemented by local commissions, such reforms are often shot through with indeterminacy around the very notions of legitimate wealth and legitimate exchange. Such indeterminacy arises primarily from the legal pluralism that constitutes these reforms. This paper explores the inherent indeterminacies of judicial reforms in transitional justice contexts by taking a closer look at the vetting of judges and prosecutors that has been taking place in Albania since 2016. Assets of sitting judges and prosecutors are evaluated by two local independent commissions and monitored by an international body. The legitimacy of these assets is often a subject of contention and a leading cause for demoting judges and prosecutors. In justifying such assets, remittances and gifts from intimate partners and kin, typically in cash, are often presented by the defendants. These financial assets are, at times, deemed as illegitimate and, other times, as legitimate sources of wealth. Remittances constituted a widespread source of income for Albanians in the 1990s and 2000s, yet they are often difficult to document given their informal nature. Based on courtroom observations of hearings at the two commissions between 2019-2021, this presentation explores the various ways that money, kinship, and law intertwine in the assessment of remittances and gifts as legitimate/illegitimate sources of wealth. I note how these contestations speak to multiple and contradictory cultural notions of kinship and legitimate exchange among kin. Drawing upon Viviana Zelizer’s work on money and social ties, I explore how intimate and kinship relations are defined and contested in the vetting process by various parties. Further, I examine how these contestations contribute to a general state of indeterminacy of the legal and cultural framework of judicial reform in transitional justice contexts. 

Johana Romer, University of Essex, “’Voy de Mariscos’: Bureaucratic Closure in Catalan Judicial Process”

What are the theological and political discourses that shape judges’ and criminal justice professionals’ understandings of violence in a Catalan carceral system? While much has been written about the subjective experience of uncertainty engendered by neoliberalism, the relationship between neoliberal bureaucratic processes and uncertainty is variegated. Taking as a case study the transformation of the role of penal judges in a Catalan criminal justice system in a neoliberalizing Spanish region, this paper explores the effects of neoliberal policies on judicial procedure in this context. It argues that neoliberal processes have ultimately magnified the power of prosecutors and some prison staff in determining outcomes in sentencing and parole, leading penal judges and some professionals to seek alternative responses to conflict within carceral institutions. 

Pablo Aguilera Del Castillo. University of Pennsylvania, “Environmental Expertise as Doubt and Multiplicity: The Political and Epistemic Affordances of Indeterminacy in the Collaborations Between Water Chemists and Environmental Lawyers in Mexico”

Simultaneously a source of doubt and multiplicity, indeterminacy conjures notions of incompleteness and unfinishedness. But perhaps interrogating indeterminacy can illustrate how its productivity lies precisely in this dual nature. In this paper, I examine the relationships between law and science in the case of Mexican environmentalism in Yucatan. Building on my fieldwork research, this paper focuses on how environmental lawyers borrow scientific concepts in their legal statements and how scientists rely on legal boundaries in the construction of their scientific claims. I examine this complex process, paying close attention to the role of the “precautionary principle,” “shifting burdens of proof,” the existence of “reasonable doubt,” “catastrophic risk,” and the changeability of “pollution thresholds.” By analyzing the use of these concepts between lawyers and scientists, I offer an initial reflection on how indeterminacy becomes a fertile ground for the cultivation of new ethical practices and political subjectivities among Yucatecans. This approach to the study of environmentalism illustrates how the crises are not just discursively rich events, but also epistemically important sites of knowledge making practices.

Sara Omar, Georgetown University, Sexing and Governing Indeterminate Bodies in Islamic Law 

Paper Abstract: Muslim jurists have historically defined sex as a particular set of genital acts. Males in contrast to females were expected to perform different gendered roles during coitus. Indeed, gender differentiation was a major component of Muslim scholars’ socio-legal system of hierarchy. Since Jurists’ legal determinations resulted in tangible socio-legal and spiritual consequences, they were invested in sexing bodies along gendered lines to the extent possible. As such, no single body could remain sexually neutral and ungendered after reaching the age of puberty.  Given this framework, what did medieval jurists do with indeterminate bodies that defied the male/female binary? Did they force them to fit into their legal system, which was rooted in a fundamental presumption of sex and gender polarity? How did they legally accommodate unsexed and unsexable bodies? This paper explores such questions while examining the process and ways in which Muslim jurists sought to sex, socialize and consequently govern all bodies exclusively along the male/female binary.

Sarah P. Robinson, Critical Inquiries Research, “Sally Moore’s Theory of Process: Absolute Indeterminacy as Starting Point and Background Condition”

“Almost 50 years ago, in 1975, Sally Moore (1924-2021) articulated a powerful theory of process, which she used, argued for, and developed over her long and brilliant career in anthropology. Process is both method and idea: a way of approaching fieldwork and a way of making sense of materials gathered. While notoriously difficult to sum up, process focuses on human action in the flow of time and is a way of studying – and seeing, in one frame – efforts to create order and efforts to unmake or remake order. Of critical importance, process rests on “the basic postulate . . . that the underlying quality of social life should be considered to be one of theoretically absolute indeterminacy” (1975:232). As such, efforts at fixity may reduce (but never eliminate) indeterminacy, but only for a time, and efforts against fixity or towards new fixities exploit indeterminacy and may create more or less indeterminacy. The contexts in which Moore developed and used process ideas included, famously, studies of law and of the state. This paper: (1) examines Moore’s theory of process in detail, including the notion of absolute indeterminacy as starting point and background condition, (2) argues that Moore’s theory of process is highly valuable for addressing the dis-order of our present, and (3) argues, in particular, that Moore’s theory of process can should be used to develop a highly productive approach to an anthropology of the state. 

Panel 4: Indeterminacies in Life Courses | JRRB A12

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant: Jackie Solway, Trent University

Miranda Tuckett, New School, “Choreographing Death: Negotiating Ambivalence around Dying through Gift Giving and Narration”

In October 2021, a woman I call Theresa died an assisted death in Switzerland. Those of us who had been present received an ornament a week later with a note that read: “The Stars are Bright Tonight, Love Theresa”. This was one of many material gifts and artifacts that made up Theresa’s death. Alongside gift giving, this paper will focus on a text that Theresa wrote before she died in which she details a conversation between “mind and matter”. Theresa articulates the tension as one between desire and fact. This text demonstrates the internal paradoxes of secular understandings of personhood, rationality, and decision making. There is an assumption that resistance to assisted dying concerns the biopolitical powers of the state.  This analysis doesn’t help to understand the ambivalence present among those who are planning to die. This ambivalence is often overlooked or repressed. Building on over 12 months of fieldwork in London and Switzerland, this paper attends to how Theresa choreographed her death. I contend that the term choreography can be opened up to consider doubt and ambivalence as it relates to self-reflexive personhood and decision making. I consider the notion of choreography as a form of narrating one’s death which stays with uncertainty.

Kim Shively, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, “Cemetery Establishment as Place-Making: Death and Muslim Exiles in the U.S.

Muslims who experience exile often face indeterminacy as they age and face death. Many Muslim migrants wish to be returned to their homelands for burial, in part because they view burial in Muslim contexts as important to accruing the blessings that will help them on Judgment Day. But what happens when repatriation is impossible? This paper examines how Muslim refugees living in the US reconsider the final dispositions of their bodies, seeking new models to guide them in their decision-making about death in “ghurba” (a foreign place). Some feel they have a renewed relationship with major figures of the Muslim past since they, like the Prophet Muhammad, will be buried not in their homeland but in ghurba. To follow the example of the Prophet in this respect, Muslims have established new Muslim cemeteries in the US, which allows for migrants to worry less about missing the blessings that come from being buried in Muslim contexts, since they reconceptualize burial in ghurba as generating the blessings associated with following the life of the Prophet. This paper examines how cemetery establishment as place-making is an essential way in which Muslim exiles create a more certain future for themselves in this world and the next.

Pierre Minn, University of Montreal, “Voluntary Childlessness and Indeterminate Futures”

The Canadian province of Québec has gone from having one of the world’s highest fertility rates to one of the lowest in less than a century. A growing number of young adults in Québec are publicly stating their intentions not to have biological children, with some resorting to surgical sterilization procedures as a way of embodying their decisions. In this paper, I will explore the indeterminacies that result when Millennials and members of Generation Z  take positions against their own and others’ biological reproduction. Working against assumptions that young heterosexual men are not concerned with paternity or reproduction, I propose an ethnographic investigation of how straight, cisgender Québécois men imagine or foreclose their personal and collective futures. This study is of particular salience in Québec, a minority-majority polity founded through settler colonialism where the continued existence of the French-Canadian population was historically attributed to high fertility. Drawing on feminist and queer work of reproduction and futurity, this study considers the influence of climate change, heritage, masculinity and linguistic identities on decisions not to father children.

Panel 5: The Political Uses of Semiotic Indeterminacy | JRRB 399

Organizer: Ilana Gershon, Rice University

Chair: Ilana Gershon, Rice University

Panel Abstract: There is often ambiguity in what signs mean, and this ambiguity can serve different political ends depending on the structured ways the ambiguity is formulated and interpreted. Sometimes a sign can be openly recognized as multivalent by a heterogeneous community of interpreters. Sometimes a sign is seen as tightly tied to a particular meaning, despite how the sign is actually deployed in practice. Sometimes formulators believe the sign is a transparent representation, yet the sign’s interpreters will have none of this putative transparency in meaning. How people make use of and respond to semiotic indeterminacy reveals a great deal about how people enact power relationships in a variety of publics and institutional settings. These papers each focus on one way in which semiotic indeterminacy can be structured – such as a strategically deployed shifter ala Urciuoli – and explores what possibilities are created or prevented through strategic use of this ambiguity. 

Bonnie Urciuoli, Hamilton College, “Revisiting the strategically deployable shifter, or, manipulating indeterminacy for power and profit”

The making of meaning is fundamentally indexical, tied to the conditions in which it is produced, always subject to change, revision, and alternate interpretations. Semiotic indeterminacy is thus built into the social nature of meaning-making. While not generally an issue in routine discourse, institutional and organizational fields of discourse are often concerned with control of discursive ambiguity. In fields of discourse such as politics and marketing, concerned as they are with messaging and persuasion linked to the power, positioning, and profit, the semiotic potential provided by indeterminacy is manipulated to produce meaning that appears both fixed and vague, at least among those engaged in the discourse. Why such investment in manipulating semiotic indeterminacy into an appearance of determinacy? The answer lies in what gets indexed by such manipulation: the nature of these fields of discourse, the means by which their agents exercise control or authority, for whose benefit, toward what desired outcome (not that it always works). To illustrate this, I discuss what I have called strategically deployable shifters: discursive acts in which social actors operating in such fields take advantage of the indeterminacy of terms like skills or communication or diversity while performing what appear to be acts of clear-cut reference. Such usage points to and recreates strategic social alignments, a function far outweighing the importance of denotative specificity. Building on this analysis (originally developed to account for promotional usage in corporate and corporatized higher education registers), I explore these principles in greater detail.

Anna Weichselbraun, Berggruen Institute, “On the semiotic indeterminacy of the security seal”

The tamper-indicating seal in nuclear facilities is widely understood as a simple binary sign: the seal is either intact or broken, and these poles map onto a moral binary. Intact seals indicate compliant behavior, whereas broken seals indicate something suspicious. Yet, the seal’s status as apparently simple and binary conceals a semiotic indeterminacy that is put to use politically in the ethnographic context of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s nuclear safeguards program. Nuclear inspectors apply seals in the nuclear facilities of member states to ensure that the verified nuclear resources in the facility is not tampered with in their absence. This paper examines, in a first step, the use of tamper-indicating security seals at the IAEA, and the work that is put into making the sign become legible as binary. In a second step, it examines how the interpretation of a seal as broken occurs iteratively across a bureaucratic structure that mobilizes various actors into a common meaning-making project that is, however, filled with tensions. Whereas the IAEA’s bureaucratic staff wants to find maximally stable meanings that can stand on their own, the diplomats take up these meanings only to unsettle them again. The seal’s semiotic indeterminacy thus becomes a powerful resource in the search for causality and intention which might ultimately determine the moral status of the member state under scrutiny.

Elana Resnick, UC Santa Barbara, “The Determined Indeterminacy of White Supremacy”

This talk explores how manifestations of systemic white supremacy take hold through the widespread politics of racial disavowal. Rooted in ethnographic and archival research in Sofia, Bulgaria, I examine how strategies of what I call “determined indeterminacy” naturalize white supremacy and institutional racism. Determined indeterminacy is a collective method of deniability—the institutional and everyday denial of the systemic racism that undergirds social life. Tracing the changing politics of racial disavowal within a long history of racial erasures might help us understand how the strategic indeterminacy of contemporary white supremacy takes shape and works to naturalize, transform, and fix longstanding racial hierarchies.

Josh Babcock, University of Chicago, and Ilana Gershon, Rice University, “The State Ignoring Subject: Ideologies of Substantive and Procedural Listening in U.S. School Board Meetings”

In this paper, we turn to recent US school board meetings to explore how semiotic indeterminacy underpins the ways people organize to ignore specific participant roles in local democratic contexts. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, school boards across the U.S. gained widespread public attention as ideological battlegrounds. This was not substantively new, school boards were crucial sites at which the state met the street in prior moments, even if mediatized public attention was being directed in new ways. Yet more than the variable substance of the policies-qua-“issues” that refracted binary partisan frames (and vice versa), what emerged in these school board meetings was a persistent question of how the state listens to its citizens – or not. In this paper, we conceptualize the “state ignoring subject” as a figure that gets institutionally structured and interpersonally inhabited in the reflexively public space of the U.S. school board meeting. We elaborate the semiotic and institutional strategies through which procedural listening gets used to block the forms of substantive listening that are variously demanded by meeting attendees, both explicitly through verbal discourse, and implicitly through conduct. We show how individuals work to inhabit and challenge the figure of the state ignoring subject, not in order to refuse seats at the metaphorical table, but to strategically manage what happens after seats are allocated and voices are given space in situations where it has been determined in advance that some groups’ called-for outcomes should be categorically ignored. We build on scholarship in the anthropology of the state and bureaucracy along with linguistic anthropological theorizations of the racially hegemonic listening subject to show how ignoring stands as a constitutive modality of liberal democracy and depends on patterned forms of semiotic indeterminacy. 

Panel 6: The Indeterminacy of Exchange: Graeber’s Contributions to Economic Anthropology Revisited | JRRB 301

Organizer: Jeremy L. Jones, College of the Holy Cross and Chris Vasantkumar, Macquarie University

Chair: Jeremy L. Jones, College of the Holy Cross

Discussant: Gustav Peebles, New School

Panel Abstract: While the late David Graeber’s oeuvre ranges widely across key anthropological terrains, few scholars have contributed so much to economic anthropology’s recent revitalization. Not since the middle of the last century has an anthropologist achieved such massive crossover success with broader audiences. Yet, that achievement has itself for the most part preempted rigorous assessment of his work’s specifically anthropological claims. Relatedly, an over-attention to his anarchist and critical realist leanings tends to obscure his deep debts to scholars such as TPolanyi, Turner, Munn, Mauss, Pietz, MacGaffey, and Weiner, as well as, perhaps surprisingly, to structuralism and other modes of formalist conceptualization. Redressing such elisions, our panel revisits Graeber’s economic work in a critical yet generative manner, opening up his thought to productive reassessment via a focus on his work’s influential yet often indeterminate connections to key anthropological interlocutors. It does so in regard to three main thematic foci. First, it elaborates the consequences of his stark delineation of the “human” from the “economic” for his understanding of value and social creativity in the “dream economies” of early European colonialism in Africa and the Americas vis a vis Mauss and Parry’s understandings of the person(a) in the context of various kinds of exchange. Second, it situates his work on debt against his work on theories of value, and considers how his separation of “hierarchy,” “exchange,” and the ur-principle of “baseline communism” might be read through the Marxist-structuralist lens of “transformation.” Finally, it assesses the often-implicit debts Graeber owes to feminist economic anthropology, particularly with regard to the work of Annette Weiner and the gens as a key conceptual mechanism for delinking relational economic performances from received logics of singularity.

Chris Vasantkumar, Macquarie University, “Un-Making Graeber’s Fetishisms: Rethinking Person, Value and Social Creativity in Colonial “Dream Economies””

My paper reads David Graeber’s work on “human economies” against the grain to reclaim some space for a non-reductive understanding of the roles played by other-than-human entities in the various sorts of interactions commonly glossed as “exchange” or “economic” relations. Specifically, it contrasts his nuanced (if sometimes slightly slippery) readings of ethnological and historical accounts of European colonialism in Africa and the Americas with his assumptions about the anthropocentrism and secularity of all economic behavior. Key here is the tension between his engagement with Mauss and Parry’s writings on the complexity of the notion of the persons/personae involved in any particular exchange (which can be individual and/or collective, human and/or other-than-human) and his reliance on reductive notions of the Fetish and religion more generally which cast any engagement with the non-human as “our own actions coming back at us.” Ultimately, I argue that the often but not always implicit secularism and anthropocentrism of Graeber’s conceptualization of the economic makes it nearly impossible for him to reckon with Wyatt MacGaffey’s more nuanced elaboration of the fetish, in which the latter emerges as a kind of gift-adjacent mode of rooting contracts in/routing contracts through the broader supernatural universe of its African participants. Nor does it allow him to capture the ontological significance of the Fetish within the “dream economies” that characterized the cultural confrontations of early European colonialism in Africa and the Americas in its own terms (as opposed to Marx’s). This in turn leads him to disastrously rehabilitate the discredited colonialist trope of “‘making fetish’ – as a form of collective investment [in which] one can, in effect, create a new god on the spot.” As result his work on value and social creativity simultaneously overstates the ephemerality of African “gods” and underestimates the inarguability of our own. 

Jeremy L. Jones, College of the Holy Cross, “Debt: A Degenerative Template”

This paper reads David Graeber’s history of debt against the backdrop of his earlier work on value, and considers the animating role of violence in each. In analyzing debt, Graeber proposes a tripartite structure of animating moral principles: “baseline communism,” “exchange,” and “hierarchy.” His emphasis on the “baseline” quality of communism is drawn directly from his reading of Mauss, particularly the latter’s political writing. It is intended, we can surmise, as a response to and reframing of several streams of anthropological and political thought: the perennial claim that non-Euroamerican “traditions” were socialist avant la lettre, the zombie-like persistence of the gift-commodity divide, which he deems to be a product of “formalist economism,” and of course the central ideology of our times, that society is an amalgamation of individuals pursuing marginal utility. It is notable, though, that Graeber does not define “exchange” and “hierarchy” as being “baseline.” In part this is a historical argument: the book traces the way violence, including the violence of state structures, shifted the baseline “human economy” into new historical forms. But it often feels like a logical argument, too, with the “baseline” figuring as the simplest–and most violence free–form of the three. Tied to this, I argue, is a question of how these moral principles fit with the specific reading of Marx and structuralism that informs his analysis of value. I explore this link by revisiting his rendering of the polyvalent concept of “transformation.”

Caroline E. Schuster, Australian National University, “Graeber and the GENS: Recalling Debts to Feminist Economic Anthropology”

I first read David Graeber’s Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value in Jessica Cattelino’s graduate seminar in the mid-2000s, shortly after the book was published. We read it as a companion text to the great Melanesian ethnographies of gendered social orders: Weiner, Munn, Strathern. It was only much later, and through my engagement with the GENS collective and their feminist manifesto for the study of capitalism, that I came to appreciate the great debt owed to feminist exchange theory within anthropological theories of value, and particularly Graeber´s contributions to economic anthropology. This talk revisits the three-way connection between gender, value, and exchange that was so central to the Melanesianist anthropological project, and vital to the ethnographic record upon which Graeber built his theory of economic action. Is it possible to decouple the feminist theoretical commitments in this corpus of work from its contributions to economic analysis and understanding of value? What new political alliances and theoretical insights might be gained by foregrounding the often-implicit critique of gendered inequalities in Graeber’s formidable contributions, and by making explicit the intellectual debts owed to the women whose work marked out its foundations?

Roundtable 1: Visualizing Indeterminacy | Aaron Burr Hall 216

Organizer: Carolyn Rouse, Princeton University

Chair: Carolyn Rouse, Princeton University

Abstract: This roundtable focuses on the use of data visualizations to represent complex ethnographic data. Princeton’s Department of Anthropology created the Ethnographic Data Visualization Lab (VizE Lab) to re-engage visual anthropology theory and practice in the digital age. For the roundtable, Jeff Himpele will discuss recent efforts by Princeton’s VizE Lab to incorporate data visualizations into cultural anthropology theory and pedagogy. He will discuss how data visualization can extend anthropology’s purview beyond the sensorial horizons and limits of ethnographic fieldwork while making intelligible a wide range of complexities. Carolyn Rouse and Ivan Melchor will discuss how the VizE Lab is being used to visualize indeterminate flooding risks in New Jersey. The visualizations are meant to help engineers and policy advocates imagine alternative land management horizons. Ken Anderson will discuss how he employed data visualizations at Intel to represent patterns, within cultural indeterminacy, for humanistic design. Finally, Laurence Ralph will describe how he is working to teach political advocates to use visualizations to inspire policy change.


Jeff Himpele, Princeton University

Laurence Ralph, Princeton University

Ken Anderson, Princeton University

Ivan Melchor, Princeton University

Carolyn Rouse, Princeton University

Salon: The Gloaming | Aaron Burr Hall Third Floor Lounge

Organizer: Amy Stambach, (UW-Madison)

Whether you read all or only a few pages of Melanie Finn’s The Gloaming (2016, Two Dollar Radio), you will not miss the fact that its theme of indeterminacy diffuses into questions about anthropological reasoning and the possibility that spectral forces move the world. This salon will summon some of the most shimmering passages of Finn’s work to consider how the gloaming—the twilight, the netherworld of tragedy and guilt—conjures a world more powerful, more formidable and persuasive than, well, what? Anthropology?

Panel 1: Migrant Paths Through Bureaucracy | JRRB A12

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant: Julie Kleinman, Fordham University

This paper analyzes the hopes and futurity of LGBTQI+ East Africans on the move from Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo, who are seeking refugee protection in the Republic of Uganda despite the state’s necropolitics exerted on queer populations, and locates their hopes within the broader political, economic, and social context of relations in queer daily life in Kampala. This chapter draws on in-depth interviews translated from Kiswahili, Kirundi, and Luganda with 9 queer migrants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 4 queer migrants from Burundi, and participant observation in a queer indigenous NGO in Kampala, Uganda (2022), including interviews with lawyers and community organizers working on needs in the growing community of queer migrants seeking protection in Uganda. Preliminary findings reveal that queer migrants from DRC and Burundi share plans of starting small businesses in Uganda, using skills gained in DRC and Burundi in the creative economy (such as catering Congolese food, tailoring Kitenge fashions, or recording and producing music in Kirundi or Kiswahili) and hopes of eventually being placed by UNHCR in a third country that are intertwined with the complex intimacies of gender and sexuality, identity, sex work, and care. Community organizers working with queer migrants in Uganda report that most queer migrants have faced extreme food insecurity in the past 2 years, that queer migrants from Somalia remain segregated from those from Burundi and DRC in the Kampala social landscape, and queer refugees migrating from Rwanda are increasingly using claims of DRC citizenship to enter Uganda. 

Elizabeth Rubio, Princeton University, “What is (to the) Left of Citizenship?: Indeterminacies of Paperless Immigrant Justice”

The question “what is left of citizenship?” (Nyers 2004) in the era of post-9/11 securitization-hysteria and neoliberal state withdrawal is one of enduring social scientific concerns. Dismantling liberal logics that assume continuities between citizenship, rights, and state protection, scholars have upset the notion that 21st century citizenship is a good of unambiguous value. Arguing that the immigrant’s pursuit of citizenship is precisely what aids the nation-state’s “refoundings” (Honig 2005) and lends borders their legitimacy (DeGenova and Peutz 2010), they have also framed said pursuit as a conservative investment. Yet liberal political discourse falsely equates immigrant activists’ outermost political horizons with expansion of citizenship regimes. As such, collective visions that view citizenship as a conduit of harm rather than liberation are often obscured. Through ethnography with undocumented US-based activists enacting abolitionist approaches to citizenship, this paper explores the indeterminacies that attend to collective projects oriented “to the left of” citizenship. If citizenship is one of those universal liberal goods Spivak says we “cannot not want,” what does it look like to strive to refuse it? 

Sina Mirzai, Johns Hopkins University, “What Creates a Sense of Belonging among Kurds in New York City?”

After the very recent event of Jîna (Mahsa) Amini’s murder, a young Kurdish woman at the hands of the Iranian morality police, global awareness of Kurdish identity has increased. This paper ethnographically explores the meaning of Kurdishness among four interlocutors from different areas living in New York City. Interactions with them raised questions around the discourse of the Kurdish diaspora in the US, namely how they find each other and identify as Kurds in relation to 1) their lived-experiences in the United States and 2) Persian, Turkish, and Arab communities. By attending to their experiences of Kurdish background either here or back home, as well as their search for finding other Kurds, I explore what shapes the interlocutors’ sense of belonging and why this belonging is important to them. I argue that my interlocutors seek a more complex “unifying experience” in relation to their Kurdishness nationalism within American culture. In the end, we see the events of the past (such as genocide, persecution, assimilationist project, and state violence against Kurdish gender and ethnicity) are indeed parts of the complexities of the diasporic Kurds in America. And it helps us to rethink the meaning of immigration and nationalism one more time through diasporic emotions.

Marcelo Giacomazzi Camargo, University of Brasília, “History, haunted: Haitian activism in São Paulo and the ghost of slavery”

In the world of Haitian migration to São Paulo, sustaining a dignified mode of living is often described as breaking free from the past and moving into the future. This idea arises between the initial boom of Haitian arrivals to the country and its descent into economic recession. In this period, the then-bustling sectors of civil construction and factory farming differentially incorporated scores of Haitian workers, and tales of physical abuse, unpaid wages, and life-altering injuries abounded. Haitian activism in Brazil arose in response to these realities. Migration was described as an experiment in uniting geographic and historical movement; the move to Brazil would be a move to where the future could be found. Violent capitalist bondage, activists argued, interrupted this momentum, and left Haitians in a form of temporal stasis that risked allowing the ever-encroaching ghost of slavery to catch up. This paper will think with the reflections of Haitian activists in São Paulo today, who interpret this state of historical indeterminacy through their everyday encounters with racism. Racism’s fractality, its capacity to emerge in equally threatening ways across echelons of social life, emerges as evidence of a pervasive national tendency to push Black migrants back through history into the position of slaves ostensibly left behind after the Haitian Revolution and Brazilian abolition. In addition to their direct strategies to combat dispossession, Haitian activists foster a kind of categorical ambiguity by describing their political ties with Brazilians as kinship and laying claim to Brazilian identities for themselves consequently. In a public forum where being Haitian means being Black, and where being Black puts one at risk of temporal displacement, becoming Brazilian is an attempt to upset the given national-racial script and introduce descriptive confusion to avoid crystallization into the preferential object of slavery.

Panel 2: Death and Dying from the Region of the Feminine (Will run continuously from 1.15-3.30) | JRRB 399

Organizer: Clara Han, Johns Hopkins University

Chair: Clara Han, Johns Hopkins University

Discussants: Miriam Ticktin, CUNY and Lotte Segal, University of Edinburgh

Panel Abstract: This double panel takes the experience of death and dying as a site from which to consider how the feminine region – the attention to detail and minor figures – allows for indeterminacy within knowledge and helps us rethink politics, justice, and care. Feminist anthropology has intervened on dominant models of politics which assume a stable boundary between the domestic and the political-jural. Feminist theory on care, on the other hand, has taken care as attention to particulars against a theory of justice, understood in terms of universal principles. Each of the panel participants have examined the ways in which women’s perspectives usher forth different imaginations of justice and politics: the ways in which revolution is imagined and embodied in Iran today and the ways in which mothers seeking justice challenge state legitimacy; the feminine refusal to forgive endemic impunities in relation to the Bangladesh war; the ways in the household and women’s intimate labors recasts the dominant literature on gangs and drug trafficking; how women’s ascetic subjectivities recast the ritual vow on the fast to death. The panel takes as its anchor a method of engaging the minor, as Veena Das puts it, “..we might ask what happens when you start, not so much with the stance of complete innocence with regard to concepts (as if you had never heard the words state, power, or society before) but by acknowledging an indeterminacy on where these are to be found? How could concepts that social scientists use be rethought so as to be seen not as super concepts that belong to some hallowed sites of abstract thought but as humble and quotidian in that they criss-cross with everyday concepts” (Das, 2022: 133-134). This panel responds to this provocation to create concepts via attention to the minor within sites marked by catastrophic violence and chronic grinding violence that shape experiences of death and dying. 

Chowra Makaremi, EHESS, “ “Mothers who want justice” in Iran”

From the “mothers of Khavaran” who demanded truth about the fate of their children, imprisoned and killed in the 1980s, to the “mothers seeking justice” (madaran-e dadkhah) who denounce States killings of protesters from 2017 up until today, movements of “mothers” have radically challenged State legitimacy in Iran, while traveling from the periphery to the center of public attention. The paper will explore the history of different generations and organizations of justice seeking mothers since the 1979 revolution: How did they reconfigure the relationships between affects, kinship and politics? How did these changes reshape the practice of political resistance, drawing one genealogy (among others) of the “Woman Life Freedom” movement, and shedding light on its scope and meanings? 

Nayanika Mookherjee, Durham University, “Irreconciliation and feminine indeterminacy of the Bangladesh War”

In Denktagebuch (Thought Diaries, 1950-1973) Hannah Arendt wrote that acts which cannot be forgiven are beyond punishment and hence cannot be reconciled to. In this paper, I draw from Arendt to further theorize and extend the concept of irreconciliation* and reflect on the lessons of feminine indeterminacy that is central to the idea of justice of the Bangladesh war. This allows me to reflect critically on the interdisciplinary scholarship on reconciliation, apology and forgiveness and theorize irreconciliation as a less examined lens of analysis. Most post-conflict reconciliatory exercises make it incumbent upon survivors to forgive and seek closure as an exhibition of ‘moving on’. Rather than being in opposition to ‘peace’, or be equated to revenge, irreconciliation instead allows various feminine subjectivities of the Bangladesh war to interrogate the status quo by refusing to forgive endemic impunities, particularly in the aftermath of staged processes of justice and absence-presence of the rule of law. As an ethnographically less examined phenomenon, I argue that the indeterminacy of irreconciliation allows an important examination of the ‘rule of law’ within processes of unresolved genocidal injustices.

Shahla Talebi, Arizona State University, ““How Many Times We have to die in order to Live?””

If life and death are not to be perceived as mutually exclusive, with birth taken “as the inception of a linear stretch of time over which a particular life is lived and death as the moment of cessation of that time, but “as working together…within each moment”, as Das and Han suggest (2015), invoking Dōgen’s view, or if, “after death, our molecules continue their journey through the ecosystem…where “a cancer cell could potentially leave the body at death and continue as a life form indefinitely, …,” or if “Many kinds of death at the organism level occur despite health of most of the organs or cells in the body”, or if “Memories not only move between tissues in the same body, they can apparently be moved across bodies” (Levin 2021), then how we may conjure a feminine notion of life, death, body, soul, self and other in light of the recent revolutionary movement in Iran? Can a feminine perspective imagine the victory or/and the defeat of a revolution differently, avoiding the conventional masculine views of them as mutually exclusive instances? What may a feminine anthropology offer to social movements where so many lives lost, so much suffering endured and yet the possibility of a better future appears so fragile if not lacking? What kind of healing or cure may be possible if we imagine different notions of life and death, self and other, memories, imagination and dreams? What can we learn from the Iranian youngsters and their recent revolutionary uprisings?

Miki Chase, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, “The ambiguity of the vow: Indeterminate forms of ideal death in the Jain practice of santhara”

The Jain fast until death, known variably as sallekhana, santhara, or samadhi-maran, is undertaken mostly by laywomen and enacted as a ritual vow. Legal contestation of santhara has led to masculinist discourse that subsumes anxieties around voluntary death as a feminine mode of ascetic practice into questions of communal religious rights. This talk shifts from legal and doctrinal constructions of Jain pedagogy to bring ethnographic attention to dying spaces within the home, asking how laywomen’s santhara deaths are made morally intelligible within social configurations of kinship and community shaped by gendered narratives, matriarchal roles, and the intimacy of everyday life. Anthropological insights in this talk illuminate the vow as not merely an act of individual agency, engaging women’s embedded ascetic subjectivities to reflect on how agency, embodiment, and voice are simultaneously dispersed and collaborative in socially (re)producing the religious ideality of santhara deaths. At the same time, this talk considers how the vow can be otherwise seen as a gesture of ethical repair to achieve a good death even when a religiously ideal death is beyond reach.

Clara Han, Johns Hopkins University, “Household Events: Drug Economies and Multiple domestics”

In the social science literature on drug economies and gangs, the figure of the male gang member and the street have retained a central place, undergirded by assumptions about drug economies as operated by coherent associational networks or “gangs”. In studies that attempt to shift discussions of gang life to topics such as disability, the male perspective continues to be privileged, and questions of care (who is caring for the wounded, the bedridden) are suppressed and unattended to. This paper draws on research in a police-occupied low-income neighborhood in Santiago, Chile. It seeks to shift the focus of drug economies from one positioned on the male gang member and “the street” to household events with attention to the perspective of women. It asks how drug economies and police violence look from these perspectives, what counts as significant, and how justice comes to be imagined from a region of the feminine.

Panel 3: Tarrying with indeterminacy in political and legal anthropology | Aaron Burr Hall 209

Co-organizers: Maria José de Abreu, Columbia University and Milad Odabaei, Princeton University

Chair and Discussant: Milad Odabaei, Princeton University

Panel Abstract: “This panel addresses epistemological concern with indeterminacy in political and legal anthropology. We direct our attention to the sites of creation, subjection, and transgression that expose historical contingencies and performative enactment of law and the inscription of distinct forms of conduct to individual and social bodies. We invite reflections on indeterminacy both as a feature of legal and sociopolitical worlds, and therefore as an object of anthropological reflection, and as the difficulty of naming and conceptualization that exposes anthropology and liberal modes of reason more generally to political-theological indeterminacies of the contemporary world. In the latter case, we invite methodological reflections on indeterminacy at the limit of existing paradigms, and as the site of the emergence of speculative and experimental methodologies. Scholars may consider texts and contexts where the law seeks to give form to sexuality, kinship, and community, as well as human–non-human, and friend–enemy relations–often all at once–by regulating the relation between the private and the public, (zahir the outward) and batin (the inward), and the intimate and the distant. Case studies will include the state regulation of hijab in Iran, and the association of the unveiled body with both impiety and the West, or of the regulation of public sex under right-wing authoritarianism in Portugal. “Virtue,” “chastity,” “custom,” “tradition,” “nature,” “history,” or even “God” emerge as conceptual categories, practical grammars, or political strategies to secure instances of the nomos against indeterminacy or to exploit indeterminacy internal to the operation of the law, rendering the law inoperative and holding its subjects in abeyance. In such cases, we inquire about the temporality, grammar, and the insight of indeterminate states and their epistemological significance for critique and a speculative anthropology of a world to come.

Emilio Spadola, Colgate University, “Life is a part of death: Islam and the indeterminacies of tradition”

For several decades, Jacques Derrida’s and Talal Asad’s distinct and distinctive conceptions of politics, law, and religion have deeply influenced anthropologists and other scholars of religion. In the field of Islamic studies, however, scholars’ embrace of Asad’s genealogical framing of Islam as a “discursive tradition,” combined with Derrida’s admitted lack of expertise, has resulted in an elision of the latter’s thought. To reopen discussion, this paper contrasts Derrida’s (implicit) critique of tradition as genealogy in Politics of Friendship (1997) and other works with Asad’s conception of “living tradition” (2015). Reading Derrida on indeterminacy and death as the precondition of friendship alongside a longtime Muslim friend’s guidance on life and death, I consider non-genealogical dimensions of contemporary Muslim politics and law. 

Harini Kumar, Princeton University, ““Nation at Repair, Women at Work”: Gender, Protest and Citizenship in South India”

From December 2019 to March 2020, India was engulfed in protests against the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The CAA is the first time in the post-colonial Indian legal landscape that religion is being used as a criterion for citizenship. The Act provides a path to citizenship for persecuted minorities from neighboring countries but excludes Muslims. Amid countrywide protests emerged a unique political experience spearheaded by Muslim women. This paper focuses on a protest site in the southern Indian city of Chennai to examine the everyday practices of domestic and ritual life that Muslim women brought to such spaces. While there were recognizable signs of civil disobedience such as marches and protest slogans, this paper argues that the seemingly apolitical aspects of religious and social life—prayer, marriage, and domestic rituals—are also expressions of political and moral will. When protesters exclaim that they will not show their papers, it is not just a form of political dissent; they are also alluding to affective ties to place, kinship, and traditions that temporally and spatially exceed the prescriptive nature of the demands of the state to prove one’s citizenship via documents. Although the protests were about a citizenship law, the protesters were in fact pointing to various modes of belonging that cannot be captured by the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. This paper further unpacks how citizenship claims themselves depend on an (often invisible) infrastructure of care, sociality, kinship, and ethical striving. 

Naor Ben-Yehoyada, Columbia University, “The Age of Doubt”

A tension haunts the multifarious Anti-Mafia project in Sicily: the intimate certainty about the Mafia’s persevering ubiquity meets the uncertainty about what the Mafia exactly is and how to produce a sense of certainty about it. The debate about what the Mafia is and how to fight it has historically vacillated between alternative models for characterizing the Sicilian Cosa Nostra: is it an array of multidimensional and potentially ubiquitous power relations, or a bounded criminal organization? Could it be both? The development of Anti-mafia laws and prosecution methods since the 1980s secured a sense of certainty about the Mafia’s existence and actions. Nowadays, the Palermo Anti-Mafia Paradigm – and the organizational model of the Mafia at its core – seem increasingly insufficient to capture the Mafia’s complex dynamics.What are the ways in which magistrates, journalists, scholars, and politicians perceive the making, power, and subversive potential of this variety of ritual fraternity? To examine how these different perspectives interrelated and changed over the years, we begin by following the recent trial regarding the 1988 murder of a journalist who before his death investigated, among other cases in southwestern Sicily, the relationship between the mafia and a deviated Freemasons’ lodge. Through the trial we may examine how the epistemic tensions between magistrates and other actors turn the wider field of Antimafia inquiry into a key moving site of the struggle over the relationship between law, society, and the state.

​​Maria José de Abreu, Columbia University, “Epistemology of the Clause: Portugal 1953”

My paper analyzes a clause in a Law on “Public Decency” published under the Estado Novo (1933-1974) regime in Portugal. Issued on January 2nd of 1953 by the Municipal State of Lisbon, the clause targets “individuals” caught in the act of committing “vices against nature”- sometimes also described as “crimes against honesty”- in public areas, such as parks and forests within and on the city edges of the capital. What is distinctive about the clause is its reluctance to name the crimes itself criminalizes recurring instead to deixis as a form of tarrying in indeterminacy. But what to make of the relation between prohibition and desire in such (un-) lawful context where the unsaid embeds itself within the said?

Panel 4: Improvisational Migrant Solidarities | Aaron Burr Hall 213

Organizer: Fulya Pinar, Brown University

Chair: Fulya Pinar, Brown University

Discussant: Ilana Feldman, George Washington University

Panel Abstract: Migrant people often improvise creative tactics to continue their mobility and livelihood projects in the face of multiple legal, political, economic, and social indeterminacies. While creative tactics of migrants mostly expand the mobility and livelihood possibilities for their communities, these tactics also run the risk of creating other modes of vulnerabilities. Recognizing the plurality and unevenness of migrant positions in relation to citizens and other migrant communities, the panelists analyze improvisational care and solidarity practices as they generate both aspirations for more livable futures and new modes of everyday domination. The panel discusses how migrant communities experiment with the constrained positions, temporalities, spaces, and mobilities assigned to them through solidarity practices, despite the multiple foreclosures of migrant lives and futures in the contemporary Turkey. Tackling multiple precarities, our research collaborators of the panelists have been improvising with care and solidarity practices to re-claim their neighborhoods, modes of organizing, mobilities, and futures.

Alize Arican, Boston University, “Figuring It Out: Migrant Futures in Istanbul”

Over the past fifteen years, Istanbul’s Tarlabaşı neighborhood has been undergoing urban transformation. The Justice and Development Party government designated a portion of the neighborhood for the construction of a luxury business and residential complex, Taksim 360, leading to property expropriation, evictions, demolitions. For many scholars and activists, Taksim 360 signaled the failure of urban resistance in Tarlabaşı in the absence of an organized movement. But for many migrants who live around Taksim 360, the meantimes of urban transformation are politically significant in itself. In this paper, I trace those residents’ creative practices of “figuring it out” by which they have developed a future-oriented politics of remaining. Led by my interlocutors, I thus present “figuring it out” as a politics of the future. Yet, the future is not singular. Gender, sexuality, racialization, the ability to cultivate futures all render a politics of the future messy and uneven. I attend to the unevenness of futurity even as migrant communities construe it in solidarity.

Secil Dagtas, University of Waterloo, “Rethinking the Solidarity-Charity Dichotomy in Southern Turkey”

As increasing levels of human displacement have met with fortified borders in many parts of the world over the past decades, the question of what constitutes solidarity with migrants has troubled a diverse array of actors including professional humanitarian agencies and social justice activists. The common critiques of depoliticization in migrant solidarity initiatives, however, cannot fully explain the forms of solidarity work undertaken by displaced women in the restricted civic spaces of the Middle East. Drawing on research conducted in 2019 with two Syrian-led women’s organizations in southern Turkey, this paper explores how unevenly positioned migrant women organize themselves and others to address the material needs of their own communities. In attending to how such networks simultaneously reproduce and derive power from the indeterminacies in which migrant lives are entrenched, the paper complicates the tendency in scholarship and activism to pit rights-based advocacy against needs-based action for refugees. It calls for a rethinking of migrant solidarity in its latent, ephemeral, and improvisational forms.

Fulya Pinar, Brown University, “Urban Refugee Mobilities: Refugee Aspirations and Exploitations in Turkey”

With temporary protection regimes becoming the global norm for governing undesired refugees from the Global South since the 1990s, most refugees live as urban migrants. Based on ethnographic research in metropolitan Istanbul with Syrian, Iraqi, and Palestinian refugee communities, this paper examines urban refugee mobility experiences as fields of aspirational solidarities for both citizens and migrants, and fields of exploiting migrants beyond their labor. In the paper, I argue that everyday urban encounters – during public transportation, menial work, leisure – among refugees and citizens generate unexpected solidarities, while producing popular sovereignty over the presence and vitality of refugees. Through such encounters, I show, solidarity practices expand beyond the citizen-refugee divide, but domination also permeates into the everyday lives of refugees beyond the formal governance of refugees within camps and borderlands.

Panel 5: Digital Epistemics: Regimes of Information and the Politics of Indeterminacy | JRRB 397

Organizer: Alejandro Paz, University of Toronto

Chair: James Slotta, University of Texas at Austin

Panel Abstract: Debates rage today about the long-term political effects of new digital infrastructures on what Hannah Arendt dubbed “factual truth”–that is, the plastic political reality arising from public contests about truth. Digital technologies were long heralded as a democratizing force in public life, enabling widespread access to information and participation in political debate. But the flood of information they have unleashed—infodemics, infogluts, infowhelms—is now decried as the breeding ground for a post-truth politics that threatens democracy and hinders social justice. Efforts to sound the alarm about climate change confront waves of climate change skepticism. The advice of public health officials is questioned by anti-vaccine activists urging the public to “do their own research.” Meanwhile, journalists and media personalities present themselves as experts capable of evaluating all of these complex and contradictory flows of information, but they feed rather than settle public agonism. Digital media appear to give rise to a new and more acute kind of indeterminacy and, with that, a new and more unstable epistemic politics.This panel considers the tensions between digital media, their attendant communicative practices, and the epistemics of information. Here we look beyond the increasing quantity of information in the digital era at the particular communicative circuits and speech chains that information flows through. How do such “regimes of information” help to generate uncertainty and indeterminacy? What sort of politics does this indeterminacy enable? And how do powerful institutions and actors seek to maintain or eliminate atmospheres of doubt and uncertainty?

Maria Sidorkina, University of Texas at Austin, “Misinformed or Misaddressed? Auditing News Circulation in War-time Russia”

The Putin regime has long been notorious for “”weaponizing”” communication. While its social media troll armies gained infamy for political influence campaigns abroad before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, observers are freshly worried about the targeting of Russian propaganda to liberalism-skeptical populations around the globe. While there’s little evidence for the effectiveness of Russia’s international influence campaigns, it’s clear that the Kremlin has been able to maintain public dominance about the war against Ukraine at home—beyond overt spamming, censorship and repression. On the one hand, the Kremlin’s national messaging produces uncertainty about everything war-related, from the logistics of mobilization to whether the country is even at war. On the other hand, the regime’s media proxies are very clear about who its messages are for. This paper closely reads two “”addressivity scandals”” that have taken place in Russia since February 2022, to show that the political efficacy of pro-regime and anti-regime communicative circuits, including news reporting, has less to do with the facts reported, and more with the cues about who is able and willing to address “”the silent majority,”” rather than the “”enlightened minority.”” Citizens from either side of the political divide “”do their own research”” to audit the speech chains of their political antagonists. However, while the liberal opposition is merely scandalized by evidence of class-targeted messaging, pro-regime proxies point to liberal speech chains to argue for the opposition’s continued social marginality. The paper draws on participant observation and digital fieldwork conducted with Russian civic activists over the past decade.

Alejandro Paz, University of Toronto, “Monitoring the News for Imperial Publics: Israeli English Journalists and their Sourcing”

“Media” is often described as a battlespace by mainstream Israeli journalists and communications specialists. The advent of internet-based technologies have created enormous shifts in both reporting and consuming the news, including expanding the reach of Israeli news organizations which report in English in sophisticated online sites. This paper considers the tension involved when Israeli journalists address their news stories to consumers with a potentially global reach, while bearing in mind that the communication of information itself can be viewed as a security risk. In particular, based on ethnographic fieldwork in Israeli newsrooms, this paper will describe the practice of monitoring (or scanning) for news stories given the variety of fast-flowing internet enabled sources. Such practices overlap with intelligence gathering in important ways, and, at the same time, help inform the decision-making of important North Atlantic officials. Given their position as experts, how Israeli journalists evaluate their digital sources gives insight into the workings of what I term an “imperial public”—a public that forms around deliberative genres assessing or promoting the imperial use of military or diplomatic force. That is, this paper uses the vantage point of the journalist as an expert in certain digital flows of information to consider how a regime of information forms around the practices of assessing sourcing and its security risks.

James Slotta, University of Texas at Austin, “Anti-vaccine Experts: Alternative Regimes of Expertise in the Post-Truth Era”

The death of expertise has been much lamented in recent years (e.g., Nichols 2017), identified as both cause and consequence of the seemingly explosive growth of post-truth politics, conspiracy theories, and online misinformation. QAnon, the alt-right, and anti-vaxers among other populist movements of the moment all in their own way oppose the authority of experts, whether medical, scientific, academic, administrative, or journalistic. Looked at another way, though, each of these movements is characterized by a regime of expertise of its own: participants in these movements draw on a relatively small group of knowledgeable figures for trusted insights into matters of shared concern. In this presentation, I explore the role of expertise in the anti-vaccine movement by attending to the ways information about vaccines circulates in the online anti-vax ecosystem: the citational practices, the argumentative strategies, and the characteristics of the information itself, which, taken together, constitute a regime of expertise. I illustrate using information about vaccines put forward by Dr. Judy Mikovits, who is best known for her role in the Plandemic video. Though diametrically opposed to the scientific consensus about COVID-19 vaccines, Mikovits’ claims circulate in a way that bears a number of striking resemblances to the circulation of scientific expertise in the public sphere. Here, I highlight several of these similarities to emphasize the important role that expertise plays in the circulation of both scientific and anti-vax knowledge. Rather than the death of expertise, this presentation suggests that the current moment is characterized by a proliferation of it.

Sabina Perrino, Binghamton University, “Chronotopic Uncertainties in Pandemic Times”

Besides suddenly changing humans’ everyday lives, the COVID-19 pandemic has also altered the way we perceive time and space in significant ways. Being forced within circumscribed spaces during the many lockdown orders increased our daily engagement with the many digital platforms that had already been flourishing before the Coronavirus hit the world in early 2020. Back then, friends and family members from Northern Italy shared digital traumatic stories, images, and video clips about death and dread in the Veneto region, where the first confirmed COVID-19 cases were discovered, for example, just two months after the virus was first detected in Wuhan, China. The fast circulation of these digital, recontextualized artifacts has revolutionized the way we navigate through spatiotemporal dimensions, which are often flattened in digital spaces such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Zoom. Inspired by Bakhtin’s (1981) notion of chronotope, by autoethnography and phenomenology, within a linguistic anthropological framework, this paper examines how individuals have been embodying COVID-19 related uncertainties and fears in their everyday lives. Through the analysis of digital narratives, recontextualized images and videoclips, including the ones related to the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic, I show how regionalized chronotopes of war and more global chronotopes of dread have emerged and solidified across digital platforms and how they have been contributing to deep senses of uncertainty, perspectival stances (or ideologies), political tumults, and social injustices.

Becky Schulties, Rutgers University, “Moroccan Information Regimes, Channel Indeterminacy, and Unruly Therapeutics”

Should media channeling democratize therapeutic practice? There has been a sustained campaign by the pharmacy syndicate in Morocco against a wave of natural remedy specialists on radio programs where callers, who are largely women, rural migrants to larger urban spaces, but also aspiring elites, seek homeopathic/organic therapeutic alternatives to pharmacological treatments. In particular, it revolved around a discourse of indeterminacy: nonspecialists who mix and deploy these remedies at home poison themselves because they don’t know enough about plant therapeutics (a phytocommunicability logic). This in turn has been challenged by some listeners/publics who see this framing as motivated by the Moroccan pharmacy industry’s fear over profit margins (an information regime). Yet private media entities continue to disseminate broadcasts of these programs on social media platforms long after bans on radio remedies were instituted. In this paper, I analyze how phytocommunicability logics (Schulthies 2021) undermined state institution information regimes’ indeterminacy argument in their efforts to regulate unruly therapeutic mediums.

Roundtable 1: Indeterminacy in the Wake of Armed Conflict | Dean Conference Room in Friend 

Organizer: Gwen Burnyeat, University of Oxford

Chair: Gwen Burnyeat, University of Oxford

Panel Abstract: Armed conflicts and wars do not end neatly. Far from providing historical, moral or social resolutions, conflicts produce complex and long-lasting reverberations, raising questions about the effects of interlocking patterns of violence on their societies, and what gets changed, sustained, or crystallized. Defining the end of war itself is often a perilous endeavor, deeply enmeshed in both the hope for peace and the enduring ruptures wreaked by years, sometimes decades, of struggle. “Wakes” of conflicts are thus shaped by multifaceted indeterminacies, demanding the redefinition of the contours of nationhood, the reach and scope of historical memory, the terms and arenas of ongoing conflict, the possibility of collective healing processes, and even the definitions of identity and belonging. Our roundtable explores how history, politics and everyday sociality become grounds of contestation, struggle, and imagination in the wake of conflict, drawing on fieldwork conducted in Colombia, Somalia, and beyond. This discussion is designed to be a collective provocation, rather than a presentation of discrete research insights. We organize our opening comments around the above named tensions and then invite the audience into the dialogue: first through a facilitated reflection and, following, through an experimental writing game. These design elements create a generative space that can hold the multivocal range of experiences in the room.


Gwen Burnyeat, University of Oxford

Erin McFee, London School of Economics

Sebastian Ramirez, Princeton University.

Roundtable 2: Formations of the Uncertain: Indeterminacy in Law, Knowledge, and Legal Knowledge | Aaron Burr Hall 216

Organizer: Deepa Das Avecedo, University of Alabama

Chair: Deepa Das Avecedo, University of Alabama

Abstract: ​​This roundtable gathers anthropologists working across a range of sites and thematic foci to discuss indeterminacy in law, knowledge, and legal knowledge. Two participants (Coleman, Dan-Cohen) discuss indeterminacy in epistemic and knowledge regimes. Have shifting norms opened up terms like indeterminacy to new criticism — or, perhaps simultaneously, is there an earlier critical discourse surrounding indeterminacy that may still provide analytic purchase? Two participants (Omari, Pearson) discuss indeterminacy in connection with formal law. How do legal infrastructures at once mask and disregard the indeterminate nature of their stated objectives? How do the same infrastructures instantiate and even exacerbate indeterminacy? A fifth participant (Das Acevedo) considers the indeterminate nature of indeterminacy with respect to law’s — specifically, the Common Law’s — knowledge about itself through the concept of precedence. Collectively, the participants explore whether there is any productive determinate way to think about indeterminacy.


Leo Coleman, CUNY

Talia Dan-Cohen, Washington University in St. Louis

Jeffrey Omari, Gonzaga UniversityHeath Pearson, Georgetown University 

Roundtable 3: The Indeterminate body: Beyond Techno-triumphalism in the Age of Health Surveillance | JRRB 301

Organizer: Cal Biruk, McMaster University

Chair: Cal Biruk, McMaster University

Abstract: Anthropologists and STS scholars have shown how ‘the body’ is not a singular, universal container of health, illness, or the self; rather than “end[ing] at the skin,” (Haraway 1990:220) bodies are entanglements between technologies, relations, power, and ecologies that make them profoundly indeterminate entities. Taking this indeterminacy of bodies—that is, their resistance to being fixed in place, known, or mastered—as a premise, this roundtable considers how the quest to know, manage, and monitor bodies in the name of health or ‘the good life’ reconfigures imaginaries of health and illness and classificatory and identitarian projects anchored in race, gender, sexuality, and disability. Panelists take interest in how the proliferation of digital and other technologies that seek to make bodies ever-more transparent and experimentally available to science reconfigure notions of self, even as they naturalize surveillance and quantification as technoscientific pursuits key to preserving health and saving lives. Panelists will be asked to briefly share one ‘object’ or vignette that showcases how ethnographic methods can play a crucial role in delineating the stakes of rendering care and health through seemingly neutral and benevolent techno-centric discourses, objects, and practices. The roundtable illuminates how embodied thinking and creative ethnographic methods that are attentive to how white supremacy, ableism, and homo/transphobia get beneath the skin are crucial to intervening in techno-triumphalist narratives. The roundtable takes the following case studies as objects of inquiry: the stakes and racial hauntings of rendering surveillance as care for type-1 diabetics, the limits of liminality as a framework for thinking about disability, the ambiguity of vaccine promotion and other medicalized approaches for understanding a pattern of HPV-related anal warts among queer Kenyan men, the subjective entanglements of living as a pump-human cyborg, and the class politics of baby monitoring Smartphone apps.


Elizabeth Berk, Yale University

Cal Biruk, McMaster University

Lyndsey Beutin, McMaster University

Danya Glabau, New York University

Cassandra Hartblay, University of Toronto

Matthew Thomann, University of Maryland

Salon: Singapore’s Multi-Scalar Fictions | Aaron Burr Hall Third Floor Lounge

Organizer: Josh Babcock, University of Chicago

Singapore has multiple available terms for its categorization. Singapore is described as a Chinese outlier in—but not of—a Malay-Muslim region, an island without a mainland, a city without a hinterland, a state without a (single) nation. This salon will explore the multi-scalar spatial fictions (Babcock 2022) that appear across the five-volume Balik Kampung series of (non)fiction short stories (Singapore: Math Paper Press, edited by Verena Tay) as characters and authors navigate the experiences of discovering the outside, inside: when the mainland comes to the island; when the hinterland appears in the city; and when the foreign makes itself at home.

Panel 1: Speech Matters: Towards an anthropology of political speech in global contexts | JRRB 301

Organizer: Richard Wilson, University of Connecticut

Chair: Richard Wilson, University of Connecticut

Discussant: Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi, Rutgers University

Panel Abstract: Anthropologists have known for a very long time that political speech and its regulation is an inherently fraught matter. With the rise of hate speech, racism, and supremacist ideas on social media, the global reach of cultural wars, the use of surveillance technologies and modern state security apparatuses to suppress dissenting speech, speech matters are at the heart of contemporary social and political debates in numerous societal contexts. And yet the anthropology of free speech and its concomitant, hate speech, remains underdeveloped and undertheorized in a context of global multimodalities. This panel gathers anthropological scholars working in highly diverse settings to present ethnographic material that can assist in developing an anthropology of political speech and online hate speech. 

Taras Fedirko, University of Glasgow, “​​Anxieties of influence: manipulated speech and oligarchic publicity in pre-invasion Ukraine”

Across many polities, liberal-democratic and otherwise, recent political conflicts and mobilisations have been accompanied by emergent concerns about insincerity, inauthenticity, and manipulation of public speech and action. This paper turns to Ukraine, and discussions around freedom and authenticity in news journalism, to explore what happens to acts of free speech and ideas of freedom among professional cultural producers, when their work is publicly dismissed as insincere, manipulating and manipulated. Following the 2013-14 revolution and the war in Donbas, concerns about illegitimate influence, as occurring specifically through speech, have become prominent across a variety of cultural domains: ads in large cities publicized courses of both persuasive speaking and ‘defence’ from such; media watchdogs set up projects to monitor paid-for and manipulated news content; and ‘you are a bot’ became a popular insult on social media. Building on field research with news journalists in Kyiv in the years preceding the Russian invasion of February 2022, I explore the ways in which journalists detected and explained manipulation; and analyze ideas of agency, intentionality, and individuality that inform their anxieties of illegitimate influence. I argue that while responding to real, documented practices of what Andrew Graan has called ‘discursive engineering’, concerns about influence and authenticity of speech thematise the particular post-revolutionary, war-time experience of journalists’ frustrated historical agency as middle-class knowledge producers in a society transformed by war and imperialist intervention.

Sandhya Fuchs, University of Edinburgh, “Complexes of Hate: Hostile Speech, Embodied Affects and Political Aggression in North India”

The spring of 2022 witnessed a wave of violent hate speech against Muslims and Dalits(ex-untouchable) communities in India. In response, calls to introduce new, comprehensive hate speech legislation have grown louder across the country. However, scholars and activists heatedly disagree on the parameters of such legislation and have struggled to answer a few basic questions: what constitutes hate speech? What is hate speech legislation meant to achieve socially and politically? And what legal definition(s) of hate speech would best protect India’s most vulnerable communities? Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork with Muslim and Dalit hate speech complainants, NGOs, cand courts in North India, I propose that to answer these questions, hostile forms of speech must be analyzed through the lens of embodied affects. Recounting two case studies from Delhi and Rajasthan, I examine how the term hate speech covers a variety of affective complexes -such as condescension, envy, or revenge, – through which India’s Hindu majority engages historically marginalized groups. These affective complexes are expressed through different forms of coded language, and particular embodied practices of aggression, which give rise to distinct patterns of social and political violence. 

Nancy Ries, Colgate University, “Cruel Speech: Official Hate Speech in Russia’s War on Ukraine”

This paper interrogates the official design and purveyance of hate speech in Russia’s war on Ukraine. The Russian state has constructed an overarching system of intertwined narratives about Ukraine, utilizing historical and geopolitical fables, repetitive slogans, colorful threats and militarist slang, which are ritualistically performed in Putin’s presidential speeches, state Duma members’ pronouncements, and through scripted televised discussions featuring state officials, hack journalists, and pro-war scholars. This elaborate discursive spectacle models a sadistic affect and seems designed to crush empathy towards Ukrainian civilians and combatants but also among Russia’s own soldiers and citizens. Anthropological approaches to the modeling of ideological frames and the reception and circulation of discourse provide avenues for analyzing the impacts, obvious and subtle, of these rhetorical and aesthetic devices in the context of state terror directed both internationally and domestically.

Ruslan Yusupov, Harvard University, “Spectacular Stories: Human Rights and Whataboutism Talk in the Uyghur Crisis in Xinjiang, China.”

This paper examines Chinese state propaganda talk about Xinjiang. Almost every week since 2020, the Chinese government is hosting domestic media and international journalists to discuss the situation in Xinjiang. Officially called “Press Conferences by Xinjiang on Xinjiang related issues,” these are media events in which Chinese state officials make broad accusations and counterclaims against the West as a way to deflect criticism and avoid judgment. Understood as a whataboutism tactic, this talk serves as a medium noise through which China seeks to spread propaganda and influence the international court of opinion on what otherwise is recognized as a disturbing human rights crisis. This paper analyzes this talk and the effect it makes on the global perception of the crisis. I argue that the Chinese state’s whataboutism turns human rights inside out by presenting them as individual stories instead of an international criterion of judgment. While these stories relativize human rights by individualizing them, they also make a supposedly official exchange with the press into a media spectacle. Such, I argue, is the fate of the human rights talk in the age of Chinese raise to global power. 

Panel 2: Abjection and The Spirit of Bureaucracy | Aaron Burr Hall 209

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant: Ken Guest, Baruch College

Ishani Dasgupta, University of Louisville, “Waiting in Critique, Waiting in Rebellion: Refugee “Waiting” Beyond the Temporal Bind”

Among the more piquant and direct experiences of indeterminacy lies the phenomenon of refugees “waiting” for resettlement or relief (aid). Anthropological study has often theorized refugee “wait” as either being entrapped in an “existential limbo” (Hass 2017), or as conducting a more “active form of waiting” (Brun 2015, Rotter 2015, Adhikari 2021). These studies also see refugees encased in a temporal in-betweenness, as “population-in-waiting” (McConnell 2009). Active waiting is characterized as agentive, determined by an aspirational release into the future, either through a return to the homeland, or as the legitimate citizen of a host nation. But rather than seeing “waiting” as a temporal bind, what if we were to see it as a site of new politics—one of critique, and one of creativity, of building new forms of community, entering into new entanglements. As I learnt from my Tibetan refugee interlocutors, refugee wait is not in the absence of critique of the international regime that treats them as a problem to be managed, and can be seen as including forms of rebellion against the same system by forging new bonds, creating community, and converting sites of displacement into a space of home. Thus, I claim, refugee “wait” cannot be characterized solely as looking towards the future, but is very much an aspect rooted in the present—of the possibilities that are open to refugees, right here, right now. As these possibilities manifest, they challenge the very status quo responsible for creating conditions of refugeehood, while also revealing a horizon of radical community. 

Tiana Hayden, El Colegio de México and Darlene Dubuisson, University of Pittsburgh, “Passage and Passing: Racialized in/visibilities among transit migrants in Mexico”

This paper analyzes Central American and Black migration through Mexico in order to draw attention to the heterogeneity of migrant experiences in ‘transit’ countries and the racialized production of migrant illegalities in the Global South. In Mexico, migrants encounter hostile terrain marked by lengthy delays and violence on the part of state, criminal, and civilian actors. Increasingly, migrants must stay for indeterminate periods of time in Mexico, in transit yet not necessarily in movement. There is little scholarship on the way that social inequalities, and in particular race, play into the experiences and strategies of migrants in this context. Drawing on anthropological studies of how invisibility can provide protection from the state, as well as how invisibilization acts as a form of violence and exclusion, we analyze how migrants understand and try to negotiate their racialized in/visibility as they pass through and settle in Mexico. Through a cross-case, multi-sited approach, we consider how the hyper-visibility of Black transit migrants and the invisibility of (many) Central Americans shape new immigrant control and resistance mechanisms. We ask: How does “passing” facilitate or hinder passage through Mexico?

Nandini Ramachandran, CUNY, “The Antinomy of the Sixth Schedule”

The Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution offers a sweeping autonomy to the communities it identifies as “scheduled tribes” on questions of communal land, customary personal law, trade, and self-government. In doing so, it reifies an ethnographic category— the tribe— into a legal entity by creating a special class of citizens with unique privileges and responsibilities. Under the Sixth Schedule, recognized tribes are granted “autonomous district councils” (or ADCs), which have legislative, judicial, and executive functions. The Sixth Schedule was adopted after a short but heated debate within the Constituent Assembly, where several members criticized it for further isolating this already “backward” region. Many of the communities it affected, meanwhile, considered it a disappointing compromise while others rejected it entirely. My paper discusses the reasons behind this disenchantment before describing the evolution of the Sixth Schedule until the reorganization of northeastern India in 1972, a geopolitical development that transformed the ethnographic— and political — logic animating its provisions. While the ADC infrastructure is widely considered to be in crisis, the Sixth Schedule has paradoxically accumulated legitimacy even as it has been co-opted by the electoral calculus of contemporary India. I argue that this is possible because the provisions of the Sixth Schedule are simultaneously technical and arbitrary; that it is strategically indeterminate, and its interpretation (and implementation) are more often guided by expedience than coherence, such that it is capable of being used to starkly different ends within relatively short periods of time. I demonstrate this claim by tracing one of the most enduring disputes provoked by the Sixth Schedule: the scope and extent of ADC jurisdiction in the city of Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, the only state in the country to have adopted the Sixth Schedule across most of its territory.

Alana Ackerman, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Navigating Bureaucracies of Entrapment: An Ethnography of Refugee Resettlement in the Global South

In this paper, I ethnographically explore how refugees navigate the uncertainty of the resettlement process in the global South. Refugees in countries of asylum who “live in perilous situations or have specific needs that cannot be addressed in the country where they have sought protection” may have their cases considered for resettlement to a third country, usually in the global North (UNHCR n.d.). However, the bureaucratic processing of a resettlement case can last for years, creating protracted experiences of waiting that leave refugees in legal limbo (Hyndman & Giles 2011; Mountz 2011; Sanyal 2018). Furthermore, only about one out of 500 cases are accepted for resettlement globally, leading to a rejection rate of 99.75% (UNHCR 2020). My paper contributes an ethnography of how refugees from Colombia engage with the resettlement process in Quito, Ecuador. The resettlement system categorizes Ecuador as a place of security where refugees have a responsibility to integrate into local society. However, many refugees in Ecuador experience ongoing persecution by armed subjects from Colombia, including but not limited to members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), despite the signing of the 2016 Peace Accords. Under these conditions, refugees navigate bureaucracies of irresolution and rejection in a context of entrapment, as they are contained within spaces of ongoing persecution and violence.

Panel 3: Aesthetic Practices and Politics | JRRB 397

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant: Ken Anderson, Princeton University

Asmus Rungby, Yale University, “Subversive Subtleties and Unspoken Understanding: Tacit Tradition and Political Economy in North Borneo”

This paper confronts the conceptual challenges posed by the importance of unarticulated insights among globally marginal populations. Drawing on PhD fieldwork in Kuching, Malaysia, over the course of 2018-2019 I depict a group of artists attempting to secure funding and political support for an animation studio. I engage with de-colonial scholarship (Mignolo 2009) and post-colonial theorists (Asad 1986) who have demonstrated the sophistication and wisdom of non-western knowledge traditions but primarily as forms of intellectual discourse. I foreground instead the political behaviors of civil society organizers and artists in Kuching and its connection to the history of north Borneo. I operationalize a concept of tacit tradition. This concept builds on Talal Asad’s (1986; 2015) theorizations of discursive and embodied tradition, but intervenes by foregrounding political tactics and forms of social interaction as observable ethnographic material instead of august intellectual treatises. Turning to my ethnography I examine local nationalist motifs and the influence of regionalist patronage dynamics in the artistic choices of the artists involved in pursuing the animation studio. My interlocutors’ art and tactics pairs overt gestures of acquiescence to local politicians with subtler themes of satire and critique. In this, their art extends a North Bornean tacit tradition which takes gestures of civility and acquiescence as cynical performances that facilitate the pursuits of unstated self-interest. I then read this tacit tradition back through North Borneo’s history and observe how its emergence and development correspond to a pattern of political economical subjugation to politically distant empires. I conclude that my interlocutors’ political tactics while not explicitly rationalized are far from unreflective. They rather index serious but pointedly unspoken practical insights into political dynamics which are informed by this cynical tacit tradition. 

Robert Lemelson, UCLA, “Batuan Interactive”

Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson conducted fieldwork in Bali in the 1930s. Their methodology included commissioning over 1200 artworks by artists from Batuan and surrounds, based on mythology, daily life, dreams, and fantasies. Through these works, the anthropologists investigated the individual as embedded within, expressing, and impacting cultural, social, natural and supernatural environments. The commissions contributed to a historic period of innovation in Balinese art, as an influx of cultural tourists and the formation of intercultural collectives spurred locals to experiment with the form, function, and content of their arts traditions. At once traditional and experimental, cultural artifacts and personal expressions, the paintings often depicted the lurking powers that threaten to disturb and destabilize human activity–and the attempts to uphold individual and collective harmony. While informing both Mead and Bateson’s findings and Balinese artmaking, the paintings remained largely unseen for decades, until rediscovered by a handful of scholars. The new multimodal website www.batuaninteractive.com situates the artworks within numerous cultural ecologies, past and present via: ethnographic analyses of the paintings; interviews with original painters and ensuing generations; historical documentary shorts addressing this period in Bali scholarship and Balinese art; a visual ethnography of contemporary Balinese life which documents the major life cycle rituals, healing traditions, social activities, and beliefs depicted in the paintings; and a virtual reality tour of the paintings as they have been recently exhibited and interpreted alongside other artifacts. This project depicts continuities and changes in ongoing Balinese social and psychic dramas across areas of experience and genres of expression. It also plays with the open-ended nature of the paintings and their meanings as they move through different physical and conceptual times and spaces.

Marcos Mendoza, University of Mississippi, “Narco-Power, Mundane Aesthetics, and Territorial Reclamation in Mexico”

The scholarship on narco-aesthetics has largely focused on political messaging between criminal groups (narco-mantas, propaganda videos, and public violence), culture industry products related to organized crime (films, music, television), consumer lifestyles that draw upon narco-styling, and tourism venues selling proximity to narco-spectacle. What has rarely received close attention is how populations have developed their own everyday aesthetic responses to organized crime and the drug trade that highlight the territorial politics of reclamation. Based on ethnographic research in the Mexican state of Michoacán, this study highlights the mundane aesthetics of rural communities affected by narco-power and the fields of risk exposure and indeterminacy that structure everyday life. The aesthetics of the mundane seek to define the boundaries of political community, memorize popular struggle, reclaim territory for civil life, and envision liberation from criminality. More broadly, this study contributes to understanding how rural communities produce uneven geographies of republican self-rule based on ‘permeable enclaves’ selectively exposed to narco-power and infiltration.

Mahsun Oti, Rutgers University, “Shit As a Historical Critique: Colonial/Apartheid Conditions and Rhodes Must Fall Movement in South Africa”

This paper examines the way in which the “body” and “memory” have been an integral part of the social realities, experience, exhaustion, anger, and grievances within the Rhodes Must Fall Movement, which served as an invitation for a decolonial protest and created conditions of multiple coexistence. Organized by the University of Cape Town students on 9 March 2015, Rhodes Must Fall quickly expanded to many other university campuses in South Africa and beyond, such as Oxford University. The protest known as Rhodes Must Fall centered on the removal of the statues of Cecil John Rhodes from the university campus. However, the movement later expanded its demands and reformulated it as decolonizing the university and the curriculum. Scholars generally approach Rhodes Must Fall as a protest directed toward the “future.” However, this paper argues that Rhodes Must Fall was not oriented toward the “future” but rather focused on the “present” as its domain. Following Walter Benjamin’s perspective on history and revolution, I argue that the movement’s primary purpose was to suspend history and present normality, thus serving as an “emergency break.” In this sense, it was an attempt to invite people from various backgrounds to “look together” at the colonial and decolonial conditions and reformulate the present. 

Based on field research at the University of Cape Town and following a theoretical framework presented by the collective memory and social movements theory, this paper examines the process of participation, self-imagination, and the collective memory of the Rhodes Must Fall Movement. It examines how the “body” and “memory” have been integral to the social realities within the Rhodes Must Fall Movement and created conditions of coexistence of multiple memories and bodily experiences. 

Panel 4: Citizenship, Solidarity and the Futures of Non-belonging, Part II | JRRB A12

Organizer: American Ethnologist

Chair: Susanna Trnka, University of Auckland

Discussant: João Biehl, Princeton University

Panel Abstract: Citizenship is not a stable entity. In many parts of the world, both the meanings and the legal provisions commonly attached to citizenship are shifting. Covid/post-Covid politics have markedly reshaped healthcare and welfare, border policies, labor and manufacturing and distribution chains. So too have Brexit, the legacies of Trump, and climate change. This panel interrogates the various forms of belonging and nonbelonging that we might expect, and demand, as part of national, regional and global futures. Simultaneously an enchanted concept, promising much more than it can entail, and a bureaucratically-driven line in the sand entailing the most mundane paper trails that nonetheless potentially carry life and death consequences, “citizenship” has come to symbolize and materialize a huge range of facets of life, inclusive of but extending beyond the allocation of rights within contemporary state forms. Examining a broad range of inter-personal and political struggles over the indeterminacies of belonging and the various forms 21 st century solidarities might take, the panel probes whether or not “citizenship” is even the right rubric for asking questions about political rights and inclusion. Panellists’ papers reflect on the deepening scars of post-plantation economics, global stops and flows of diasporic labour – and the actual people such “flows” involve, human–non-human relations, freedom, religious nationalism, COVID-19 containment measures, post-petro citizenships, youth activism, and the disavowal of differently abled personhoods. The panel’s speakers propose new ways of considering how racism, sexism, mental and physical ableism, religious exclusion, globalized climate and energy crises inflect the indeterminacies of 21st-century forms of solidarity and nonbelonging.

Dominic Boyer, Rice University, “Infrastructural solidarity and liberalism after oil”

Modern liberalism has always been intimately entwined with energo-environmental politics and infrastructures. For example, Haraway, Tsing and others argue persuasively that the colonial plantationocene—with its violent organization and dispossession of human and nonhuman beings for the purposes of commerce and consumption—was a crucible and accelerant of cultural modernity (including liberal notions of freedom and property) and transnational capitalism. Similarly, Timothy Mitchell has shown how the “carbon democracy” of the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries coevolved with the embodied politics and infrastructures of coal. Today, arguably the most efficacious political assemblage on the planet is a global network of petrostatal institutions, which has been remarkably effective at stalling meaningful international cooperation and action on climate change and related “Anthropocene” phenomena (such as plastic pollution) despite their environmental disasters. A gulf is growing between the apparent openness of liberal publics to explore ecoliberal and even ecosocialist modes of political belonging and a petrostate aligned ever more avidly and obviously with authoritarian regimes and movements to sustain its powers. Emergent experiments in post-petro citizenship struggle not only against petrostate infrastructure but also with what Stephanie LeMenager calls “petromelancholia,” an affective disposition tethered to the luxuries and pleasures of 20th century guilt free energy expenditure. In this paper I discuss the indeterminacies surrounding post-petro political belonging and whether it can flourish within a conventional liberal framework. I also ask whether new modes of infrastructural solidarity and publicity have the capacity to elicit modes of political belonging that undo the toxic anthropocentrism of liberal political tradition.

Zhiying Ma, University of Chicago, “Biopolitical Paternalism and Citizenship Experiments in Pandemic-Era China”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese state turned everyone into subjects of a rising mode of governance that I call “biopolitical paternalism” (Ma 2020). Seeing people as potential vectors of infection, the state used a set of “zero-COVID policies,” which combined pervasive digital surveillance, tight travel restrictions, and large-scale, prolonged isolation to keep cases at a low level, thereby claiming a narrative of care and successful management vis-à-vis other countries, at least in the first few years. This presentation will draw on social media discussions on those policies and protests against them to explore the ongoing citizenship experiments that people have made. I show that, as people navigated everyday life under zero-COVID, a new social contract was formed around biopolitical paternalism. It allowed people to hold the state accountable for its promise of technical prowess and precision control, while also requiring them to police themselves and each other. As the zero-COVID policies became more draconian and less effective, some people began to call for radical freedom, but the lack of positive demands allowed others to blame the humanitarian disasters incurred by the state’s haphazard re-opening on them. All these bore similarities with citizenship struggles around biopolitical paternalism in mental health management that I previously studied. This presentation concludes with reflections on how biopolitical paternalism shapes the terrain of citizenship in China, with suggestions on studying such shaping historically and across domains, and with projections of possibilities in the future.

Reza Indria, UIN Ar Raniry, “State Policing Morality and Youth Solidarity under Sharia Law in Aceh, Indonesia”

The ethnographic data for this study has been gathered in Aceh, the only Indonesian province that has adopted Sharia (Islamic Law). Aceh was the epicenter of the earthquakes and tsunami on 26 December 2004. This paper addresses the complexities and the unexpected outcomes of enforcing Sharia through the machinery of inefficient statecraft in post-tsunami and post-conflict Aceh. While Sharia promises to provide comprehensive guidance in all aspects of life, local authorities have used the force of the law to prohibit expression and criminalize conduct that fall outside “Islamic ideals.” Cinema, music concerts, punk and other “alternative” lifestyles and New Year’s Eve celebrations were outlawed and seen as sources of calamity, moral disorder, and social disease. However, the Sharia state attempts at limiting the range of“acceptable” ways of being Muslim in the province are not immune to resistance and opposition. My research explores Acehnese youth subcultures vis-a-vis the everyday workings of state Sharia institutions. I show how several youth groups in Banda Aceh resist government efforts to discipline and control their space and expression. Despite facing continuous harassment from Muslim hardliners and Sharia Police (WH), Banda Aceh youngsters actively occupy certain urban public spaces as their way of remaining visible. Engaging with their day-to-day activities and learning from their strategies in forming local and virtual networks of solidarity, my study analyzes the implementation of Sharia law at the margins of a rapidly changing society.

Roundtable 1: Media Anthropology’s Past, Present, and Future: Reflections on the Role of Media in Uncertain Technical Landscapes | Aaron Burr Hall 213

Organizer: Patricia Lange, California College of the Arts

Chair: Patricia Lange, California College of the Arts

Abstract: Human interaction has been mediated for a very long time. Yet, the complexity of mediation types has recently exponentially increased. Research in media anthropology must often grapple with the extent to which media provides a mere conduit of interaction, or actually shapes interaction as well as perceptions of how the world works. The past twenty years has seen an astonishing variety and pace of introduction of new technologies and ways of interaction, injecting uncertainty about what is “real” versus mediated, and how mediations influence how we understand cultural and intersubjective processes. In this roundtable, discussants tackle a variety of perspectives on the role of media in interaction as expressed in the newly published volume, The Routledge Companion to Media Anthropology (Routledge, 2022). Discussants will be asked to answer questions such as: How has the field of media anthropology changed in the last twenty years? How have new technologies and forms of media influenced your research or your scholarly understanding of human behavior and interaction? What types of uncertainties lie ahead in the field of media anthropology? How do you plan to address such uncertainties in your future research? The roundtable will provide a forum for free form discussion, conversation with the audience, and general socialization celebrating release of the volume. 


Patricia Lange, California College of the Arts

Lisa Messeri, Yale University

Nell Haynes, Saint Mary’s College

Thomas Malaby, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

Roundtable 2: Classroom Indeterminacies: Teaching the Anthropology of Mental Health/Illness in Turbulent Times | Aaron Burr Hall 216

Organizers: Tomas Matza, University of Pittsburgh and Katie Kilroy-Marac, University of Toronto

Chair: Tomas Matza, University of Pittsburgh and and Katie Kilroy-Marac, University of Toronto

Abstract: Critical medical anthropology provides many approaches for understanding “mental illness” as a social, cultural, and political phenomenon. These include: using cross-cultural and historical research to demonstrate the constructedness of diagnostic categories; attending to power inside and outside the clinic to illuminate how inequity is reproduced in care; and examining over-medicalization in biomedical psychiatric paradigms. When placed into conversation with mad pride/mad studies, disability justice movements, and biosocialities anchored in mental health diagnoses, however, it can feel like these approaches have “run out of steam,” while also containing a troubling ableism. This is especially (but not only) apparent at universities and in classrooms, where we see our students facing unprecedented mental health challenges, and where we are committed to offering support and being accountable to them. The indeterminacy of this moment leads us to ask: How are we to engage with the historically contingent and culturally-shaped contours of mental health and illness in our classrooms, while also acknowledging and making room for the very real impacts of mental illness in our students’ (and our own) lives? How do we create “safe” and caring spaces for exploration when the topics themselves may feel personal, even risky? How do we build community but also give students space? How can we teach genealogies of disease categories while accounting for persons living under the description of illness—i.e., that mental illness is not some arm’s length construct, but is often personal and urgent? In this panel, we bring together anthropologists of mental health to discuss how they teach the anthropology of mental illness and the psyences. We aim for a panel that brings a practical, pedagogically-focused discussion into contact with broader theoretical questions about mental health and illness as we consider the challenges and potentialities of teaching in turbulent times.


Katie Kilroy-Marac, University of Toronto

Tomas Matza, University of Pittsburgh

Deanna Barenboim, Sarah Lawrence College

Eugene Raikhel, University of Chicago

Merav Shohet, Boston University

Christopher Dole, Amherst College

Roundtable 3: Anxious Acts, Indeterminate Care | Dean Conference Room in Friend

Organizer: Mitali Thakor, Wesleyan University

Chair: Mitali Thakor, Wesleyan University

Abstract: This roundtable ethnographically approaches care in the fields of biomedicine and health as an object of ambiguous desire, anxious attention, and indeterminate achievement. Forms of care are often fetishized as hopeful aspirations to tend better to the self or to live better with others, while the execution of caring relations can themselves manifest cruelly, extracting labor from the bodies of some in order to achieve flourishing for others. The intimate labors of racialized subjects have long been central to the functioning of empire (R Parrenas 2015, Atanasoski & Vora 2019), leaving indelible stains on contemporary efforts of global public health. Thus, some anthropologists have pointed out how practices apparently antithetical to or suspicious (Charles 2020) of dominant regimes of “health” exist as acts of protection, survival, and love (Roberts 2017, García 2010) in the long shadow of colonial violence. Following queer theorists, this panel seeks to characterize relations of care as indeterminate, impossible utopias (Munoz 2009), inexact and exacting, with ambiguous and often cruel affects and effects (Berlant 2011). In so doing, we attune to the often unsettled timelines of realizing care against curative imaginaries (Kafer 2013), a nervous state of longing for perpetually deferred ends. To paraphrase Sara Ahmed (2010), to care is to be anxious, to be constantly care-ful and watchful. To open the roundtable for discussion, participants will briefly engage these concerns from their ethnographic fieldwork in diverse settings, including mental health crisis response programs and companion robots for elder care in the United States, community mental health and the production of medicated subjectivities in Dublin, Ireland, and the entanglements of toxicity and care in Peru’s extractive economies. 


Mitali Thakor, Wesleyan University

Stefanie Graeter, University of Arizona

Mark Fleming, UC Berkeley

Michael D’Arcy, Haverford College

Time Slot: 2.30-4

APLA Keynote: After Dobbs: Reflections on Political and Legal Anthropology | Friend Convocation Room

Carol J. Greenhouse

Abstract:In its published opinion, the majority in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization declares its ruling to be the optimum result of separating law from politics. “After Dobbs” examines that claim’s provocations for us as anthropologists interested in the ethnography of politics and law. My comments are in three parts. Drawing on the majority’s representation of its own reasoning, I begin with the court’s paradoxical rendering of democracy — an algorithm of power that is already proving to be transformative in the U.S. in terms of eliciting new forms of agency that are not limited to partisan party politics. As such, those new forms are especially instructive, and in their pursuit, I consider them in a broader context. The next part of the discussion turns to recent work by ethnographers (working in the U.S. and elsewhere, on women’s health and otherwise) to explore situations in which people identify their own experience as political in new ways or for the first time. Finally, reflecting on that body on ethnographic work in relation to Dobbs and its after-effects, I identify through-lines connecting law(s) and politics in practice (as well as in ethnographic practice):  indeterminacies of scale, the dynamic instability of juridification and the creative openness of political agency. These points are prompts to rethink the conditions of law’s availability to ethnography and, in doing so, to unthink law as necessarily reducible to a vertical arrangement of jurisdictions, or as necessarily instantiating a direct correlation between scale and general standards. Ethnography opens fresh spaces for understanding the relationship of politics and law in ways that neither subsume one by the other nor confuse the one for the other.

Bio: Carol Greenhouse is Arthur W. Marks ’19 Professor of Anthropology Emeritus at Princeton University. Her primary research interests are in the ethnography of law, particularly in relation to federal power in the United States. Her books include Landscapes of Law: Practicing Sovereignty in Transnational Terrain (co-edited with Christina Davis), The Paradox of Relevance: Ethnography and Citizenship in the United States; Ethnographies of Neoliberalism (editor); and A Moment’s Notice: Time Politics Across Cultures. Greenhouse is past president of the American Ethnological Society, the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology, and the Law & Society Association, and past editor of American Ethnologist. She is an elected member of the AmericanPhilosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Workshop 1: Teaching Intro to Anthropology | JRRB 301

Organizer:  Ken Guest (Baruch College) on behalf of AES

How do we make Intro to Cultural Anthropology the most important class an undergraduate takes in college?  Strategize together about how to transform the classroom (in person and online) into a dynamic laboratory for developing and applying anthropology’s toolkit and making anthropology relevant to our students’ lives. 

Workshop 2: AES Speed Mentoring Workshops for Graduate Students and Early Career Faculty Members | Aaron Burr Hall, meet at the first floor lounge at 4.55pm 

Organizers: Gabrielle Cabrera (Rutgers) and Katherine McCaffrey (Montclair State University)

Interested in participating in a speed mentoring event with faculty members in Anthropology from across North America? Do you want to have a conversation with experienced researchers outside your existing network of faculty mentors? Join us for this speed mentoring event!

Registration from 8am to 3pm | Aaron Burr Fall First Floor near Lounge

Panel 1:  Youth and Indeterminate Horizons | Aaron Burr Hall 209

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant: Bonnie Urciuoli, Hamilton College

Molly Hamm-Rodriguez, University of Colorado, “Leisure, Precarity, Deferrals: Raciolinguistic Chronotopes of Paradise and Youth Futures in the Dominican Republic”

In this paper, I analyze how the raciolinguistic chronotope of paradise in the Dominican Republic differentially shapes the futures of Dominican and Haitian youth seeking education and employment opportunities. Raciolinguistic chronotopes (Delfino, 2021; Flores, Lewis & Phuong, 2018) are narratives of time and space that intersect with ideologies of language and race to produce social imaginaries with material consequences. Based on 11 months of ethnographic fieldwork and youth participatory action research in the Dominican Republic, I use discourse analysis to trace how (1) coastal communities in the Caribbean are enregistered as “paradise” through discursive practices and financial investments that racialize livability (Cameron-Domínguez, 2023); (2) youth workforce development programs aligned with the tourism industry are structured by raciolinguistic ideologies (Rosa & Flores, 2017) that simultaneously commodify languages and funnel youth into exploitative labor markets; and (3) “managed mobilities of tourism” (Sheller, 2021, p. 291) shape youth futures through the intersecting phenomena of leisure, precarity, and deferral. These processes reveal how anti-Blackness operates relationally and how the push for multilingualism functions in distinct ways for Dominicans and Haitians making a living in the shadows of tourism. In the restructuring of the plantation economy to the resort economy (Pantojas García, 2022), the chronotope of paradise, raciolinguistic ideologies, and managed mobilities intertwine to (1) open up the country to Dominican elite as well as North American and European leisure, (2) generate precarity and the desire for out-migration among working-class Afro-Dominicans, and (3) facilitate regimes of enclosure and deportation for Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent through the sustained deferral of dreams produced by statelessness. 

Emily Bailey, Columbia University, “Making Meaning Up: Semiotic Mediation through the Indeterminacy of TEACCH Artifacts” 

The proposed paper draws on ethnographic fieldwork conducted at a French workplace adapted to the skills of autistic youth using TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication Handicapped Children) methods. I argue that the TEACCH artifacts used by participants at the café are imbued with a level of necessary indeterminacy, which allows participants to co-construct alternate meanings in order to form the basis of complex strategies for semiotic mediation. Using Goffman’s concept of the frame (1974) and guided by Henner and Robinson’s discussion of languaging as care work (2021), we see that it is the ambiguity and fluidity of these artifacts that provides the tools necessary for constructing a foundation upon which autistic youth and non-autistic staff can develop a community of practice and communication, within which participants can navigate communication differences.

Daniel Knight, University of St. Andrews, “Thumbelina’s Fury: Generational Imaginings and Indeterminate Futures”

A scene from an undergraduate classroom offers insights into generational shifts in approaching indeterminate futures. Gen-Z students discussing “Crisis and Rupture” critique the temporal depth in imagining viable futures, the technological platforms providing pathways to actualization of futures, and the intergenerational psychosocial impacts of dealing with political and economic (poly)crisis. Taking inspiration from Michel Serres’ Thumbelina, the story can be read as bifurcating and merging timelines, existential quandaries of captivity/entrapment and escape(ism), and perspectives on the need for immediate or delayed action. In sum, we see how planetary and epochal indeterminacies are engaged through temporalities and technologies of the very small, close, and individual, and what this might mean for rethinking a world increasingly run by Millennials.

Alma Flores-Perez, University of Texas at Austin, ““Debes un minuto”: Peer norm enforcement as a practice of language socialization in a Spanish-immersion preschool.”

Although bi-/multilingual education programs have existed for hundreds of years, research on such programs has only begun in the last fifty. While early research has focused on measuring the efficacy of bilingual education programs in students’ linguistic multilingual acquisition, recent trends in the field have begun to explore the role that multiple languages play in students’ socialization. Research in language socialization has explored the ways that language is not only acquired by children, but the ways in which the acquired languages inform their perceptions of and participation in the communities around them (Ochs & Schieffelin, 2011). The present paper will add to the growing body of literature on multilingual socialization within educational institutions through the analysis of data collected in a small-scale ethnography of a Spanish-immersion preschool in Austin, Texas. Throughout the month of observation, students frequently took part in a practice of peer language socialization where they would police each other for perceived breaches of the teachers’ imposed Spanish-only norm. A quantitative analysis will be presented showing the correlation between enforcing students and their gender, as well as students who are enforced on and their social status. Additionally, a qualitative analysis will explore the discursive practices that were utilized by students during the enforcement process. This analysis will demonstrate that a handful of frequently enforcing students in the classroom relied more heavily on the involvement of teachers authority – discursively and physically – while others utilized their own co-opted authority. Although educational spaces construct a hierarchical system where teachers are the source of authority, it is often students who maintain the authoritative balance. By reinforcing the linguistic boundary created by teachers, students in this Spanish-immersion classroom became agents in their own language socialization.

Panel 2: Religious Identities and Temporal Becomings | Friend 004

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant: Ghazal Asif, Lahore University of the Management Sciences

Julian Aron Ross, CUNY, “Securing the Present, Scrambling the Past and Future: Indeterminate Jewish life in Reunified Germany”

In 1991, in the midst of the Soviet Union’s collapse and Germany’s “reunification”, German parliament elected to grant some 200,000 Jews from former Soviet republics special “refugee quota” (“Kontingentflüchtling”) status. The express goal behind this move, according to parliament, was to “revitalize” Jewish life in Germany, complimenting Germany’s reunification. Out of this period of uncertainty, a new German nation-state emerged as the economic and political hegemon of post-socialist Europe. Meanwhile, the some 150,000 Jews who decided to stay in Germany assuage concerns over the country’s new geopolitical position. For Jewish newcomers, however, this new life in Germany remains ambivalent at best–nearly 50 percent have consistently remained on the threshold of poverty, with diminutive job prospects and an uncertain future. Moreover, in order to be legible to the state as Jews, their identity was dramatically renegotiated from a previously secular, ethnicized notion of Judaism into a sacralized, “faith-based” one. While the primary issue for many Jews in Germany today remains their economic precarity, the state and media continues to frame the community’s indeterminate future as a security problem, increasing police surveillance of Jewish spaces to combat antisemitism. The result is an increasingly surveilled, disciplined, and ghettoized Jewish population life at the margins of German society. By attending to the forms of care used to palliate and/or redirect Jews’ economic precarity, I wish to point to the generative relationship between indeterminacy and stability at the temporal level. I will then argue how this generative relationship is recursive–stability can retroactively render an indeterminate future and past. This is exemplified by how Germany’s stabilization wrought indeterminacy not only for the future of its Jewish population, but also retroactively produced an indeterminate past–both in their relationship to work and their configuration of Judaism.

Amir Reicher, CUNY, “Activist Doubt Among Jewish Settlers in the West Bank”

Since the 1990s religious-Zionist settlers have established over 140 outpost settlements in the West Bank. Today at the forefront of the settler-colonization of the West Bank, these frontier outposts are considered the most extreme communities among the society of West Bank settlers. And yet, based on almost two years of fieldwork in one of these communities, in my talk I show how many among the outpost people no longer put their faith in the nationalistic-messianic theology of their parents’ generation. Far from their zealous image, hand in hand with their radical practices, many among the outpost generation express a sense of doubt regarding the validity of the political theology that historically animated the society in which they were raised. How are we to account for the countervailing dynamic of ideological retreat on the one hand, and the intensification of political violence, on the other? In answering this question, I challenge what in liberal thought appears as the assumed relationship between radicalism and zealotry. By suggesting the term ‘activist doubt,’ I theorize the dynamic by which radicalism can be animated not only from deep convictions or strong-minded beliefs but, paradoxically, precisely from sensibilities of ambiguity and confusion. I will do so by delineating how a particular strand of outpost settlers come to replace the loss they experience in their connection to the transcendental by clinging ever more frantically to material forms – first and foremost – to the land. Thus, through my notion of ‘activist doubt,’ I delineate a particular dynamic in which indeterminacy may result not in the retreat to a passive disposition but can in fact animate and propel people into excessive action with wide ranging political effects. 

Diana Hatchett, Sewanee: University of the South, “Always and never becoming a state: Producing a political “safe haven” in Iraq”

Recent studies on “sanctuary cities” evidence the ambiguity of the concept; the fragile nature of affording sanctuary; and the limits of political belonging in cities or states hosting immigrant or refugee populations. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) has long been characterized by 1) its international reputation as a “safe haven,” and 2) its indeterminate political status as a “semi-autonomous” region, a “quasi state” aspiring to independent statehood. This paper explores how the KRI is “both always and never becoming a state,” a phrase that describes a seemingly contradictory, politically expedient process in which the Kurdistan Region emerges as a discursively inclusive and tolerant “safe haven” for its ethnic Kurdish population, as well as for hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Iraqis and refugees from Syria. The concept of the “safe haven” enables the “non-state” KRI to secure recognition within a national and international order of states and humanitarian regimes while eschewing certain expectations of “liberal” statehood. The paper moves beyond analyses of ethnonationalism and the viability of an independent Kurdistani state; instead, it asks how the liminal status of “becoming” is (dis)advantageous to state and non-state actors working in spaces of contested sovereignty by examining how everyday experiences of living in the KRI cement or challenge the “safe haven” concept as people try to make sense of the extent of the “haven” and the limits of its “safety.” This ethnography of the indeterminate state of the Kurdistan Region and the genealogy of the “safe haven” concept calls for more anthropological attention to the ambiguities of seeking refuge simultaneously within and from states and the international order of states. 

Amal Sachedina, Princeton University, “Assimilating the Heterogeneity of Migrant Populations through a National Past in the Sultanate of Oman: the Case of the al-Lawati”

Scholarship often links heritage production with technologies of state pedagogy in its efforts to fix the spatial boundaries of a nation. Yet, such a modular explanation ignores the indeterminacy of how statist narratives domesticate heterogeneous populations and regulate social difference. This paper explores the ways in which official accounts of the historical past have interpellated the traces of diasporic communities, specifically the enclave of a Shi’a minority community in Oman, the al-Lawati with links to Sind. This is consistent with Oman’s expanding heritage industry, which since the 1970s has generated history-making practices to sediment a homogenous Arab and generic Islamic identity. However, using archival and ethnographic research, I argue that the enclave’s material presence presides over the complexities of a more entangled history in which the boundaries of this community of merchants have been reconfigured over the course of the 20th century. The very act of incorporating the sur and its residents into a national people becomes an exercise of selectivity. They involve gaps and disjunctures at the core of what passes as a unifying history of a sovereign nation. 

Panel 3: Auto-ethnographic Exercises of Bureaucracy and Crisis | Aaron Burr Hall 213

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant: Swayam Bagaria, Harvard University

Ethnographers often work between hard copy notes written about the past, and future plans for further fieldwork. The space between offers an awkward but productive mode of thinking that refers to the past, wonders if we remember it correctly, and hopes for an opportunity to confirm something in the future. However, the covid pandemic brought into focus just how lacerated this middle space can be, given our relatively recent abilities to text participants, follow them on social media, make video calls, and more. “Patchwork” approaches to ethnography suggest that we should think of the field as punctuated and dispersed, rather than strictly the year-long field research endeavor. Using my own work in a rural village in North India, I propose the opposite; being unable to travel to my field site has left me in a space where I imagine the political events that have unfurled in my forced absence. I suggest that, had I been present, I would have formed judgments and written down “facts” that are, for now, still in the realm of the indeterminate. I explore the political relationship between the indeterminate and the imagined to suggest that being barred from the field site can allow a political lens that is not otherwise possible. 

Lauren Woodard, Syracuse University, “On Entry and Exit: Indeterminacy and Governance in Russia”

In this paper, I examine the relationship between indeterminacy and governance in Russia through a series of vignettes: a weekend I spent in detention in Moscow in 2018 and the experiences of Russian friends and colleagues, who have fled the country since March 2022, facing arrest for retroactive participation in protests. What these moments share is uncertainty, whether one violated the law (and if so, which law?) and whether one is being paranoid or proactive by choosing to leave. This paper draws on insights from 13 months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2015 and 2017 in Moscow and Vladivostok, Russia, with officials as they implemented Russia’s migration policies, navigating legal requirements and ambiguities on a daily basis to determine who should be eligible for expedited Russian citizenship. I suggest that examining moments of indeterminacy are important for examining sites in which the Russian state materializes. They reveal a form of power that thrives on ambiguity, demonstrating both individuals’ creativity to navigate challenging circumstances but also to instill lasting consequences.

Amina Tawasil, Columbia University, “‘Why Don’t You Drink Our Tea?’: Doing Fieldwork Under Surveillance in the Islamic Republic of Iran”

The 1979 Iranian Revolution enabled religiously conservative women to partake in building a Shi’i revolutionary state by creating unparalleled access to the women’s seminaries. I lived in Iran for 15 months to explore what being loyal to this project looked like for them. Of the eight women, five were students of the Supreme Leader, and over twenty were involved with the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary organization. While my ethnography entitled, “Paths Made by Walking,” which is currently under press review, tells stories about what I have learned from these women, it does not detail my challenges of doing fieldwork with a difficult-to-access group of people, people now responsible for issuing death sentences to protestors. In this paper, I describe encounters with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and members of the Basij that reminded me what I continued to forget- I was under surveillance. I describe these for what we might learn about a particular kind of surveillance and indeterminacy in the context of my relationship with women who continue to be at the forefront of maintaining the Islamic Republic. I explore the concept of forgetting as having produced both mobility and precarity all at once.

William Leggett, Middle Tennessee State University, “Living and Researching through a Global Economic Crisis: At work in Indonesia during the financial crisis of 1997-98”

This paper tracks my experiences in Jakarta, Indonesia through the last days of the Suharto regime as the Asian Economic Crisis manifested itself in the streets of the city and in the neighborhoods, particularly those seen as predominantly ethnically Chinese. I have struggled to write my experiences from the midst of turmoil in Jakarta (1997-1998). Distance helps. Finding the language is still a struggle. Here I present a narrative of uncertainty, fright, and undeserved privilege. I was witness to friends hiding in underground garages and others who were armed with bats and machetes behind gates. I explore the awkward liminality of anthropology in a time of danger and the emotional impact of leaving (then returning) when those you work with are navigating their very survival. My initial writings on this experience were academic, hardly visceral. I wish to revisit these moments with a language that connects with anthropology but also with emotion, incorporating the two in a way first introduced by Renato Rosaldo.

Panel 4: Encounters with Technological Infrastructures | Friend 006

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant: Sabine Mohamed, Johns Hopkins University

Liviu Chelcea, University of Bucharest, “ Indeterminacy as Precaution: Pipe-phobia and the Technopolitics of Water Filtration in New York City”

Indeterminacy has been productively understood as uncertainty, ambiguity, liminality, and risk management. Taking domestic water filters in NYC apartments as an ethnographic entry point, I explore how indeterminacy can be understood as precaution and the handling of what Francois Ewald calls “non-risks” – risks that are neither measurable nor assessable. Although seven out of ten residents believe NYC water to be better than that of other cities, almost half of them drink primarily filtered water at home, rather than plain tap water. Unlike other parts of the US, where residents fear pipes because of potential lead contamination, New Yorkers fear pipes because they perceive them (and the city in general) as “old.” I use the notion of “pipe-phobia” to capture a generalized, diffuse, and unlocalizable fear of pipes, mixing sensory experiences of tap water, heightened risk culture, and infrastructural opaqueness. Much like 19th century hygienists in relation to microbes, filter manufacturers become spokespersons for and interpreters of the ubiquitous, opaque, and potentially hazardous pipes. Storing tap water in pitcher filters encourages visual inspection, blurring tap water’s industrial origins, “authoring” and “resourcing” it. 

Gabriel Jderu, University of Bucharest, “Indeterminacy and ‘Functional Enough’ Motorcycles”

Building on the “broken world thinking” perspective on maintenance and repair, I engage with the space of indeterminacy that exists beyond and between the pure categories of brokenness and functionality. Like many other complex technical objects, motorcycles dwell in a space that I call “functional enough.” As they inevitably and unpredictably accumulate brokenness in different components, motorcycles are never fully functional, often creating situations when they are used, although they need repair. The space between full functionality and complete brokenness raises interesting questions about how users guess, sense, know, diagnose, and address real and imagined brokenness. Using ethnographic data gathered from interactions with women and men bikers, and amateur and professional mechanics in Romania, I explore indeterminacy as a mixture of ambiguity, functional enough objects, sentinel devices such as engine sensors, smells, leaks and noises. I distinguish between analogue indeterminacy that relies primarily on the body for the detection of brokenness in older, carburetor engine, non-digitized bikes, and digital indeterminacy that relies in-built engine sensors for newer, digitized, and “black-boxed” fuel-injection engines. 

William Stafford, Independent Researcher/University of Toronto, “Panic Buttons and Protection Anywhere, Everywhere, Anytime: The Body as Indeterminate Horizon and Ambiguous Vanishing Point of Danger”

The panic button is a device allowing one to request assistance in the case of an emergency, sending a signal to parties who promise to intervene. Such devices were formally integrated into auto-rickshaw meters in Delhi in 2012, utilizing the meter’s location tracking and digital communications technologies, promising a continuous mediation of the provision of protection wherein every place is safe because the power to interrupt dangers can be manifested anywhere. In this paper, I examine the architecture of the panic button as enunciation of a sovereign promise to secure public space against transgressions of encounter. As such, however, it is as much a promise as a threat, insofar as it stands as both speculative and forensic proof of the power of sovereignty to guarantee security, for which rendering danger invisible works just as well as having thwarted it. What the panic button promises, then, is a conditional architecture of bodies in public as those which either can be secured or else are not anyone’s body at all. To articulate the peculiarity of this architecture, I turn to a counter-forensic aesthetics of the body as expressed in sculptural interpretations of a classical South Asian epic artifact of spatialized securitization of gendered bodies – the Lakshman Rekha (Lakshman’s Line) from the Ramayana. It is through the spatial heuristics developed in these works that we begin to see the body as sovereignty’s vanishing point.

Mar Ovalle-Meda, CUNY, “Articulating the Green Plurinational State: Electric Vehicle Production in Bolivia”

Transnational governance institutions and many of the largest multinational energy companies are in agreement that a transition from a fossil fuel-based economy is necessary to mitigate the unfolding climate emergency. Market incentives for investment in these technologies are growing along with discourses tying “national security” to “energy independence.” What does this mean for countries of the Global South, when they are projected to be a major source for the essential materials for the international effort to transition to a green economy? Automobile manufacturing and consumption capabilities have been major indicators of modernity for nation-states since the early twentieth century through the present. Today, in the context of global discourses stressing the need to build a global green economy, the production of renewable energy related commodities facilitates states’ projections as contributors to a global project to save life on earth. The electric vehicle industry is viewed as one of the next frontiers of states’ projection of moral power. In the case of Bolivia, its untapped lithium deposits situate the Plurinational State as a provider of a vital resource for the technological developments sought by several of the globe’s leading economic actors. As influence and investment in the country shifts from the Washington Consensus toward a commodities consensus, this paper asks: how are the development plans being drafted and negotiated by state administrators balancing meeting the needs of the world market with the domestic project of articulating sovereignty in accordance with the buen vivir framework promoted by the governing bloc? I examine the rhetoric associated with the emerging domestic vehicle industry, directed primarily by small start-ups with support by state ministries while, also, situating the attempts at domestic  production in a shifting geopolitical arrangement of power. Additionally, I argue that these processes highlight tensions between green capitalism, eco-socialism, and degrowth perspectives. 

Carolina Iglesias Otero, University of Chicago, “Accidental Correspondences: Numerical Models and the Problem of Similarity from Early Fractal Prints to Meteorological Forecasting”

This paper revisits oral testimonies from the accidental production of the first fractal images at the IBM labs in the late 70s in order to consider the tension between abstraction and sensuousness that characterizes computer-generated mathematical models such as those in use in financial markets and meteorological science today. Through a discussion of Walter Benjamin and George Didi-Huberman’s writings on symbolism and similarity, I argue that resemblance is not a static property of objects, but rather a historically and technologically grounded perceptual capacity, as evinced in the accidental discovery of the ‘resemblances’ between graphed fractal series and a host of turbulent systems such as earth dynamics, financial market movements, and meteorological events. What does the early history of fractal image and model production tell us about the relationship between indeterminacy, ambiguity, and uncertainty revealed by the use of numerical models in today’s “cultures of calculation” (Appadurai 2012)?

Panel 5: Everyday Indeterminacies in the Global South | Friend 008

Organizers: Sana Noon, Emory University and Adeem Suhail, Franklin and Marshall College

Chair: Adeem Suhail, Franklin and Marshall College

Discussant: David Nugent, Emory University

Panel Abstract: At our present historical conjuncture, global society appears to be in a state of crisis. Some have chosen to confront this rendering uncanny of everyday life, a shared and heightened awareness of which is dawning with varying degrees of urgency. Others have decided to turn their backs on this intensification of the senses. Either way, the moment is rife with uncertainty, anxiety, and indeterminacy, marked by all sorts of crises that are unfolding at every possible scale of analysis and experience. Ordinary people of the Global South find themselves at the epicenter of these global climate, political, and social crises before the aftershocks reverberate to other parts of the world. Anthropologists have attended to indeterminacy through the frames of liminality (Bloch 1992; Turner 1967) and in-betweenness to explore how life is made livable in, and despite, these circumstances. More recently, analytical attention has been paid to an anthropology of the good (Robbins 2016), emphasizing the study of morality and well-being among communities (Graeber 2001, Laidlaw 2002), empathy and care (Hillan & Throop 2008), and time, change, and hope (Deeb 2009, Robbins 2007). Attending to the indeterminacies of everyday life in the Global South, this panel pays closer attention to possible avenues of well-being, hope, and community that are made, remade, and lost in moments of crisis. Panelists explore indeterminacy engendered by political, social and ecological instabilities in Chile, Pakistan, Sudan, and Lebanon by attending to public protests, cross-border migration, and regimes of care and mutuality that emerge and descend in such moments. 

Adeem Suhail, Franklin and Marshall College, “Everyday Satyagraha: indeterminacy and the urban poor in postdiluvian Karachi, Pakistan”

August 2020, an Act of God revealed itself in the form of a monsoonal deluge that drowned the Pakistani megapolis of Karachi. Thousands of lives, livelihoods, homes, places of relief, and toil alike were swept away. Providence overwhelmed the priestly classes whose soothsaying was mummed by the unfolding of a disaster. Foremost among them were ‘secular’ prophets entrenched in the Municipal Planning bureaucracy and the City Government. The displeasure of the gods was palpable as the deluge arrived amid a global pandemic raging through Karachi’s streets. And the priests demanded sacrifice: homes to be bulldozed, emergency measures to allay flooding, new territorializations to inaugurate. This paper looks at the ways in which diverse groups from amongst those marked for ‘sacrifice’ by the priests of urban modernity contend with the indeterminacies of the imminent fragmentation of their ecologies through acts of mundane ‘satyagraha’ and render ‘postdiluvian’ futures. It follows residents as they (re)combined in human and more-than-human entities to forge avenues of mutuality through quotidian practices of creativity, and rearrangement against the longue duree of the Grand Derangement orchestrated by the city’s elites.

Sana Malik Noon, Emory University, “Women in the “Middle”: Everyday Activism and the Public Sphere in Pakistan”

The Women’s Rights Movement in Pakistan stands at a crossroads. As Pakistan’s involvement in the Global War on Terror winds down, the aftermath is rife with uncertainties and indeterminacies for all. At the precipice of economic collapse, political charades, and religious revivalism, women and gender minorities are subjected to arbitrary forms of violation and policing. Mobility and public life are rife with uncertain and uneven chances of encounters, both banal and life threatening. In this new temporality marked by intense indeterminacies, two generations of feminist activists have taken the mantle of leadership. The first, the pioneers of the 1980s, and the second, a ‘new wave’ of the post-9/11 era, both considering the pathways for just and ethical futures. This paper attends to a third generation: the “lost generation” of women from the 1990s. Mothers to the new wave, students of the pioneering wave. These women, their lives, and their efforts appear as ‘non-counted’. They neither participate in nor actively support their daughter’s activist pursuits but forge their own, alternative avenues and discourses of political engagement through unlikely friendships and community formations. Attending to these women, this paper explores how “ordinary”, and “trivialized” women in Pakistan strive to affect the contours of change in their societies, by discovering and generating new spaces and strategies through which they can voice their dissent and assert their presence in the public sphere.

Anna Reumert, Columbia University, “Labors of Risk and Gendered Mobilities Between Sudan and Lebanon”

This paper foregrounds the returns of migration by following young migrant workers who left Lebanon in 2020 and returned to subsistence farming communities in western Sudan, during a time of revolution and economic crises in both countries. Their labor and the returns of it connect these two seemingly distinct zones of labor and production in a transregional economy, linking East Africa to the Middle East. In this cross-border economy, the search for work through mobility has become a point of value extraction and exploitation by brokers and border guards, and at the same a practice of gendered self-validation for male migrants. In Sudan, migrants and brokers both refer to this practice as an adventure and a gamble, articulated through the term mughamara. Proposing mughamara as an ethnographic conception of mobility, I show how young migrants validate themselves through migration, in a political and socioeconomic context where they otherwise feel devalued. I show how their presentation of mobility as a necessary gamble with life undergirds a generational experience of foreclosure, which channels into a crisis of reproduction upon their return to agrarian communities. In conversation with migrant returnees and their female relatives who did not migrate, I ask what happens to families and their livelihood when risk-taking becomes a male obligation and prerogative, in lieu of waged work.

Nikola Johnson, Emory University, “Threatening public order when ensuring public safety: An analysis of community assemblies and emergency medic stations during Chile’s October 2019 protests”

This conference paper explores the everyday experiences of social unrest in the Global South to address the question: How do communities grapple with the indeterminacy of whether disruptive protests or police violence pose the largest threats to public safety? It does so by examining how residents in Downtown Santiago de Chile have responded to the daily protests and police violence during Chile’s “Social Explosion” (Estallido Social). In October 2019, a high school student-led “mass evasion” protest against a public transit fare hike triggered riots throughout Santiago, leading to ongoing, nationwide protests. During this time, citywide protests became concentrated in Plaza Baquedano, the transit hub in Downtown Santiago which protesters renamed Dignity Plaza (Plaza Dignidad). Each Friday, thousands of people from the disparate corners of Santiago start their weekends by converging onto Dignity Plaza, who are quickly met by riot police, armored police vehicles, tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. These “less than lethal” policing tactics have resulted in over 11,000 injuries and 26 deaths, figures which include local residents unaffiliated with the ongoing protests. In response, neighborhoods established assemblies and began to collaborate with local nurses’ unions and medical associations to turn their streets into emergency medic stations. This conference paper draws on participant observation and fieldwork conducted between October 2019 and September 2021 to examine how neighbors collaborated through these assemblies and projects to ensure their shared physical and personal wellbeing. 

Panel 6: Encountering Indeterminacy: Remaking Time and Value through Food Part 1 | Friend 009

Organizer: Sophie D’Anieri, Johns Hopkins University and Ariana Gunderson, Indiana University

Chair: Ariana Gunderson, Indiana University

Panel Abstract: In this panel, we explore how food is interwoven with time, change, memory, and value. In what ways does it dredge up the past, destabilize the present, or reimagine the future? How do engagements with food bring these temporal moments together, or blur their boundaries? While food makes everyday indeterminacy visible— it may also transform memories, material, bodies, and lives from waste into value, value into waste, or something in between: a missed meal may reveal a livelihood devalued or serve as a protest to this devaluation; a recipe may illuminate past security and abundance or an aspiration for these things in the future. This panel considers the role of time in the (re)production of indeterminate lives and livelihoods. 

Sophie D’Anieri, Johns Hopkins University, “Cultivating Value: Food and Dairyworkers against Indeterminacy”

Indeterminacy is imposed on the lives of Mexican migrant farmworkers through policies that both devalue rural peasant livelihoods and convert Mexican migrants into valuable agricultural labor. While rural Mexican farming communities have long been subjected to an imposed indeterminacy, I argue that Mexican farmworkers in Wisconsin dairies contest this indeterminacy through practices of cooking, gardening, and eating. I draw from digital ethnographic research conducted in 2021 to explore how dairy workers use food to imbue value in themselves and in others, consequently saturating their presents and futures with determinacy. Ultimately, this paper reveals that while efforts to render farmworkers’ lives indeterminate remain palpable and durable, these forces are coupled by ordinary strategies of value-making, which make everyday lives livable, meaningful, and ordinarily fulfilling.

China Sajadian, Smith College, “Moralizing Mouneh: The Indeterminacies of Food Preservation and Commensality at the Lebanese-Syrian Border”

Based on eighteen months of fieldwork at the Lebanese-Syrian border, this paper analyzes the ethical valences of food giving and preparation among displaced Syrian farmworkers, focusing on the feminized labors of mouneh (seasonal non-perishable food preserves). In a context of economic recession, wartime displacement, and extraordinary uncertainty, sharing mouneh forms a vital substance of pious commensality and neighborliness across boundaries of class, citizenship, and gender. At the same time, this paper shows how its production is embedded in unequal property and labor relations. Specifically, it tracks how Syrian refugee farmworkers — contending with precarization due to wartime loss of seasonal access to their land in Syria — secure mouneh through recourse to precarious forms of gleaning, debt-patronage relations, and squeezing women’s unremunerated labor. By tracing the contradictory obligations through which the ingredients of mouneh are harvested, prepared, and distributed, this paper offers a broader reflection of the indeterminate significance of commensality in times of economic and political catastrophe, wherein the pious obligation to give abundantly exists in tension with entrenched agrarian inequalities.

Danielle Jacques, Brandeis University, “Accounting for Socialist-Era Heritage Narratives in Bulgaria’s Contemporary Food Tourism”

During the Socialist regime in Bulgaria (1944-1989), heritage discourses underwent a process of “folklorization,” which applied to many aspects of Bulgarian culture from music and dance (Silverman, 1989) to food. During this time, Bulgaria’s cuisine was strictly codified (Neuberger, 2017) to align with an official, state-sanctioned version of national heritage (Kaneff, 2004). Today, tourism actors in rural regions are reclaiming culinary histories that were lost to this standardization, from wineries in the Thracian Plain to bakeries in the Rhodope Mountains and dairies across the country. In each of these cases, these actors draw on elements of the pre-Socialist past to appeal to an audience of contemporary Bulgarian tourists, informed by both global trends and local tastes. However, this paper argues that while such efforts bring new value to the countryside by highlighting regionally-specific culinary traditions, they continue to reify narratives of Bulgarian heritage that draw on essentialized representations of rurality and patterns of ethnic erasure. It problematizes underlying assumptions, rooted in Socialist-era accounts of the past, which make these “new” narratives palatable in the present.

Alyssa A. James, Columbia University, “Vexed Temporality: Coffee Time in the French Caribbean”

In Martinique’s ongoing project to revive the island’s historic coffee production, heritage officials work to bolster the speculative value of local coffee by promoting the tale of Martinique’s status as the gateway for coffee in the New World. Reflecting how the power of heritage narratives rests on making a connection with something material from the past (Trouillot 1995), the legitimacy of Martinique’s status was made by searching for and ultimately finding ‘descendant’ plants of the first Arabica typica planted in Martinique in the 18th century. Drawing on ethnographic research in Martinique, this paper examines the palimpsestic nature of this coffee project that recuperates history and concomitantly erases it, highlighting the simultaneity of the past, present, and future in the Caribbean in the wake of the plantation (Alexander 2006, Thomas 2019). This paper will discuss the ambivalence of resurrecting this relic of the colonial past in the postcolonial present to articulate visions of an autonomous future in the non-sovereign Caribbean, while demonstrating how this vexed temporality works in service of creating value in the world of specialty coffee.

Panel 7: Toward Non-Determinative Critiques: Anthropological Arguments in Want of “Better” Worlds Parts I | Friend 108


Malay Firoz, Arizona State University and Jessica Katzenstein, Harvard University


Chair: Jessica Katzenstein, Harvard University 

Cultural anthropology has over the past few decades largely abandoned social “scientific” pretensions to value-neutral empiricism, and instead adopted an explicitly political stance towards its objects of inquiry. Its commitment to the critique of power, essentialisms, and modernities of various shades sometimes begets what may be called epistemological certitude: an orientation in which the moral coordinates of our arguments appear transparent, and the contradiction between the politics we critique and the politics we advocate can be unambiguously defined. In this roundtable, we invite contributors to unsettle this certitude, and to explore the implicit political stakes of anthropological critique. Taking our respective ethnographic objects as heuristic devices, we ask: what does it mean to construct an anthropological argument beyond the comforting anchorage of epistemological certitude? How do we critique our world while remaining attuned to the proposition that other, “better” worlds may be equally indeterminate, fractured, cruel, even illusory? Do political arguments necessarily require the premature foreclosure of doubt and the dialectical resolution of moral contradictions, or is it possible to develop a language of non-determinative critique that does not know “what is to be done” or which truth to speak to power? What are the limits of a non-determinative critique, and does it risk defanging the critical thrust of scholarship in the face of political evil?


Jessica Katzenstein, Harvard University, Nested Critiques: Reflections on Political Certitude and American-Centrism in the Anthropology of Police

The anthropology of police has for the past decade contested the monopoly of other disciplines such as criminology on the study of police action. Through its focus on the intimate textures of police vulnerability, complexity, and disempowerment, the subfield has questioned political critiques of police as sovereign agents of state violence. Moreover, much of this scholarship has focused on policing in the global South and resisted what are often considered American-centric critiques of policing as systemically antiblack. The anthropology of police thus challenges the epistemological certitude of leftist organizing and academia in the U.S.: that the institution of policing fundamentally serves to protect racial capitalism through enforcing the status quo. The practice of anthropological critique here offers an unsettling refusal to foreclose what “we” know about the police by insisting on their other functions, meanings, and indeterminacies. At the same time, the subfield’s relative lack of engagement with global white supremacy and carceral capitalism risks producing its own moral resolution: that the complexities revealed through police ethnography somehow contradict political assertions of “what is to be done” about police violence. My paper explores this tension between the subfield’s epistemological un-certitude on the one hand, and its limits in the face of pressing political evil on the other. Drawing on my research with police departments in Maryland, I examine how scale, temporality, positionality, and geography inflect anthropological critique and at times counterpose it to leftist critiques of police, both within and outside the U.S. I conclude by arguing for nesting critiques rather than synthesizing them in either direction—for conceptualizing uncertainties within the certainties of global antiblackness, ambiguity within the unambiguousness of structured violence, indeterminacies within the determinate worlds of police power.


Amy J. Cohen, Temple University, Prefigurative Legality

Since the early 2000s, many of the left groups that spurred the alt-globalization movement have embraced directly democratic organizing and the ongoing creation of ethical relationships and subjectivities far more than they have pursued projects to reform legal and political institutions. These practices are often described as prefigurative because people are working to build alternative possible futures in the here-and-now outside of dominant statist and capitalist rationalities. In this essay, we ask if prefiguration can also involve imagining legal forms anew. Drawing on Amelia Thorpe, Owning the Street: The Everyday Life of Property (2020) we discuss contemporary efforts to use the language, form, and legitimacy of law to imagine it otherwise, efforts that occur through various kinds of direct actions rather than primarily through appeals to courts, legislators, or other state officials. We read Thorpe together with other scholars who likewise explore how people engage imaginatively with law to enact new futures in the present tense—scholars building an emergent field of critical and sociolegal scholarship that we call prefigurative legality.


Ridhima Sharma, University of Toronto, The Limits of the Ethico-Political: Thinking with the “Manic Otherwise”

Both within and beyond cultural anthropology, ethico-political work, commitments, and investments presume a certain notion of the “political”. To be political is to do several things but one of the constitutive elements, arguably, of what we understand to be the “political” is Conversation (talking to, talking across/ despite difference, speaking up and other such metaphors for political speech). What is lost in imagining Conversation as the infrastructure on which Politics is built? What would it mean to think of an otherwise world that is neither swallowed by the fantasy and sometimes, the fatigue of tireless conversation nor diminished by its erasure or impossibility? Can we imagine an otherwise world that is not determined by the demands of closure, symmetry, and determinacy that Conversation as an ethico-political route is attached with?

I attend to these questions through two encounters—one, readings and collective discussions from a recent graduate seminar called Anthropology of the Otherwise and second, the unfortunately parallel, sudden, and unforeseen experience of taking care of a loved one as they experienced and navigated their first “manic episode”. I ask, therefore, what does the “manic otherwise” ask us to reckon with, especially with regard to the limits and failure of conversation as an important ethico-political precondition of being in the world. The theme of the finality (determinacy?) of medical and diagnostic cultures undergirds and complicates the question—is there an ethico-political grammar to embrace indeterminacy in the face of a binding diagnosis? Drawing upon Moten and Harney’s notion of the “undercommons”, Glissant’s “opacity” (as opposed to the quest for “transparency”) and Adam Phillip’s argument of the “good enough” as a potential critique of the “good life” (among others), I think both with and against the always already-ness of the “political” to explore the possibilities of ethical and political alternatives that crystallized, for me, through a coincidental simultaneity of a graduate seminar and a personal experience of “caregiving”.

Shunyuan Zhang, Trinity College, Tongzhi Atmosphere: Transgender Practices and Queer Nonpolitics in Southwestern China

Both anthropology and queer studies have had a troubled relationship with the political, from the emergence of practice approaches in anthropology since the 1980s that not only pay attention to “all forms of human action” but interpret it “from a particular—political—angle” (Ortner 1984: 149), to the tacit paradigm of antinormativity in queer studies that ontologizes queer as “whatever is capable of producing novelty, eluding power, and generating alternatives” (Amin 2016: 105). Using the notion of tongzhi atmosphere (as opposed to tongzhi culture), my project looks into transgender and queer practices in Kunming, capital city of China’s southwestern province of Yunnan, where concentration of ethnic minority, biodiversity, and HIV/AIDS prevalence mark the specific “backward” temporal-spatiality of the city and its people vis-à-vis their coastal counterparts in China. It is within this context that I encountered and observed feelings of disinterest and indifference among transgender and queer individuals with regard to their identities and community. Rather than dismiss their (dis)affective response as backward that demands explication, I use tongzhi atmosphere and its sense of not-yet-ness (as compared to tongzhi culture) to examine the assignation of backwardness within its circumstances of emergence, including global and domestic HIV/AIDS campaigns, transnational circulation of LGBTQ+ activism, and China’s neoliberal project of desire. To do so, I complement structural and ideological critique (paranoid reading or strong theory in Sedgwick’s term) with the “descriptive richness of weak theory” that attends to “acts of noticing, being affected, taking joy, and making whole” (Love 2010: 237-238; Sedgwick 2003). Through the descriptive richness, particularly represented in ethnographic details of the dailyness of trans/queer lived experience amidst the rapidly shifting urban landscape in Kunming, I theorize “queer nonpolitics”, an approach to the political that defers designation of political meaning and value to practices that are “simply ‘there,’ ‘other,’ ‘different,’ present because they are products of imagination that did not seem to threaten any particular set of arrangements” (Ortner 1989-1990: 45).

Roundtable: On the Matter of Rights: Determinants and Indeterminacies Part I | Aaron Burr Hall 216

Organizer: Alisse Waterston, CUNY

Chair: Alisse Waterston, CUNY

Abstract: Scholars, activists, and policy makers have long known that human rights are not “neat, tidy, and orderly” as political scientist Michael Goodhart observes. Instead, matters of rights are complex and imbued with contradiction. What Goodhart says of human rights applies to the notion of rights more generally: “[They] are actually very many things: moral principles, philosophical concepts, laws, political claims, discourses, a vocabulary, a kind of performance, and also a bewildering variety of social practices” (Goodhart 2022). In this roundtable with Goodhart, participants take up his challenge to “hold onto the contradictions rather than resolve them…[not] as problems to be solved but generative of interesting questions about what rights are and how people use them.” The roundtable discussion will help identify determinants that give rise to emancipatory struggles across various domains of oppression or exploitation, and to make clearer those areas of indeterminacy affecting the course of such struggles. Featuring 8 junior and senior scholars whose works have focused on various aspects of rights/human rights and prompted by specific questions posed by the moderator, the roundtable will engage conversation on: human rights and social justice; labor rights; reproductive rights; emancipation from gender violence and mobility freedom as rights; territorial rights in context of the climate change crisis; Palestinian rights; and political, cultural and linguistic rights.


Keri Brondo, University of Memphis

Alana Glaser, St. Johns University

Michael Goodhart, University of Pittsburgh

Michael Pérez, University of Memphis

Ramona Pérez, San Diego State University

Tricia Redeker Hepner, Arizona State University

Jacqueline Solway, Trent University

Elyse Singer, Oklahoma University

Salon: Care Based Methodologies: Reimagining Qualitative Research with Youth in U.S-Schools (2022) | Aaron Burr Hall Third Floor Lounge

Led by: Veena Vasudevan and Pavithra Nagarajan

How can researchers ensure that they care for the wellbeing of youth, not just the stories and data collected from them? How do researchers maneuver the various roles they may come to play in youth’s lives over the course of, and beyond, a study with care? What happens when scholars transgress the traditional power dynamics of researcher-participant relationships to walk with youth in their research? Authors of the 2022 CAE Book Award Finalist, Care Based Methodologies: Reimagining Qualitative Research with Youth in U.S-Schools (Bloomsbury, 2022) will discuss the central questions that shaped this timely edited volume.”

Flash Ethnography Session: Mega Flash Ethnography Session | Aaron Burr Hall 209

Organizer: Cal Biruk, McMaster University

Chair: Cal Biruk, McMaster University

Part 1: AES Grad Student Research Grant Flash Ethnography Presentations

Abstract: Graduate student winners of AES’ small grants competition will give flash ethnography presentations on their respective research projects. 


Begüm Ergun, Boston University, “Responding to Fluctuations and Ambiguities: Everyday Care Practices of Syrians in Turkey”

Eddie Pesante González, CUNY Grad Center, “Energizing an Archipelago: Transforming the Energy Matrix as Self-Governance in Puerto Rico”

Aman Roy, CUNY Grad Center, Legacies of Centralized Planning: Dreaming Data at the Indian Statistical Institute

Joyce Lu, Rutgers University, “Pharmaceutical landscapes in the western highlands of Guatemala”

Roderick Wijunamai, Cornell University, “In search of new crop”

Rohan Sengupta, NYU, TBD

Ramsha Usman, University of California, Santa Barbara, The Labor of Being “Able”: Injury and Care in Pakistan’s Industrial Zones”.

Part 2: Individual Submissions

Chair: Naveeda Khan, Johns Hopkins University

Christina Kefala, University of Amsterdam, “Under the Skin: ‘White’ Artificial Intelligence in China’s Business Sector”

This study examines an understudied labor force behind China’s production of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) industry – to construct racialized robots and tech systems, often marked as distinctly ‘white’ by their appearance and embodied characteristics. Studies have raised their attention to the racialization of AI in western societies, arguing that Whiteness is not seen as merely an AI assistant with a stereotypically white voice or a robot with white features but as the absence of color, the treatment of white as the default . However, no studies exist in Asian contexts on the racialization of AI. Responding to the growing prominence of AI in China, various business fields have supplanted human interaction with AI, further enhancing economic growth, innovation and tech development: through the use of robots or AI digital humans. The research provides an ethnographic account of this phenomenon showing how AI and robots challenge the labor force structuring on Whiteness. I argue that this reflection of whiteness illuminates the particularities of white foreign people in the country and situates these effects within AI and labor market in China’s tech development based on racialization.

Kanwaljit Singh, Syracuse University, “Living Under Regulation in Kashmir-An Ethnographic Account”

Kashmir is one of the most militarized zones in the world and remains one of the longest-standing political disputes in the Global South. The valley has seen perpetual restrictions in the form of curfews through Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, and hartals (strikes) over the last 30 years which have risen since the last ten years or so, and at the same time, it has led the state to use crowd control methods especially Non-lethal weapons (NLW’s) and various other means of restriction like e-curfews or communication blockades. Since these regulations have been part of Kashmiris day-to-day life it has been absorbed into the lives of Kashmiris and is visible through various ways be it vocabulary, stories, music, sports, and other modes of interaction. This has in a way normalized these forms of regulations like curfews, hartals, acts like AFSPA, and the use of NLW. In this research, I focus on bringing out oral histories of these various forms of restrictions which have become a part of Kashmiri culture, and analyze various aspects of these vocabularies, narratives, memory, and symbolism of Non-Lethal weapons plus other forms of restrictions which are an important part of these oral histories. Based on the analysis of these interviews, I suggest that living under these regulations, especially regulatory means like NLW has led to not only the normalization of these regulations but the creation of a world of the undead. These methods of crowd control through the use of Non-Lethal Weapons with other means of restriction have limited or stopped the spatial or temporal movement of people, objects, and information, thus regulating the life and development of life in Kashmir. At the same time, these lives under regulations have not only made it possible for people to experience collective pain but imagine themselves as a nation as well.

Panel 1: Institutions and Impunity | Aaron Burr Hall 213

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant: Sergio Lemus, Texas A&M

Paulette Curtis, Florida State University, “Going on Record: Affecting Change in the Face of Indeterminate Outcomes in Cases Involving Staff and Faculty at the University of the Neoliberal Era”

Analyzing “cultures of harm,” which are environments in which powerful actors act with impunity and volatile workplaces result, I discuss how staff at one public university addressed misconduct, discriminatory treatment, and other problematic behaviors on the part of tenured faculty in charge of administrative units. These staff encountered significant roadblocks in adjudicating claims, and university HR units and fact founders found little evidence to recommend formal sanctions or other consequences.  The reasons for this may seem obvious; power at the University most often accrues to those who produce scholarship and bring in big dollars. What is more surprising is that the outcomes of these cases were remarkably similar, however demonstrably problematic were the behavior of some faculty leaders. Those who run the adjudicatory gamut conclude that outcomes are thereby skewed in favor of the powerful and that universities will never hold “bad actors” to account.  While an indeterminate outcome is not to be expected, some go on record anyway. The record’s most important function is as a place where the powerless are witnessed, and reversing the status quo seems possible.

Racquel Lee, University of Washington, “Vape Wars: Shared Air and the Ambiguous Space of New Technologies” 

While smoking cigarettes indoors has been banned in many public places worldwide, the relatively recent arrival of electronic nicotine delivery technologies has introduced some ambiguity about whether or not they warrant identical exclusionary measures. At joint venture universities (JVUs), where an ad-hoc assemblage of laws and customs from at least two different national contexts are combined into a single institution, the boundaries around what is expected or acceptable are often in a state of perpetual indeterminacy, making the JVU itself a model of a new technology that prompts debate around emerging social change. During ethnographic fieldwork at joint venture universities in China, students put forth what some had termed the “Vape Wars” as a recurring issue in their community around vaping and smoking in various sections of campus: the libraries, the dormitories, the sidewalks outside of buildings. This paper explores the ways that ambiguities about vaping generated conflict among students that grew into claims about national tendencies, loyalties, and power over the actions of one another as well as the limited authority of university administration. Through examining disagreements about the propriety of vapor, reverberations of broader strategies in environmental policy enforcement bump up against narratives about individual freedom and choice in the social engineering of tobacco marketing imagery. These conflicts draw out the ways that preferences around consumption and protection from particulate exposure are deeply interwoven with class identities, which were quickly transformed into generalizations about culture-based social divisions.

Esteban Salmón, Stanford University, “Taming ethical indeterminacy. How Mexican prosecutors justify illiberal crime control”

The start of the Mexican War on Drugs in 2006 caused a radical increase in serious crimes which translated into an equal upsurge in the workload of criminal prosecutors. Additionally, a profound criminal justice reform implemented nationally in 2016 expanded the judicial overview of police work which made it harder for prosecutors to sustain cases in hearings. These simultaneous processes have caused the great majority of crimes to go unpunished. Impunity has become one of the most felt popular demands in Mexico. Police departments around the country have found a way out of this predicament by fabricating culprits during arrests to give the impression of being tough on crime while hiding any evidence of fabrication during the booking procedure to comply with increased due process restrictions. During eighteen-months of participant observation in Mexico City’s Attorney General’s Office, I observed dozens of fabricated crimes. Police officers robbed and extorted detainees between the arrest and the booking because those wrong-doings were not recorded to maintain the impression of legality. While prosecutors can determine these wrong-doings legally (there is even a formal procedure called “determination”), determining them ethically is not so easy. To tame this indeterminacy, prosecutors deploy what I discovered to be a rather fixed repertoire of ethical justifications. I call these repertoire illiberal ethical justifications because 1) it serves to justify practices that infringe upon individual rights in the sake of the protection of society and 2) because they deploy the dichotomy of individual liberty/structural constraints to negate prosecutor’s responsibility in wrong-doing and confirm that of the accused. In this paper, I seek to describe the moral dilemma confronted by Mexican criminal prosecutors when they book fabricated crimes and the repertoire of ethical justifications they use to tame the ensuing ethical indeterminacy. 

Juliana Valente, CUNY Graduate Center, “Bureaucratically Producing Future Citizens of the Brazilian State: Judicial Cases of Youth Convicted of Committing Crimes”

In this paper, I discuss attempts by the Brazilian juvenile justice system to rid youth of their past criminal status through bureaucratic means. Adolescents in Brazil sentenced for committing a crime must participate in specific correctional measures that are legislatively and structurally different from the adult criminal justice system. Outlined in the Children and Adolescents Defense Act, correctional measures targeted at youth aim to “re-socialize” adolescents through the process of guaranteeing rights. As such, children and adolescents are often conceived of as citizens-in-the-making, and Brazilian judicial and welfare practices targeted at youth ultimately aim to produce equal and full adult citizens of the future. In this paper I turn to the specific demand by judges that youth obtain their IDs to consider how equal rights is conferred bureaucratically to future adult citizens, thus making youth’s experience of rights in the present one of constant indeterminacy. Brazil has long attempted to guarantee the formal and equal inclusion of its population through bureaucratic means. Furthermore, IDs are, and have historically been, central to formal equality, or citizenship, in Brazil. Brazilians must hold at least five different documents, which confer statuses like worker, voter, driver, native, and taxpayer. Documents gesture at rights due to their importance in accessing basic services like education, welfare, and healthcare. Bureaucratically easing the process of obtaining IDs was a key component of Brazilian re-democratization and a strategy to address summary execution or disappearance by the police. An analysis of the object of the ID, and the judicial demand that youth who have committed crimes obtain their IDs, allows for me to consider how youth convicted of committing crimes are monitored by the Brazilian state and governed through activities that target their future status as citizens of the nation.

Panel 2: Governing Nature: Regulations, Commodities, Markets  | Friend 004

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Discussant: Jessica O’Reilly, Indiana University

Atak Ayaz, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) and Cornell University, “Of Taxes and Banderoles: Wine Governmentality in Turkey”

“Situating wine production in Turkey at the intersection of the country’s modernization project initiated by its founder’s secularist ideology and the new wave of Islamization that defines its current political realm, this presentation will examine the legislation and regulations that posit indeterminacy for wine companies in Turkey. Studying top-down bureaucratic regulations like taxation shed light on the material and regulatory foundations of government ideology, in terms of how different forms of value are negotiated. As such, centering taxes and banderoles—a seal indicating authenticity and control—as ethnographic objects, I locate the uncertainty in what to anticipate from the government’s regulations (in terms of support or resistance) as the source of anxiety that vigneron and winery owners share. To this end, this presentation asks: What kinds of politics around wine in Turkey affect its production and how? What affective reactions—anxiety, indeterminacy—do wine politics trigger locally? Finally, considering the aforementioned questions, what does it mean to produce wine in contemporary Turkey, a country at the crossroads of Asia and Europe?

Yida Jiao, Johns Hopkins University, “The Use of Indeterminacy: Chinese Agricultural Experiments in Uzbekistan”

This paper explores the uses of indeterminacy in agricultural experiments in a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) invested in and run by Chinese private capital in Uzbekistan. The Chinese investors try to make their experiments exemplary to demonstrate China’s advancement in agriculture, and by doing so, they hope to get more commercial rewards from Uzbekistan’s market. Yet everything about the experiment is indeterminate. Indeterminacy arises from the SEZ’s exceptional status in the current agricultural system of Uzbekistan. Experimentation requires appropriate social-political milieu and devices, and the crack of the technological chain would bring the process indeterminant, for human labor with more agencies would fill in. Besides the indeterminacy built into the experiment, the process is riven with contingencies arising from the diversity of backgrounds, the temporariness of tasks, and the varied entrepreneurial expectations of the executors. The “managerial subcontract” renders the labor of the Chinese directors as unpredictable as those of Uzbek workers. For the directors, the inherent unpredictability of the experiment could play as a scapegoat to divert their accountability of maloperation or inefficacy. Performing the process of experimentation is a safer indicator of personal devotion and a guarantee to receive financial support from the Chinese state-owned company. This paper explores how indeterminacy is made coherent with the unpredictability of the market, ending as a demonstration of the determination of the Uzbekistan state to embrace marketization reform. 

Angeles Lopez-Santillan, CIESAS, “Under the shade of law. Ambiguity and indeterminacy of environmental law execution in Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico”

In the last 30 years, Mexican government has developed a set of laws, regulations, and programs to drive environmental protection, promote sustainable development and control the negative effects of productive activities on the environment. Some experts have considered these institutions as integral, even avant-garde in Latin America; however, the country’s reality shows an accelerated environmental decay in all of its regions. Through the analysis of laws and regulatory frameworks on territorial protection applied in the Yucatan peninsula, I am interested to show general law’s ambiguities which leads to actual indeterminacy in environmental protection execution. I will analyze territorial regulations for protected areas and land use planning programs applied in Yucatan Peninsula; both cases show incoherence among scales and actors’ legal duties; diminished scalar articulations of authorities’ responsibilities for applying official frameworks in the local; lack of integration on sectoral institutions, policies, and programs to achieve institutional order and compliance. The extent of indeterminacy in the application of general laws at states and municipal level, results in a spread of risk and threats upon resources depredation and/or increased pollution in territories that face intensive capitalism expansion; this leads to question the State capacity to guarantee the constitutional right for a healthy environment for different populations involved, even in some cases fractures the rule of law, as it is in the “Maya Train” development project for the southeastern region of Mexico. 

Zach La Rock, MIT, “Uprooting Monoculture: The Cultural Politics of Integration at Europe’s Southern Edge”

Since 2013, the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa has killed one third of the 20 million olive trees in southern Italy’s Puglia region. Absent a cure, the European Union requires that growers uproot centenary trees exposed to Xylella bacteria and subsidizes their replacement with bioengineered, high-density alternatives. This paper draws from preliminary dissertation fieldwork to explore how phytosanitary regulators and olive cultivators in two biodiverse farms navigate olive monoculture’s apparent disintegration. Whereas regulators use quantitative risk assessments to anticipate a future of economic collapse without swift, but conventional, intervention, small-scale growers draw on their embeddedness in Puglia’s working landscapes to imagine and enact environmental engagement that frames agrarian, civic, and political affairs as co-constitutive. Their respective responses to the epidemic crystallize how contemporary social processes of integration – of Italy in the European Union; of migrant farmworkers in Italy; and of monocrop agriculture on a warming planet – are at an indeterminate crossroads. In this interregnum, integration is both a hegemonic mode of management and an emergent paradigm of living. At stake in the Xylella situation, then, is far more than determining the pragmatic resolution of a bounded crop epidemic. The pathogen crosscuts a peninsula that is also facing pronounced demographic shifts, a resurgent, identitarian right wing, and accelerated climate change partially linked to monoculture. Investigating moral imaginaries and practices of integration across multiple scales – from the ecological to the political; from the civic to the planetary – illuminates how matters of belonging are nested in the 21st century. 

Panel 3: Numerologies | Friend 006

Co-Organizers: Sarah Muir, CUNY Graduate Center and Jessica Greenberg, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Chair: Sarah Muir, CUNY Graduate Center

Panel Abstract: Numbers have become a particularly fascinating preoccupation for anthropologists over the past two decades, especially as the discipline has taken up concerns with audit culture, financialization, and quantitative evidence in legal and other contexts. Across that literature an overarching theme has been the profound indeterminacy of numbers. Far from standing as unquestionable reflections of objective reality, anthropologists have shown, numbers must be worked on in order for them to do the regimenting, ordering, and evaluating work that we have come to expect of them. This panel engages with the indeterminacy of numbers in order to interrogate the role of ideologies of number and numeracy in these processes. Across a wide range of contexts, panelists explore the semiotic, ideological, and political properties of numbers, how they are mobilized to authorize a range of different positions, and how numbers morph, shape, squeeze, and expand across materialities and scales. In particular, we ask, how do regnant numerologies (i.e. number ideologies) shape the ways that people come to grapple with the significance of numbers? In what institutions are numerologies elaborated, authorized, or challenged? In what situations do we find numerologies coming under scrutiny or even coming undone? 

Sarah Muir, CUNY, “Suspicious Numbers: The Uncertainty of Inflation in Argentina” 

This paper examines the play of inflation rates in Argentina, where seemingly arcane matters of statistical sampling methods and economic modeling are topics of quotidian debate, as people from all walks of life try to determine the “true” inflation rate. Those debates are shot through with heated accusations of malpractice and corruption, as well as with a sense of unavoidable indeterminacy. The result of long-term histories of monetary instability, this suspicious stance vis-à-vis inflation underscores the analytic challenge of attending to the conflictual semiotic ideologies that social actors bring to bear on economic numbers. 

Irina Silber, City College of New York, “Keeping up with the numbers: Violencia encifrada in El Salvador’s long postwar” 


This talk offers an ethnographic account of what I call violencia encifrada, a concept coined to refer to a codified, encrypted violence made possible by numbers that are entangled with storytelling and memory. From wartime accounting of human rights atrocities committed by the Salvadoran military, tabulations of demobilized combatants, silenced internal purges, to the postwar epidemic murder rate, “surge” of unaccompanied minors, and the numerical tracking and tweeting of COVID19 victories, embodied numbers come to represent El Salvador as a resoundingly bloody, terrifying, and insecure place. I focus on how a barrage of numbers circulate in nonlinear, eruptive ways, and argue for a more radical sense of what counts in order to intervene on the expected narrative promise of numbers. ​ 

Jessica Greenberg, UIUC, Quantities of suffering, Qualities of Harm: Scaling from law to politics at the European Court of Human Rights 

This paper will explore how human rights lawyers and advocates anchor different kinds of legal and political truths in numbers. I show how my interlocutors work with contrasts among numbers, and across quantities and qualities to create constant momentum or dynamism through acts of translation and comparison. I argue human rights in practice are inseparable from the ways that people dissolve the one into the many and materialize the many into the one in order to create moral authority, legal efficacy, and politically consequential narratives.  These translations and conversions help legal actors manage fundamental impasses of European institutions by balancing contradictory and competing demands and investments.   

Firat Bozcali, University of Toronto, “Evidence in Numbers: High-Tech Border Enforcement, Smuggling Prosecutions, and Evasion in Turkey 

This paper examines the advanced border enforcement technologies that Turkish authorities have introduced to fine-tune its control of cross-border mobilities. In addition to border walls and wired fences, the Turkish government has provided QR-coded id cards to migrants, established a network of surveillance cameras to trace specific individuals and vehicles in urban and rural areas, and introduced chemical markers to tag legal commodities, primarily oil. To track authorized and unauthorized mobilities across (and within) state borders, these technologies hinge on numbers and numeric relationships (correlations, predictions, formulas, etc.) that promise universality, precision, and reliability. The paper will examine the politics of such promise, elaborating on the political numeracy and aesthetics of numbers that Turkish authorities used to claim their control of borders. Through an analysis of smuggling prosecutions and the use of numbers-based legal evidence, the paper will also discuss how indeterminacies embedded in numbers and numeric relationships allow border crossers to contest and disrupt the state’s border enforcement.

Panel 4: On the Indeterminacy of the Other | Friend 008

Organizers: Ispita Dey, Princeton University and Talia Katz, Johns Hopkins University

Chair and Discussant: Sharika Thiranagama, Stanford University

Panel Abstract: This panel revisits the discipline’s foundational engagements with questions of otherness by asking how we might think through the concept of otherness beside/against state sponsored categories of difference. Since the 1990s, the rise of the anthropology of state-formation and nationalisms has both led to important research breakthroughs while also popularizing race and ethnicity as analytics. Recent scholarship emerging from contexts of ongoing conflict (e.g. Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine) has drawn attention to how the ossification of politico-legal categories of difference may limit horizons of political possibility and expression (Buch-Segal 2006; Billaud 2015; Thiranagama 2012). How can we reframe the “other” as more than marginal, perhaps even an internal/external expanse? How can insights into “other-ness” bring us closer to unfoldings and unmakings, sometimes (or often) at the edges of awareness (Gammeltoft and Segal 2016)? In response to this set of issues, this panel gathers scholars to revisit the routes through which we theorize otherness. How do articulations of the self inflect our understanding of the figure of the other? Where and under what conditions do we witness the hardening of the boundaries of otherness? Specifically in contexts where state sponsored categories of difference are weighted with histories of violence, how might anthropologists attend to the question of difference in life-giving ways?

Talia Katz, Johns Hopkins University, ““May You Continue to Grow in My Worn Out Womb:” On the Texture of Hope and the Birthing of Otherness in Lod, Israel”

In May 2021, when the city of Lod was declared by the state of Israel as ‘on the brink of civil war’ and placed on lockdown, Pnina, the Founder of the Lod Theatre Center, was seven months pregnant with her first child. During times of war, the Lod Theatre Center doubles as a municipal bomb shelter, with theatre staff responsible for emergency services. In her pregnancy diaries, “Poems I Wrote When He Was in My Womb,” Pnina offers descriptions of this period: sleeping, protesting, protecting, and creating in the theater/shelter. Her poetry articulates her dream of peace through the everyday, physical practice of preparing to birth a “bi-national child.” She offers domestic descriptions of prenatal nutrition regimens, neighborly responsibilities, and the mother-child relation. In this paper, I explore the texture of hope as it emerges in Pnina’s diaries. Cognizant of the ways in which women’s reproduction and death gives life to the nation-state (Pateman 1988; Yuval-Davis 1996; Das 2008;2007), I ask, how might we find in Pnina’s descriptions a form of birth beside the ossified lines of Israel/Palestine? 

Ipsita Dey, Princeton University, “Indo-Fijian “Homing” Desires: Agricultural Practice in Constructing Nativity and Social Belonging”

This paper draws upon fieldwork conducted in 2019 and 2022 among Indo-Fijian farmers in Nabitu, a small settlement in the Nadroga-Navosa Province of Fiji. Descendants of Indian indentured laborers brought to the newly acquired British sugar colony of Fiji, present day Indo-Fijian farmers have long-standing generational knowledge of farming methods, cultivation techniques, and land management. In this paper, I explore how my farming interlocutors articulate this historical context to establish a spiritual claim or connection to the Fijian landscape, in parallel to indigenous Fijian cosmologies of vanua, or the ties of person to place. I investigate this “homing” desire for social belonging among Indo-Fijians, whose attempts to gain political recognition and visibility are dependent on performing, maintaining, and ritualizing a relationship to the landscape through colonial era practices of farming and monocrop cultivation. How do these “homing” desires for nativity directed towards Fiji coexist with histories of racial marginalization and second class citizenship? How does agricultural multispecies practice among Indo-Fijian farmers reframe the indigenous “other” and re-articulate Indo-Fijian historical consciousness? 

Ghazal Asif, LUMS, “Conversion Between Religion and Desire: Thinking the Indeterminate Other in Pakistan”

For the past decade, the press in Pakistan has remained rife with stories of the kidnapping, forcible conversion to Islam, and forced marriages of young Hindu women at the hands of Muslim men. Potential legal redress requires a clear, visible difference between forcible abduction and “free-will” elopement. Yet things are rarely so obvious; an indeterminacy captured by the Urdu/Sindhi word warghalana (lit. seduced, deceived). Hindu community leaders express anxiety that “their” young women will be warghala-ed into converting by Muslim men. They also draw on the classical Sufi and bhakti poetic trope of the virahini to describe conversion-and-marriage warghalana events. These tropes underscored the entangled sexual and religious stakes at the heart of these events. I draw on the metaphors and tropes my interlocutors used in order to argue that the intimate antagonism that emerges in these debates can only be understood by paying attention to how traces of sexual desire for the forbidden religious other can appear in opaque or transformed guises through the poetic voice. I argue that the indeterminacy at the heart of such traces is foundational to understanding the encounter with the religious other in South Asia.

Andrew Bush, Bard College, “Divorce, Desire, and the Cruelty of Husbands in Iraqi Kurdistan”

In Anglophone media and scholarship, the figure of the Muslim husband who invokes the authority of Islamic law in declaring divorce is subject to several kinds of reproof. Among them is the civilizational judgment of archaism and unethical cruelty. Yet such familiar framing of an “other” overlooks several familiarities. Not only are such men subject to similar judgements in Kurdish and Arabic legal discourse, but such judgements are spared in many accounts of divorce in Anglophone social worlds. This paper tarries in the entanglements of desire and cruelty that appear in divorce proceedings in Islamic legal forums in Iraqi Kurdistan. In such forums, both the utterance of divorce and utterance of a legal decision reveal, refract, or assume expressions of desire and cruelty on the part of husbands and jurists that might appear all too familiar to Anglophone readers. The paper experiments with the familiarity of cruelty and desire in marriage and divorce within and across Islamic and liberal legal forums in Iraqi Kurdistan, and moments of popular American culture, asking after the stakes and techniques of indeterminacy in ethnographic writing about Kurdish Muslim men in English.

Panel 5: States, Narratives, and Contestations | Friend 109

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant: Clara Han, Johns Hopkins University

Elizabeth Melville, Columbia University, “Multiethnic Brazil: Different Shades of White”

Since the election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, Brazil has been bitterly divided over the very nature of Brazilian identity and its complicated relationship to white supremacy and Black cultural vitality. In Ijuí, a small city deep in the interior of southern Brazil, white far-right political and agribusiness elites have begun using heritage as a tool to deny the existence of race while attempting to govern ethnic differences back into its citizens. In the wake of Ijuí’s uncanny designation as the UNESCO Multiethnic Capital of the World as well as the highly contested loss of Bolsonaro’s reelection, this paper will examine the way far-right local elites have begun to use legal and affective discourses of memory, belonging, and cultural rights to begin re-constructing the city’s European ethnic origins. 

Bonnie Jin, Johns Hopkins University, “Taiwan as Method”: Community Building, Interpretive Identity, and New Bloom”

In recent years, Taiwan has become increasingly visible in international media. Despite the prevalent framing of Taiwan by international actors in relation to US-China relations or by domestic actors (such as the two predominant political parties in Taiwan) as a “beacon of democracy,” these geopolitically oriented framings of Taiwan is contested by youth activists and organizations such as New Bloom, whose members situate themselves in relation to grassroots global justice movements rather than formal political institutions. Based on interviews and participant observation conducted in Taipei, Taiwan in the summer of 2022, this project examines how New Bloom functions as both a journalistic “interpretive community” which influences international discourse on Taiwan, as well as an internal community where the personal identities and narratives of members are legible. New Bloom community members understand their personal identities and narratives as analogous to that of Taiwan’s status globally. I articulate how Taiwan’s indeterminant international status, as understood by my interlocutors, gives rise to “Taiwan as Method” — a means through which indeterminacy on the international, national, and individual levels can become legible.

Clive Echagüe, Rutgers University, “The Chilean State Intervention and the Women’s Moral Superiority Discourse in Antofagasta, Chile”

This paper examines the performativity of the discourse about Chilean women’s moral superiority in Chilean state interventions and interactions between immigrants and Chilean nationals in a red-light district in Antofagasta,a Northern Chile city known for its copper production.The discourse of women’s moral superiority is widespread in Chilean society.It has been described as a racialized norm of Chilean femininity, with roots in the earliest gender discourses that recognize women as gendered citizens(Vera 2016).Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork from December2016 to August2018 and considering the perspectives of pedestrians, customers, and collaborators,I reflect on how this discourse plays out in the interactions that sex immigrant workers have with Chilean citizens.To this end,I look at three contexts.The first concerns the Chilean State’s tale about the relationship between mining and prostitution, according to which miners and sex workers must be government objects.The body of sex workers is considered a threat to the national family and the productivity of men.Secondly, the relationship between sex workers and NGOs who “intervene”functions in a double space in which the sanitary politics for sex workers get along with the activism around”care” perpetuated as”woman’s work.”Thirdly, the relationship of immigrant sex workers with the State is present in the violent encounters with police officers in which practices such as harassment, surveillance, rape,and gender correction occur.The performativity of the Chilean women’s moral superiority discourse turns authoritarian and legitimates different forms of violence against immigrant women.It also uncovers the specificity of immigrant women as subjects that occupies a central place in the nationalist production to reject immigrants.That said, in lieu of behaving as victims, everyday resistance of immigrant sex workers appropriates sex work and their national femininities as a mechanism of social mobility and freedom.

Jessica Storey-Nagy, Indiana University, “The Long Lie: “Soros” in Contemporary Hungary”

George Soros, a Hungarian-born American philanthropist and financier, is a nefarious agent of the international liberal left—according to the Hungarian government. It all started on 25 July 2017 when the text “Soros-terv,” Soros plan, was first uttered at a press conference held by Fidesz party member Szilárd Németh. Although the details of the plan are murky, Fidesz party members (including Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary) have said that Soros is an anti-nationalist, a man who is staunchly opposed to the existence of all nation-states. According to Orbán, his supporters and others, if Soros were to have his way, the 9.7 million citizens of Hungary would be overrun by “migrants” and “liberals” who would change the ethnic composition of not just one EU member-state but of all Europe—in part because they would promote transsexuality in kindergartens, brainwashing young “European” children and forcing upon them a life of celibacy, infertility, and/or sodomy. In Hungary, conspiracy theories involving George Soros abound and have greatly contributed to citizens’ highly varied perceptions of reality. Even for citizens who do not support Orbán, most political happenings are indeterminate and many feel as though they may never know what is actually happening in the world; that as long as Orbán is Prime Minister, they may never gain access to reality. Based on ethnographic research conducted in Hungary and on a media study of “Soros” in circulation from 2017 to the present day, this paper investigates the mechanisms by which “Soros” is negotiated and maintained by the Hungarian government and its citizens. It answers a call by Carole McGranahan to investigate lies from the inside, and suggests that the text “Soros” gains truth-value over time as it remains in popular circulation. Further, it claims that for some citizens, the multimodal repetition of the text in public and private spaces continues to increase its truth-value, and that there is no end in sight. 

Panel 6: Toward Non-Determinative Critiques: Anthropological Arguments in Want of “Better” Worlds Part 2 | Friend 108

Co-organizers:  Malay Firoz, Arizona State University and Jessica Katzenstein, Harvard University

Chair: Malay Firoz, Arizona State University

Malay Firoz, Arizona State University, Potentializing Resilience: Crisis/Time and the Consolidation of Anthropological Critique

In the wake of Russia’s military intervention in Syria to prop up the beleaguered Assad regime, which all but guaranteed a protracted refugee crisis in the region, UN agencies began advocating for an integrated development and “resilience-based” approach to humanitarian aid, which partners with asylum states in the region to strengthen both refugees’ and vulnerable citizens’ ability to support themselves. On the one hand, the resilience turn addresses age-old criticisms of humanitarian minimalism by advocating for sustainable rather than symptomatic responses to refugee relief; on the other hand, it inducts aid organizations into relations of cooperation and complicity with the very states that curtail humanitarian space and undermine refugee resilience. In this paper, I reflect on the challenges of theorizing a paradigm shift whose contours are incessantly emergent and refuse to be frozen in the ethnographic present. If the practice of anthropological critique requires us to (pre-)determine the systemic outcomes of institutions and processes of disenfranchisement, I suggest that such outcomes are only made legible through their consolidation in the seemingly “dead letters” of history, such that they appear intended and foretold from the beginning. Thinking with Ariella Azoulay’s concept of “potentializing history,” this paper seeks to develop a non-determinative critique of humanitarian reason that is attuned to the temporal open-endedness of crisis, the radical interruptions of history that render certain political solutions to the human condition inevitable and others unimaginable. Resisting the temptation to foreclose or synthesize critiques of resilience through a priori yardsticks of social justice, I center the moral irresolvability of political problems that implicate uneven, evolving and co-equal domains of ethics and illuminate the potentiality of history as otherwise.


Georgina Ramsay, University of Delaware, Time and the Displaced Other: From Analytical Borders to Temporal Relativism

What role might anthropology play in striving towards a “better” world? “Better” for whom? There is an implied future(s) embedded in the idea of a “better” world, but many of our most persistent conventions around anthropological engagement and ethnographic writing foreclose the possibility of political action and limit us to political witnessing, since so often we continue to write about the world as if the stakes of what we are documenting do not include us. This is a denial–not just of shared contemporaneity–but of shared futurity. To even approach the possibility of “better” worlds, anthropology must first grapple with the ways in which our own methods and analytics (continue to) reproduce and benefit from existing orders and borders of race, gender, dis/ability, nationality–and most importantly, attach a givenness to the violences of capitalism in a way that obscures how our discipline has historically–and contemporaneously–benefited from those same extractive logics. Scholarship on the anthropology of humanitarianism often reflects on the “unsettling similarities” between these respective fields: the former purporting to alleviate suffering and the latter often serving to document suffering. But the mutuality of anthropology and the logics and rhythms of extractivist capitalism is less reflected on: perhaps our commitment to examining moral economy has come at the expense of reflecting on political economy? I argue that any attempt to rethink our moral coordinates requires simultaneously re-orienting ourselves towards the structures of political economy that pose material limits on our possible futures. Unsettling the temporal orders that continue to organize anthropological research and writing is a necessary–if indeterminate–starting point.


Wei Gan, Princeton University, Philanthropy, Asian American Activism, and the Moral Indeterminacy of Capital

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian American nonprofit and community-based organizations have mobilized to speak out for the Asian American community – first against the tide of anti-Asian hate spurred by the pejorative “China virus” and then, increasingly, toward race-based political empowerment. These efforts found tremendous support from philanthropic sources, with corporations, private foundations, and individuals donating time, labor, expertise, and, most visibly, money, in the service of the community. The Asian American Foundation, for example, garnered pledges of over a billion dollars from multinational companies. GoFundMe has raised nearly $8 million through its AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] Community Fund, with YouTube, Airbnb, and H&M boasting some of the top gifts ($500,000, $150,000, and $100,000, respectively). Legacy philanthropists such as Susan and David Rockefeller continue to be honored at annual galas hosted by Asian American nonprofits, as well as newer generations of Asian American entrepreneurs, including the founders of Panda Express and Zoom.

Studies of philanthropy and its relationship to humanitarianism and social movements have tended to be critical, and they can be read as taking two broad tracks. One focuses on philanthropy and decries its practices as a laundry for wealth amassed through exploitation and its benefactors as greedy kingpins performing moral decency for profit. The other scrutinizes the nonprofit sector as willing participants in the so-called nonprofit-industrial complex, misappropriating funds, prioritizing empty gestures, and concerned more with its own brand image. The spirit of anthropological critique aligns with these analyses in its quest after a better and more just world: social equity and capitalism are wholly incompatible. In calls to imagine “alterity,” anthropologists are passionate about the wholesale eradication of systemic conditions – anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist. In supporting social movements, activist anthropologists erect sharp dichotomies between the goodness of life (human and otherwise) and the evil of everything else that commodifies any part of it.

While, philosophically, I subscribe to these utopian dreams, I also understand anthropology to be a study and practice of quotidian presents in which such dreams are irrelevant. My work, which uncomfortably inhabits the intersecting spaces of Asian American community organizing, nonprofit operations, philanthropic grantmaking, and critical theory, highlights the indeterminacy of anthropological inquiry and the value of an indeterminate or non-determinate anthropology. I share anecdotes of small, local nonprofits that seek to make tangible difference through engagement with the America’s largest philanthropies; of community members whose daily lives are framed by their philanthropic activities; and of social advocates who believe wholeheartedly in their projects, even if, as some might say, the revolution will not be funded. I show that, in unpacking the relationship between philanthropy and Asian American activism, it is more productive to refrain from making unambiguous distinctions between categorical “goods” and “bads,” and to think about how everyday folk are piecing together, in very concrete ways, their visions of a better world – within the systems of power and injustice that bind us all.


 Nandita Badami, Ludwig-Maximilians University, Dissolutionism: An Analytic Experiment

This paper sets out to establish a specificity to “solution” as an ordering concept accruing novel historical weight in the context of climate crises. Unlike, for instance, the financial crises of 2008, in which solution-making activity was restricted to banks and boardrooms, solutions to climate crises exist at all scales of human activity: international climate agreements (UNFCCC protocols) are a solution, geoengineering (SRM, carbon capture)is a solution, calculative devices that spawn their own economic markets (carbon offsets) are a solution, as are moral positions of abstinence (“I will not eat meat”/“I will not fly”), and acts of desperation (“we must leave here before it floods”. While it in no way questions solutions as a valid goal of human collective desire, the paper demonstrates that solutions rhetoric has begun to influence regimes of meaning, morality and action in a manner that forecloses the epistemic validity of much that does not conform to its teleological, resolution-centered epistemology––a form, as it were, of epistemicide (de Sousa Santos 2014).

The paper speaks to the panel’s interest in non-determinative critique in its embrace of analysis that problematizes without prescriptively answering “what is to be done”, but also, develops an analytics that goes beyond the imperative to pose questions which we might not be able to answer, insofar as they gesture to a need for a solution even if we aren’t able to offer them. In short, it asks how a solution as a category of knowledge works to format our frameworks of critique, knowledge and by extension, intelligibility. It asks: what effect does solution, as the moral imperative of our time, have on ways of being and knowing that do not map onto the contours of what constitutes a solution, or the act of participating in one? Are there alternative possibilities of ordering outside of crises/solutions, and if so, what heed must we pay them?

Panel 7: Encountering Indeterminacy: Remaking Time and Value through Food Part 2 | Friend 009

Organizer: Sophie D’Anieri, Johns Hopkins University and Ariana Gunderson, Indiana University

Chair: Sophie D’Anieri, JHU

Panel Abstract: In this panel, we explore how food is interwoven with time, change, memory, and value. In what ways does it dredge up the past, destabilize the present, or reimagine the future? How do engagements with food bring these temporal moments together, or blur their boundaries? While food makes everyday indeterminacy visible— it may also transform memories, material, bodies, and lives from waste into value, value into waste, or something in between: a missed meal may reveal a livelihood devalued or serve as a protest to this devaluation; a recipe may illuminate past security and abundance or an aspiration for these things in the future. This panel considers the role of time in the (re)production of indeterminate lives and livelihoods. 

Ariana Gunderson, Indiana University, “Indeterminacy of Originality: Newness and Authorship in Recipe Development”

A recipe’s lineage is often intentionally indeterminate. Translating messy, smelly food into neat, imperative prose makes indeterminacy productive as recipe developers translate ephemeral food into fixed text. Recipe developers mull over memories of past meals, imagine new tastes, and comb the written recipes of others to author a new recipe. But how new is ‘new’? What creative acts constitute recipe authorship? And how do recipe developers navigate the murky brackish waters of originality and theft to make a living publishing recipes? Recipe developers in the United States and Germany and the publishers they work for have developed norms and institutions to govern the authorship and ownership of recipes, profiting from the recombination of past recipes and successfully producing new recipes by traversing the gap between materiality and language. Recipe writers produce value and make a living by meeting the media market’s demand for novelty, even when there is nothing new under the sun.

Shulan Sun, Indiana University, “Qualia of Terroir, Taste of Metrics: the indexical indeterminacy of Pu’er Tea value chain in Southwest China”

Scholars of supply chain capitalism and neoliberal branding have long argued that forms of indeterminacy are inherent in the very notion of the commodity, the brand, and the company. Such forms of indeterminacy are manifested in the diverse identity categories of the workers and managers themselves (Tsing 2009), the semiotic excess in the very constituents of what count as a brand, and likewise in the legal institutions that police the boundary between the real and the fake (Nakassis 2015). Building on these observations, this paper argues that the value chain incorporates a similar form of indeterminacy as a part of the definition of “the valuable”. Taking the value chain of Pu’er Tea – native to Yunnan, China – as its ethnographic object, this paper focuses on a situation where a commoditized object could not be made valuable by drawing from familiar and discrete identity categories such as ethnicity of its producers. This paper also looks at how Pu’er’s unstable qualia resists designations from GI regulations recently promulgated by the Chinese authorities, based on the French notion of Terroir, that fetishize and reify the geo-physical conditions and production processes that are standardized as the criteria for authenticity. 

Janita Van Dyk, University of Toronto, ““To be Sustainable, You Have to Think Like an Artigiano”: Making Focaccia and Tortillas Valuable Between Bologna and Bra, Italy”

Many people associate Italian cities with regional culinary specialties. Yet increasingly a network of young students and alumni of the slow food university work to diversify the classic offerings of small-scale artisanal Italian businesses. In framing their approach, one employee credited their ability to “think like an artigiano” (craftsperson): to be innovative and sustainable while forgoing cultural nostalgia for small-scale production or tradition. Drawing on ethnographic case studies of two “gastronome success stories,” a sourdough focaccia bakery in Bologna and a tortilleria in Bra, I examine how this next generation of slow food acolytes engage in value politics: how proponents shape tradition, models of sustainability, and shifting networks of relationships to realize the economic and social value of focaccia and tortillas. Recursively, these proponents strive to sustain their efforts by keeping their finger on what can be recognized as valuable in the oversaturated world of Italian cuisine—Which histories do they innovate? What tastes can they attract? What forms of evaluation must exist? Amidst this recursive indeterminacy of value politics, a question lurks for the artigiano—how to keep up before going stale? 

Roundtable 1: On the Matter of Rights: Determinants and Indeterminacies Part 2 | 

Organizer: Alisse Waterston, CUNY

Chair: Alisse Waterston, CUNY

Abstract: Scholars, activists, and policy makers have long known that human rights are not “neat, tidy, and orderly” as political scientist Michael Goodhart observes. Instead, matters of rights are complex and imbued with contradiction. What Goodhart says of human rights applies to the notion of rights more generally: “[They] are actually very many things: moral principles, philosophical concepts, laws, political claims, discourses, a vocabulary, a kind of performance, and also a bewildering variety of social practices” (Goodhart 2022). In this roundtable with Goodhart, participants take up his challenge to “hold onto the contradictions rather than resolve them…[not] as problems to be solved but generative of interesting questions about what rights are and how people use them.” The roundtable discussion will help identify determinants that give rise to emancipatory struggles across various domains of oppression or exploitation, and to make clearer those areas of indeterminacy affecting the course of such struggles. Featuring 8 junior and senior scholars whose works have focused on various aspects of rights/human rights and prompted by specific questions posed by the moderator, the roundtable will engage conversation on: human rights and social justice; labor rights; reproductive rights; emancipation from gender violence and mobility freedom as rights; territorial rights in context of the climate change crisis; Palestinian rights; and political, cultural and linguistic rights.


Keri Brondo, University of Memphis

Alana Glaser, St. Johns University

Michael Goodhart, University of Pittsburgh

Michael Pérez, University of Memphis

Ramona Pérez, San Diego State University

Tricia Redeker Hepner, Arizona State University

Jacqueline Solway, Trent University

Elyse Singer, Oklahoma University

Salon: Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) Gregory Bateson  | Aaron Burr Hall Third Floor Lounge

Organizer: Bhrigupati Singh (Ashoka University/Brown University)

In this salon we discuss Bateson’s indeterminately canonical text, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972). We call this book “indeterminately” canonical, since it does not found any subfield, and nor is it identifiably part of any “ism” or “turn”. And yet this book has remained curiously alive and suggestive for generations of scholars within and beyond anthropology, working on themes as diverse as language, mental health and illness, and environmental anthropology.  In this salon, we attempt to re-inhabit the wildness and the oikos of this book. Participants are free to bring their favorite excerpts or segments for collective discussion, or may optionally focus on any of the following segments: Part I Metalogues: “About Games and Being Serious”, “How Much Do you Know”; Part II Form and Pattern in Anthropology: “Experiments in Thinking about Observed Ethnological Material”; Part III Form and Pathology in Relationship: “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia” and “The Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism”; Part V Epistemology and Ecology: “Form, Substance and Difference”; Part VI Crisis in the Ecology of Mind: “Pathologies of Epistemology” and “The Roots of Ecological Crisis”.

Workshop 1: “How to Publish in Anthropology Journals”: A Workshop with the Editors of AE and PoLAR | Friend 006

Organizers: Susanna Trnka, University of Auckland, Jesse Hession Grayman, University of Auckland, and Georgina Ramsay, University of Delaware

American Ethnologist (AE) and PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review publish articles that combine ethnographic specificity with original theoretical thinking. Led by three of these journals’ editors, this workshop will outline the basic elements of successful submissions to AE, PoLAR, and other anthropology journals. Topics covered will include choosing the right journal for your article, the relationship between ethnography and theory, how to turn a dissertation chapter into a stand-alone article, dealing with reviewers’ feedback, coping with multiple revisions, estimating turnaround times, and working through the final stages of copyediting and production. While many of these topics are relevant to publishing in a wide range of anthropology, or other social science, journals, the editors will also tailor their remarks towards the criteria they use for AE and PoLAR.

Workshop 2: Ethnographic Poetry Workshop | Aaron Burr Hall 213

Poetry and ethnography are twin forms of attention. In this workshop, anthropologist and poet Leah Zani will guide us through an investigation of ethnographic poetry and ethnography as literary craft. At root, ethnographic poetry is a way of seeing and re-seeing the world. Using a grounded sensory exercise, Zani will guide us through cultivating a poet’s sensibility for our research. This exercise (a listening poem) is easy to learn and encourages ethnographers to work through their material with a poet’s attention for experience and writing craft, including awareness for syntax and line, word choice, and sonics. Together, we will read a selection of ethnographic poems, collectively generating a working definition of the genre and its relationship to ethnography more generally. We will conclude with a reading of participants’ poems (either written prior to the workshop or generated via the exercise) to give each participant a mouthfeel of their work.

Instructor Bio: Leah Zani (she/her, they/them) is the author of Strike Patterns (SUP 2022), an ethnographic novel, and Bomb Children (DUP 2019), a hybrid work of poetry and ethnography. From 2018 to 2021, Zani served as the poetry editor at Anthropology and Humanism. Their articles, essays, and poems have appeared in Cultural Anthropology, Environmental Humanities, Consequence, Tikkun, and SAPIENS, among others. They are a full-time author and public researcher.

Panel 1: Indeterminacy at the US-Mexico Border(ands): Reflections on Culture, Society, and the New Limits of Border | Aaron Burr Hall 209

Organizers: Sergio Lemus, Texas A&M University and Emma Newman, Texas A&M University

Chair: Sergio Lemus, Texas A&M University

Discussant: Alex Chavez, UC Riverside

Panel Abstact: Border theorizations permeating recent scholarship in Anthropology have allowed us to examine two processes; one that territorializes geopolitical boundaries, and a second that deterritorializes culture, the state, society, and power (Rosaldo 1989, Stephen 2007, Lugo 2008, Rosas 2012, Chavez 2017). Centered within the historical emergence of the US-Mexico border, “border theory” has helped examine the limits of ethnographic research and call for a remaking of cultural analysis by centralizing historically marginalized subjects; both, interlocutors, and researchers alike (Velez-Ibanez 2017, Velez-Ibanez et al 2017, Lugo 2017). This panel invites scholars to think critically about how border theory continues to advocate for a critique of power. Taking indeterminacy as a process, as a noun, and at times as an adjective, we analyze and reimagine how humans interact within international boundaries and engage with the transborder processes that expand in and beyond the US border(lands) regions (Lugo 2000, 2008). We propose that Border Theory’s double life in Anthropology is critical to theorizing processes of (in)determinacy by balancing acts of enforcement, surveillance, and technological control of the flow of humans, bodies, and cultures across border(lands) (De Genova 2017). Based on our experiences and examination of border(lands) we tentatively conclude that there is not an outside of borders, and that we cannot understand society and culture without understanding its border making and ordering processes. 

Sergio Lemus, Texas A&M University, “Two Decades of Border Theory: Genealogy, Trends, and Borderlands of a Theory”

Theorizing borders offered a new map to understand a world saturated by “crossings” and “inspections” where border guards stand ready to say who can cross and who stays behind (Rosaldo 1989, Behar 1993, Lugo 2008). Others focused on thinking through processes beyond a geopolitical border by using a transborder framework (Stephen 2017, Vega 2015, Chavez 2017). Examining the ecological, linguistic, and religious aspects of transborder processes, others have also pushed for a transborder analysis (Velez-Ibanez 2018). More recent border theorizations have emphasized the technological aspects of control, management and redirection of populations through treacherous terrains (Rosas 2012, De Leon 2017). Reflecting on my own work among Mexican migrants to Chicago, Illinois, I offer a few suggestions on where Border Theory is heading, what are the important conversations that we should consider in ethnography and evaluate the emergent cultural worlds that have benefited by framing them from this perspective. Thus, I argue an emphasis of the “trans” in border theorizing, internal or external to the imagined community, is a productive direction to visualize emancipatory forms of life and being. 

Anthony Jerry, UC Riverside, “The Body as Border: Blackness, Racial Boundaries, and the Reproduction of the Nation in Mexico”

This paper focuses on the production of racial/cultural/ethnic geographies within Mexico and Oaxaca’s Costa Chica region. The paper presents a methodology for locating Blackness within the pre-existing racial/ethnic geography of the region and focuses on bodily movement and “border crossing” as a method for recognizing the role that blackness and a Black subject position plays in producing and reproducing racial/ethnic geographies in Mexico, as well as the nation as a racial/ethnic space. The paper explores how borders “produce bodies/subjects” and argues that the ideal project of Black recognition in Mexico is one that allows to produce a Black cultural subject through the production of an acceptable Black geography which ultimately leaves all other previously produced racial and cultural subjects (Mestizo and Indigenous), as well as geographies, intact.

Emma Newman, Texas A&M University, “Migrant Rutas: Preliminary Results from Brooks County”

Brooks County is south of Corpus Christi in the Rio Grande region of southern Texas. Outside of the main city of Falfurrias, the county is sparsely populated and consists primarily of ranchland and desert vegetation. These hot, arid areas are home to what clandestine migrants moving north from the US-Mexico border have referred to as El Caminar, or the walk. El Caminar is the route where coyotes or human smugglers lead groups of border crossers on foot around the Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias. Since late 2020 the United States Border Patrol has recorded a dramatic increase in the number of migrant remains found in the desert ranchlands of Brooks County. Local humanitarian organizations are struggling to install fresh-water dispensaries, conduct search and rescue missions, and provide forensic identification of the bodies of migrants who perish. This study seeks to build on the work of borderlands scholarship and the studies of migrant experiences and state violence in the borderlands (de Leon 2017; Jusionyte 2018; Rosas 2012). This paper addresses the growing humanitarian crisis occurring at the US-Mexico border in southern Texas through the examination of original qualitative data collected via interviews with migrants and community members in Brooks County. In addition to qualitative data, this study mobilizes an interdisciplinary approach to the analysis of how places of sanctuary and violence have come to exist within Brooks County, and how these events affect community organizations and influence individuals’ life experiences. The analysis of how some environments increase the impact of potentially deadly forces endured by migrants, while other cultural factors mitigate these forces is examined through the theoretical framework of biopolitics and its necropolitical permutations.

Panel 2: Governing Animals: Governing Nature | Friend 004

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant: Andrea DiGiorgio, Princeton University

Aleksandar Kostić, Princeton University, “How to Count Wild Animals: Uncertainty of Kyrgyzstan’s Wild Animal Censuses, Indeterminacy of Snow Leopards, and the Difficulties of Imagining Near Futures”

Knowing the numbers of individuals of various wild animal species at given territories is of great practical importance – it influences national and international definitions of level of threats to the wild animal populations, the decisions on protection statuses, or on hunting quotas. Yet, learning and knowing those numbers is anything but easy or uncontroversial. I look at three examples of reckoning (or not) wild animal numbers that I came across during my ethnographic research of biodiversity conservation in Kyrgyzstan: wild animal censuses conducted by the governmental institutions, studies of wild animal population sizes conducted by foreign snow leopard scientists and local conservationists, and the controversy in the international community of snow leopard scientists and conservationists over the methodology (and indeed the possibility) of establishing the number of adult snow leopards. I propose that two different aspects of counting wild animals need to be examined in order to understand these practices. The first aspect is the technical one, where the issues are what is methodologically possible and what the consequences are of different methodological choices. I use the differentiation between the concepts of uncertainty and indeterminacy common in physics and mathematics in order to argue that snow leopards create themselves as a radically different scientific object and policy subject than the other wild animal species counted in Kyrgyzstan. The second aspect are the policy consequences of the three reckoning practices I am examining. Each of the three is tied to particular kinds of policymaking, and therefore to different kinds of technocratic imagining of near futures. The trouble here are the contradictions between the need for indeterminacy of future in order to keep intervening in it possible, and the need for determinacy of the questions asked about the future in order to make possible collecting the evidence that will inform the interventions.

Calvin Edward, CUNY, “No Country for New Wolves: Gray Wolf Reintroduction and Right Wing Mobilization in Rural Oregon”

This proposed paper aims to examine Oregon’s long standing political antagonisms surrounding gray wolf reintroduction and conservation programs. Throughout the last 20-years, wolf conservation has been a keystone culture war issue across Oregon as the state’s predominantly rural right wing has fervently opposed ‘elitist urbanite and big government agendas’ to ‘destroy rural lifestyles’ through ‘rampant’ predator populations. As reintroduced wolves cull ungulate populations and depredate livestock, a vocal minority population of right wing cowboys, farmers, and hunters have accused the state government of overseeing economic and environmental degradation in rural sectors of the state. As a result, forms of vigilante justice have been carried out by right wing actors against wolves through illicit poaching activities. Engaging with political anthropological and nonhuman geographical frameworks, this paper asserts that these wolves, as unbounded and entangled subjects, have become crucial political actors in reconfiguring anthropocentric and capitalistic territorializations which triggers reactionary political mobilizations around politics of resentment and romanticized worldviews of frontiersman rural living.

Sylvain Perdigon, American University of Beirut, “How to herd sheep like (in) a dream: on indeterminacy and nonverbal metaphors in Lebanese Bedouin arts of domestication and animal-human communication”

Levantine shepherds have no fences to keep their sheep together nor dogs nipping their heels. Instead, they raise a few newborn lambs in the tent to grow later into meria, i.e. multispecies operators channeling mood and will between shepherds and hundreds of sheep. In the process, the human hand comes to stand as a suckling appendage: the chosen lambs suck milk for weeks from their shepherds’ fingers in lieu of their mothers’ teats. Such digital suckling raises questions on how humans become part of animals and animals part of humans. Is it a case of imprinting as in Lorenz’s ethology? I propose rather to take my clue from Bateson’s insight that animals communicate in indeterminate metaphors which (like our dreams) “do not mention what is being compared” but are metaphors all the same. It is one such metaphor, I argue, that the shepherd and meria exchange in handsuckling and that is proposed to the rest of the flock and draws it together. For Bateson, the indeterminacy of nonverbal metaphors internal to natural history was to be cared for as part and parcel of ecological wisdom in an age of breakdown. Bedouin arts of composing (with) flocks extend such wisdom with implications for rethinking the pasts and futures of domestication.

Panel 3: The Social Lives of Diagnosis: Care, Risk, and Medical Knowledge | Friend 006

Organizers: Sarah Roth, Johns Hopkins University and Zeynul Gul, Johns Hopkins University

Chair: Sarah Roth, JHU

Discussant: Andrew McDowell, Tulane University

Panel Abstract: This panel invites papers that consider the production and traces of diagnostic indeterminacy across the lives of individuals and as well as in social and bureaucratic domains. Work in medical anthropology has theorized diagnosis as an unstable configuration, negotiated across and between the domains of clinical knowledge, laboratory findings, and illness narratives (Mol 2002). This has enabled us to understand that diagnosis always harbors the permanent possibility of alternative configurations and hides the shadow of medical doubt (Street and Kelly 2021). That said, in such work on diagnosis, patients’ voices have emerged only in well-defined, critical moments, such as at the juncture of surgical or therapeutic decision-making (Das et al 2022). Missing from this picture of diagnosis is how the depth and breadth of a patient’s life can shape the meaning and course of diagnosis. The moment of diagnosis, for instance, can challenge the narrative a person has lived with until the moment of diagnosis, or could be inflected by a complicated history of mistreatment or misdiagnosis. Existing literature also falls short of explaining how the indeterminacy of diagnosis is reproduced, amplified or shelved as medical knowledge circulates across sites beyond the hospital. In this panel, we ask: how does the indeterminacy of diagnosis affect or transmute selves, relations, affects, or senses of time of those who receive diagnoses? How might diagnosis create a field of indeterminacy in the life of someone with chronic illness? How does indeterminacy unfold for those without diagnoses who carry the label of “undiagnosed” as they seek out care for rare conditions? What are the promises and limitations of diagnostic technologies in diminishing, undoing, or introducing uncertainties in clinical care? How do diagnostic knowledge and technologies reproduce or consolidate health inequalities around the questions of race, gender and class?

Zeynel Gul, Johns Hopkins University, “Diagnostic Charity: Doctors and Ethics of Uncertainty in Occupational Diseases in Turkey”

Drawing on ethnographic research at an occupational diseases hospital in Turkey, this paper examines the ways anticipation of legal gaze transforms the diagnostic practices of doctors. As the diagnosis of occupational diseases cases can be forwarded to legal and bureaucratic institutions that determine the eligibility of cases for compensation, doctors invest enormous care in framing diagnostic categories. Yet, in some cases the diagnostic decisions of doctors might be overturned by bureaucratic or medical institutions and patients must pay back the pensions they receive for the duration of “living under diagnosis” (Manderson 2020). The paper looks at the strategies of occupational health doctors in deliberately producing less certain diagnostic categories to help their patients avoid re-paying the pensions they received for the contested health conditions. I ask: How do doctors calibrate between professional ethics and strategies of uncertainty? How do the social circumstances of the patients (e.g. indebtedness, resources, household relations etc.) determine the “diagnostic charity” of doctors? Through an analysis of clinical encounters and interviews with patients and doctors, I argue for an understanding of diagnostic uncertainty beyond the clinical site, and reveal the implications of law and bureaucracy for medical knowledge production.

Sarah Roth, Johns Hopkins University, “Futures, Collapsing & Unfurling: Gendered Risk and Genetic Diagnosis”

From his bedroom in the Midwest, Fern, a genderfluid trans guy, shares with me over Zoom that they aren’t sure their ‘egg would have cracked’ if not for their hereditary cancer syndrome. A few years back, after learning about their family history of cancer, they went in for genetic testing. When it came back positive for a BRCA1 mutation, they received risk assessment and counseling around their elevated cancer risk: with up to an 80% chance of developing breast cancer, they were encouraged to consider preventative surgery. Facing these recommendations, the diagnosis “crystallized” dysphoric feelings they had been carrying about their gender expression at the time. Navigating the medical recommendation to remove part of the body causing them dysphoria, delivered to Fern as if they were a cisgender woman, they decided to embrace bodily change. “I’ve thought about it a lot as a turning point,” they say, “this moment where the possible futures I envisioned for myself collapsed, but also other ones began to unfurl.” Fern shared that they likely would not have pursued surgical interventions – top or bottom surgery – as part of their gender-affirming care before receiving the genetic diagnosis. Now, though, their cancer risk management and gender care are “tied up” together. In this paper, I draw on an ethnographic interview study exploring the experiences of gender diverse individuals with hereditary cancer syndromes. I ask: How are gendered horizons opened up by cancer genetic counseling, even in the indeterminate crosshairs of cancer risk and gendered norms of practice? How does genetic risk come to carry the dual marks of embodied fear and possibility? Overall, this paper contributes to anthropological work on the intersections between genetics, gender, and health by examining how genetic counseling can shape gendered horizons, and how risk and possibility are intertwined in the context of cancer and genetic diagnosis.

Ellen Macnamara, NIH, “Indeterminacy in the Diagnostic Odyssey”

The “diagnostic odyssey”, the journey that those with undiagnosed conditions undergo to find a unifying diagnosis, is a well-known phenomenon in genetics. A diagnosis is understood to be the goal of testing and repeated evaluations; patients and providers, alike, are motivated to identify the cause of the condition. Research shows that many believe a diagnosis will provide clarity on cause, prognosis, treatment or management options, and guidance about potential future problems. What has not been well studied, however, is how advances in genomic technology have pushed this narrative forward and encouraged the search for the “root cause” of a condition. In the past a diagnosis that described what was being observed was considered complete; but with advances in genetic testing, clinicians push for a more precise diagnosis – the single genetic variant that led to the disease must be identified. These advances have further complicated what it means to be diagnosed and who is considered “undiagnosed”. As patients we ask more of medicine and science, and as providers we divide patients into smaller and smaller boxes until a precise diagnosis is known. And so, what does it mean to be “undiagnosed”, to be “diagnosed”, and who decides?

Panel 4: Permanent Things with Impermanent Futures: An Exploration of Mediated Encounters | Friend 008

Organizer: Patricia Lange, California College of the Arts

Chair: Patricia Lange, California College of the Arts

Panel Abstract: A sense of permanence is often associated with material things, everyday processes, and places. Yet, what happens when permanent things are mediated with temporal indeterminacies, such that interpretations and meaning contextually change over time? This panel examines various media—including tattoos, games, social media, and virtual reality—to explore the role of permanence in producing contested cultural meanings. Body tattoos are thought to last a lifetime, yet aesthetic symbolism in Bolivian tattoos may change, revealing thorny politics of Indigenous identities. Race is assumed to be a stable characteristic, thus inviting policies to create equity. Yet, research on anti-racist games reveals that interventions remain stuck in ratifying disparate access to societal resources based on race. Processes such as social media terms of service connote stable interactional parameters, yet such agreements rapidly change, often to the detriment of participants. Physical places often have ongoing connections to industries such as entertainment companies in Hollywood. Yet, indeterminacies in entertainment projects give rise to permanent waves of adaptation and change, as seen in the virtual reality industry. This panel will investigate temporal indeterminacies and explore how permanence masks indeterminate changes in media that benefit certain groups over others. The panel will analyze how permanent features simultaneously generate impermanent and contested interpretations of meaning.

Nell Haynes, Saint Mary’s College, “Indelible Ink? Shifting Meanings of Indigenous Symbolism in Bolivian Tattooing”

Tattoos are often seen as permanent markers of ink in the skin. Even as they fade or stretch, the lines, shading, and negative space remain in a relatively persistent form, unless removed by laser or covered by more ink. Yet for tattoos that reflect a social meaning, while their shape may remain unchanged, the meanings of the shape may shift as politics and social norms change. Using the example of tattoos created by Bolivian tattoo artists and tattooed on Bolivian customers, I explore how symbolism associated with indigeneity shifts in meaning amidst social change. Both artists and clients represent individuals with ambiguous relationships to Indigenous identity. Using their own interpretations of tattoos of Incan deities, Native folklore, and Indigenous words, this paper explores what happens when seemingly permanent markers of identity and belonging become endowed with new referents and associations. The paper traces the aesthetic reverberations of social change, even in a form seen as superficial to politics. I use this exploration to comment more broadly on recent changes in the politics of indigeneity in Bolivia and their ongoing relationship to identity and belonging for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Bolivians, alike.

Thomas Malaby, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, “Destabilizing Simulations: Anti-Racism and “Game” Design”

The Racial Wealth Gap Learning Simulation (RWGLS) was designed by the racial equity activist Marlysa Gamblin and is published by a non-profit called Bread for the World. It facilitates face-to-face, small group encounters mediated by familiar board game elements. It is used in community-based anti-racism work and university instruction. When “playing” it, participants draw cards to play as “white” or “black” Americans. Play produces sequences iterating 20th-century United States policy and legislation that deeply impacted racialized wealth distribution. While RWGLS has many elements that signal its game status, it is a simulation in the strict sense. Like traffic accident simulations in courtrooms, it permanently traces the same result: the ratio of “white” player wealth to “black” player wealth is always 12:1. What presents itself as a site for liberal agency instead marches players through utterly determinate systems. By consistently reenacting the actual current U.S. racial wealth gap, players’ interpretations of race, correlations with race and wealth, and individual agency are destabilized and shown to be bound up in the ratification of inequality. They are experienced as arbitrary, and therefore potentially reconfigurable.

Patricia Lange, California College of the Arts, “Terms of Disservice: Analyzing How Tactical Impermanence Permanently Impacts Social Media Participants”

Social media participants are widely reported to avoid reading terms of service, which list the rules, policies, and procedures that commercial entities expect users to follow upon joining. Even if they read them, participants often do not understand what the policies entail for future use of their media contributions, given their legally binding character. Despite their connotations of a permanent ecology of usage, terms of service may change frequently. This paper explores how such changes may disproportionately benefit site operators over participants. It will analyze how inconsistencies of interpretation are achieved. It argues that such tactics create a pseudo umwelt or false set of interactive parameters. The paper draws on material from an ethnography of YouTube and surveys ethnographic and legal research on Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter. Through cross-comparison of multiple sites, it will investigate whether terms of service dynamics differ or are resulting in similar understandings of use of contributors’ work across the internet. The paper explores how ongoing design tactics are used to legally bind participants to use of their work in ways that are ephemerally masked but have lasting impact on creative contributions. 

Lisa Messeri, Yale University, “Indeterminant Emergences: The Entertainment-Technology Nexus in Los Angeles”

In 2018, I attended to community formation around virtual reality in Los Angeles. In the shadow of Hollywood, it was imagined that VR could find its potential as the next great media and technology platform. Production companies established VR branches; actors and producers pivoted to the “immersive space.” On festival stages, a bright future was articulated even if murkier present conditions were discussed after the curtains fell. In 2022, after spending a pandemic-length time away from the city and community, I returned to find that where conversations had once been about VR, they were now about “web3.” In the LA Convention Center, which four years ago had hosted VRLA, NFTLA was taking place. As I reconnected with folks whom I had known from VR, they updated me on their NFT/crypto/metaverse ventures. This paper examines how one emerging technology so fluidly replaced another. What aspects of the entertainment industry and the expertise in Los Angeles responded so easily to the indeterminacies of the tech industry? Moreover, how did this very indeterminacy create opportunity? 

Panel 5: Contested Markets | Friend 009

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant: Julia Elyachar, Princeton University

Andrew Haxby, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, “The Brokerage Ethic: Mediation and Aspiration in Kathmandu”

This paper examines how the Kathmandu land market has helped shape a specific economic ethic, herein called the brokerage ethic. At its base, the brokerage ethic honors the right of individuals to earn money through the manipulation of personal networks. This includes not only individual commissions, but an array of margins, cheats, intimidations, acts of resistance, and patron-client relations. While entrepreneurialism—as styled in neoliberal discourse—celebrates the creation of efficiency through radical acts of transparency that are meant to lower transaction costs, the brokerage ethic views such costs as legitimate modes of wealth accumulation, opening the door to a complex moral practice wherein honesty is relativized, duplicity is contextualized, and interpersonal relations collapse the distinction between genuine attachment and instrumentality. In other words, the brokerage ethic depends on a certain moral indeterminacy, exploring the gray areas between trust and betrayal, and violence and protection. While this ethic has deep roots in Nepal’s history, the paper argues that their specific constellation speaks to Kathmandu’s political economy, where capital—coming in from outside the nation through foreign remittances—is often only accessible through acts of mediation. As such, brokerage becomes a form of redistribution, albeit a deeply unfair one that follows set caste, ethnic, and class hierarchies. To illustrate this, the paper follows three young men whose future aspirations were tied to land in some fashion. By following these men as they tried to parlay their land dealings into a “modern” middle class lifestyle for both themselves and their families, the paper explores the difficulties in translating land’s inflated value into generative wealth, and how these difficulties have sculpted the worldviews of those who attempt to do so.

Brandon Hunter-Pazzara, Georgetown University, “Indeterminacy or Political Contestation? Recovering Complexity and Social Texture in Mexico’s Maya Riviera”

Anthropological studies of Northeast Quintana Roo have almost exclusively focused on whether tourism development is good or bad. The evolution of this debate has led to a sense of ambivalence among scholars, whose accounts have largely measured tourism’s effects in terms of its benefits and burdens on communities labeled as marginalized and powerless like Yucatec Mayans. The result is that day-to-day social and political life is often emptied of substance and replaced with macro political-economic accounts that reify a narrative of state-driven, top-down development in the region. Since tourism development has both helped some and hurt others, indeterminate conclusions about its normative value dominate. This essay seeks to move past this framing, arguing instead that a theory of political contestation better maps the complexity of life in the region and the issues that are important to locals. In the urban hub of Playa del Carmen, located in the commercially dubbed “Maya Riviera,” there are numerous political and social communities that contest one another on a range of issues that cannot be reduced to whether the promises of development have been fulfilled. To illustrate this point, this essay traces how residents in Playa del Carmen have dealt with local transportation policy. While the tourism economy partly shapes this local debate, it has not been the only interest at stake among the various political groups weighing in on this issue. By outlining the complexity of this problem and the numerous stakeholders who are contesting its outcome, this essay both demonstrates the power and agency of local actors to influence tourism development while at the same time insisting that tourism development is not the chief concern among local political actors. After nearly half a century of tourism development and migration to Northeast Quintana Roo, this essay concludes by charting a different path for inquiry in this socially dense and politically dynamic part of Mexico. 

Navjit Kaur, Princeton University, “Where is my Ustaad?” Examining the indeterminate space of hunr in Bazaars of Melerkotla 

The lifeworld of the market in the South Asian context has always borne a strong dependency on the skill (hunr) of the ‘karigar’. Colloquially understood as a craftsperson but often also (mis)used for daily wage laborers in Punjab, karigar’s work supplied the idioms of tradition, custom and ritual as manifested in the commodities often labelled as handicrafts. Crucially understated in this narrative is the relationship of the karigar with the teacher(ustad) under whom this embodied knowledge mediated via tools and hands would be cultivated. As the karigar in the contemporary has come to occupy a vulnerable status that needs saving, this paper attempts to foreground a particular contradiction observed in the markets of Malerkotla. As the market, the shop owners and the ustads complain of the dearth of karigars, the mediatic status of the karigar observed across NGO pamphlets, big brands marketing stories state otherwise, the abundance of karigars needing investment. Oscillating between the very few and too many, this paper departs from a particular narrative that has dominated craftsperson studies in the contemporary (i.e. lack of resources) to highlight that both karigars and ustads pin their annoyances less on the status of money but at the lack of taleem (education) that could impart those skills. This could also be observed where the emerging handicrafts markets mediated through NGOs and entrepreneurs present the vulnerability of the karigar only in terms of a lack of financial stability. Instead, skill is assumed as inherited, known and granted, freezing both the definition of tradition and the biography of the karigar. The concluding remarks focus particularly on this question through the gendered lens of karigari where a woman’ s knowledge is assumed an inter-generational inheritance foreclosing the relationship of taleem and hunr.

Nick Welna, CUNY, “Leveraging Indeterminacy in the Logistics City”

“Federal Express introduced itself as an antidote to indeterminacy: “When it absolutely, positively, has to be there overnight.” This advertising slogan from 1979 promised that corporate executives could depend on the delivery service to solve shipping uncertainties. FedEx grew rapidly in the 1980s, as just-in-time production led to sprawling supply chains and financialization flowed through express envelopes. These strategies of flexible accumulation used express delivery to handle unexpected delays, missing parts, and urgent transactions. FedEx, however, has not tried to reduce economic uncertainty overall. Instead, the company arranges its operations to leverage indeterminacy in dealings with cities, workers, and markets. If FedEx needs fixed capital investments, they use inter-urban competition to get cities to cover the infrastructure costs. Anxious about labor action, the corporation distances itself from its workforce through subcontracting strategies. When sales slip, FedEx sows doubt in the markets by using proprietary data to predict overall economic decline. In the boom times, the firm makes itself appear innovative through aggressive investments in unproven technologies. This paper describes how one logistics business takes advantage of indeterminacy, and it tracks how these practices shift economic uncertainty onto other collectivities. The essay focuses on the relationship between FedEx and the city of Memphis, Tennessee, analyzing how corporate strategies remake the city and its economy more generally. It closes with some short reflections on how anticapitalist praxis might leverage indeterminacy, in order to refuse the burdens of risk displaced onto working people and their communities.

Panel 6: Ambivalences within Democratic Practices | Friend 007

Organizer: AES/APLA/CAE

Chair and Discussant: Carolyn Rouse, Princeton University

Neil Kaplan-Kelly, UC Irvine, “Speakers of the Houses: Lessons from Recent Events in the US Congress and Post-Conflict Northern Ireland”

The 118th Congress of the United States took fifteen votes to elect a Speaker of the House, the most in over a century. While this was extraordinary in the United States legislative context, it is not unusual for the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Northern Ireland Assembly has been a site of post-conflict lawmaking and peacebuilding since the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement ended the sectarian political conflict known as the Troubles. Governance is based on a system of power-sharing where ideologically opposite parties form coalitions but, first, a speaker must be elected. Without a speaker, no governance can happen. The Northern Ireland Assembly has failed to elect a speaker since May and, thus, cannot be a regional government and peacebuilding site. In this paper, I will reflect on the role of the speaker in legislatures, how the speaker election is a ritual that legitimizes government, and the implications of not electing a speaker on political polarization and peacebuilding. 

Elena Peeples, Columbia University, “Ambiguity and Absence in Urban Governance”

Trenton, NJ, like many industrial cities facing economic decline through the post-war period, faces challenges related to oversight of its infrastructure. Although limited economic resources at the city level are often cited as the reason for lack of regular maintenance, these challenges are further complicated through jurisdictional ambiguity. Because of its position as a state capital and county seat, Trenton is governed through an overlay of municipal, county, and state governments. These overlapping jurisdictions create ambiguity for residents, advocates, and government officials alike as they negotiate responsibility for delivery of public services. I present a case from my time working as a nonprofit administrator at a community development initiative, as residents and advocates sought resolution to traffic safety concerns resulting from ongoing disrepair. As they approached officials at each level of government, residents and advocates were redirected to make appeals to other levels of government. Embedded in requests for maintenance and infrastructural investment are calls for clarification of jurisdictional obligation. Drawing from materiality studies and anthropology of infrastructure, I highlight interactions between residents, advocates, and government officials responding to maintenance concerns to show how jurisdictional ambiguity mediates urban governance strategies and informs civic engagement. I argue that jurisdictional ambiguity, or rather the absence of clarity, sustains a productive tension for each level of government by externalizing both cost and responsibility and directing actors towards alternate, often only partial interventions on the cityscape. Although these interventions fail to address concerns, they become opportunities to either clarify or further obfuscate jurisdictional responsibility.

Gabriela Manley, Durham University, “Futural indeterminacy and the Scottish National Party: building a new nation in times of crisis”

In the midst of an intersecting national and global crisis in the UK, and the failing political processes in Westminster, the Scottish National Party is preparing to call a new independence referendum, arguing that Scotland should ‘get what Scotland voted for’. As the SNP begins campaigning for a new referendum, two different visions of Scotland’s independent future are emerging. One, championed by party officials and politicians, seeks to fully eliminate the indeterminacy of Scotland’s potential independent future, presenting the electorate with painstakingly detailed visions, plans, constitutions, and legally binding promises. The other, championed by the party activists, seeks to unreservedly embrace the futural and political indeterminacy that comes with a referendum on independence. This unofficial activist-driven orientation of the future seeks to present an independent Scotland as ‘empty’, a blank slate ready to be filled. On the campaign trail, away from the constraints of official party slogans, Scottish National Party activists urge the Scottish public to ‘embrace the unknown’, and give themselves to the hope such indeterminacy can offer. Following 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork with both Scottish National Party activists and politicians, in this paper I explore these two approaches to the indeterminacy of Scotland’s independent future. I show how they exist in tension with one another, each providing an alternative emotional and political response to the inescapable indeterminacy of radically different futures; each trying to ‘solve’ indeterminacy in polar opposite ways.

Susan Shepler, American University, “Fractal Sovereignty in Sierra Leone”

The goal of my research is to extend theory in order to describe (and appreciate) the complexity of actually existing Sierra Leonean political reality, including forms of power or authority or legitimacy outside the boundaries of what we normally consider to be the state. I build on and critique existing work in the anthropology of the state, especially ethnographies of the post-colonial African state, in order to appreciate the complexity of scales, actors, and claims I have seen in my decades of engagement in West Africa. Beyond complexity, I will introduce the idea of fractal sovereignty, what I believe to be a more apt metaphor for the nature of political power. Concretely, to solve a ‘political problem’ (broadly understood), an individual Sierra Leonean could go to multiple possible actors: chiefs, secret societies, NGOs, their member of parliament, the international community, a church or mosque, a union, their extended family, etc. These different political fora are not neatly layered or nested, nor are they completely chaotic. I have found fractality to be a productive way to think through this complexity and a more accurate empirical description. The project gets at fractal sovereignty from the bottom up, through an ethnography of governance seeking. Bourdieu’s concepts including habitus and field are central to my methodology. Instead of answering with what people think should happen, or the ideologies of the state, I uncover what people actually do and why. This project, then, is an intervention in both the theory and methodology of political anthropology. This work is a study of actually existing African politics, rather than the usual approach that casts African politics as a failure measured against an ideal type.

Hannah Obertino Norwood, University of Chicago, “Recruiting trust: indeterminacy, crisis, and 2020 Census counting”

This paper draws on an ethnographic study of the mobilization to avert an undercount in the 2020 US Decennial Census in Chicago. My fieldwork centered the elected officials, service providers, organizers, policy leaders, and other professional actors—who I broadly term “enumerators”—trying to ensure that “hard to count” residents would be visible to the census and the political and affective work of counting before a census form ever reaches the Census Bureau. Amidst a sense of crisis, worry, and confusion resulting from Trump administration actions around the census, local government attempted to recruit trust for the receptivity it was expected to provide, funding neighborhood organizations and service providers to deliver the census message. Accordingly, to contend with the ambiguity surrounding the count and the production of state data more broadly, the counting mobilization was organized around a “trust infrastructure.” In this paper I explore both how the trust infrastructure scaled the state, valorizing the local, and prompted questions once funding and counting ended and public participation was no longer required. In so doing, this paper takes up two questions about indeterminacy amidst crisis. First, the indeterminacy and hesitancy surrounding census counting itself—as the Trump administration destabilized, amplified fear, and just made the process harder—that prompted the proliferation of such a model. Second, the indeterminacy of “enumerators” involved in counting outreach, the numerous professional actors who both contest and stand in for the state, as they were recruited to leverage trust. Encouraging census participation and working to reach groups described as “hard to count,” “enumerators” were ambiguously compelled by the relevance of the census for the distribution of political power and federal resources and wary of its promises. 

Roundtable 1: Fabulating Through Indeterminacy: Finding Common Ground across Experimental Ethnographic Modalities  | Aaron Burr Hall 213

Organizer: Chuan Hao Chen, University of Pennsylvania

Chair: Chuan Hao Chen, University of Pennsylvania

Roundtable Abstract: Seeking anthropologies that are “more public, more collaborative, [and] more political,” (Dattatreyan and Marrero-Guillamón 2019) multimodal scholars have highlighted the centricity of text as a barrier to how anthropologists work with and critique one another. This roundtable brings together scholars working across ethnographic modalities to explore more productive and collaborative means of reviewing and critiquing each other’s work. Inspired by Hartman’s (2008) method of critical fabulation (Mariner 2022, Welcome and Thomas 2021), we focus on how “playing with and rearranging the basic elements of the story,” can not only unsettle received patterns of anthropological violence, but also build grounds for co-creation. With this aim, we have created a space for transmodal feedback: filmmakers reviewing ethnographic fiction, illustrators reviewing films, and writers reviewing visual work. This roundtable discussion is a reflection of that process. We ask: 1. Given indeterminacies in meaning, form, and audience, what transmodal review mechanisms and assessment criteria work to advance projects in our respective spheres? 2. What ethical concerns arise in translation, representation, and fabulation across modalities, and how might insights from modalities different than our own be helpful in addressing them? Inspired by the design disciplines, we explore how the “crit” (Chin 2022) affords means of repair and justice amidst indeterminacy in anthropological interventions.


Annikki Herranen-Tabibi, Harvard University

Nooshin Sadegh-Samimi, University of Pennsylvania

Pablo Herrera Veitia, University of Toronto

Syd Gonzalez, Northwestern University

Joyce Lu, Rutgers University

Ida Fadzillah Leggett, Middle Tennessee State University

Chuan Hao Chen, University of Pennsylvania

Roundtable 2: Intimate Proximities: Perspectives within the field | Aaron Burr Hall 216

Organizer: Gabrielle Cabrera, Rutgers University

Chair: Argenis Hurtado Moreno, Brown University

Abstract: This round table brings together scholars working with and within their communities to discuss the intimate proximities that blur the line between “researcher” and “subject.” Centering the voices from the margins of anthropology, participants build and complicate long standing anthropological traditions of studying the Other. Participants discuss the successes and complications of working as “insiders” or “native anthropologists” during fieldwork, offering the following perspectives of working the night shift as a custodian with family members; advising undocumented, first-generation, low-income students through shared experience; researching and revitalizing Native language; engaging in social justice projects through anti-racist and emotive praxis; and queering social science through Cuir Latine life.


Gabrielle Cabrera, Rutgers University

Argenis Hurtado Moreno, Brown University

Kaito Campos de Novais, University of Oregon

Valeria Chavez-Ayala, Brown University

Karelle Hall, Rutgers University

Roundtable 3: The Generic, The Indeterminate and the Non-Specific | Friend 108

Organizer: Naveeda Khan, Johns Hopkins University

Chair: Naveeda Khan, Johns Hopkins University

Abstract: Everywhere and nowhere, the “generic” is discarded as the copy, the knock-off, the old and overgeneralized. In The Copy Generic, Scott MacLochlainn argues that the generic is instead remarkably neglected as a concept within anthropology and social theory. Implicated in everything from substitutes to shorthands, from to the universal and unmarked, the generic is arguably a universal semiotic tool, allowing us to move through the world with necessary outlines. Moreover, to begin to think about the generic is to consider long held concerns in how anthropology has understood the nature of category and typification, structure and practice. Within this context, and moving between a number of ethnographic settings in the Philippines, the United States, and Europe, The Copy Generic explores how the generic offers a critical vantage point in understanding the building blocks of contemporary social forms, including the indeterminate and the non-specific.


Naveeda Khan, Johns Hopkins University

Scott MacLochlainn, Johns Hopkins University

Swayam Bagaria, Harvard University

Ilana Gershorn, Rice University

Matthew Engelke, Columbia University

Alyssa Paredes, University of Michigan

Gustav Peebles, New School

Roundtable 4: Ghosts, Wounds, and Spells: Anthropological Encounters with Technology and Digital Worlds | Friend 109

Organizers: Sareeta Amrute, The New School & Data & Society Research Institute and Livia

Garofalo, Data & Society Research Institute

Abstract: Anthropologists have reckoned with the myriad ways digital technologies have reorganized social life, from fractured labor and distributed community-building to algorithmic imaginaries and the normative subjectivities of data extraction. In this roundtable on the engagement of anthropology with digital technologies, we will take a moment to assess the way we have approached data-centric technologies, and will then turn to diagnose where we should turn to next in exploring these worlds. Participants will draw on their own fieldwork among: activists in the Indian diaspora (Amrute), hip hop artists in Delhi (Dattatreyan), healthcare practitioners in Argentina and essential workers in the US (Garofalo), click workers in Venezuela (Posada), machine listening engineers and US mental health care seekers (Semel), and Pakistani citizens as they experience drone warfare (Tahir). We will turn to theorization of ghosts, wounds, and spells as fecund sites to both understand and reimagine the technological present. During the roundtable, we will ask, how does the theorization of technology through these other modalities enliven our work? What vistas does it open up to unpack how technologies get stitched together with life? What is gained and lost in expanding our repertoires of confronting and encompassing the digital in our work? We will draw especially on theorizations from critical Black studies, decolonial and Indigenous studies, and critical caste studies in our formulations.


Sareeta Amrute, The New School & Data & Society Research Institute

Livia Garofalo, Data & Society Research Institute

Julian Posada, Yale University

Beth Michelle Semel, Princeton University

Gabriel Dattatreyan, NYU

Madiha Tahir, Yale University

Workshops (advance registration required)

How do we make Intro to Cultural Anthropology the most important class an undergraduate takes in college?  Strategize together about how to transform the classroom (in person and online) into a dynamic laboratory for developing and applying anthropology’s toolkit and making anthropology relevant to our students’ lives.

Organizer:  Ken Guest (Baruch College)

Registration forthcoming

American Ethnologist (AE) publishes articles that articles combine ethnographic specificity with original theoretical thinking. Led by the journal’s new Editor-in-Chief, this workshop will outline the basic elements of a successful submission to AE. Topics covered will include choosing the right journal for your article, the relationship between ethnography and theory, how to turn a dissertation chapter into a stand-alone article, dealing with reviewers’ feedback, coping with multiple revisions, estimating turnaround times, and working through the final stages of copyediting and production. While many of these topics are relevant to publishing in a wide range of anthropology, or other social science, journals, the discussion will be tailored towards how to submit your work to AE.

Organizers: Susanna Trnka (University of Auckland) and Jesse Hession Grayman (University of Auckland)

Registration forthcoming

Interested in participating in a speed mentoring event with faculty members in Anthropology from across North America? Do you want to have a conversation with experienced researchers outside your existing network of faculty mentors? Join us for this speed mentoring event!

Organizers: Gabrielle Cabrera (Rutgers) and Katherine McCaffrey (Montclair State University)

Registration forthcoming

Poetry and ethnography are twin forms of attention. In this workshop, anthropologist and poet Leah Zani will guide us through an investigation of ethnographic poetry and ethnography as literary craft. At root, ethnographic poetry is a way of seeing and re-seeing the world. Using a grounded sensory exercise, Zani will guide us through cultivating a poet’s sensibility for our research. This exercise (a listening poem) is easy to learn and encourages ethnographers to work through their material with a poet’s attention for experience and writing craft, including awareness for syntax and line, word choice, and sonics. Together, we will read a selection of ethnographic poems, collectively generating a working definition of the genre and its relationship to ethnography more generally. We will conclude with a reading of participants’ poems (either written prior to the workshop or generated via the exercise) to give each participant a mouthfeel of their work.

Instructor Bio: Leah Zani (she/her, they/them) is the author of Strike Patterns (SUP 2022), an ethnographic novel, and Bomb Children (DUP 2019), a hybrid work of poetry and ethnography. From 2018 to 2021, Zani served as the poetry editor at Anthropology and Humanism. Their articles, essays, and poems have appeared in Cultural AnthropologyEnvironmental HumanitiesConsequenceTikkun, and SAPIENS, among others. They are a full-time author and public researcher.

Registration Forthcoming


Ilana Gershon (APLA, igershon@rice.edu)

Naveeda Khan (AES, nkhan5@jhu.edu)

Mariela Nuñez-Janes (CAE, mariela.nunez-janes@unt.edu)

Carolyn Rouse (AES, crouse@princeton.edu)


American Ethnological Society
Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Council on Anthropology and Education

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