Towards an Ontological Anthropology

I recently read Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically, a volume edited by Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad, and Sari Wastell. The manifesto of the volume, as presented in the introduction, is:

Rather than dismiss informants’ accounts as imaginative ‘interpretations’ – elaborate metaphorical accounts of a reality that is already given – anthropologists might instead seize on these engagements as opportunities from which novel theoretical understandings can emerge.

The editors, in the introduction, present a methodological framework that would do the job that the they set out for the volume. They first suggest that ethnographers have to do away with a priori distinction between persons and things; even hybridity as a concept would not do, because there is already an implicit ‘presumption of an initial separation.’ Instead, they want to ethnographers to ‘take “things” encountered in the field as they present themselves, rather than immediately assuming that they signify, represent, or stand for something else’.

They have Bruno Latour, Alfred Gell, Marilyn Strathern, Eduardo Vivieros de Castro and Roy Wagner as precursors. What they find most appealing in the works of these authors is the move they have been making from an epistemological anthropology towards an ontological anthropology, and they have been doing this by simply taking the perspective of their informants into account. Only that these authors, they have not taken their informants’ actions into account in order to ‘explain’ them away; they have accepted the categories – or the absence of any categories – that their informants provided, and followed them wherever they led. One central point they make, following from an urge to move from epistemological to ontological studies, is that epistemology provides what they term worldviews – different ways of ‘knowing’ the world, different ‘cultural perspectives’ or ‘beliefs’. They would want studies that are about ‘worlds’  and not ‘worldviews’. The statement on the way this is achieved is long, but I think it deserves to be quoted in full.

We start with the ordinary (representationist/epistemological) assumption that concepts are the site of difference. Then we argue that in order for difference to be taken seriously (as ‘alterity’), the assumption that concepts are ontologically distinct from the things to which they are ordinarily said to ‘refer’ must be discarded. From this follows that alterity can quite properly be thought of as a property of things – things, that is, which are concepts as much as they appear to us as ‘material’ or ‘physical’ entities. Hence the first answer to the incredulous question of where ‘different worlds’ might be, is here, in front of us, in the things themselves (things like powder or – as we’ll see in the contributions to this book – photographs, legal documents, shamanic costumes, cigarettes, and so on). So this is a method of ‘back to the things themselves’ as the phenomenologists had it, but only with the caveat that this is not because the ‘life-world’ of our experience of things has priority over a ‘theoretical attitude’ […] but precisely because our experience of things, if you will, can be conceptual (p 13).

A review of the book by Daniel Miller is available here.