Anthropology and Enlightenment: Reflections on the ASA Conference in Edinburgh

I have just got back from the Association of Social Anthropologists Decennial conference. The ASA formally represents anthropologists from the former Commonwealth countries, including the UK. Like the AAA for those such as myself,  who are neither resident in nor citizens of the United States,  it’s now more than this- a forum for anthropologists to get together to discuss practice, organize conferences and share ideas.

The ASA holds annual conferences, some of which are in commonwealth countries.   This year’s conference was Edinburgh, a fabulous city as well as a pertinent choice given the forthcoming referendum which will determine whether or not Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom.  This nationalist moment informed the theme of the conference which was structured around the intellectual contributions of the Scottish enlightenment- to modern thought in general and to contemporary concerns in anthropology.

These big ideas were intended to be explored in some of the plenaries, depending on the contributors, many of whom did as academics will and explored their own big ideas. This wasn’t   a particular problem. As in any conference of this sort, themes are primarily ways of organising the order of events and putting people together.   And, this being anthropology, there was less orientation to coherence than to the presentation of highly individual points of view which we were presented with in abundance.

If anything, there was slightly too much on offer. I am not sure exactly how many delegates attended, maybe somewhere between five hundred and one thousand, but there were so many panels, almost eighty, over three full days that the audiences were often very small. On the plus side, this gave the event an intimate feeling, which was reinforced by the social buzz of the coffee breaks. In contrast to the social awkwardness induced by the overwhelming scale of the American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings where delegates huddle over flat screens as they try to work out with whom to seek a connection this was a meeting which encouraged face to face interaction.   The setting, a University campus in a part of the city near to downtown, was suitably informal.

The content on offer was not very different from that presented at other social or cultural anthropology meetings elsewhere. There were, for example, panels on animal human relations, on issues of care and gender , on forms of modern knowledge, on utopias and on waiting. Ontology and neoliberalism as terms were invoked with an unsurprising regularity (I even managed to invoke them in my own presentation on religion and David Hume!) , as were emergent keywords struggling to become dominant as the next wave of fashionable theory.

A number of  strong papers foregrounded field findings presenting insights on observed social practice as it is being reconfigured in the face of rapid change.   Others foregrounded an analysis which preconfigured the interpretative framing of a story, generally including the anthropologist, as ethnographic insight. I left the conference having learned far more about my fellow anthropologists than I learned about the worlds which they had experienced first hand.

This isn’t a comment on this specific conference. Far from it. It’s a reflection on the current preoccupations of anthropology. Good anthropology should both reflect on itself and our own theory and on real social practice in the world. The whole point of ethnography and of spending an extended time in the field was to use observation of how people lived in the worlds they made as the building blocks of the theories which could to describe and explain them in different settings.

As a professional showcase of what social anthropology currently is and what social anthropologists think its important to talk about I enjoyed the conference enormously. Its appeal to those outside the discipline is less certain. As long as our concerns are driven fundamentally by the models and imaginaries of social theory   we will continue to have the kinds of conversations which characterise our conferences. These are fascinating and erudite for sure, but if we are really concerned with wider society should we be having them only with ourselves?


Maia Green works on issues of social transformation in East Africa and the anthropology of international development. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. She teaches at the University of Manchester.

6 thoughts on “Anthropology and Enlightenment: Reflections on the ASA Conference in Edinburgh

  1. Maia, you conclude with an excellent question. To those of us who have found livelihoods outside the academy, it quickly becomes apparent that the theories we debate as anthropologists address issues that affect all sorts of people, who often respond to them in ways that overlap our own. As Marcus and Fischer observe in Culture as Critique, we now do research and share our findings with others who include journalists, policy-makers,historians, and other social sciences who are often interested in the same topics that interest us. And unless we learn to speak with them, as opposed to confining our conversations to our own tribe and only speaking _against_them, our dreams of influence remain fantasies.

  2. I speak from a far-from-impartial position, but I have a strong sense that people came away from this event with far more of a smile on their faces than is normally the case. Some of this might be the city, which was at its most handsome in the late June light. Some of it might have been the theme, which I thought provided some of the most memorable moments – Marilyn Strathern’s re-reading of Hume in the context of a historicized reflection on the protean word “relation”, delivered to a spellbound audience of at least 500, was a particular highlight, but so too was Kath Weston’s stunning use of Adam Smith and John Gregory’s reflections on sympathy on the opening morning of the conference proper. Some of it was almost certainly a product of the congenial links between the three Scottish departments that co-hosted it. But I’d like to think the real source of all those happy faces was our self-conscious decision to invoke the idea of the Scottish Enlightenment as a milieu to be enjoyed – a time of conversations in coffee shops and drinking establishments, of which there were plenty available in the streets that linked the different conference venues. I suspect those settings might have been the places where anthropology was reaching out and meeting other people and other conversations in the way that Maia would like.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Completely agree Jonathan that the coffee shop milieu was great for the kinds of conversations which reach across and outwards. The challenge is taking them out of the coffee shop and into new spaces. And perhaps breaking down some of the stylistic forms which box us in conversationally and stop others from hearing what we say.

  4. “The challenge is taking them out of the coffee shop and into new spaces. And perhaps breaking down some of the stylistic forms which box us in conversationally and stop others from hearing what we say.”

    Well said Maia. I could not agree more.

Comments are closed.