An anthropology beyond nature and culture? Tim Ingold and Gisli Palsson’s edited volume, Biosocial Becomings

An anthropology beyond nature and culture? Tim Ingold and Gisli Palsson’s edited volume, Biosocial Becomings.

Perig Pitrou

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Biosocial Becomings: Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology

Cambridge University Press, 2013, 288 pages.

This essay originally appeared in Portuguese in the journal Mana. Translated by Daniela Ginsburg.

Anthropology established itself as an independent discipline by designating the social as a specific field of study, allowing it to distance itself from certain retrograde positions found within the domain of physical anthropology. However, the nature/culture dichotomy on which this division was based has been the object of constant criticism over the past several decades. The two editors of Biosocial Becomings have, like Bruno Latour and Philippe Descola, demonstrated the limits of these concepts in explaining human representations and practices. Now that this deconstruction has begun, the challenge for our discipline is to define an anthropology “beyond nature and culture.” What principles must guide our research? What methodologies should ethnologists apply? Which concepts can render their results intelligible? Within the context of this vast enterprise of re-founding and re-developing, the panel organized by Tim Ingold and Gisli Palsson in 2010 as part of the EASA conference and entitled “Human Becomings: Beyond the ‘Biological’ and the ‘Social,’” sought to formulate theoretical propositions while also beginning to explore new objects. In the book that emerged out of this collective reflection, the project to “integrate the social and the biological” is synthesized by Ingold (in chapter 1, “Prospect”) and by Palsson (chapter 12, “Retrospect”), who establish a theoretical horizon for the enterprise. As for the rest of the pieces, their heterogeneity contains a certain ambiguity. On the one hand, this variety may be seen as evidence of the potential richness of studies that seek to better understand “biosocial becomings” by investigating a plethora of phenomena from across the world. But, on the other hand, this multiplicity raises some difficult questions: what place is given to biological processes in ethnographic studies? Should these studies use biomedical data or, instead, should they try to document, by other means, non-biological conceptions of living beings? What can ethnography of traditional societies contribute to knowledge of life? Although the various chapters in this work do not always explicitly answer such questions, they do at least present the advantage of delineating the problematics that the anthropology of life must address if it hopes to develop.

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