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UCL Anthropology

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Departmental Seminars 2019

  • Joint cross-section event (social anthropology, material culture, medical anthropology, biological anthropology)
  • Open to students, academics and the public
  • Daryll Forde Seminar Room, 2nd Floor, Taviton Street 14 
  • Wednesdays 11:00-13:00
  • Dates: 13, 20, 27 Nov & 4 Dec

13 Nov 2019

Ruth Mace and Victor Buchli

Ruth Mace - An evolutionary perspective of gender-biased harmful cultural practices

Many cultural behaviours are more detrimental to one sex than the other. Sometimes this is sexual conflict (as predicted by Darwin and first modelled by Trivers back in the 1970s). But some gender-biased behaviours do not seem to fit that model, with much of the harm often deriving from within the family. I will outline plans for my ERC grant EvoBias to examine the origins of various gender-biased cultural practices (ranging from biased workloads to witchcraft accusations to sending boys to the monastery). We will approach these topics either through global cross-cultural comparative studies using existing sources or through fieldwork in western China and Kyrgyzstan.

Victor Buchli - An Ethnography of an Extra-terrestrial Society: the International Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS) is arguably the oldest extra-terrestrial society in low earth orbit. To date this radical new form of human habitation and society has not been the object of systematic and comparative ethnographic inquiry. This project aims to correct this and proposes a comparative and multi-sited ethnography of the ISS among the contributors to its modular architecture: The Russian Federation, The United States of America, The European Union and Japan. The ISS offers invaluable insights into fundamental questions at the heart of the social sciences. The most obvious is the effect of micro gravity on our understandings of material culture and sociality. To date material culture has only been theorised in terms of Earth’s gravity. This project affords the opportunity to critically re-examine our terrestrially based theories. Related to this are the distinctive political aesthetics in this setting and its innovative dimensions of ‘worlding’ (Heidegger) and the materialities entailed therein. These relate to wider notions: the nature of transcendence in both anthropological, material and metaphysical terms as well as broader issues concerning territoriality and the expansion of the human and habitability and general understandings of materiality. Methodologically the project focuses on the quotidian and material dimensions of the ISS and its bodily and material techniques, re-examining traditional empirical assumptions within the innovative conditions of the new polymedia environments in which the ISS is situated. More importantly the project situates the respective Mission Controls and their wider communities as co-terminous with the ISS site, examining it as a complex nexus of inhabitation encompassing both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial realms in a novel configuration and thereby provide the first ever integrative and comparative study of this unprecedented form of human society and the material conditions of its emergent ‘wording’.


20 Nov 2019

Mark Geraghty

Menace in all Directions: The Hermeneutics of anxiety, paranoia and contagion in accusations of genocide ideology in the New Rwanda

This draft of Chapter 3 from my current book project, examines how in the wake of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, a politics of anxiety drove “genocide ideology” to become generalized and dispersed as a criminal act across a complex set of social positions. It analyzes the logics of paranoia and contagion which drove the campaign against genocide ideology at its very inception. Within this hermeneutics any opposition to the state could be classified as genocide ideology, itself a culmination of many other variously named threats. This paranoia manifested itself in a tendency to over-interpret signs, detecting threat in occurrences which otherwise locally were seen as commonplace and ordinary. This led to a form of contagion, a flexibility in reading appearances, whereby every act and utterance was read as having a double meaning, with the second (and primary) meaning always revealing 'ethnic thinking,' constituting a form of chronotopic leakage.


27 Nov 2019

Martin Holbraad (co-authored paper)

State and Life in Cuba: Calibrating ideals and realities in a state-socialist system for food provision

Based on our collective ethnography of Cuba’s socialist system for the provision of state-subsidized food, this article explores manners in which the state weaves itself into the fabric of people’s everyday lives in state-socialist society. Instituted by Cuba’s revolutionary government in the early 1960s, Cuba’s ‘state system for provisioning’ is still today the backbone of household subsistence, propelling individuals into direct daily relations with the state via its neighbourhood-level network of stores that distribute food catering to citizens’ ‘basic needs’. Our ethnography brings together a series of studies conducted by the members of our team in different parts of Havana, charting the most salient aspects of people’s interaction with the state in this alimentary context. We argue that the state becomes pervasive in people’s daily lives not just because it is present in so much of it, but also as the basic normative premise on which people interpret and evaluate everyday comportments in the interactions food provisioning involves. Life in state-socialism involves the constant and intricate comparison of its own realities against the normative ideals the state purports to institute. These ‘vernacular comparisons’ between life and state, as we call them, are the ‘local knowledge’ of state-socialism in Cuba.


04 Dec 2019

Aida Gomez-Robles

The evolution of human teeth and brains. Phylogenetic and behavioural implications

Humans show remarkably unique behaviours in comparison with other primate species, including the use of language, the development of art and music, or our technological sophistication. My research program uses quantitative approaches to address the questions of when, how and why these traits evolved. My studies of ancestry in the hominin fossil record focus on the origin of Neanderthals and modern humans, and have shown that dental traits led this evolutionary separation, whereas species-specific brain traits evolved relatively recently. Indeed, comparative analyses of chimpanzee and human brains have shown that human brains are characterized by an increased level of environmental influence and developmental plasticity. This high level of brain plasticity is probably associated with the human altricial pattern of development, whose evolution I will describe in comparison with other no-human primates and non-primate mammals. I will argue that brain plasticity has increased during hominin evolutionary history in association with other anatomical specializations, and that it is a fundamental property promoting human behavioural evolution.