UCL Anthropology


Tobia Farnetti

Email: t.farnetti@ucl.ac.uk
Year of Start: 2012
Subject: Social Anthropology


The Blur of Modernity: Essentialism, Affect and Everyday Life in Tokyo

My research explores the constitutive role that cultural essentialism plays in the everyday life of Japanese urban modernity. Starting from the ethnographic observation that essentialised ideas of "Japan" and "the Japanese" are not only fruit of an orientalising anthropological gaze but also a prime indigenous concern, I aim to place my analysis as a "third way" between those ethnographies that employ essentialism as method and those who handle it as an object of critique. The experiment is to re-frame essentialism as the ethnographic object under scrutiny - that is, not an epistemological stance of the anthropologist to be either employed or dismantled, but a living and breathing presence in the lives of many people in the metropolis. 

The main argument guiding the thesis is that looking at essentialised social categories one does find its essentialised version - e.g. family structure understood as timeless and constitutively Japanese - but also, together with it, what is understood as its negative - e.g. a fluid changing family structure moving with history, migration to the urban centres, Westernisation and the life of the city. One does find strong binaries - e.g. old and new, Japanese and foreign, traditional and modern - and yet it is not through one of its extremes that essentialised social forms are lived and understood, but in between them. While this may appear paradoxical, in the thesis I show that it is through a dynamic of "blurring" of the terms of the opposition - in the ephemeral moments (sometimes transfixed in stone) when the two terms overlap and become undistinguishable - that the engagement with these forms is most strongly felt. This blurring carries a strong affective and aesthetic charge and can thus be in turn essentialised as something constitutively "Japanese".

Based on two years of fieldwork in eastern Tokyo the thesis aims to understand this logic in its own right, seeking to find it in different fragments of metropolitan life as different as Catholic churches, drinking establishments, graveyards, Shinto shrines, ancestral family estates and art galleries.


First Supervisor: Martin Holbraad
Second Supervisor: Rebecca Empson

Research interests

  • Japan and North-Eastern Asia
  • Indigenous Essentialism 
  • Emotions and aesthetics
  • Myth and comparative mythology
  • Temporality and historicity
  • The place of comparison in anthropological theory
  • Interdisciplinarity (anthropology and literature, history, philosophy, art)

Academic Background/Education

BA Philosophy (Università degli Studi di Milano)
MA Philosophy (UCL)
MSc Social and Cultural Anthropology (UCL)


Book Reviews:

Farnetti, T. (2013), "Book Review of 'Animism in Rainforest and Tundra: Personhood, Animals, Plants, and Things in Amazonia and Siberia' by Marc Brightman, Vanessa Elisa Grotti, and Olga Ulturgasheva", Inner Asia, 15 (1): 89-91.


De Martino, E. (2012), "Crisis of Presence and Religious Reintegration. Prefaced and Translated by Tobia Farnetti and Charles Stewart", Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 2 (2): 431-50.


Teaching Assistant for:

  • ANTH7002 Political and Economic Anthropology
  • ANTH3002 Anthropology of Crime


ESRC Studenship