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date: 26 February 2024

Anthropology of the Mediterraneanlocked

Anthropology of the Mediterraneanlocked

  • Laia Soto BermantLaia Soto BermantUniversity of Helsinki
  •  and Sarah GreenSarah GreenUniversity of Helsinki


The Mediterranean has been a controversial topic and area of study in anthropology and therein lies much of its value for the discipline. The notion of an anthropology of the Mediterranean emerged in the 1950s and was strongly associated with anthropologists working at the University of Oxford at the time, notably John G. Péristiany, Julian Pitt-Rivers, and John K. Campbell. The timing of this discovery was far from accidental. The majority of their fieldwork was carried out in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the European colonial empires in Asia and Africa were on the verge of disintegrating. The Mediterranean provided a safer alternative to the then politically unstable traditional field sites. Yet, despite the interest from anglophone scholars working in such a renowned university, the Mediterranean (particularly the northern Mediterranean) was a somewhat peripheral region within the anthropology of the day: its reputation as the birthplace of Western civilization and its relation to Europe made it an ambivalent anthropological field site at best.

Since that time, anthropological studies within the Mediterranean region have had to adapt to significant changes in both anthropological theory and European geopolitics. Initially, anthropologists working in the Mediterranean region made the case for the development of a comparative anthropology of the Mediterranean that would examine similarities and differences in moral values, social organization, and political systems across neighboring regions. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, their work faced harsh criticism from anthropologists, who called into question the validity of the Mediterranean as a timeless regional category. At the heart of this debate were both the question of how to deal with sociocultural comparison across regions and the question of how to incorporate the passage of time into understandings of social and cultural diversity.

As the 20th century came to a close, the geopolitical significance of the Mediterranean shifted once again. The European Union’s enlargement, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the war and subsequent breakup of former Yugoslavia, and the establishment of a shared European territory through the Schengen Agreement transformed the Mediterranean into a site of geopolitical negotiation and violent “border spectacles.” Ethnography in the Mediterranean region blossomed, encompassing a wide variety of issues such as migration, race, boundaries, national identity, infrastructure, and political conflict, yet “the Mediterranean” did not reappear in anglophone anthropology as a meaningful regional category, being replaced by the “anthropology of southern Europe” and the “anthropology of North Africa and the Middle East.”

Since the 2000s, there has been a revived interest in the Mediterranean as a category of comparison. The instrumentalization of “the Mediterranean” as a political category by a number of national governments (e.g., France, Morocco, and Tunisia) and transnational organizations (e.g., European Union) in the region made it possible to speak of the Mediterranean not as a cultural area but as a political construction with important implications for native populations. Most anthropologists working in the region have emphasized the importance of developing a historically oriented comparative perspective that acknowledges the work of early Mediterranean scholarship while engaging with wider debates about the significance of different vantage points, such as the question of how scholarship about the region might differ from scholarship from the region.


  • Sociocultural Anthropology

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