Inequality in all its forms is common to human societies, and thus its understanding is part of the central mission of anthropology. Social structural elements such as race, class, gender, status, and caste have a decisive influence on human well-being and have been a persistent focus of inquiry over the course of more than a century of anthropological investigations. It is also fair to say that anthropologists over time have adopted as core values equal protection and equal opportunity for all peoples. These principles have been applied by extension most recently to sexual minorities, stateless refugees, and migrants.
Judit Kroo and Ilana Gershon
In the early decades of the internet, many saw new channels of communication as potentially beneficial disruptions, analyzing largely through a utopic lens, albeit often with a technolibertarian bent. This did not last, and by the 2020s, scholars were increasingly pessimistic about how neoliberal logics structured the ways these technologies produced and extracted economic value. The heady promise of newness associated with recently invented communicative technologies had disappeared, to be replaced by despair of surveillance capitalism. Anthropologists of communication are especially well-equipped to study the construction of newness underlying this trajectory from revolutionary promise to all-too-familiar capitalist containment and control. Anthropologists analyze how media are socially constructed as new by attending to the participant structures that tend to accompany new media use—that is, studying the communicative roles and role fractions that participants can adopt or eschew while interacting with, storing, or circulating utterances. To understand how capitalist forms of exploitation so easily undercut the liberatory potential of new media, anthropologists have turned to how neoliberal logics increasingly shape how people value labor and interpret job roles. And in general, anthropological analysis provides a productive attentiveness to the gaps between what people understand about how media affect the message and what people’s actual media practices are, a gap that can reveal nuanced insights into the clashes between people’s hopes and work’s realities.
Gender is frequently invoked as a core explanatory factor for many aspects of past African metallurgy, including conceptualizations of the technological process by its practitioners, the organization of—and participation in—metallurgical production activity, and the acquisition of power and wealth that is associated with it. If a study of technology is to contribute to our understanding of the African past, an exploration of the socioeconomic framework of a production activity is as important as understanding the materiality of a technology; gender is an essential part of that framework. Ethnographies offer an unparalleled opportunity to consider concepts such as technological style, symbolic expression, and gender in relation to technological activity and materiality—structuring principles that can be of limited visibility in the archaeological record. It is through ethnographic and historical documentation that gender has been made highly and dramatically visible in African smelting and metalworking processes. A stark focus has tended to rest on the cosmologies of fertility and human reproduction that permeate many (though certainly not all) iron smelting technologies across the continent. Metal production is positioned as a form of social reproduction, enabling the continuation of cultural activity through technological production. Metaphors of transformation are reproduced through the design and decoration of technological artifacts, through taboos and prohibitions, and through the symbolic songs, words, and actions of the metal workers, and have been closely tied with narratives of female exclusion from (and conversely male access to) metallurgical activities. Insights from the ethnographic and historical records of sub-Saharan Africa have been used to inform archaeological interpretations, both implicitly and explicitly, within and far beyond the continent. Yet the insights they provide need to be tempered by a critical evaluation of the ways in which such analogies are selected from a vast bank of historic and ethnographic data and how they can be most appropriately utilized. Importantly, the variability that is present within the ethnographic record cautions against the construction and promulgation of overgeneralizations, and strongly suggests that gender and gendered work roles within African metallurgy, past and present, are not yet fully understood.
Susan Brownell and Niko Besnier
Since Antiquity, sporting bodies and performances have been assigned an economic value, and sporting events, particularly those with large audiences, have been organized with a view to their capacity to generate wealth and reinforce social hierarchies. At the same time, athletes have long embodied moral and ethical values such as virtue, beauty, purity, and sacrifice. Sport is thus a prime context in which a society negotiates the relationship between the material, in the form of value, and the symbolic or ideational, in the form of values. Sport and the sporting body can be commodified when they are assigned a value calculated in terms of a standardized currency and traded in a market. However, even in capitalist societies, sport often retains features that are shaped not by the market economy but the gift economy—in which exchange is governed by values such as honor, trust, and prestige. Sport offers a wealth of examples in which value and values come into conflict, exposing the fact that they are not incommensurable, but rather economic value is simply one kind of culturally constructed value among many. Victors in the ancient Greek Olympic Games received only awards made from plants, including a crown of olive branches, but returned home to be bestowed with material riches. An elite Roman man produced gladiator games as a “gift” to his supporters, but in deciding whether to allow a defeated fighter to live, he had to weigh the cost of losing a gladiator (who was a valuable piece of property) against displeasing his supporters. The association that runs Japanese sumo is not a modern legal corporation; rather, its members are retired wrestlers who have bought the wrestling name of an elder that has been passed along for as long as 250 years—and the name cannot be bought with a bank loan. In the name of amateurism, 19th-century Victorians banned professionals from taking part in Olympic sports amidst the massive commodification of leisure and popular culture that accompanied the rise of the modern industrial economy. Much of the Cold War was fought using athletes as proxies for the socialist and capitalist economic systems, as socialist nations denounced the exclusive gender and class values of “bourgeois” sports and sought to create an alternative model. After the end of the Cold War, the influx of capital into sports finally led to the death of the amateur ideal, quickly followed by the emergence of the migrant professional athlete. At the start of the 21st century, the massive revenues in college sport challenged the American notion of the unpaid student-athlete, while the global trade in athletes sucked ever greater numbers of athletes from the Global South into the professional sports of the wealthy Western countries as well as, increasingly, East Asian and Middle Eastern countries. Sport is a fascinating realm for examining conflicts between value and values, and how they are shaped by the global economy in the 21st century, taking on new forms that echo the past while moving into uncharted territory.
Pervasive presumptions in the human sciences project anthropology and history as taken-for-granted divisions of knowledge, whose relationship is then tracked as being vexed but constructive. At the same time, it is more useful today to rethink history and anthropology as disciplines of modernity – in their formation, elaboration, and transformation. To begin with, going back to the Enlightenment and Romanticism, historical and anthropological knowledge each appeared as mutually if variously shaped by overarching distinctions between the “primitive/native” and the “civilized/modern.” It followed that the wide-ranging dynamic of empire and nation, race and reason, and analytical and hermeneutical orientations underlay the emergence of anthropology and history as institutionalized enquiries in the second half of the nineteenth century. Further, across much of the twentieth century and through its wider upheavals, it was by attempting uneasily to break with these genealogies yet never fully even escaping their impress that history and anthropology staked their claims as modern disciplines. This entailed especially their discrete expressions of time and space, culture and change, tradition and modernity. Finally, the mutual makeovers of history and anthropology since the 1970s have thought through the formidable conceits of both these disciplines while reconsidering questions of theory and method, object and subject, and the archive and the field. Based upon salient intersections with a range of critical understandings – for instance, postfoundational and postcolonial perspectives, considerations of gender and sexuality, and subaltern and decolonial frames – the newer emphases have imaginatively articulated issues of historical consciousness and marginal communities, colony and nation, empire and modernity, race and slavery, alterity and identity, indigeneity and heritage, and the state and the secular. At the same time, considering that such disciplinary changes are themselves embedded within wider shifts in social worlds, the haunting terms of the antinomies between the “savage/native” and the “civilized/modern” unsurprisingly find newer expressions within ever emergent hierarchies of otherness.