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Malinowski Memorial Lectures

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Charles Stepanoff profile POSTER

Ontological polyglossia: the art of communicating in opacity

Dr Charles Stépanoff, Director of Studies at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (Paris).

Thursday, 25 May 2023
Old Theatre, Old Building, Houghton Street, WC2A 2AE

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What do communicating with a baby, with an ancestor and with an animal, have in common? In these three cases, we engage in opaque communication that is far from the standard psycholinguistic model of transparent discussion between adults. Yet anthropologists know that these asymmetrical situations can be some of the most emotionally intense in human lives. This willingness to build sociality beyond linguistic humanity (with infants, deceased and non-humans) allows humans to have a future, a past and a rich relationship with their living environment. This lecture argues that our ontological polyglossia is not a deviance but an intrinsic feature of the human condition. In these asymmetrical situations, the mind of our interlocutor remains opaque to us, which requires exploratory imagination and communicational creativity from us. We will explore this polyglossia in ritual language and in the kinship relationships Siberian peoples build with animals and the dead.

Charles Stépanoff is director of studies at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (Paris). He has conducted fieldwork in Siberia, Mongolia and France on human-environment relations. He published works on shamanism, pastoralism and hunting.


Past lectures


Beastly Tales from the Himalaya: an anthropology for the Anthropocene
Dr Nayanika Mathur, 26.05.2022

Discordant Temporalities of Migration and Childhood
Dr Catherine Allerton, 20.05.2021

State-like and state-dislike in the anthropological margins
Dr Judith Scheele, 23.05.2019
Judith Scheele’s Malinowski Lecture of 2019 has been published in the JRAI.


Fluctuating formality: anthropology and the structure of difference
Dr Maxim Bolt, 17.05.2018
Maxim Bolt’s Malinowski Lecture of 2018 has been published in the JRAI

Primitivist Tourism and Anthropological Research: awkward relations
Dr Rupert Stasch, 25.05.2017

Politics beyond 'interest'. Ethics, kinship and the collective self in Argentine labour unions
Dr Sian Lazar, 19.05.2016

Equality without Equivalance: An Anthropology of the Common
Dr Harry Walker, 28.05.2015

An Economy of Temporary Possession
Dr Rebecca Empson, 22.05.2014

Anthropology and Emotion
Dr A. Beatty, 16.05.2013

The Muck of the Past: Revolution, Social Transformation and the Maoists in India
Dr A. Shah, 17.05.2012

Torture, Compassion, Doubt
Dr T. Kelly, 12.05.2011

Frazer Strikes Back from the Armchair
Dr R. Willerslev, 13.05.2010 


The Tycoon and the Tough: Towards a Comparative Anthropology of Urban Marginality
Dr J. Barker, 07.05.2009

Visibly Muslim: An Anthropology of Appearances
Dr E. Tarlo, 08.05.2008

Affective Spaces, Objects of Violence: ruination and the production of anthropological knowledge
Dr Y. Navarro-Yashin, 10.05.2007

Beyond Power/Knowledge - an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity
Prof D. Graeber, 25.05.2006

Anti-social anthropology: objectivity, objection and the ethnography of public policy and professional communities
Dr D. Mosse, 02.06.2005

The Christianity of Anthropology
Dr F. Cannell, 20.05.2004

Individualism and the Transformation of Bridewealth in Rural China
Prof. Yunxiang Yan, 22.05.2003

Incorporating Incest: Gamete, Body and Relation in Assisted Conception
Dr J. Edwards, 03.05.2002

For An Anthropology of Ethics v Freedom
Dr J. Laidlaw, 18.05.2001

Are We All Natural Dualists?  A Cognitive Developmental Approach
Dr R. Astuti, 19.05.2000 


Functional Origins of Religious Concepts
Dr P. Boyer, 13.05.1999

Erotic Dreams and Nightmares from Antiquity to the Present
Dr C. Stewart, 30.04.1998

If Malinowski met Boas in Barrow: Looking across the Boundaries of Fieldwork from the 1890s to the 1990s
Dr B. Bodenhorn, 20.05.1997

Compassion for the Other: Kinship as Constituted Intentionality in Fiji
Dr C. Toren, 12.03.1996

Postcolonialism and the Political Imagination
Dr J. Spencer, 11.05.1995

The Soul's Body and its Afflictions - An Amazonian Perspective on the Nature of Being Human
Ms A. C. Taylor, 10.03.1994

Questions of Belief - Reflections from Film on Anthropological Practice
Dr H. Morphy, 18.03.1993

Tamed Violence: Genital Symbolism in Portuguese Culture
Dr J. de Pina-Cabral, 20.02.1992

Ritual as Intellectual Property
Dr S. Harrison, 09.05.1991

Basque Visionaries in Trance, 1931
Dr W. Christian, 17.05.1990


Malinowski's Precedent - The Imagination of equality
Dr R. Fardon, 11.05.1989

The Concept of the Person and the Ritual System
Dr A. Iteanu, 28.04.1988

Between Myth and History
Dr O. Harris, 11.05.1987

The Two Sides of Money
Dr K. Hart, 13.03.1986

The Gift, the Indian Gift and the Indian Gift
Dr J. Parry, 09.05.1985

Anthropology and Psychology
Dr D. Sperber, 06.03.1984

Sacred Models
Dr R. L. Stirrat, 15.03.1983

The Architect and the Bee: Reflection on the Work of Animals and Men
Dr T. Ingold, 03.03.1982

Egalitarian Societies
Dr J. Woodburn, 05.05.1981

Culture in a Netbag: The Manufacture of a Subdiscipline in Anthropology
Dr M. Strathern, 11.03.1980


Anthropology and the Analysis of Ideology
Dr Talal Asad, 06.03.1979

Modes of Reproduction
Dr A. McFarlane, 06.02.1978 

The Past and Present in the Present
Dr M. E. F. Bloch, 07.12.1976

On Asking Questions
Dr E. Goody, 04.03.1975

The Couvade: A Problem Reborn
Dr P. G. Riviere, 05.03.1974

Forms and Norms: The Economy of Social Relations
Dr J. H. R. Davis, 27.02.1973

The Golden Fleece
Mr J. A. W. Forge, 07.03.1972

The New Anthropology and its Critics
Mr E. W. Ardener, 23.02.1971

The Analysis of Social Situations
Dr G. Kingsley-Garbett, 24.02.1970


Theories of Myth
Dr P. S. Cohen, 08.05.1969

The Magical Power of Words
Dr S. J. Tambiah, 20.02.1968

In the Beginning
Dr J. R. Fox, 16.05.1967

Spirit Possession
Dr I. M. Lewis, 08.03.1966

Ritual and Social Change
Dr J. N. M. Beattie, 16.02.1965

Anthropological Perspectives
Dr M. P. Banton, 25.02.1964

A Chinese Phase in Social Anthropology
Dr M. Freedman, 30.10.1962

The Concept of Objectivity in Social Anthropology
Dr R. Leinhardt, 05.12.1961


Rethinking Anthropology
Dr E. R. Leach, 03.12.1959