Our research, centred on five key themes, encompasses a commitment to comparative projects that are rooted in deep history, draw links between regional/spatio-temporal zones, and pose questions about the nature of humanity (concerning inequality, co-operation, vitality, and religiosity vs secularity).
(i) Inequality and wealth in a capitalist world: our research on this theme owed (and owes) much to our late lamented colleague, David Graeber, who sadly died in 2020. This theme interrogates the interplay of hierarchy and egalitarianism (Graeber & Wengrow); of poverty and abundance; and how inequality is created and maintained—by the intersection of class, caste, ethnicity and gender (Shah & Parry ‘Persistence of Poverty amongst Adivasis and Dalits in India’ and ‘The Underbelly of the Indian Boom: Adivasis and Dalits’), and within and between families (Stafford on Oklahoma). Within the rubric of anthropology of economy, Bear (‘Rebuilding Economics’), Gardner, and James & Koch (‘Ethnographies of Advice’) explore how inequality is constituted and reproduced in both core and more marginal sites of contemporary capitalism, and how processes of development and speculation; debt; austerity and insecurity, and the aspirations to modernity and wealth that underpin these, play out in a global context (James on indebtedness in South Africa and the UK; Bear on sovereign debt and austerity; Weszkalnys on oil in Sao Tome). Under this theme, we share interests and projects with the International Inequalities Institute (III, where James and Shah are involved) and the LSE South Asia Centre (where Banerjee was the inaugural Director). We also run a joint seminar – Anthropology of Economy/Inclusive Economies - with the Department of International Development.
(ii) Commitment, Conviction and Doubt explores how people dedicate themselves to received cosmologies, ontologies, religions, or secular ideologies. We pay particular attention to the fragile and fluctuating nature of such commitments, as investigated and theorised in studies of wonder (Scott on the Solomon Islands and in academia), happiness (Walker & Astuti on Amazonia), irony (Steinmüller on China), doubt, suspicion (Doughan on corruption and transparency) and ‘fragile conviction’ (Pelkmans on Central Asia). Questions of ethics, justice, and purpose are an integral part of these inquiries (Stafford on moral judgment and co-operation; Cannell on Mormon piety in a secular age).
(iii) Mind, learning and human development centres on experiences of childhood (Allerton on stateless children); the self and conceptions of free will (Doughan on intentionality in political action); affect and altered states of consciousness (Long on hypnotherapy in Indonesia); moral judgement and the psychology of economic life (Stafford on everyday economic decision-making). We engage critically with psychology, cognitive science and related disciplines (Astuti on Madagascar). We examine how predispositions of the human mind—towards mutualism or the sense of fairness—are shaped by the specific historical and cultural circumstances in which people live (Walker on justice in Amazonia).
(iv) Generative Vitalityprovides new perspectives on kinship (Cannell on Mormon kinship, Gardner on marriage and divorce in Bangladesh), gender and generative or productive processes, and forms of redistribution (Devlieger on disability in the Democratic Republic of Congo). This includes ritual practices (Bear on intimate economies in India), conceptions about the generation and end of life, and the nature of parental responsibility and of childhood (Allerton). Our research, rooted in households and local contexts, shows how these link to, and are productive of, global processes: how the powers of capitalism—both generative and destructive—produce and are reproduced within family and other forms of solidarity. This research theme also enables us to re-theorize phenomena such as attempts to access the hidden generativity and vitality that lies behind any visible form of power and productivity (Scott on so-called cargo cults in Melanesia).
(v) The state, its reach, and beyond critically examines settings where government powers are mediated through, challenged or buttressed by market relations. It explores corporations, development (Gardner on Bangladesh), legal and economic bureaucracies (Bear with Mathur on the ‘New Public Good’, Graeber on ‘Bullshit Jobs’, Pia on water provision in China, Doughan on social justice in Jordan), and speculation and prospecting (Weszkalnys on oil in Sao Tome and on the UK’s oil sector, Bear on global speculation). It also investigates how the state is personalized or vernacularized in people’s daily lives (Long on Indonesia, Scott on rural Solomon Islands). Key areas where our research interrogates the reach and limits of state power are political participation, changing systems of democratic choice and their local meaning (Banerjee on democracy and republicanism in India, Long on democracy in Indonesia), conspiracy theorising and wilful blindness (Pelkmans on the politics of ignorance, Allerton on state non-recognition of migrants in Malaysia), revolutionary struggle (Shah on Naxalite Maoists in India), the politics of security and precarity (Doughan on the Jordanian-Syrian border) and transnational migration and the paradoxes and pain of being undocumented (Allerton on stateless children of migrants).