Brunel Anthropology weekly research seminar: All Welcome!

Dear All


You are warmly invited to our weekly Anthropology research seminars, which take place, on Zoom, every Tuesday at 1300hrs UK time. We have an exciting line-up of speakers, kicking off on Tuesday 18 January with Dr Leo Hopkinson (Durham) on boxing in Accra, Ghana, followed a week later by an appearance from Professor Lenore Manderson on COVID-19 and vulnerability. Titles and abstracts of all nine papers—plus log-in details—are below. We look forward to seeing you there!





Dr James Staples, Anthropology, Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB8 3PH


Brunel Anthropology Research Seminar
Term 2, 2021-2022
Tuesdays, 1300-1430hrs, via Zoom
Meeting ID: 946 3648 6877
Passcode: 8184007563
All welcome!
18 January: Leo Hopkinson (Durham University)
Boxing Family: Competition as Kinship in Accra, Ghana

In Accra, young men often begin boxing by “following” older male relatives to gyms. Consequently, the boxing scene is shot through with kinship relations, meaning brothers and cousins often find themselves marked as potential competitors. Although sibling and cousin relations are ideally hierarchical axioms of care and respect, in practice tensions are common and reveal unethical desires to subordinate kin. Hence, for close male relatives to box is taboo. Despite this taboo, “family” and “brother” are the preferred idioms of relating among boxers who are not kin. These seemingly paradoxical idioms pose the question of how relations between competitive boxers are similar to, but also the antithesis of, siblingship? I explore this question through ethnography of siblingship, matchmaking and boxing careers in Accra. Boxers’ kinship idioms reveal how competition intertwines subjectivities and futures, rather than producing hyper-individualized ‘neoliberal subjects’. I use this observation to question long-standing conceptualisations of competition as the opposite of cooperation, and explore alternative possibilities for theorising competition.

25 January: Lenore Manderson (University of the Witwatersrand)
Vulnerability, urgency, and action during COVID

During the COVID pandemic, government actors have negotiated the political, societal and local contextual factors that influence the transmission of infection, the likely success of urgent interventions, and their possible repercussions. Drawing on work with colleagues in South Africa and beyond, including through policy engagement, I explore how states have reacted to the pandemic. COVID (and any disease) has exploited and amplified vulnerabilities, and while seeking to forestall these, state responses have exacerbated existing inequalities of power and powerlessness deriving from structural vulnerabilities. Those who have suffered most, I illustrate, are already rendered invisible and marginalized through formal mechanisms of care. This points to the role of anthropology in policy settings to ensure that pandemic control does not come at the cost of an ethics of care.

1 February: Isak Niehaus (Brunel University London)
On the mobility of ghosts: spectral journeys in the South African Lowveld

In studies of Southern Africa, ancestors and possessing spirits have received far greater attention than ghosts. Only in recent years have fragmentary references of ghosts begun to appear in the ethnographic record. In this paper, I seek to redress this imbalance, by documenting stories and accounts and stories of encounters with ghosts in the Bushbuckridge Municipality of South Africa. I turn to studies of ghosts in Asia and elsewhere, as an analytical starting point for interpreting their social and cosmological significance. A widespread theory in this literature is that narratives of ghosts are a means of emplacement, that connect people to places. But the theory does not capture the way narratives in Bushbuckridge depict ghosts as essentially mobile beings. This is most evident in accounts of vanishing hitchhikers on the highways, and of a ghost called sa’uwe, that captures people’s minds and force them to walk in the direction of graveyards. Ghostly apparitions serve as reminders of the failure to take care of the spirits of those who suffered violent deaths and bring them home. But the narratives also speak of displacement and depict spectral journeys, and routes rather than places. This leads to the suggestion that in Southern Africa, ghosts can be seen as shifting signifiers that transgress temporal, physical and social boundaries.

8 February: Rebecca Irons (UCL and Nuffield Trust)
Planning Quechua Families: Coloniality and Indigenous Reproduction in the Andes

As came to light proceeding the enforced sterilisations of the early 1990s, the Peruvian national family planning programme has been a potent site of state biopower towards the indigenous and low-income individuals that make up the majority of state-funded healthcare recipients. Indigenous groups are often framed in both popular media and health policy as culturally ‘backwards’ and in need of ‘modernising’; a discourse that is closely tied to racial and ethnic hierarchies in Latin America. In this presentation, I will discuss how the contemporary coloniality of power (Quijano, 2000) operates amongst Quechua communities through health discourse to influence family planning and kinship, ultimately encouraging the pursuit of ‘social whitening’ through reinforcement of ethnic hierarchies and lifeways that may ultimately result in indigenous erasure.


15 February: READING WEEK No Seminar

22 February: Luke Heslop (Brunel University London)
The marriages of Thilini: a Sri Lankan tale

This paper focusses on the marriages of a young woman called Thilini, and analyses the open discussion of her marital failure. This discussion hinged on a very specific story about an unsanctioned and exploitative relationship she had when she was young. Thilini’s marital misfortune has located her at the heart of a cautionary tale used as an explanatory narrative for the difference in status between two households within the same family. I argue that the constant retelling of Thilini’s romantic indiscretions gave her parents and elder siblings license to exercise a large degree of control over her. I further develop this dynamic to discuss the significance of narrative in anthropology and family life, and the significance of melodrama in the telling of family tales. The paper talks about Thilini with close detail, but also introduces a wider discussion on middle class marriage in small town Sri Lanka.

1 March: Tsitsi Masvawure (College of the Holy Cross, Massachusetts)
Transactional sex and the “problem” of dangerous, desiring women: a feminist-anthropological reflection on a perennially contentious issue in the HIV world
Few topics in the HIV field have captured the imagination and generated as much intense debate as that of transactional sex in Africa. Some scholars consider the practice to be exploitative and emblematic of women’s continued social and economic powerlessness and marginalization in society. Other scholars, in contrast, highlight women’s agency and resistance in these relationships. Yet still other scholars argue that transactional sex is both exploitative and liberating for women. In this paper I will consider if, and how a feminist-anthropological perspective can help resolve this debate. In particular, I will critically examine Saba Mahmood’s call to “uncoupl[e] the notion of agency from that of resistance” and, to consider agency as the “capacity for action that specific relations of subordination create and enable”. Where does such an approach take us anthropologically and as feminist scholars?

8 March: Cornelis Rijneveld (SOAS)
Risky Entanglements: HIV risk in the context of ‘High Fun’ in urban India
Anthropologists have interrogated the construction of “risk behaviour” in dominant biomedical HIV/Aids discourse since the late 1980s. Challenging the normative assumption of individual agency underlying behavioural change interventions, social scientists have stressed the way the distribution of HIV risk is shaped by interpersonal and structural power relations. In this chapter/paper, I draw on ethnographic interviews with men who are or were into “high fun”, as sexualized drug use is known among gay and bisexual men in urban India, in an attempt to further problematize common sense understandings of HIV risk. Inspired by Anna Tsing’s notion of contaminating relationality (2015), I approach risk as an effect of a series of entanglements, rather than as a behaviour as such. Moving beyond the effort of placing HIV risk in social context, I ask what attending closely to the contexts in which HIV risk emerges might teach us about agency and relationality.

15 March: Theresia Hofer (University of Bristol)
Deaf Wordlings, Sign Languages and Deaf Futures: Inside and beyond deaf education at the Lhasa Special School, Tibet Autonomous Region, China

Based on four months of fieldwork in Lhasa between 2014 and 2017, this paper considers deaf Tibetans’ desires and acts in daily life towards creating inhabitable worlds in places, such as the Lhasa Special School, and outside of it, such as in crafts workshops, in homes and frequently visited cafes, as well as other public spaces, where graduates from the school gather. It employs and explores the concept of deaf worldings, coined by Friedner, as “an ethnographic attempt to study times and spaces where deaf people create worlds with and for each other” (Friedner 2019: 406). I pay particular attention to these life-worlds within evolving social, political and economic contexts in which deaf people live and learn in Lhasa, with an emphasis on the senses, space and language(s). I also grapple with what deaf – and more broadly disability – futures might look like in Tibet, when the nationally flourishing disability rights activism is not permitted to intersect in “sensitive regions” with Tibetan minority language rights activism, within which Tibetan Sign Language activism has been one concern.

22 March: Eva Luksaite (Keele University)
More-than-human care: biomedicine, reproductive anxieties, and spirit possession in Rajasthan

In this talk, I explore how reproductive anxieties related to infertility in contemporary India intertwine with women’s existential and class-based anxieties and how different modalities of care are used to resolve them. I place an ethnographic focus on one woman’s struggles to conceive in the context of marriage migration from a village to a city in Rajasthan and the therapeutic interventions undertaken by her conjugal and natal families. By investigating biomedical interventions alongside engagements with a Hindu goddess Kali in episodes of spirit possession, I examine different modalities of care and how relations between people, technologies, and spirits who meddle with human affairs reconfigure local articulations of dehumanised care and more-than-human care.


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