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Anthropological Knowledge Making, the Reflexive Feedback Loop, and Conceptualizations of the Soul

The following is a guest post from Katherine Swancutt, who co-edited Animism beyond the Soul: Ontology, Reflexivity, and the Making of Anthropological Knowledge. This title is now available in hardback and paperback, and we’re offering 25% off this book with code SWA663 until June 30, 2018.


Animism and reflexivity are classic themes in anthropology that have mobilised some of its boldest debates. In the introduction to this volume, we ask how anthropologists might reconceptualise these two archetypal themes through ‘the concept of “hyper-reflexivity” [which] describes the circulation of ideas through multiple sites, as the subjects of ethnographic inquiry appropriate and reinvent the abstract formulations of anthropology and other systems of thought’. Drawing upon ethnography from Africa, Alaska, Brazil, Cuba, Siberia, Southwest China, Suriname, and even leading robotics laboratories such as MIT that are run by scientists from Japan and America, the volume shows that anthropologists and their interlocutors go a step further than uncovering ethnographic findings in fieldwork. Anthropologists and their interlocutors – some of whom may be ‘native’ or ‘indigenous’ thinkers – often co-produce new ways of envisioning key anthropological concepts, such as ‘souls’, ‘bodies’, or ‘animisms’ in the plural. The volume thereby reshapes the analytical operators of anthropological thinking, and the anthropological discipline as a whole, from within. We refer to this analytical-cum-methodological process as ‘the reflexive feedback loop’ and propose that it is a distinctly novel approach within ‘the anthropology of anthropology’.


Taken from our introduction, this excerpt offers a window onto the conceptual work that the volume sets out to do for anthropology. Each of our contributors’ chapters were crafted with the view to reformulating epistemological, ontological, and methodological assumptions that underpin the making of anthropological knowledge. They were furthermore designed to marry together two unlikely anthropological bedfellows, namely: the anthropology of ontology (grounded in the study of radical alterity) and the writing culture debate (which pivots around globalization and the reflexive turn in anthropology). As Rane Willerslev observes in his Foreword – no other volume to date has offered up a serious engagement with these two paradigms, which we invite the reader to reflect upon when envisioning the future of anthropology.


Excerpt from pages 10-11.

Fieldwork, as we have suggested above, brings into dialogue professional anthropologists, native thinkers, and anthropological concepts influenced by a wealth of earlier ethnographies. Anthropologists share their know-how with their interlocutors during fieldwork and, increasingly often these days, through their published works, which native thinkers may harness in the service of reshaping and transforming anthropologists’ views—and even their publications. Our fieldwork visits thus often prompt native thinkers to speak reflexively to us, covering topics such as how culture is produced. For instance, Terence Turner (1991: 310) has commented that his role as an anthropologist shifted from documenting Kayapo culture to becoming a “cultural instrument” of the Kayapo people in their political struggles. Over the course of his many years of engagement with the Kayapo, he observed their adoption of the Portuguese term cultura to externalize the idea of ‘culture’. The Kayapo reflexively reappropriated an abstract conceptualization of their way of life, in part, through collaboration with Turner, an anthropologist.


Faced with this ‘native reflexivity’, the anthropologist may grasp the opportunity of entering into what Vitebsky terms ‘joint quests’ that lead to an ‘unforeseen force’. But what would this unforeseen force be? None other than the opportunity for native thinkers’ ontologies—already exposed to anthropology and its foundations in numerous ethnographies and epistemologies—to re-enter our minds, selves, notebooks, published findings, and professional perspectives on the human condition. When looking honestly into the ‘hall of mirrors’ that comprises the reflexive feedback loop, then, we come to see how anthropological perspectives are continually reshaped and refracted through accretions of various epistemologies. We also find that the reflexive feedback loop has its ‘hidden side’, in Corsín-Jiménez and Willerslev’s sense of the term, since it enables the reshaping of native epistemologies through time. As native thinkers hold dialogues with us, they may take on certain anthropological perspectives, frequently of their own initiative and choice. These anthropological perspectives may transform or destabilize their soul aspects, as shown by several chapters in this book. Of course, this raises the paradox that ‘native’ epistemologies may be presented to us as ‘authentic’ or ‘timeless’ aspects of a reified culture when in fact they are the products of mimesis and cultural invention, as our contributors show. We propose that when whole epistemologies (and not just the native conceptualizations contained within them) take on lives of their own, they should—like spirits—be granted the status of ‘subjects’, ontologically speaking.


Two important points arise from this discussion. First, if we accept that, in our hyper-reflexive world, native epistemologies have already entered our catch-all of anthropological concepts—traveling with us to numerous places and inspiring fieldwork dialogues and publications—then we should consider how these same epistemologies bear within them the agency to influence an enormous range of native thinkers on an ontological level. Second—and this is a related point—when native epistemologies take on lives of their own, they become capable of delivering what Scott (2012: 120) calls “an openended cycle of tales,” which, like “cargoistic discourses as powerful elements in the semiotic process of ethnogenesis,” reveal as much about native thinking as they do about anthropology. What native thinkers tell us, and what comes to be considered as our ‘fieldwork findings’, is largely produced as a cycle of tales within the reflexive feedback loop. Even classic anthropological concepts, like the soul, shapeshift over time in response to this hidden side of reflexivity, much as notions of the soul have changed, we suggest, in response to missionary contact. And in anthropology, the feedback loop is two-directional, since anthropologists are often as eagerly indoctrinated as any native thinker might be. The reflexive feedback loop thus puts a new spin on the making of anthropological practice and concepts, not to mention the new spin it puts on the soul(s) and the body (or bodies), the ontological turn, animism, perspectivism, and so on.


In a nutshell, our point is this: anthropological concepts and native epistemologies are jointly redefining the ontological make-up of what we call ‘animism’ or ‘the soul’. The soul is highly unstable and mutually created by the many contexts through which it emerges, as Corsín-Jiménez and Willerslev (2007) suggest. These multiple contexts are composed of both the visible and hidden sides of people, places, practices, concepts, traditions, fieldwork, publications, and relationships.




Katherine Swancutt is a Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology of Religion in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College London. She is the author of Fortune and the Cursed: The Sliding Scale of Time in Mongolian Divination (Berghahn Books, 2012). She has conducted fieldwork on shamanic and animistic religions across Inner Asia for two decades, with a particular focus on Southwest China and Mongolia. Her newest work is on the anthropology of dreams.