Reflections on IUAES Congress 2013

Picture 1This summer, my alma mater the University of Manchester played host to the 17th Congress of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnographic Scientists (IUAES). I was fortunate enough to attend, and found it exciting and unusual for a number of reasons, all of which were pleasantly surprising and unusually progressive for a conference of this size, scope and prestige.

First of all, it was an impressively and assertively international event. While some strands were dominated by particular regional representation (Asia, for example and unsurprisingly in the “Evolving humanity, emerging worlds” track), in general there was a quite astonishing array of institutions and nation states represented. The Visual Anthropology track stood out in this regard, although I had hoped that the conversation had moved somewhat further away from the old debates in visual anthropology and onto more innovative approaches than seemed to be the case (thankfully “The world of the mind and the mind in the world” track took care of that). Personally, I was most likely to be found in the “Movement, mobility and migration” track, which were broadly excellent and encouraging. Scholars old and new were brought into the conversation, and I’m looking forward to the panels pulled together by the EASA Anthropology and Mobility Network for the upcoming 13th EASA Biennial Conference.

Unfortunately, many potential speakers and attendees were denied visas, so an even more diverse event was denied us. This was a point of frustration for many, which prompted organizer John Gledhill to make an impassioned and pointed critique of the UK government’s immigration regulations at the close of the third Plenary Debate.

These Debates were my second highlight of the Congress. Rather than feature a panel speaking at either played-down cross-purposes or in total agreement–the often successful but occasionally stagnant norm at so many conferences-—the format was non-holds-barred debate. The audience was instructed, sternly: “You must vote and there will be a looser.” Playful but also forceful arguments were made on three motions:

1. “Humans have no nature, what they have is history”

2. “Justice for people must come before justice for the environment”

3. “The free movement of people around the world would be utopian”

I attended the latter two, and found both stimulating in terms of content and style: a quite beautiful reminder to those made weary by academia that we’re perhaps in this world, more than anything, to enjoy and debate ideas. That the questions had very real world importance was not simply an additional bonus, however. The verve of the arguments and the audience’s desire to chime in was made possible by a very broad ability to relate to the issues. I highly recommend watching (perhaps just listening in to) the video recordings of the sessions, once they are uploaded (I’ll add the links once they are).

The third highlight is very much intertwined with the two mentioned above: the widespread open attitude was wholly refreshing. With such an international mix the usual ‘big names’ who seem to dominate similar conferences—-the American Anthropological Association annual meetings a case in point-—became anonymous here, but also seemingly more willing to engage with other, ostensibly lesser scholars. Young academics, in turn, seemed less awe-struck, harried and competitive. Most took pleasure in fielding questions and critique—-a rare occurrence in the tense atmosphere of, again, the AAA. The congress was not perfect, by any means, but it felt almost collegiate, in a way that conference really should.

The IUAES was a nostalgia trip for me in a sense, as I ghosted around corridors I used to run down as an undergraduate student years ago. I was able to say hello to acquaintances working in the cafes and library, and old friends still living in the city. I don’t think my rose-tinted spectacles unduly influenced my take on proceedings, however. It was simply an incredibly stimulating time.

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