The Future of Anthropological Research: Ethics, Questions, and Methods in the Age of COVID-19: Part I

Danilyn Rutherford, President, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research

Anthropology, as a discipline, is not going to escape the pandemic unscathed.  Never has the discipline seen such a sudden transformation in the conditions that make our research possible.   The kinds of field methods for which we’re famous have become largely impossible.   The relevance of the kinds of questions we were in the midst of asking has been cast into doubt.   Running like a thread through these quandaries are questions of ethics: given the scale of the crisis, and its impact on those who participate in our research, what’s the point of anthropological work?

Now more than ever, the world needs anthropology; now more than ever, anthropologists, especially those new to the field, need support.   But to meet the challenge of the current moment, anthropologists are going to have to think hard about issues that are no less ethical and intellectual than they are practical.   It would be better if we found ways to do this thinking together.   Towards this end, Wenner-Gren has opened a conversation about the future of anthropological research in the years and months to come.

We have asked participants to focus on these three areas:

1. Methods and Questions.   There are resources circulating on how to do research in a pandemic.  Interesting, many of the proposed approaches come from disciplines outside of anthropology.   Is there a specifically anthropological approach and suite of methods we might want to explore?

On the one hand, the challenge is logistical.   How might anthropologists borrow from, adapt, or completely reconfigure virtual approaches born in different disciplines?   What can we learn from our own traditions of virtual research?   What will we need to invent anew?

On the other hand, the challenge is conceptual. How will the conditions under which anthropologists are now working change the kinds of questions they are able to ask?

2.  Methods and Ethics.   The methods being proposed for fieldwork in a pandemic often involve a heavier commitment of time and energy on the part of research partners and participants than might otherwise have been the case.   Are there ethical ways to do research under these conditions?   How will we need to rethink not simply how researchers compensate those who participate in their projects, but how they formulate their projects from the start?

3.  Ethics and Questions.    The question is not simply how anthropologists should do their research in the age of COVID-19, but whether they should do their research.  How is the current moment going to force anthropologists to think more intentionally about the purpose of their work?

In the following weeks, we’ll be publishing brief blog pieces from the scholars who are taking part in this discussion. For the first session, we spoke with sociocultural anthropologists from different countries and traditions of anthropology with deep experience training students. Here’s what they had to say.


Pamela Block

Bearing Witness in a Pandemic

Pamela Block

Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology, Western Ontario University

Crises have always generated opportunities, born of necessity, for growth in anthropological methodologies (for example Malinowski’s development of ethnographic field word during WWI). They have also provided spaces for emergent moral ambiguities (or flat-out unethical actions) for the discipline and its practitioners. Consider  anthropologists Bruno Beger and Hans Fleischhacker’s work for the Nazis, featured in Christopher Hale’s (2003) book: Himmler’s Crusade: The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race.

Billions of people are, in a very short period of time, engaging in or resisting radical behavioral change. There are massive changes in social structures of education, employment, and health. Our ways of thinking about our lives and our futures have been altered, perhaps permanently. We are in a liminal state with no idea of when or how it will end, nor of what life will look like on the other side. It is an opportunity of a lifetime for anthropologists to observe what is unfolding – to observe the practice and ideologies developed to sustain (or resist) social distancing.

In his introduction to a special issue, Mark W. Hauser (2018) writes:

At its most general level, bearing witness is a valuable way to scrutinize violent encounters, traumatic events, dislocations, and structural inequalities. It can help obtain support from those who might feel distant from those events, diffuse pressure from communities most directly affected, and bring about change. Bearing witness can take the form of communicating traumatic personal experiences or documenting for others the dislocations, institutionalized violence, and kinds of difference-making that often escape social examination. Contributors build on these forms by arguing that bearing witness is part of an archaeological episteme. . . .To what do we bear witness? How do we bear witness? And why do we bear witness?

In my own recent blog (Block 2020), I wrote: “In times when I am helpless and have no other choices, I remind myself that the very least I can do is bear witness. So I do.”

I believe that not only should we be doing this, but we have a responsibility to do this.  We have a responsibility to bear witness to how people work to “flatten the curve” or perform the risky tasks required of essential workers, to how people resist social isolation.   As I write this there have been more cases on Long Island, where I recently lived, than in the whole of Canada.   As someone who just recently stopped working for a health science center linked to a hospital in what is now the epicenter of the pandemic, I bear witness to the risks that my friends and former students are choosing to take or are pressured to take.  Health professionals are suddenly finding themselves on the front lines, and then falling ill themselves. I bear witness to all the people falling ill, and their families.  I bear witness to the people in congregate living settings, including prisons, nursing homes, and other long-term care settings.  I bear witness to my sister Hope in her community-based residence with its shifting staff, and to my cousin Michael, who lived 63 of his 70 years in institutions. To the staff, (many people of color), showing up for work. To the prisoners (largely Black people and people of color) making protective equipment, which they may not have personal access to unless they are digging graves, and coffins, which they might. To the youth whose rites of passage have been disrupted, who have been slammed unwillingly back into the nest, and to the loneliness of those facing this while living alone. I bear witness.

Of course there is a time for witnessing and a time for action, and we definitely in one of those periods now as this is published during protests against police brutality against Black people. I’ve often told students and colleagues that, as a disability studies scholar who has worked, until recently, in clinical education settings, my role is to be like the grass in Malvina Reynold’s song “God Bless the Grass” – find the cracks in the cement and make them bigger. This is a such a moment, where we can be finding those cracks for sustainability, climate justice, disability justice, racial justice, justice for exploited (and now essential) workers – farm workers, front-line health staff, people in food service and delivery. It is a time to push back against those who think Black, disabled or elderly people don’t have lives worth saving. How easily we fall back into the same moral ambiguities: Useless eaters. Lives not worthy of life. Work makes you free. Anthropologists contested such discourses before, so should we now.


Tom Boellstorff

Notes from the Great Quarantine: Reflections on Ethnography after COVID-19

Tom Boellstorff, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine 

These reflections on ethnography after COVID-19 are deeply shaped by their time: May 2020, in the midst of what I will term the “Great Quarantine.” (There will be other COVID-19 quarantines, but none so unanticipated and extensive.) For you, dear reader, coming to these words months or years later, understand that I write from a time when the disease was new, its modes of transmission, symptoms, and treatments poorly understood. Arriving at anthropology through HIV/AIDS activism in the early 1990s, I recall that bewildering social destruction, so well captured by Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time (Monette 1988). At that point the disease had still recently been termed GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency: as with COVID-19 now, a disease of the “general population” began to follow the fault lines of inequality in terms of who was infected or stigmatized, who lived or died.

Writing from the Great Quarantine, I offer three reflections on ethnography after COVID-19, centering on design, theory, and the digital. By “after COVID-19” I do not mean the virus will no longer exist, but that as with HIV/AIDS, it will become part of the social fabric. See these reflections, then, as messages in a bottle to a near future of my colleagues planning ethnographic work in pandemic times.


In this time that I write, most ethnographic research projects have been suddenly suspended: those preparing for research have postponed or greatly modified their projects. Funders made swift decisions without the benefit of established protocols from peer organizations, universities, or institutional review boards. All this has been distressingly disruptive, particularly for graduate students whose timelines have been thrown into disarray.

However, the challenges of this time do not offer a strong model. The research projects disrupted by the Great Quarantine were designed without knowledge of COVID-19; nor did funding and pedagogical structures account for the pandemic. What will emerge after COVID-19 are methodological, conceptual, ethical, and political tools to respond to pandemic realities. For instance, proposals may include multiple timelines, so that disruption of physical-world participant observation does not mean postponing ethnographic research altogether, but shifting, say, to archival work for the first phase.

It may prove helpful to recall that while the challenge of COVID-19 is unprecedented, ethnographers have contended with disruption before. This has included global events like World War II, which resulted in the “culture at a distance” framework best known from Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946). It has also included more individualized events like the loss of one’s fieldnotes due to arson, as in the case of M. N. Srinivas’s The Remembered Village (1976). These disruptions presented opportunities for innovation—for instance, the “culture at a distance” framework is recognized for helping establish the anthropology of mass media. Ethnography after COVID-19 will differ from what came before, but that difference will not solely take the form of loss.


As mentioned earlier I came to anthropology through HIV/AIDS activism in the 1990s, and I wish to return to this time of pandemic for further inspiration. It was a time of mobilization, activism, and witnessing—but also a time of literature, art, and theory. Paula Treichler explored “how to have theory in an epidemic” (1999), while in Saint Foucault David Halperin asked “What did gay activists see in Foucault… that his straight-liberal critics missed, and why?” (1995: 27).

This insistence on activism and theory as complementary has value for ethnography after COVID-19. We must not define “relevance” to denigrate analysis, and this extends to the early phases of research design and grant writing. So often the most powerful ethnographic insights are not present in a proposal, or even known while conducting research—they emerge through the work of analysis itself. Something that appears to be research for research’s sake might produce interventions of more lasting relevance than a hundred proposals crafted around a response to the immediacy of the pandemic. If we stick with the horizon of the known, many powerful insights will remain hidden. Ethnography’s contribution will remain both empirical and conceptual, witnessing and theory—indeed, it emerges most powerfully in their imbrication.

The Digital

Data and theory are also imbricated in the crucial horizon of the digital. We must challenge any tendency to frame the digital as a universal solution to the pandemic. Some communities have little or no internet access; digital technologies can involve state or corporate surveillance. Yet there is a vital need to advance digital anthropology after COVID-19. In March and April 2020, the sociologist Deborah Lupton edited “Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic,” which contains a wealth of helpful ideas, mostly involving online research (2020). It is striking that this extensive document (and others like it) contain few contributions from anthropologists, relying instead on sociology, communications, and media studies. The relative absence of anthropology speaks to the discipline’s relative weakness in advancing digital theories and methods. It is, frankly, shocking to see how many anthropologists still refer to the physical world as the “real world,” denying the reality of the online (and by implication, conflating the real and the physical: see Boellstorff 2016). Anthropologists must move beyond treating the digital as a necessary evil or inauthentic substitute, not least because such prejudice flies in the face of how billions of persons engage with digital socialities. Such dismissals threaten the relevance of anthropology after COVID-19 and deny ethnographers outside anthropology the contributions we have to offer.

Before the Great Quarantine we were already in a world were a few ethnographic projects were primarily online (for argument’s sake, let us say 5%), but where the vast majority of projects (let us say 95%) had some digital component. Most of our interlocutors were already messaging their families, posting on Facebook, using digital technologies for banking, and so on. After COVID-19 we will not see a world where that 5% becomes 99% or even 50%: at the risk of stating the obvious, the offline is here to stay. Yet it is true that a greater share of human sociality will move online, that this will reshape offline socialities, and that anthropology must take this into account. Digital anthropology is a methodological resource but it is also a domain of inquiry like medical anthropology, legal anthropology, or economic anthropology, and this should be recognized in our disciplinary frameworks. We should steer a ground between either valorizing the digital as a magical solution to ethnography in a time of pandemic, or dismissing the digital as an intimidating, unpleasant thing we address as minimally as possible so that we can “get back to the real.”

Ethnography after COVID-19 will thus involve the digital in new ways; anthropology should be at the forefront of these conversations. To take just one example, “social distancing” is actually physical distancing. Going online creates new social intimacies. It is not necessarily a last resort: it is often a familiar space, even a new frontier. It is not always a second-best substitute for the physical, and digital socialities have their own meanings and implications. Anthropologists excel in the study of particularity, and there is a real need for digital ethnographic work that explores the similarities and differences between online games, virtual worlds, social network sites, texting and message, memes and image-based socialities, and so on. Additionally, in many cases digital socialities allow for greater anonymity than in the physical world, and less surveillance as well. Questions of ethics, responsibility to interlocutors, and advocacy shift rather than simply increase or decrease.

Concluding thoughts

Concluding these reflections from the midst of the Great Quarantine seems an impossible task. What I know is that even in the uncertainty, economic collapse, and social trauma that surrounds me, in the pain of illness, the loss of death, and the violence of bigotries old and new, I like many see the value in thinking better futures. Life with COVID-19 will still involve cultural worlds, selfhoods and social relations in the context of environments simultaneously human and natural. Ethnography can play a valuable role in charting these worlds and paths toward their improvement: paths toward health, justice, and care of the earth we share.


Benedict, Ruth. 1946. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Boellstorff, Tom. J27. 2016. For Whom the Ontology Turns: Theorizing the Digital Real. Current Anthropology 57 (4): 387–407. doi:10.1086/687362.

Halperin, David M. 1995. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lupton, Deborah, editor. 2020. “Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic” (crowd-sourced document). Available at:

Monette, Paul. 1988. Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Srinivas, M. N. 1976. The Remembered Village. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Treichler, Paula A. 1999. How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS. Durham: Duke University Press.


Nolwazi Mkhwanazi

Doing Anthropology in the Time of COVID: Questions, Methods, and Ethics

Nolwazi Mkhwanazi, Associate Professor in Anthropology at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER), University of the Witwatersrand

For students and academics in anthropology departments in South Africa, as we watch the pandemic unfold before our eyes, there is a sense of urgency in how to document this whilst acknowledging the entrenched injustices that COVID-19 lays bare and the new inequalities the situation reveals.  The strict measures that have been enforced during lockdown in South Africa have disproportionately  affected the poor and marginalised and are increasing the numbers of people who are vulnerable. Initiatives such as the Corona Times hosted by the University of Cape Town[1] and the student project co-ordinated by Lenore Manderson[2] are some examples of the first attempts at documenting and making sense of the impact of COVID 19 by anthropologists.  In South Africa, anthropology has a history of activism and has, in the past, spoken out about injustices especially racial, health, gender inequalities. The current generation of scholars is being faced with an unprecedented moment as well as overwhelming uncertainty and with the enormous task of adapting – adapting to teaching, conducting research, thinking and communicating digitally. For some this has been easier than for others.

A number of South African based scholars[3] have reflected on the era of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa to compare and understand responses at the individual, community and national level. In terms of research, what I find striking is that despite the growing popularity of medical anthropology as a university course and the increasing number of African students selecting this course, very few student dissertations have, over the last two decades, focused on HIV. Indeed, while the majority of students conduct research in communities or with interlocutors they are familiar with, there was and continues to be a reluctance to work on HIV/AIDS. This is in part due to the stigma that continues to surround the disease and the care (and respect) that local anthropologists and students want to display in not exposing anyone to any harm or to making death, disease and hardship the only worthy topic of anthropological research in Africa.

I think the care and caution that we have observed around HIV/AIDS will be important with regard to the questions we ask and methods we use to do research in the time of the coronavirus. This will depend on responses to COVID-19 and the stories that emerge about its spread – who gets infected and how they become infected. At the moment, vulnerability to infection is not, at least in the popular imaginary, about socio-economic status, race, and gender but rather about compromised immune systems, which highlight issues of age and of health (nutrition, comorbidities, sanitation, housing- all of which are major issues for the majority of South Africa’s population and are differently experienced in relation to race and class).

With regard to how to do research, the idea of knowledge co-production is not new in anthropology and many scholars have tried to make it central to the research they do, but it remains an idea that many just pay lip service to. Until there is a vaccine developed, we have to rely on working with people who are already in the field as interlocutors as well as co-researchers and/or as research assistants.

It is impossible to do ethnographic research without the help of others. We often hear interlocutors complain that researchers (not only anthropologists) take from them in order to build their careers but never give anything back in return.  This is something we need to address more seriously and this is a good time, more than any other, to begin to do this. Starting with funding proposals, we can ask direct and concrete questions about the unfolding of the project and the afterlife of the research.

What are researchers’ thoughts on a variety of issues relating to power dynamics in the field, inequality, and knowledge production? How do researchers imagine their presence in the field and their relationship to others? Will they practice an ethics of care?  How and why? What do they want to communicate about anthropology to the people around them in the field? Such questions are especially important for research in contexts where there are stark inequalities, especially between researchers and their interlocutors. And as I was reminded recently, our attempts to engage digitally can exasperate those inequalities.

Perhaps we need to begin by asking the basic questions.  Why do we do research? Should we be doing research at all? Where do we conduct research (and why)?  These are important questions that we need to consider in relation to our environmental and planetary situation, and with regard to how anthropology is represented in the general public.

For some, anthropology is an attractive discipline because it allows one to travel, learn a new language, and document the diversity of lives lived.  For many, this exotic lure has largely disappeared.  Unfortunately, this has not coincided with a change in how anthropologists are perceived.  In many African countries, anthropology and anthropologists are treated with suspicion, jokingly tolerated, or regarded with disdain. In an era of calls for the decolonisation of scholarship, anthropologists are seen as the last bastion of a colonial legacy. It is hard to argue against this image when the majority of anthropologists that are visible often come from outside the country, often from a different continent, and are there to observe.

The question that is often asked of anthropologists (especially foreign anthropologists) is: How can you help us?   The answer often is: I can’t. While this is true and is what students are taught – to not make false promises – it takes us back to an observation I encounter a lot, even among colleagues in South Africa from other disciplines, which is that anthropology is about writing stories that only matter to other anthropologists. This is obviously a much bigger issue than I can address here, which we can approach from different perspectives.  The point I want to make is that, from where I sit on the African continent, there is a need to advocate for the value of anthropology and to practice our craft with care.



[3] Please note that anthropology in South Africa is very differently perceived, practiced and positioned as compared to other countries on the continent.  Unlike in other African countries, anthropology is a course that still exists independently although many of the departments are no longer free standing and have been merged with other disciplines as, for example, anthropology and sociology departments, or anthropology and development studies departments. Most colleagues on the continent are not in such a privileged position . To survive they increasingly have to turn to teaching qualitative research methods and taking on development consultancy work in order to raise money to retain promising students.


Yael Navaro

Methods and Social Reflexivity in the Time of Covid-19 

Yael Navaro, Reader in Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Daniel Miller, an anthropologist who is well-known for his work on the internet, Facebook, and digital ethnography, recently posted a YouTube video on fieldwork under social isolation ( This video is mainly intended to offer advice to PhD students who were preparing for fieldwork when the coronavirus crisis unfolded. Miller has a “can do” approach to fieldwork during the pandemic, having developed a pragmatic toolbox for ethnography with and through online resources. His goal is to assist whoever is watching this video, and particularly PhD students, in deploying technology in an imaginative way and in refiguring how they will do their research. He suggests, for example, that some interactions with one’s interlocutors might potentially reach greater depth because they will be undertaken online, rather than being interrupted by everyday chores and other activities on site. These suggestions, while helpful and important, also have certain limitations in that they don’t quite tackle the issues that a lot of PhD students and post-docs, as well as any other anthropological researcher, really will be facing. So I would like us to think about another, what could perhaps be called a “can’t do” framework for research methods under a pandemic, as well (also see Navaro 2020). This framework could potentially make us methodologically consider and conceptually address the issues that the pandemic has thrown up more realistically.

Most of our interlocutors will be in a “can’t do” mode or situation. Some will be ill. Some will have firsthand caring responsibilities and will be unable or unwilling to go online. Many will not have access to technology, or the means, including financial, to operate it.  There will be many people so preoccupied with the coronavirus crisis that they will be unable to discuss,  show interest, or concentrate on any other aspect of life that the anthropologist might want to draw attention to.  A lot of our interlocutors will be facing serious financial hardship.  They will have lost their jobs and become unemployed.  They will be trying to pay rent, incurring debt, and paying or trying to pay bills and in need of actual, practical help from the anthropologist, including, where possible, financial assistance. Many will be displaced as migrant laborers or refugees, and as people who are experiencing domestic violence.  Having a disability may make it impossible for many to use online resources. I know Tom Boelstorff’s work on disabilities and virtual worlds, of course (Boelstorff 2020). But for some, this technology might not be accessible. Those living under politically repressive regimes will have reasonable and rational reasons to worry about suffering repercussions for views they share online.  Given widespread government and police surveillance, the safety and security of online connections is scarcely assured.

There will also be questions in situations in which a researcher is intending to embark upon a new research project in which they don’t know the people they are intending to interview. Consider the point of view of interlocutors assessing the reliability or trustworthiness of the anthropologist.  They may not be sure they want to have a conversation with somebody they haven’t met in person or known for a considerable length of time. Some interlocutors will worry about being recorded during their interviews even if they haven’t given consent, because they’re not able to observe what is happening in the Zoom room the anthropologist is working from.  And some might feel intruded upon by the technology and may have ethical misgivings about being researched in this way.

This is just to somehow draw attention to some of the real and realistic issues that we need to attend to before jumping towards what I thought Daniel Miller was doing in his YouTube video – that is, telling researchers that they can do it, that actually interviews online work better, and that they can do what they do in participant observation, but that it just takes a bit of a different form. I think it won’t be that easy and certainly not straightforward. It will require deep consideration and thought on the part of the anthropologist.

Beyond turning online resources into an instrument for research, an engagement with online methods will also need to take on board the forms of conceptualization that have emerged from work in digital ethnography. Some of this work has contributed to a re-imagining of intimacy and a re-theorizing of social relations. Rather than just trying to boost our technological adeptness and get to grips with technology as if it were simply a tool for research under extraordinary circumstances, we will also need to think about the changes that the use of Zoom, Skype, and Whatsapp is bringing to social relations across the board. This situation poses challenges to the ways in which anthropologists have conceptualized the social, pushing us to further consider how relations are being reconfigured by and among our interlocutors (eg. Strathern 2020).

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a layer of social reflexivity that was perhaps unprecedented at this scale. A whole lot of questions about how we constitute our sociality, gender relations, intimacy, and sexuality have been revived and are being revisited. Going on lockdown, being furloughed from work or working from home, taking care of one’s children 24/7 without relying on supporting institutions such as schools, or being unable to attend the funerals of family members in person has brought ‘the social’ under a magnifying glass. The pandemic has introduced such a contrast to the ways we used to previously relate that it has turned everyone into theorists of their social relations. It is not just anthropologists, therefore, who are reflecting analytically on how people are relating with one another at a time like this. Such social theorising has now become a component of everyday reflection all across the board.

There is a proliferation of discourse, in Foucault’s sense, then, on the way we now have to relate with one another and about how that differs from how we used to engage prior to the pandemic. Such second-order thoughts include reflections on the intrusion of screens between people, the impossibility of eye contact on Zoom, the difficulty of deciphering the meaning of what has been said because of its mediation by online technology, and the inaccessibility of affective and tactile clues that make conversations robust and understandable at a deeper, embodied, perhaps non- discursive level. People are considering how they are to take care of their loved ones when barriers have been placed between them with the impossibility of physical contact between grandparents and grandchildren, the limitations on house visits, and the travel bans between families relying on international flights. Likewise, reflections on intimacy have exploded: what is friendship at a time of Covid-19? what is love? how will one live one’s sexuality? As fundamentally differentiated as the answers to these questions would be, reflections on them have come hand in hand, as well, with gender, class, and race theory. The deeply uneven way in which the pandemic has hit people by reference to their social differences has elevated critical reflections on inequality to a level unforeseen. People have become anthropologists of themselves and their own societies.

Hand-in-hand with such widespread reflections on the reconstitution of sociality and entrenchment of inequality, have been commentaries on the nature of politics. The pandemic has been addressed at the level of nation-states who follow (or don’t) the directives of international organisations such as the WHO. And, as the case and death statistics are compared between countries, commentaries have also abounded on their relative systems of governance. What kind of political body favours the health of its public over that of its economy? Can public health and the economy be treated in distinction from one another, or are they co-dependent? What kind of prime minister or president has better mobilised his country’s resources to assist those afflicted by the disease? What is the gender of better governance? Are democracies prone to failure vis-a-vis the spread of the pandemic? Are authoritarian regimes more likely to succeed? What sorts of restrictions will be introduced to mobility and travel with the introduction of new forms of surveillance that employ tracing techniques? How will such intensified forms of governmentality impact people differentially? In tandem, then, with reflections on ‘the social,’ the last few months have also witnessed a proliferation of talk on the nature of ‘the political.’ Is control over the pandemic going to bring about regime change? Are political orders going to implode? For better, or for worse?

As anthropologists engaging with our interlocutors now, we will come across such reflections on ‘the social’ and ‘the political,’ reflexively considered (and perhaps analytically objectified as such) due to an artificial distance the pandemic has brought between everyone’s previous practices, modes of relating, and everyday habits, and their current ones. Much further than taking a technological toolkit on board, then, anthropological research in the time of Covid-19 will need to address these fundamental transformations in the societies we study through the interpretation and reflections of our interlocutors.

Works Cited

Boellstorff, Tom, 2020. ”The Ability of Place: Digital Topographies of the Virtual Human on Ethnographia Island.” Current Anthropology 61:21, pp.109-122.

Miller, Daniel, 2020.

Navaro, Yael, 2020. “The Aftermath of Mass Violence: A Negative Methodology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 49.

Strathern, Marilyn, 2020. Relations: An Anthropological Account. Durham: Duke University Press.


Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas

Preliminary Thoughts on Ethics, Purpose, and Anthropology Beyond Covid-19

Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas, Professor of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration, American Studies, and Anthropology, Yale University

One of the things I’ve noticed with my graduate students, that is the ones who are going to “the field” or are supposed to start their ethnographic work right now, is that eventually they will be able to go back to do research in the way they were taught.  But for now, what they are doing is not necessarily going to the technology.  They’re going to the archives. I was expecting them to start thinking, “I’m going to interview people on Zoom or analyze social media.”  But instead they are focusing on gaining historical insight into spaces or the communities where they will be conducting fieldwork eventually.   They are identifying primary sources that may have been digitized or that they may have access to.   Among graduate students about to start fieldwork, there is still that sense of “it’s only a matter of time before we’re able to do that, so we just need to switch things around and figure things out in a different order.”

I’m actually very optimistic and reassured by this reengagement with grounded research. There is something to be learned from anthropologists who are ethnohistorians, anthropologists who have taught us how we can engage with archives.  I appreciate this turn on the students’ part.  Because sometimes graduate students tend to be drawn by unencumbered theory.  They associate this with being a “true scholar” or a sophisticated thinker, as if this were incompatible with having a historical and political economic grounding.  One thing that may come out of this critical engagement with the archives is that ethically, not only methodologically, but also ethically, these young ethnographers can reconnect with the ground.

Among Latinx and African American anthropologists, and certainly among ethnographers in Latin America and the Caribbean, there has been a strong tradition of community-academy collaborations that require such connections to the ground.   Although many of the same issues that Covid-19 has exacerbated existed before the pandemic, it may be interesting to think about how the current era highlights the difference between things that were interesting versus things that are relevant in the context of anthropological work. This is a tough conversation to have.  Oftentimes we just want to do things we’re interested in.  And those may or may not be relevant.  I think this is an ethical issue that will become increasingly central for anthropology at all levels, from the work that gets funded to the work that gets published.  And of course, the ability to choose research based on individual interest, rather than collective relevance, is an element of privilege  — of geopolitical, institutional, racial, gendered, and certainly socioeconomic privilege.  Despite the occasional exception, as anthropologists we are frequently situated in positions of privilege. That privilege emerges very forcefully when we insist that we should be able to choose whatever we want to do because we want to do it and it’s of personal interest to us.  I’ve seen this throughout my twenty years in academic institutions.  The current era may be a good moment to rethink how we orient ourselves and our research, to discover what is really needed, rather than being self-indulgent, and to focus on what is relevant.  I am not necessarily suggesting that relevance is exclusively determined by the choice of research topic.  But relevance cannot only be determined by random individual interest.  Its assessment requires a greater social orientation and outlook.


Aparecida Vilaça

Ethics, Methods, and Questions in the Age of Covid-19

Aparecida Vilaça, Professor of Social Anthropology, National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

I would like to talk about these issues from the standpoint of a Brazilian teacher and researcher of Indigenous Amazonian peoples, who also supervises students working in the same ethnographic area.

Methods and Questions

I think it will be impossible to adapt virtual inquiries and research to the work with Indigenous peoples. First, because most of them do not have internet resources at their villages.  When they do, elders won’t feel comfortable with these methods, and elders are usually our main collaborators. We could ask younger people to record myths and histories with them and send them to us via internet, in case they have it. But then we might lose the whole context of production.

What we are planning to do at the moment is to wait until researchers might be able to enter the Indigenous lands with all health precautions taken. If it would not be possible within a year, then we will have to choose the possibilities cited above: recordings and even translations by the internet. But what about the “observant participation” that characterizes our work and that we all know changes our understanding of oral narratives?

On conceptual questions, I think the pandemic will be the center of ours and Indigenous interests should they get contaminated and survive. But I also feel that if they do, they will try to get back to normal life as soon as possible and then we will have to face traditional issues, like social organization, cosmology, etc.   My experience with the Wari’ takes me to this direction.

Methods and Ethics

The main ethical problem we face in Brazil involving Indigenous peoples is much wider than the pandemic. The Brazilian government supports the invasion of indigenous territory, illegal mining, lumbering, and land expropriation.   At the moment, all of us anthropologists are concentrating on publicizing what is happening and trying to work against it, via legal ways through the Federal Public Ministery (MPF). We are all in contact with the people we work with through phone calls, Whatsapp, and Facebook (their favorite platforms) to talk about the virus and the epidemics. We are asking them to stay in the villages, but as their subsistence now involves manufactured goods, they do not have enough food from their gardens and forests to sustain themselves. They need to buy it. For this reason, we are sending messages to scholars from all over the world asking for financial support.

In fact, we are all so concerned about the survival of the people we work with that we did not have time to think about research. Today, on the 20th of May, people from forty-four different Indigenous groups are infected with the virus, with 103 deaths.  They all have very poor access to medical care, and many are dying at home. In Manaus, the Brazilian city with the largest Indigenous population, the hospitals and cemeteries are overloaded, as in many other Brazilian cities, and people are digging communal burial digs to dispose of the corpses.  We are expecting a wave of extermination only comparable to what happened centuries ago with the epidemics of smallpox, measles, and flu brought by the European invaders.

Indigenous people’s reaction to the pandemic is linked to their way of life and their conception of what kinship means. Relatives, by definition, have to care to each other and can not leave sick loved ones alone. They should be close to them and take care of them, which always involves feeding and touching the body.  From that point of view the idea of “social distancing” can not be applied to individuals, although families and small groups can spend time apart to escape from the illness. They have done this historically with more or less success.

We are now totally focused on the crisis and do not have any clear ideas about future research.

Ethics and Questions

I believe I already touched these issues above. One thing that occurs to me now is that, just as I myself can count on my research materials collected through the last thirty years, many anthropologists can also do the same.  Students can also try to gain access to these materials, which are sometimes available in museums and other institutions. They can also do historical and archival research. If so, we will be back to studying subjects that are mainly “traditional” and, of course, to an emphasis on historical issues, on cultural change, on contact etc. But all that will come with a drastic loss of first hand experience.

As anthropologists, now more than ever, we have an obligation to make our work available to a larger audience, so that people can turn their eyes to Indigenous life ways, philosophies, and also survival problems. In 2018, I published a literary essay on the life of my Indigenous father, Paletó (Paletó e eu, editora Todavia, São Paulo).  I have come to realize that talking to a wider public is one of the most important political acts we can do. We must make people admire Indigenous life, or we won’t be able to keep them safe. I am also writing for newspapers and literary magazines about Indigenous peoples, not just denouncing what is happening in the political arena, but also talking about the beauty of their thinking and of their lives. I’ve been getting a wonderful feedback for this work.

Update: For more on this topic we encourage you to check out Gokce Gunel, Saiba Varma, and Chika Watanabe’s recently published, “A Manifesto for Patchwork Anthropology“.


Watch Now: Anti-Blackness: Readings on Violence, Resistance, and Repair

On Wednesday, June 17, the Wenner-Gren Foundation and SAPIENS joined forces to share excerpts from four critically significant and deeply relevant books and a conversation with the authors on how their work speaks to our times.  We were delighted to have an opportunity to introduce to a broad audience some of the most important and provocative thinkers working in our field.

This is a moment of reckoning.  The murder of George Floyd was not an isolated incident but the latest episode in a long history of anti-Blackness, a form of violence that is deeply rooted and global in its reach.   The books featured in this webinar help us understand the workings and origins of this form of violence and its infiltration into every corner of our societies.  At the same time, these books mobilize the power of the anthropological imagination to show what it might take to make a better world.  At this moment of sadness, anger, and possibility, these books are essential reading for anyone worried about where we’ve come from and what to do next.


Laurence Ralph, Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University and Director of the Center on Transnational Policing.  The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence.

Christen Smith, Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin.  Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil.

Savannah Shange, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Anti-Blackness, and Schooling in San Francisco.

Deborah A. Thomas, R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology, and the Director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania.   Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair.


Chip Colwell, Editor-in-Chief, SAPIENS

Eshe Lewis, SAPIENS Public Fellow

Danilyn Rutherford, President, Wenner-Gren Foundation

Additional Resources:




Call for Letters of Intent: Webinars on the Future of Anthropological Research

Wenner-Gren is welcoming letters of intent for webinars focusing on the future of anthropological research.   We particularly welcome proposals from pairs of scholars, one established and the other an advanced graduate student or recent PhD in the early stages of their career.  Webinars can focus on methodological, ethical, or conceptual aspects of anthropological research in these times of upheaval and change.  We will consider letters of intent on a rolling basis, until our budget for this program is depleted, and provide funding for up to $5,000, which we expect organizers to use to cover technical costs.

Your letter of intent should be roughly four single-spaced pages long and include a discussion of the theme or problem you plan to address, your proposed format and the speakers you intend to recruit, the skills or insights you hope your webinar will cultivate, and your plans for reaching the most inclusive audience possible with a stake in what you will discuss.  Where applicable, you may also include a bibliography of relevant work.  Please address your inquiries and proposals to Laurie Obbink at and Danilyn Rutherford at


Webinar 6/17: Anti-Blackness: Readings on Violence, Resistance, and Repair

On June 17th the Wenner-Gren Foundation and SAPIENS will be hosting a webinar on, “Anti-Blackness: Readings on Violence, Resistance, and Repair”.

Featuring books by Laurence Ralph (The Torture Letters), Savannah Shange (Progressive Dystopia), Christen A. Smith (Afro-Paradise), and Deborah A. Thomas (Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation) and a conversation with the authors on how their work speaks to our current moment.

Moderated by Danilyn Rutherford, Eshe Lewis, and Chip Colwell, the webinar will be began at 7:00 PM EDT (11:00 pm GMT). Click here to register.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Amelia Fiske

01: Amelia Fiske and Jonas Fischer introduce their graphic article, Herencia Tóxica at the Humboldt Association in Quito on the 27th of February, 2020. Photo credit: Silvia Echevarria

In 2012 Dr. Amelia Fiske received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “The Making of Harm in the Ecuadorian Amazon,” supervised by Dr. Margaret J. Wiener. When Dr. Fiske was awarded an Engaged Anthropology Grant in 2019 she was able to return to Ecuador to aid engaged activities on, “Toxic Inheritance: Our Common Chemical Constitutions and dependencies”.

We are living in the “age of toxicity” (Walker 2011, ix). Oil and its derivatives surround us. As one of the principal drivers of anthropogenic change today, oil production has rapidly transformed how life is lived around the globe. Lago Agrio and the surrounding oil producing areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon are a prime example of a pressing predicament of the present: the very petrochemical compounds that sustain our lives today also produce tremendous harm.

02: Audience members debate the role of toxicity in their everyday lives. Photo credit: Silvia Echevarria

Throughout ethnographic fieldwork in the region that grew up around the first wells drilled by the Texaco Company in the 1960s, I observed how the toxicants used and produced in oil production cross boundaries. Toxicants routinely breached the industrial membranes built to retain the contents of wastepits, spills, and the effects of industry more broadly. While official accounts insist that harm from oil is controlled with advanced technology, everyday life in the region contests this.

While writing up my PhD research, I wanted to find a way to capture the experiences of toxicity described to me by residents of the region. Some spoke of “swimming in oil” while washing clothes in the river, or seeing “smoke thick like marmalade” that plumed from the gas flares. As one man noted, they were “naked in the face of contamination.” In search of a creative format to express these experiences, I began to explore graphic storytelling of ethnographic research.

03: Invited presenters, Vanessita Roa, Kati Alvarez, and Santiago del Hierro, commented on Herencia Tóxica and discussed different ways of representing toxicity in relation to extractive industries. Photo credit: Amelia Fiske

In 2018, while living in Germany, my path crossed with Jonas Fischer. A graphic arts and design student, Jonas had already published a graphic book with archaeologists, and had experience working with scientific information in a visual format. We began to work together to create a graphic article, Herencia Tóxica (Toxic Inheritance), to delve into questions of toxicity and contamination in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Based on my ethnographic findings, the graphic article is intended to be an open, accessible invitation to contemplate the ways that all of our lives have been profoundly transformed by the toxins we live with and rely upon.

04: Kati Alvárez offers her reflections on the role of the visual in communicating experiences with toxicity in Herencia Tóxica. Photo credit: Silvia Echevarria

With support from the Wenner Gren Engaged Anthropology grant, in February 2020 Jonas and I travelled together to Ecuador to share Herencia Tóxica with the interlocutors I worked with while in the field and with the Ecuadorian public. In Quito, we exhibited the graphic article for a month at the Humboldt Association (see press coverage here). On the inaugural night of the exhibition, we hosted a public conversation on toxicity, with three invited speakers who have extensive experience working and living in the Amazon: Kati Alvarez, Santiago del Hierro, and Vanessita Roa. Speaking from their experiences as a sociologist, architect, and artist, they covered topics such as how graphic arts can be a tool for engaging in difficult questions surrounding our consumption of fossil fuels, or how to best represent the crisis of toxicity amidst a deluge of visual media. With more than 40 people present, members of the audience joined the conversation with questions and comments.

Poignant comparisons were drawn between how toxicity is experienced in oil producing areas of the Amazon and how it is experienced in urban spaces like Quito, and the legacies of US- based companies in Latin America.

05: A selection from the graphic article exhibited at the Humboldt Association. The exhibit was open to the public for one month. Photo credit: Silvia Echevarria

Following the exhibition, Jonas and I traveled to the Lago Agrio. We spent a day at  Amisacho, an environmental education and reforestation center, where we exhibited the graphic article. Interlocutors that I had spent time with during my fieldwork offered their reflections on how the graphic article related to their own experience, such as arriving in the 1970s to claim land during Agrarian Reform, or walking along oil pipelines on the way to school. With invited community groups, activists, and youth, we held a workshop on the use of comics in activism and education. For the culmination of the event, each participant worked on completing a short graphic “zine” on a topic of their choosing. Jonas and I led the group in making an 8-page zine from a single piece of folded paper, a grassroots technique that allows comics be easily scanned and reprinted for sharing with family members, neighbors, or for community organizing events. All materials, including printed copies of the article in poster and book format, as well as didactic tools from the presentation, were given to the Amisacho organizers as a “workshop packet” in order that facilitators can lead similar workshops in future. In the following days, we spent time with former interlocutors and distributed printed copies of Herencia Tóxica while visiting communities living adjacent to the oil camps of Sucumbíos and Orellana.

06: Audience members take a closer look at the exhibit following the presentations. Photo credit: Amelia Fiske

After decades of oil production in the Amazon, it is difficult to distinguish singular moments of hazard. Inviting the public to contemplate the ways that all of our lives have been profoundly transformed by the toxicants we live with and rely upon, Herencia Tóxica proposes that the chemically saturated present demands a reconfiguration of toxicity. Building from the feedback we received in Ecuador, we are now working on a full-length graphic novel on toxic tours in the Amazon which will be published in the ethnoGRAPHIC series of the University of Toronto Press. Our hope is that the graphic format will allow us to explore serious matters with creativity, and thus to engage more people in conversations about the toxic legacies of contamination.

The University of Chicago Press and the Wenner-Gren Foundation collaborate to produce SAPIENS

The University of Chicago Press and the Wenner-Gren Foundation have expanded their long-standing relationship to include collaboration on SAPIENS, a free online magazine that is dedicated to sharing anthropological research with a public readership. The new initiative supports the missions of both the Press and the Foundation, while maintaining SAPIENS’ editorial independence.

As the largest and one of the oldest university presses in the United States, the University of Chicago Press will provide SAPIENS with economies of scale and expertise in scholarly marketing and administrative services. This will allow the SAPIENS editorial team to focus on developing the stories and writers that serve their wide readership and the Wenner-Gren Foundation’s commitment to broadening the reach of anthropology.

“SAPIENS has been successful in demonstrating the relevance of scholarship to the broader public and we’re proud to align with the Wenner-Gren Foundation—our partner on Current Anthropology since 1971—to serve the academy and the public in new and timely ways,” said Journals Division Director Ashley Towne.

SAPIENS launched in 2016 with the goal of transforming how the public understands anthropology, themselves, and the people around them. Contributors to SAPIENS include anthropologists and science journalists who explore the human experience through news coverage, features, commentaries, reviews, and photo essays all grounded in anthropological research. The articles published on are read by millions of non-anthropologists worldwide, and in syndication through publications like,, and

“We’re so excited about SAPIENS’ continued growth.  We have a smart team of editors and writers.  They’ve built a broad audience through engaging and relevant writing, an active social media presence, and robust podcast programming,” said Wenner-Gren Foundation President Danilyn Rutherford, Ph.D. “The magazine has now reached over 8 million readers.  With its reputation for excellence, the University of Chicago Press will help us build on this momentum and amplify the impact of anthropology in the wider world.”

Interested readers and potential contributors can learn more about SAPIENS at, and at upcoming conferences hosted by the Society for American Archaeology, the Law and Society Association, the American Sociological Association, the American Anthropological Association, and the American Schools of Oriental Research.

The University of Chicago Press publishes more than 80 scholarly journals that cover a wide range of disciplines, from the humanities and the social sciences to the life and physical sciences. In addition to working with departments and faculty of the University of Chicago, the University of Chicago Press publishes influential scholarly journals on behalf of learned and professional societies and associations, foundations, museums, and other not-for-profit organizations. All are peer-reviewed publications, with readerships that include scholars, scientists, and practitioners, as well as other interested, educated individuals.

The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Inc. is a private operating foundation dedicated to the advancement of anthropology throughout the world. Located in New York City, it is one of the major international funding sources for anthropological research and is actively engaged with the anthropological community through its varied grant, fellowship, conference, and capacity building programs. It founded and continues to publish Current Anthropology and disseminates the results of its symposia through open access supplementary issues of this international journal. It also publishes SAPIENS, an award-winning open access magazine read by millions of non-anthropologists worldwide. The Foundation works to support all branches of anthropology and closely related disciplines concerned with human biological and cultural origins, development, and variation.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Robin Nelson

Dr. Robin Nelson, (left), and research assistant, Bridgett Robinson

In 2011 Dr. Robin Nelson received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to aid research on “Residential Context, Non-Kin Care and Child Health Outcomes in Jamaica”. After being awarded an Engaged Anthropology Grant in 2016 Dr. Nelson had the opportunity to return to the field to carry out her project, “Talking Back: Community Dialogues, Residential Care Settings, and Child Thriving in Jamaica”.

In 2010, I began wondering if we could study contemporary manifestations of parental investment and alloparenting when the home, as it is typically constructed in Caribbean communities, is unavailable. With this project, “Residential Context and Non-Kin Care in Jamaica,” I investigated the growth and development of children living in state-regulated institutional care settings, or children’s homes, as compared to their peers living in familial homes. Over the course two field seasons my research assistant, Bridgett Robinson, and I collected ethnographic and biometric data from over 200 children living in a variety of care settings in Manchester Parish, Jamaica.

Infographic shared with directors of the children’s homes in Manchester Parish and the Child Protection and Family Services Agency in Kingston Jamaica

Families in Jamaica, like their counterparts around the world, are fluid and dynamic entities responding to external stressors and interpersonal dynamics. Due to its colonial history and proximity to the United States, Jamaica’s economy is largely dependent upon the exportation of goods and laborers to other, often larger, countries. Economic shocks, the devaluation of the Jamaican dollar, and the policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have created systems that have left many Jamaican families economically insecure. Financial precarity and the out-migration of adult women, coupled with long held practices of communal caregiving have resulted in many children being cared for by extended family. When family members are unable to provide appropriate care or when children experience neglect or abuse from either their parents or extended kin, state-regulated children’s homes often become a child’s primary home setting.

In this study, we found that children living in familial homes were experiencing better growth and health, as assessed by measures of height, weight, skinfold thickness, and immunological function, than their peers living in children’s homes. However, the residents of one children’s home had growth outcomes that were comparable to their age and gender matched peers living in familial homes. These growth outcomes were correlated to the receipt of supportive psycho-social care. Additionally, girls were generally healthier than their male peers at both the initial period of data collection, and two years later.

Meeting with an official at a children’s home in Manchester Parish, Jamaica

With this Engaged Anthropology Grant, I returned Manchester Parish and Kingston Jamaica in 2018 to disseminate the findings from my 2011-2014 study on the lives of children living in institutional care settings. Over the course of a few weeks, I shared an infographic of my findings, and my published articles with officials at the Child Protection and Family Services Agency in Kingston, Jamaica, and the directors of the children’s homes that were involved in my study. I also spoke to community members about the findings in several informal meetings. The Child Protection and Family Services Agency in Kingston, Jamaica is the primary government organization responsible for the well-being of children throughout the country. In this capacity, they both monitor reports of neglect and abuse of children living in familial homes, and assess the quality of care provided to children who have been removed from natal homes and placed in institutional or foster care settings. It was vital for me to share my findings with these officials as they provided permissions for the collection of data in children’s homes throughout the country.

While only 320 square miles in size, Manchester Parish in the central mountainous regions of Jamaica, is home to six children’s homes. Qualitative information gathered from the directors and staff of these children’s homes provided key information central to the framing of the findings of this study. These interviews were central to both the completion the study and analyses of these data.  In meetings with these directors during this return trip, I learned of continued challenges facing the directors of the children’s homes including limited funding, and the need for clinical psychological support. I also learned of on-going successes including the creation of new facilities, high achieving student residents, and trips abroad for some of the children.

The development of The Engaged Anthropology Grant, and my receipt of this funding marked a shift in the way that I both conceive of and plan my research projects. By overtly valuing public research, The Wenner-Gren Foundation enables anthropologists who are committed to this kind of work to actively involve the publics in our research. For me, this means being provided the opportunity to both explain my findings to directors of children’s homes who supported my study, and gaining the opportunity to receive their valuable insights about this research. It also enabled me to return to the community and meet with families who granted me entree into their homes. It has informed the development of future projects. An ethically minded Anthropology requires a commitment to working in collaboration with community members rather than simply “in” communities, and engaging with the public about both the development of our research and our findings.

NYAS Lecture 4/20: COVID-19 and Anthropology: Disease, Social Justice, and Well Being

Image “COVID Message in chalk on pavement” from March 31, 2020 by Ballofstring. File licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Full information on wikimedia commons page for the image.

On April 20th The New York Academy of Sciences will be hosting a webinar entitled “COVID-19 and Anthropology: Disease, Social Justice, and Well Being” featuring the following panelists:

Shirley Lindenbaum

Merrill Singer

James H. Jones

Thurka Sangaramoorthy

Amber Wutich

Tonya Taylor, Assistant Professor, PhD/MS, College of Medicine, SUNY Downstate will serve as moderator.

The lecture will begin at 6:30pm (ET). Webinar access via RSVP, live stream on Facebook.

Join us for a webinar focused on our current pandemic (COVID-19), contextualizing the global comparative, disease and treatment, issues of social and economic inequity, immigrant health, questions of stigma, and policy.


Shirley Lindenbaum (Professor Emerita, Department of Anthropology, The Graduate Center, CUNY), Merrill Singer (Professor Emeritus of Medical Anthropology, The University of Connecticut and in Community Medicine at The University of Connecticut Health Center), James H. Jones (Associate Professor of Earth System Science & Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University), Thurka Sangaramoorthy (Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Maryland), and Amber Wutich (President’s Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Global Health in Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change).

Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship: Laura Coppens

Wenner-Gren is proud to present the following blog post and trailer from Laura Coppens who in 2018 received a Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship to aid filming on Taste of Hope.

Taste of Hope I Official Trailer from Srikandi Productions on Vimeo.

Taste of Hope

Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship

‘Taste of Hope’ is a feature-length observational film and tells the fascinating and complex story of a workers’ cooperative in the small town of Gémenos. The film aims to convey how precarious workers are making sense of economic uncertainty in the midst of the ongoing crisis of capitalism by cultivating hope and desires for a potentially better future. Where idealism clashes with harsh reality, I observed the factory workers as they faced inevitable challenges. In 2010, Unilever announced the closing of the profitable Fralib tea processing and packaging plant in the South of France. After 1336 days of resistance, the workers celebrated their victory against the giant multinational and became owners of the factory. Now, with the take-over of the company and production under workers’ control, a new struggle has begun. Can this alternative project be viable within an oversaturated, highly competitive market? For two years, I accompanied the workers in their daily struggles. Between general assemblies, cash-flow problems and tea tastings with potential clients, deception, and conflict emerge. Ultimately, the documentary poses the question: How do we need to work today so we might live in a better world tomorrow?

‘Taste of Hope’ premiered at the Visions du Réel film festival in April in 2019 and won two awards: the Jury Price of the SSA/ SUISSIMAGE and the Zonta Award for the most promising female filmmaker to watch out for. After one year of successful festival run, the film continues to be screened in mainstream and ethnographic film festivals all over the world.

The film emerged from my ethnographic research about different manifestations of what can be called ‘economies of hope.’ The Postdoctoral Fellowship for 2018-2019 allowed me to work on the editing and post-production of the film and to explore visual modalities for telling the tale of a hopeful worker’s struggle. ‘Taste of Hope’ builds on recent documentaries that address the resurged phenonemon of autogestion in the South of Europe, such as Next Stop Utopia (2005) in Greece and The Nothing Factory (2017) in Portugal. However, both these films focus on the actual strike and factory occupation and do not show the daily life under worker’s control. I have used the film medium as a research method to explore and capture the processes and social interactions through which political subjects come into being affectively and hope is materialized. Through audio and images, I aim at conveying the hopes and imaginations of the workers and demonstrate how affect opens up new emancipatory possibilities in the domain of workers’ self-management.

As I further show in the film, the hope invested in a workers’ economy is not only an aspiration but also consists of a tangible dimension, implying that the political and economic future possibilities inherent in workers’ control projects are also always realized in the present. This sphere of social and political activity can be described as a workers’ economy of hope in which becoming knowledgeable about the economy and autogestion, in addition to building and maintaining solidarity networks as well as heightening awareness of ecological and democratic modes of production, are important sites in which individual and collective hopes are materialized. Thus, hope is produced and entailed in a wide range of workers’ knowledge practices like work and labor processes or product development, among others. Self-managed factories are sites of political struggle that must continually be enacted. It is precisely this process of enactment on a daily basis, the conceptualization of autogestion as a social practice and political activity that is the focus of my film.

Past and scheduled Screenings (selection):

  • Visions du Réel, Nyon (world premiere) | Winner Prix du Jury SSA/ SUISSIMAGE & Prix ZONTA
  • Kaleidoskop Film Festival, Vienna
  • Open City Documentary Festival, London
  • DokuBaku International Documentary Film Festival, Baku | Winner Audience Award
  • Margaret Mead Film Festival, NYC | Nominated for the Margaret Mead Filmmakers Award
  • DOK Leipzig International Documentary Film Festival, Leipzig |Nominated for the Healthy Workplace Award
  • Duisburger Filmwoche, Duisburg
  • Ethnographic Film Days, Bremen
  • FIPADOC, Biarritz | Nominated for the Impact Award
  • Soluthurner Filmtage, Solothurn
  • DocPoint Helsinki
  • Festival Millenium, Brussels
  • Dokfilmwoche Hamburg
  • ”Between Women Filmmakers” Caravan/ Cairo International Women’s Film Festival, Bilbao
  • International Documentary Film Festival ELBE DOCK | Competition

Reviews (selection):

“Unobtrusive and humane, ‘Taste of Hope’ is reminiscent of American documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s studies of institutional cultures and workplaces. Proper to her training as a social anthropologist, director Laura Coppens is keenly sensitive to place and people. This skill for observation comes through in the film’s treatment of the factory as a unique environment, as well as its attention to daily rhythms and the interpersonal dynamics of people.”

– Stephani Lam, Film and Visual Studies, Harvard University

“Instead of making grand gestures or political statements, the filmmaker works with the camera and with a thoughtful editing in order to understand how to weave together new possibilities of communal existence. The result is a superbly crafted observational exercise. A little manual of self-defense and resistance in the face of a neoliberalism that wishes for workers to keep their heads down. A taste of hope indeed.

– Giona A. Nazarro, programmer and film critic

“The fact that the filmmaker is allowed to be present when delicate topics are discussed is a testament to the relationship of trust that she has built up during the two years of shooting. The example of ScopTI shows how existence in a market economy demands compromises – which is not new, but it is always important to discuss together. After all, the wishful thinking about how workers’ self-managed companies should function cannot be reflected often enough under real circumstances, which are very different depending on the industry, size etc. ‘Taste of Hope’ is quite well suited to contribute to a solidarity exchange in movements and networks of collective economies.”

– Elisabeth Voss, economist and publicist

“Employee-owned business are the future. There have been too many narratives about people losing jobs and security lately, and this is extremely important to acknowledge. But we also need stories that instill hope, that show that there are other options available. ‘Taste of Hope’ is an incredibly smart film, that it doesn’t only concentrate on the force of spirit that led the ScopTI employees to become their own bosses: it also asks ‘what’s next?.’ Coppens arrived to film the factory when the rush of resistance had already worn off, and the more mundane, but crucial challenges started adding layers to the new labor system at place. This way, ‘Taste of Hope’ became a more complex, thought-provoking case study of workers reclaiming their agency, with emphasis on the essential practical side of things. Necessary viewing for those interested in how labor relationships will evolve in the future, with a delightful field trip to a tea-making factory as a bonus.”

– Katya Kazbek, Editor-in-chief

Link to website:


COVID-19 and Wenner-Gren Foundation Funding

At the Wenner-Gren Foundation, we are deeply concerned about the impact of the global coronavirus epidemic on those we serve.   It’s harder than ever to be an anthropologist, and yet our research is more relevant than ever.   We have an ethical duty as a Foundation to protect the safety of the anthropologists we fund and the broader communities affected by their projects.  But we also have an ethical duty to help our discipline survive and thrive.   Given our limited resources, we are being forced to make hard choices.  At the same time, we are eager to support anthropologists who are seeking new ways to do their work in these strange and uncertain times.

Over the coming months, we will take the following measures so we can continue to award grants and fellowships:

  • We are proceeding with our review of applications for the Dissertation Fieldwork and Post-PhD Research Grants submitted at the November 1, 2019 deadline. Applicants will have an opportunity to submit additional information on how their plans have changed.  The Foundation will be in touch directly with each eligible applicant with more information on the process and timeline.


  • With much regret, we will not be accepting applications for Dissertation Fieldwork and Post-PhD Research Grants at the May 1, 2020 deadline. This is a temporary pause.   We will be accepting applications for Dissertation Fieldwork and Post-PhD Research grants at the November 1, 2020 deadline.   We remain committed to funding the research of anthropologists at every stage in their careers.  For more information, see the Dissertation Fieldwork and Post-PhD Research Grant program pages.


  • We will be accepting applications for the Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship and the Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship at the May 1, 2020 deadline. Candidates for the Fejos are only eligible if they are able to complete their project safely and ethically, which may preclude applicants requiring additional research and/or filming.  For more information see the Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship, and Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship program pages.


  • We are launching a Global Initiatives Program that will support collaborative, capacity-building projects of benefit to the discipline. We encourage anyone interested in collaborating on a topic connected to the pandemic’s impact on anthropology to submit a letter of intent at the May 15, 2020 deadline.   For more information see the Global Initiatives Program page.


  • We will only be accepting Workshop Grant applications at our June 1, 2020 deadline. We will only be funding virtual events.  Applicants for Conference Grants should wait until our December 1, 2020 deadline, when we will run an expedited review process for events held in 2021. For more information see the Conference and Workshop Grants program page.


  • We will accept Wadsworth International Fellowship renewal applications at the July 1, 2020 deadline. For more information see the Wadsworth International Fellowship program page. We will accept Wadsworth African Fellowship applications at the December 15, 2020 deadline.  Click here for more information regarding the Wadsworth African Fellowship.


  • We will accept applications for Engaged Anthropology Research Grants at the August 1, 2020 deadline. However, we will only fund projects that the researcher can undertake safely and ethically, most likely through virtual forms of engagement.  See the Engaged Anthropology Grant program page for more information.

Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions or suggestions.  In the meantime, we wish you and yours the best.   Please be well.