Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary

Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary

a John Hope Franklin Center Book

More about this series

Book Pages: 152 Illustrations: Published: November 2008

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Science and Technology Studies, Sociology > Social Theory

In this compact volume two of anthropology’s most influential theorists, Paul Rabinow and George E. Marcus, engage in a series of conversations about the past, present, and future of anthropological knowledge, pedagogy, and practice. James D. Faubion joins in several exchanges to facilitate and elaborate the dialogue, and Tobias Rees moderates the discussions and contributes an introduction and an afterword to the volume. Most of the conversations are focused on contemporary challenges to how anthropology understands its subject and how ethnographic research projects are designed and carried out. Rabinow and Marcus reflect on what remains distinctly anthropological about the study of contemporary events and processes, and they contemplate productive new directions for the field. The two converge in Marcus’s emphasis on the need to redesign pedagogical practices for training anthropological researchers and in Rabinow’s proposal of collaborative initiatives in which ethnographic research designs could be analyzed, experimented with, and transformed.

Both Rabinow and Marcus participated in the milestone collection Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Published in 1986, Writing Culture catalyzed a reassessment of how ethnographers encountered, studied, and wrote about their subjects. In the opening conversations of Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, Rabinow and Marcus take stock of anthropology’s recent past by discussing the intellectual scene in which Writing Culture intervened, the book’s contributions, and its conceptual limitations. Considering how the field has developed since the publication of that volume, they address topics including ethnography’s self-reflexive turn, scholars’ increased focus on questions of identity, the Public Culture project, science and technology studies, and the changing interests and goals of students. Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary allows readers to eavesdrop on lively conversations between anthropologists who have helped to shape their field’s recent past and are deeply invested in its future.


“[T]he book exemplifies another ‘aesthetic’ approach, a noble response if hardly a solution, to the problem of how to think today. Very serious scholars might simply speak candidly, on the record, with one another about matters they have considered for years. It is such a simple genre, one we should all try. Right. Designs is a bravura performance.” — David A. Westbrook, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“Rees does a great job in summing up what is the result of a fascinating dialogue among intellectuals. . . . There are also those who started with Writing Culture and reached positions from where they can rethink and renew the structure of dissertation projects and start conversations on the anthropology of the contemporary with a new generation of anthropology students. This small collaborative and dialogic book will serve them well as a permanent inspiration.” — Werner Krauss, American Ethnologist

“This series of thought-provoking exchanges between senior anthropologists Paul Rabinow, George Marcus, and James Faubion address the past, present, and future of the discipline and the challenges involved in designing anthropologies of the contemporary. . . . [R]ecommended reading for anthropology students, especially those feeling lost in the forest of anthropological approaches, and for all those curious what several of the discipline’s most influential theorists have to say about the past, present, and future of anthropology.” — Noel Salazar, Anthropology Review Database

“Full of grace and erudition, of intellectual pleasures and provocations, this book is a rich exchange about inheritances, curiosity, pedagogy, ethnography, and experimental practice. What counts as the ‘contemporary’ is far from self-evident, and the need to think about what is happening in the world—what forms of life are in play and emerging—has never been greater. This book makes a strong ethical and epistemological claim on me, and perhaps on all its readers, to respond to this difficult task. At a time when brilliant performance prevails over collective craft, and systematic shared knowledge seems like a thing of the past, it highlights the necessity of accountability in building knowledge.” — Donna Haraway, University of California, Santa Cruz

“Paul Rabinow and George E. Marcus have very creative minds, a great deal of courage, and appealing intellectual intensity. Their lucid, conversational dialogues in Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary are significant and almost sure to be influential. There is a hunger in anthropology for forward-looking suggestions.” — Virginia R. Dominguez, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“What an interchange! While these fascinating conversations make much work of the concept of the ‘contemporary,’ it is how one might ‘design’ anthropology that drives them. And by the end it is ‘anthropology’ that emerges from its own history, from its fortunes and misfortunes, as a fresh instrument of education. The search for renewal is neither here nor there; an act of renewal is another matter altogether. The enthusiasm of these thinkers is wrought through dialogue at once collaborative and agonistic, setting a standard of reflection that creates its own present tense.” — Marilyn Strathern, University of Cambridge


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Paul Rabinow is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Marking Time: On the Anthropology of the Contemporary, A Machine to Make a Future: Biotech Chronicles (with Talia Dan-Cohen), and Anthropos Today: Reflections on Modern Equipment.

George E. Marcus is the Chancellor’s Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His books include Ethnography through Thick and Thin; Ocasião: The Marquis and the Anthropologist, A Collaboration (with Fernando Mascarenhas); and Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences (with Michael M. J. Fischer).

James Faubion is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at Rice University. He is the author of The Shadows and Lights of Waco: Millennialism Today and Modern Greek Lessons: A Primer in Historical Constructivism.

Tobias Rees is Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Studies of Medicine and the Department of Anthropology at McGill University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Introduction / Tobias Rees 1

Dialogue I: Anthropology in Motion 13

Dialogue II: After Writing Culture 33

Dialogue III: Anthropology Today 45

Dialogue IV: The Anthropology of the Contemporary 55

Dialogue V: In Search of (New) Norms and Forms 73

Dialogue VI: Of Timing and Texts 93

Dialogue VII: Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary 105

Afterword / Tobias Rees 115

Notes 123

Index 135
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4370-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4334-9
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