Ep. #25: Zombie nouns, meaningful objects, biopolitics in politics, and value trials: This month on TFS

This month Julia (0:59), starts us off with a discussion about zombie nouns – non-nouns that have been turned into nouns – such as sociality, relationality, neoliberalisation, and so on. Referring to Alex Di Giorgio’s blog post about academic jargon, Julia asks us the ultimate question: why can’t social scientists communicate using simpler words? She suggests that “perhaps any discipline that draws on Postmodern theory is prone to this because we deconstruct and reconstruct ideas and it’s all pretty abstract.” Jodie argues that the jargon can be beneficial when used within a discipline, but problematic when communicating with a public audience. Ian reminds us that jargon is a part of our identity at The Familiar Strange: “We don’t want to sort of run away from ourselves because who are we – we’re a bunch of anthro geeks!”
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Next Ian (5:12) brings our attention to the revelations that can arise through material objects. He reflects on one instance during his PhD fieldwork when he was shown a sarong that revealed the social history of the local people and the complex hierarchical relationships that surround it (and theft!) The other Familiar Strangers reflect on similar instances during their own research when objects have crystallised something important about their fieldwork, including blood, power point sockets, and plastic bags.  

Jodie (10:24), changes our focus to the recent Kavanaugh hearings. This court case centres around the controversial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh as a Judge to the United States Supreme Court, after Professor Christine Ford released a testimony stating he had sexually assaulted her. Jodie proposes the potential of viewing the affair through the lens of biopolitics as it might offer us a new way to explore the topic. A definition of biopolitics can be found here, but essentially the idea is that the state governs our bodies, what we can do with our bodies, and uses certain technologies to control our bodies. Particularly in relation to the Trump Presidency, Jodie asks us to think about women’s bodies: what are women allowed to say about their own bodies, what are men allowed to say about women’s bodies, and what is and isn’t appropriate to say in public for and about women’s bodies?

Finally, Simon (16:25) steers the conversation towards ethics in anthropology: what to do when our values are challenged.  “We, as anthropologists, tread this fine line between not judging our informants and yet at the same time wanting to adhere to – I think – a particular kind of universal set of values”. Drawing on Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ proposition that anthropologists should act as the foot soldiers of a moral vision of the world, Simon asks us how we should respond when we strongly disagree with something our informants do: is it wrong or is it just their culture? Ian argues that “It is difficult to draw those lines and the more you get to know the people that you are working with, often you end up retreating from some of those values”.


Alex Di Giorgio’s blog post ‘Academic Jargon and Knowledge Exclusion’ can be found here: https://thefamiliarstrange.com/2017/03/23/7-jargon-exclusion-and-the-public-sphere-how-academias-use-of-language-does-no-favours-for-making-knowledge-publicly-accessible/

In praise of academic jargon, by Thesis Whisperer, 2015, available at: https://thesiswhisperer.com/2015/11/04/in-praise-of-academic-jargon/

Jodie’s definition of ‘biopolitics’ from The Anthropology of Biopolitics is available here: https://anthrobiopolitics.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/biopolitics-an-overview/

Brett Kavanaugh and America’s ‘Himpathy’ Reckoning, by Kate Manne, 2018, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/26/opinion/brett-kavanaugh-hearing-himpathy.html

Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate Manne, 2017, Oxford University Press.

Here’s the deal with Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage, by Gregory Krieg, 2018, available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2016/06/29/politics/elizabeth-warren-native-american-pocahontas/index.html

Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, by Kim Tallbear, 2013, University of Minnesota Press.

The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology, by Nancy Schepper-Hughes, 1995, in Current Anthropology vol. 36 no. 3, pp: 409-440.
Available online at: https://www.academia.edu/7509881/Primacy_of_the_Ethical

Julia’s interview with Kim Fortun can be listened to here: https://thefamiliarstrange.com/2018/10/15/ep-24-kim-fortun/

For more on Kim Fortun’s advocacy work:
Advocacy after Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders, by Kim Fortun, 2001, University of Chicago Press.

For an explainer on structure vs agency, see: https://practicaltheorist.wordpress.com/2014/05/24/structure-and-agency/

This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific and College of Arts and Social Sciences, and theAustralian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.

Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com

Shownotes by Deanna Catto

Image by Wiros (2007) available at:

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