The Distinguished Lecture Series for 2022-23 explores how anthropology illuminates our understandings of and engagements with contemporary crises. Welcoming scholars from the four fields of anthropology, we address the notion that crisis may always have been a common, shared human experience, suggesting that anthropology can shed light on the way people have understood and resolved past and present crises, analyses that might help us find a way forward. Sometimes change occurs incrementally, allowing strong continuities to reinforce age-old patterns; other times, transformation arrives abruptly, bringing disruption and destruction as well as opportunities for resilience and rebuilding in the aftermath of crisis. How have humans sought to move forward from crisis, finding – despite the rubble – opportunities to rebuild structures of society, polity, health, and well-being?
Humans developed our modern physical forms during the climatic crises of the Ice Ages. Languages similarly often reflect crises and ruptures in ecological and social relationships. Archaeologists note dramatic shifts in human settlement, technology, and adaptation at moments of intense challenge, collapse, and catastrophe. Cultural anthropologists examine how people experience and respond to natural events, plagues, wars, and political revolutions, paradigmatic shifts in ideologies concerning sacred and social relations, impacting minor and major transformations in social patterns of life.
Human and non-human beings alike face the necessity of making decisions and choosing pathways, in contexts of ongoing crises in the form of pandemics, fires, and floods, among many others. Even as people develop new technologies to alleviate such moments of crisis, we simultaneously suffer unexpected repercussions of these same technologies, including worries about the surveillance state and abuses of social media. As a result, we are also witnessing a crisis of truth and trust; what some people perceive to be truth, others dismiss as conspiracy. Some feel we have lost common notions of solidarity, while others seek recognition of the ways in which we have long been divided. Capitalist systems of production foment differences between classes of people, who benefit or suffer from its acceleration of inequalities. At the same time, the sustainability of our planetary ecosystems is being eroded.
Our 2022-2023 Distinguished Lecture Series builds on the work of our recently deceased distinguished colleague, Dr. Paul Farmer who stated: “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.” We invite speakers and our global audience to contemplate his words and to use anthropological theory, research, and perspectives to examine what factors contribute to the contemporary confluence of crises, and to propose paths forward to achieve a more just, equitable, and stable future.