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Tanya Zoe Robinson

On 1–2 April 2014, the Institute of Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney, Australia (UWS), hosted Museums, Collecting, Agency: A Symposium, in partnership with the Museums and Heritage Studies Programme, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand (VUW).1 Held at the Australian Museum (AM) in Sydney, the event brought together an outstanding lineup of speakers from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, the United States, and Britain to explore questions of agency in relation to ethnographic museum collections and museum-like practices of collecting, with an emphasis on the histories and legacies of colonialism. In doing so, the speakers and audience (mainly academics, museum professionals, and museum studies students from Australia and the Pacific) ably brought these issues into the present through varied histories and practice-based case studies that ensured a very “living” approach to this growing research area.

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Jane Dickson

This article discusses how agency is emergent from the asymmetrical power interactions of multiple social actors and organizations. Agency, contingent and relational, is creative even when interpreted by people as unsuccessful. I employ ethnographic research from within a local authority sustainability team who were threatened with redundancy because of funding cuts imposed during the implementation of British Prime Minister David Cameron's Big Society project. In order to manage their situation, possible futures had to be re-imagined and appropriately contained through processes of self-assessment and self-management. The ability to enable self-directing action was often evident but was frequently interpreted by people as unsuccessful. This stemmed from misrecognition, scarcity and the lack of capacity to bring about full and substantial changes. Both the sustainability team and their work emerge from this process reduced and reformed through the competing tensions of systems of political governance and technologies of the self.

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Roger Sansi and Luis Nicolau Parés

The debates on identity politics and the invention of tradition led the study of Afro-Brazilian religions to a certain impasse in the 1990s. However, in the last several years, the field has been totally renewed, although in different directions. In this article we will consider some of these new trends, from a wider historical engagement with the Atlantic world, through the religious field and the public sphere, to new approaches to spirit possession and cosmology. Our objective is to assess the extent to which these new debates have managed to overcome this impasse.

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Regina Bendix

Drawing examples from ethnic and popular music as well as from folk art, the paper explores the multivalence of expressive forms as local and European, even global aesthetic resources, whose territorial or ethno-national connection is - due to the power of aesthetic affect - but one among many possibilities of identification. It is argued first that the resource dimension of cultural expression has been furthered by the documentation and classification techniques of ethnological and folkloristic knowledge production, which in turn also facilitated circulation in multiple context. Second, the paper encourages that scholarship expand from recognising a political identification and instrumentalisation of aesthetic resources to understanding the economic appropriation of the production and consumption of such resources.

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Jeremy Valentine

This article attempts to show how the conventional opposition between art and culture, on the one hand, and administration and organization, on the other, has been displaced. The main reason given for this phenomenon is the convergence of the collapse of notions of the political and aesthetic causality of art and culture with the destabilizing effects of postmodernism on organizational and administrative stability. After a discussion of the emergence of political regimes of audit within relations between culture and administration, the article locates the causes of the dominance of 'cultural governance' within the dynamics of modernist aesthetic values such as autonomy. The article concludes with a discussion of some optimistic possibilities that may arise from this scenario.

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Robert Bernasconi

According to those that would label Fanon a theorist of recognition, anti-colonial struggles for liberation are struggles for recognition. I will argue, however, that Fanon's discussion of recognition in Black Skin, White Masks offers a critique of the struggle for recognition, understood as the struggle to impose oneself on the other in order to be recognized as who one truly is. Fanon is critical of the idea that the freedom of colonial subjects will be realized when they are recognized by the colonizer. Indeed, the struggle to be recognized by the colonizer actually perpetuates the oppression of the colonized, insofar as this struggle is a struggle to be recognized within the terms of a discourse that is dictated largely by the colonizer. As Fanon demonstrates, the social categories within which subjects become socially visible beings nevertheless work in the service of subjection. Insofar as this is the case, the struggle to be recognized in socially intelligible terms will yield, at best, ambiguous results. Therefore, I argue that Fanon, unlike contemporary theorists of recognition, is skeptical of the liberatory potential of a struggle for recognition that is directed at securing recognition from the colonial "master." Furthermore, Fanon uses the instance of colonial racial misrecognition as the occasion to criticize the concept of recognition more broadly.

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Fiona Savage

In 1818 Thomas Edward Bowdich presented a small collection of artifacts to the British Museum that was assembled during the first diplomatic mission to Asante in 1817. Unfortunately, Bowdich did not disclose how he went about forming this collection but circumstantial evidence contained in his published account (1819) and archival records strongly suggest that a small number of these items, including seven examples of gold work, were given by the King of Asante to Bowdich for the British Museum. This article will present new research that calls into question the artistic, economic, and technological interpretations that have dominated the public display and reception of these items since their acquisition. By reexamining the social and political contexts within which these objects were collected and donated, an undeniable African agency is revealed that demonstrates that efforts were made to self-promote and represent.

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Stefan Böschen, Jochen Gläser, Martin Meister and Cornelius Schubert

Recent years have seen an increasing interest in materiality in social research. Some might say that materiality is now back on the agenda of social research. The challenges of bringing materiality back have spurred lively debates about material agency, most of which, however, are leveled at the largely dematerialized theories of the social in the social sciences, for example, in material culture studies (Appadurai 1986; Miller 1998) as well as science and technology studies (Latour 1988; Law/Mol 1995). Since the turn of the century, a marked shift towards the material has emerged (cf. Hicks 2010), ranging from questions concerning nature (Grundmann/Stehr 2000) and everyday objects (Molotch 2003; Costall/Dreier 2006; Miller 2010) to issues of cultural theory (Reckwitz 2002), post-phenomenology (Verbeek 2005), ethnography (Henare et al. 2007), distributed cognition (Hutchins 1995), and materiality in general (Dant 2005; Miller 2005; Knappett/Malafouris 2008). A perspective on materiality is now being developed in diverse fields such as archaeology (Meskell 2005), economic sociology (Pinch/Swedberg 2008), political science (Bennett 2010; Coole/Frost 2010), and organization studies (Carlile et al. 2013). Yet the status of the material remains debated in the evolving fields of various “new” materialisms (cf. Lemke 2015).

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David Sneath

This introduction reviews the articles collected in this special section, articles that explore different visions of the environment and how they engender particular ways of seeing evidence of climatic and environmental change. A key aspect of such distinctive understandings seems to be the attribution of agency within conceptions of the environment that in each case are entangled with humans. Notions of anthropogenic and non-equilibrial environments are explored in several of the articles collected here, along with ongoing debates surrounding the concept of the Anthropocene. An awareness of climate change has brought new urgency to the project of grasping our entangled environments in the diversity of their human understandings.

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Vita Peacock and Philip Kao

What is the relation between our own daily activity and the organizations that almost all of us are members of? This seemingly simple question has dominated the social study of organizations for over a century, and the responses to it can be very broadly parcelled out into three alternative perspectives.