"Contextualizing Context - Explorations in Invertive Anthropology"

Finn Sivert Nielsen, Spring 2002


About the course

This is a free-form course, based on a somewhat randomly assembled reading list. We will be exploring what I shall call "invertive anthropology" (an ugly neologism, which I do not recommend that you propagate beyond the setting of this course itself).

Our anthropology is "invertive" if we, in our anthropological practice, allow constant shifts in perspective to occur. As Dilley points out in the introductory article to this course, inversions of text-context relations are common in the history of anthropology. They are the stuff of paradigmatic shifts. Dilley also suggests thay they are reminiscent of the figure-ground inversions of Gestalt theory.

We will be discussing Gestalt theory among other things in this course. I have also appended an (unfinished) article of my own which touches on Gestalt Theory, to the course materials (see the course homepage), which we will criticize.

But what interests me in particular, is the possibility that we might embrace "invertiveness" and utilize it actively. Instead of sitting around and waiting for paradigmatic changes to occur in the discipline, we should perhaps flit to and fro among perspectives as we contemplate our object of study, and see it in a constantly changing light.

I have divided up the course into seven sections, each lasting one week and consisting of two lectures one on Tuesday and one on Thursday. I have given each section a suggestive title, which may or may not assist you in your reading of the literature. The six section titles after the introduction are:

Nature - Locality - Meaning - Anthropology - Body - Culture

Each title denotes a specific kind of context to which reference or appeal may be made.

Lectures and seminars

The course comprises seven sections, each with a Tuesday and a Thursday session. On Tuesdays I will give a regular lecture, discussing some of the problems implied in the texts for that day. On Thursdays we will have seminars, based on suggestive, but "out of context" texts. Two groups of students will give a short presentation of how they view the relevance of these texts to the main theme of the course. We will then discuss the two presentations, and I will (perhaps) offer some concluding comments.

Course paper

Towards the end of the course, each of you will write a 5-page course paper on the following theme:

Compare the way "context" is used in three of the texts on the course reading list. Explore the similarities and differences between the three perspectives, and suggest ways in which they might complement and/or constrain each other. You may write the paper in any form you like, but you should take as your point of departure an empirical, contemporary event (anything from a chance meeting on the street to a major political event).

For details on deadlines and other practical matters, see the Course plan above.

Do I have to read all this?

Do read Dilley's "Introduction". I will NOT be lecturing on this text, except for some short introductory words on the first day. But Dilley supplies an important context to the course, so do read it as soon as possible!Do read the materials for the Thursday sessions, since the discussion will be completely dependent on your perception of these texts.Do remember - that it is better to have glanced five minutes at an article than never to have seen it at all. So if you don’t have time to read it - use those 10 minutes!