Organizers: Paula Uimonen and Helena Wulff

While material culture and visual anthropology have emerged as two strong approaches in anthropology, it is also the case that they converge: for some time now images have been considered in terms of the social life of things and the politics of value (Appadurai 1986), and even digital images are increasingly understood as visual materiality (Horst and Miller 2012).

One point of departure for the discussion at this year´s Roundtable is Marcus Banks´ and David Zeitlyn´s (2015: 50-51) ) recent idea about material visions and the call for social scientists “to be alert to this intertwining of the material, the symbolic, the social and the cultural; they also need to be alert to the contexts in which one element appears to be privileged, and the social mechanisms that permit that privileging.” As Banks and Zeitlyn (2015: 11) suggest, it is useful to consider the concepts of internal and external narratives of an image. The content, or story, of an image is its internal narrative (which may well differ from the intention of the image-maker) while “the social context that produced the image, and the social relations within which the image is embedded at any moment of viewing” is the external narrative. Writing about the content and form of an image, Banks and Zeitlyn thus point out that  the materiality of an image and its contexts can explain the nature of social relations in which it operates. This raises issues of the social life of images in terms of transnational connections and conflict, the market, critical museology, as well as alternative visual systems, aesthetics, ethics, and copyright.   

Visual research has been a part of anthropology for as long as the discipline has existed. Film and photography were included in the Torres Strait expedition at the end of the 19th century, and in the 1930s Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson famously brought back numerous photographs and some films from their fieldwork in Bali. The legacy of these early visual activities, and the eventual emergence of visual anthropology in the 1960s, has been one of ethnographic film rather than photography. In response to the current ubiquity of images in social life (especially on the Internet with Instagram and Facebook, as well as MMS and WhatsApp on mobile phones etc), a visual turn has been identified. There is now an established extensive anthropological interest in photography and other images such as paintings, drawings, graphs, design, cartoons, murals etc. mediated through different modes from paper to the Internet. What is the impact of images in different contexts, cultural as well as temporal and spatial, and local versus global? How is knowledge about images produced and circulated? In what ways are images contested? The awareness that photographs, paintings and other images are “partial truths,” accentuates the question of power: Who made or found the picture? What is left outside of it? What is going on beyond its frame? Even though the technique to retouch is as old as photography, with digital technology the practice of editing (which is problematizing questions of authenticity and representation) has increased dramatically. Digital technology can also reveal details in a picture that “the naked eye” is unable to detect bringing forth issues of mediated visuality.  

Material culture was revitalized as a research orientation in anthropology by Daniel Miller (1987) in the 1980s in relation to consumption and capitalism, later topics such as “shopping”, “home”, and “stuff” would enrich an understanding of kinship, friendship, and love. Miller´s volume Materiality (2005) argues for the centrality of materiality in the shaping of humanity, not only the social which had been taken for granted in anthropology. Already in 1991, Thomas attracted attention with his account of “entangled objects” referring to the fate of colonial artifacts as a form of material culture and issues of exchange. With the volume The Empire of Things (2001), edited by Fred Myers, exchange theory was further developed in material culture research which revealed changing cultural flows in the global economy and different cultural regimes of value. Now there is an emerging new materialisms approach inspired by Science and Technology Studies focussing on interdisciplinary combinations of art, design, and architecture, often in collaboration between academics and artists.

Materiality and visuality are expanding, and in many ways combined, phenomena that impact on academic, cultural, as well as political debate. Not only images (photo journalism, painting, instagram etc) but also objects (design, architecture, fashion etc) now turn out to be sources of much understanding about the world. Their social significance accentuates the importance of exploring in greater detail the processes of producing, using, and distributing objects and images.

Keynote speaker

Marcus Banks, Professor of Visual Anthropology, University of Oxford

Marcus Banks is Professor of Visual Anthropology at University of Oxford. Having completed a doctorate in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge, with a study of Jain people in England and India, he trained as an ethnographic documentary filmmaker at the National Film and television School, Beaconsfield, UK. He is the author of Using Visual Data in Qualititaive Research (2007), and co-editor of Rethinking Visual Anthropology (1997, with Howard Morphy), and Made to be Seen: Perspectives on the History of Visual Anthropology (2011, with Jay Rubin).

International speakers

Rebekah Cupitt, KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Rebekah Cupitt is a PhD Candidate at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. She has a BA in Anthropology and Ancient History from the University of Queensland, Australia, and an MA in Social Anthropology from Stockholm University. Currently, she is in the final stages of an interdisciplinary PhD in the field of Human-Computer Interaction entitled, “Make difference: Video meetings and deafness at SVT Teckenspråk.” The thesis examines the visualities, materialities and alterities that emerge when people and technology interact. Drawing on feminist and anthropological perspectives and by focussing on deafness and communications in sign language during video meetings, it critiques the dominant rhetoric of technology as empowering and enabling. It proposes that they instead disable deaf employees at SVT Teckenspråk in ways that conflict with their own notions and experiences of deafness.

Paolo Favero, Associate Professor at the Visual and Digital Cultures Research Center, Univesity of Antwerp

Paolo Favero is Associate Professor in Film Studies and Visual Culture at the University of Antwerp. A visual anthropologist with a PhD from Stockholm University, Paolo has devoted the core of his career to the study of visual culture in India. Presently he conducts research on image-making, politics and technology in contemporary India as well as on questions of ontology and methodology in the context of emerging digital visual practices and technologies at global level. He is presently an elected member of the Executive Committee of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) and the vice-chair of the ECREA Visual Culture network.    

Thomas Fillitz, Professor at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna

Thomas Fillitz is Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at University of Vienna. His research engages with art worlds, global art, art markets, popular culture and globalization in Africa and Europe. Among his English-language publications is the co-edited volume (with A. Jaime Saris) Debating Authenticity: Concepts of Modernity in Anthropological Perspective (Berghahn, 2013), as well as book chapters and articles in journals such as Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, Focaal, Archivio Antropologico Mediterraneo.

Haidy Geismar, Reader, University College London

Haidy Geismar is Reader at University College London. Her research is on the international so-called “tribal” art market, value at auctions, indigenous contemporary art, intellectual and cultural property in the Pacific, the entangled histories of photography and anthropology, the social life of photographs, the theoretical purchase of material culture studies, and the politics of cultural property in museums, as well as the effects of digitization of all of these processes. Among her books are Treasured Possessions: Indigenous Interventions into Cultural and Intellectual Property (2013) and Moving Images: John Layard, Fieldwork and Photography on Malakula since 1914 (2014, with Anita Herle).

Zeynep Gürsel, Assistant Professor, Macalester College

Zeynep Gürsel is Assistant Professor at Macalester College, Minneapolis. Her research interests are global media, visual anthropology, ethnographic and documentary film, cultures of knowledge production (especially news and journalism), photography, anthropology of the imagination, politics in everyday life, cultures of work. She received her PhD in Anthropology with a Designated Emphasis in Film Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. She is director and co-producer of Coffee Futures (2009), which explores Turkish politics through the prism of the everyday lives of women. She is the author of Image Brokers: Visualizing World News in the Age of Digital Circulation (2016).

Andrew Mitchell, Stockholm University and University College London

Having worked in the British film industry as a cameraman and still photographer for many years, Andrew Mitchell is now a PhD student in the Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University, and spending the 2015-16 academic year as a visiting PhD student at University College London. Presently, Andrew’s key research interests lie in the areas of human-animal relations, science and technology studies and material and visual culture. His PhD thesis is preliminary entitled “Tracing wolves: materiality, effect and difference”, and examines the human practices that surround the Scandinavian wolf; these range from tracking, hunting, utilising global positioning systems (GPS), working with tracking dogs, as well as observing the remains of wolf kills, wolf autopsies and the analysis DNA. The project will also result in a film that examines the entangled nature of such “scientific” and “management” practices together with the broader polemic debate that surrounds the hunting and protection of wolves in Sweden.

Mark R. Westmoreland, Associate Professor, Leiden University

Mark R. Westmoreland is Associate Professor at Leiden University where he directs the program in Visual Anthropology. Mark previously served as co-editor of Visual Anthropology Review and is now spearheading the Writing with Light curatorial collective which will relaunch the photoessay section of Cultural Anthropology. With expertise in visual ethnography and contemporary Arab visual culture, and particular focus on the interface between sensory embodiment and media aesthetics in on-going legacies of contentious politics, his current book project, Catastrophic Images, shows how experimental documentary practices play a crucial role in addressing recurrent political violence in Lebanon. As such, his work explores the epistemological possibilities and productive frictions at the intersection between art and ethnography.

Speakers from Stockholm University

  • Shahram Khosravi
    Shahram Khosravi is Associate Professor in the Department of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University. He is the author of three books: Young and Defiant in Tehran (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), Illegal Traveller: an Auto-Ethnography of Borders (Palgrave, 2010), Precarious Lives: Waiting and Hope in Iran (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). He has been an active writer in the Swedish press and also written fiction.
  • Johan Lindquist
    Johan Lindquist is Professor of Social Anthropology and Director of the Forum for Asian Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden. He is a member of the editorial committee of Public Culture, has published articles in journals such as  Ethnos, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Public Culture, Pacific Affairs, and International Migration Review, is the co-editor of Figures of Southeast Asian Modernity (University of Hawai’i Press, 2013), the author of The Anxieties of Mobility: Development and Migration in the Indonesian Borderlands (University of Hawai’i Press, 2009), and the director of the documentary film B.A.T.A.M. (Documentary Educational Resources, 2005). His current book project is entitled Mediating Migration: Brokering Knowledge and Mobility in Indonesia and Beyond.
  • Anette Nyqvist
    Anette Nyqvist is Associate Professor of Social Anthropology at the Department of Social Anthropology and at the multi-disciplinary research center Score, both at Stockholm University. As part of her ongoing research on the Responsible Investment industry and how institutional owners position themselves as the “do gooders” of financial markets, Anette recently initiated a collaboration with photographer Susanne Walström on economic, social and cultural aspects of gold.
  • Annika Rabo
    Annika Rabo is Professor in the Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University. She has conducted fieldwork in the Middle East, mainly in Syria, since the late 1970s, focussing on a variety of topics related to state-citizen relationships. She is currently involved in projects focussing on transnational connections in education and welfare and has recently finished a project on transnational Syrian families and family law.
  • Paula Uimonen
    Paula Uimonen is Associate Professor in the Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University. She specializes in digital anthropology and anthropology of art, visual culture, media and globalization. Her current research focuses on African women writers, with an emphasis on feminism and Pan-Africanism, see Recent publications cover mobile photography in Tanzania (2016), mobile infrastructure in Africa (2015), and mourning rituals for Mandela in Cape Town (2015). Her research on digital media and intercultural interaction at TaSUBa, a national art institute in Tanzania, was published in the monograph Digital Drama. Teaching and Learning Art and Media in Tanzania (Routledge, 2012), with a website at In another project, an anti-corruption campaign by Tanzanian musicians was presented in an ethnographic road movie Chanjo ya Rushwa (2013), available online at
  • Helena Wulff
    Helena Wulff is Professor of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University. Her research interests are in communication and aesthetics based on a wide range of studies of the social worlds of literary production, dance and visual culture. Among her publications are the monographs Ballet across Borders: Career and Culture in the World of Dancers (1998) and Dancing at the Crossroads: Memory and Mobility in Ireland (2007), and the edited volumes Emotions: A Cultural Reader (2007) and The Anthropologist as Writer: Genres and Contexts in the Twenty-First Century (2016). She is Editor (with Deborah Reed-Danahay) of Palgrave Studies in Literary Anthropology. From 2016, she is President-Elect of Society for Humanistic Anthropology (American Anthropological Association).


The social life of things : commodities in cultural perspective / edited by Arjun Appadurai

Appadurai, Arjun (1986). “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value”, in Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Banks, Marcus and David Zeitlyn (2015). Visual Methods in Social Research. London: Sage.

Horst, Heather and Daniel Miller (eds.) (2012). Digital Anthropology. London: Berg/Bloomsbury.

Miller, Daniel (1987). Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Miller, Daniel (ed.) (2005). Materiality. Durham: Duke University Press

Myers, Fred (ed.) (2001). The Empire of Things: Regimes of Value and Material Culture. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press. 

Thomas, Nicholas (1991). Entagled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture and Colonialism in the Pacific. Cambridge, M.A.; Harvard University Press.