Change in the Anthropological Imagination: Resistance, Resilience, and Adaptation

JASON DE LEÓN, 2018 Executive Program Chair

This past November in San José, California, 5,744 attendees gathered for our 117th Annual Meeting. These conference goers (from 68 countries) participated in 1,103 sessions, panels and roundtables and 195 special events (including workshops, film screenings, and installations) all across the city.

Attendees came together to discuss a range of anthropological issues including the ways in which our species is responding to our current moment of great global crisis. We discussed how we will tackle human-induced climate change, environmental degradation, mass migration and displacement, political instability, and an astronomical growth in economic and social inequalities. We did all of this while dealing firsthand with smoke from the 2018 California wildfire season, the deadliest and most destructive on record for the state. Those fires were a timely reminder that our anthropological insight into fighting climate change is more crucial than ever.

In San José, we also came together in solidarity to examine the increasing way in which we find ourselves defending against those who push back against the often challenging findings about human behavior and social relations that result when we put the anthropological lens to work. In the face of opposition to anthropological calls for equality, cultural understanding, scientific awareness, and accountability, there is perhaps no better time to focus not just on social change, but also on understanding the forces that impede it.

The opening keynote address was delivered by world-renowned labor activist Dolores Huerta. She gave a fiery and inspired lecture on labor rights and political mobilization in this current moment. This talk was well-received by the large turnout and topically overlapped well with the many sessions focused on Latinx populations and issues of migration.

We saw a concerted effort by many at the meetings to increase our public profile as a discipline including intense discussions around what it means to do “public anthropology” in 2018, which built on the 2017 Meeting theme of “Anthropology Matters.” This topic was the focus of numerous panels including the Executive Sessions “Reinventing Anthropology and the University: Public and Engaged Anthropology” and “Resistance to Public Writing.” We were lucky to also welcome George Lucas, one of the most well-known figures in popular media, to the meetings to discuss the relationship between his blockbuster films and anthropology in front of a live audience.

We interrogated our own discipline through important sessions such as “Sexual Violence in Anthropology” and “#MeToo in Archaeology” and I hope the difficult conversations generated by these panels will continue into the future at our meetings.

This Meeting also saw an especially high number of sessions on the themes of borders, mobility, and human rights indicating that our discipline is at the global forefront of addressing the global humanitarian migration crisis that the world is currently experiencing. It was especially moving to see (and hear from) so many undergraduate and graduate students from California who are working on this issue locally and globally.

We examined the blurring lines between subdisciplines and the way in which students are pushing us toward new and more inclusive forms of interdisciplinary research that are more timely, innovative, sensitive to different approaches, and focused on raising the voices of those who have often been ignored or at the margins in our discipline.

In addition to the regular sessions, we had a robust showing of films (including the annual film festival) and workshops hosted/co-sponsored by the Society for Visual Anthropology at the offsite Hammer Theater.

In general, this was an active and highly diverse meeting that took seriously the thematic call of resistance and resilience across the world and across subdisciplines. The excitement around the meeting theme was palpable and contagious and I personally left San José inspired after seeing such a diverse range of energetic anthropological research tackling the most pressing issues of our time. The 2019 Meeting, a historic collaboration between AAA and CASCA, features the theme “Changing Climates: Struggle, Collaboration, and Justice//Changer d’air : Lutte, collaboration et justice,” will offer us another opportunity to come together and see the many ways that anthropology can be a positive force for social, cultural, and environmental change, as well as helping to increase global empathy and understanding.