Why Humanistic Anthropology Matters

Society for Humanistic Anthropology
Helena Wulff
February 22, 2019

Anthropology was a revelation. When I was an undergraduate at Stockholm University, Sweden, my world tumbled as I learned about the range of human diversity. After two weeks in the introductory course, I was hooked, and still am. But it would take many years before storytelling, literature and writing, and dance and visual culture came to the fore in my own research (Wulff 1998, 2007, 2016, 2017a, 2017b). That was the other turning point: when I realized that I could combine anthropology and the arts, my two inclinations—heart and mind—together. Today, writing as the newly elected president of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology (SHA), I’d like to share with you something of how I got here, and why I believe humanistic anthropology remains integral to the discipline.

So, how did an anthropologist from Sweden become the president of a section of the American Anthropological Association? My relationship with the United States goes a long way back. Like many other young Europeans, I traveled across the country by Greyhound bus and by car. I lived in New York City (for fieldwork), and in California for periods of time (Wulff 1998, 2017b). At the invitation of Virginia Dominguez and Jane Desmond, I was visiting professor at University of Illinois. I have family in the United States as well. American anthropology became a major point of reference, and I began participating in AAA annual meetings—first as a graduate student giving volunteered papers, then as a session organizer, and finally as discussant. I appreciated the opportunities for intellectual inspiration that AAA provided, its sizable membership, and its numerous and varied sessions. Still, the sheer scale of the AAA Annual Meeting can be intimidating. This is why active involvement in a section such as SHA is important: it allows one to navigate the breadth of the meetings. I became a member of SHA because I was drawn to its sessions. I felt an affinity there among colleagues and friends who shared my artistic sensibilities and values. We know that artistic understandings can contribute to social change, and that they are craved for—not only in happy times, but when personal and political distress hit, then both for comfort and social analysis.

Now I am pleased and proud to be president of SHA. I wish to thank my predecessor, Jonathan Marion, for being such a committed and skilled president. Marion saw to it that SHA has a hospitality suite at the AAA Annual Meetings, where members and their friends can meet at organized events and spontaneous get-togethers. This I intend to continue. I also hope to work on the idea of organizing mid-year meetings, possibly as webinars. Let me also mention Julia Offen, SHA treasurer who is herself a treasure. Her long-term experience at SHA is invaluable.

SHA is a unique and lively section. It was founded in 1974 at an AAA meeting in Mexico City around Victor Turner and his work on ritual, performance, and theater that, of course, is a staple in the discipline of anthropology. SHA keeps developing these topics in relation to humanistic anthropology. As it says on our website: “Humanistic anthropology involves the recognition that professional inquiry takes places in a context of human value. The humanistic orientation is particularly concerned with the personal, ethical, and political choices facing humans.”

To this end, SHA sponsors posters, individual papers, panels, and other expressive formats in the spirit of humanistic anthropology. In particular, we focus on papers and sessions that challenge the disciplinary boundaries of anthropology as a social science and apply alternative, humanistic approaches ranging from philosophy and history to creative writing and performance. This includes our popular ethnographic writing workshops that are taught by renowned anthropologist-writers.

It is also in this spirit that SHA publishes the bi-annual journal, Anthropology and Humanism, excellently edited by David Syring and Jeffrey Ehrenreich. The journal includes academic articles and book reviews, as well as short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction, drama, and visual imagery.

An annual highlight of SHA are the three awards in writing that are presented at SHA’s business meeting at the AAA: the Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing, the Ethnographic Fiction and Nonfiction Prize, and the Poetry and Fiction Prize. The winners get to read a piece from their awarded work, which adds flavor to the event.

For the 2018 Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing, the committee evaluated over 75 ethnographies. Here are the winners:

Katherine Verdery receives her Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing, presented by Helena Wulff at AAA 2018. Jerome Crowder

The prize ceremony in 2018 concluded with an “open mic” for anyone to go up and read a short story or a poem. Perhaps some of what we heard there might be submitted to the writing contests for this year? For an update on deadlines for submitting work for 2019, and for a listing of the other 2018 awardees, see our website. I look forward to working for SHA, and to welcoming new members!

Helena Wulff (Helena.wulff@socant.su.se) is the President of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. She is a professor of social anthropology at Stockholm University. Her research is in the anthropology of communication and aesthetics, based on a wide range of studies of the social worlds of literary production, dance, and visual arts, and currently, on migrant writing on Sweden.

Rose Wellman (wellmanr@umich.edu) is contributing section editor for the Society for Humanistic Anthropology and an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Original publication: Wulff, Helena. 2019. “Why Humanistic Anthropology Matters.” Anthropology News website, February 22, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1098

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