Anthropology and Ontological Symmetry

Albert Doja's picture
Call for Papers
August 31, 2020
Subject Fields: 
Anthropology, Philosophy, Research and Methodology, Social Sciences

I am asked to act as Guest Editor for a Special Issue on “Anthropology and Ontological Symmetry" commissioned by The Journal of Symmetry (ISSN 2073-8994, Impact Factor 2.143 Web of Science).

The special issue is highly topical and intended for contributors interested in the last (and potentially future) developments of anthropological theory.

Symmetry is perhaps one of the notions that is circulating most in contemporary anthropology, but it has not avoided misunderstandings and criticisms. Bruno Latour argued for “symmetrical anthropology” between modern and non-modern, or once-called primitive, people, which is an anthropology of ourselves in symmetry with the classical anthropology of others (Latour, 1991). Over the course of recent decades, science and technology studies have established some principles of symmetry to avoid asymmetrical studies that treat science differently from other ontologies. An anthropology based on these principles of symmetry promises to overcome not only the modern western idea of nature and society as two distinct spheres, but also the divide between modern and primitive (pre-modern) societies by framing them as collectives that integrate a different number of human and non-human beings and which construct their cosmologies around them. In addition, the idea of symmetry demands that we seriously consider the notions of dialogue and reflexivity.

An ontological reinvention of the discipline seems to be occurring through the triple problem generated by symmetrical, reverse, and reflexive anthropology. Bruno Latour, along with Roy Wagner, Marilyn Strathern, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Philippe Descola, and a host of their students have been at the forefront of what has been called the “ontological turn” in anthropology in the last few years (Holbraad and Pedersen, 2017). Following the proposal of symmetrical anthropology, which was intended to “expand the range of actors” to include the “nonhuman” (Latour, 2005), the anthropologist should assume a unique “system of distribution of properties”, where the modern ontology of naturalism must be placed on the same symmetrical level as animism, totemism, and analogism (Descola, 2005). In this project, anthropology is recast to include more than the Anthropos in its scope. It would no longer be the science of humankind, but will be based on the symmetrical similarity or difference of the interiorities of “existants”, living beings, things, and spirits.

The articles gathered in this Special Issue of the Journal of Symmetry intend to answer an open-ended set of questions: What happened to the project of symmetrical anthropology after the recent efforts at an ontological turn? What difference does it make to consider a multiplicity of cultures over the background of a unified nature, or a multiplicity of natures in addition to a multiplicity of cultures? How does it open up another type of scientific anthropology, no longer based on comparison but on ontological symmetry? With the proposal of a symmetrical anthropology, do the very rejection of the old dualisms of moderns and others or nature and culture run the opposite risk of reifying them anew and throwing us back into the entrenched belief in the old ontological dualities as if they really were separate wholes? By stepping aside notions of culture and meaning, and by simply replacing culture with ontology, do we risk falling back into old traps, for example, seeing other ontologies as given substances, like other cultures may once have been, instead of relational processes generated in historical events?

Starting with Boas and Lévi-Strauss, most theorization in anthropology points toward the notion that all cultures are formed in relation to external events rather than mirroring or symmetry. Lévi-Strauss once explained in his Mythologiques why myths cannot be transposed into something else, but are only “translatable into each other” (Lévi-Strauss 1971:577 [Eng.646]). Actually, they are translations or transpositions of each other at the point of boundary articulation of one culture with other cultures. The point is that neither cultures nor ontologies are separate, but they are already historically interconnected and mutually constitutive; they are, in many, ways already in common as symmetrical translations and transformations of each other. Far from a pseudo-mathematical mystification, as receivedmany Anglo-American anthropologists, Lévi-Strauss’s notion of symmetrical transformation originated in mathematics and has been well received by modern scholars seeking to study culture and society by formal means. After the theoretical regress of anthropology in the 1980s, the question is whether re-employing the structural method of symmetrical transformations could pave the way to a new symmetrical approach in anthropology.

Contact Info: 

Prof. Dr. Albert DOJA,
University Professor of Anthropology,
Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences,
University of Lille, France.
CNRS UMR 8019 Clersé, F-59655 Lille.