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19. Freedoms and liberties in anthropological perspective

April 21, 2015

This is nineteenth post in the Freedom technologists series.

Republished from St Andrews Centre for Cosmopolitan Studies.

The Centre is pleased to announce a forthcoming conference on Liberties and Freedoms organised with the assistance of the Ladislav Holy Trust. (May 31st – 2nd June 2013).

Freedoms and liberties have been a theme of perennial concern across a range of human science disciplines – philosophy, history and political science – but curiously to a much lesser degree in anthropology. However, well-known anthropologists such as Boas, Malinowski and Leach have all written on the topic. Likewise, the works of Overing, Riesman, Lee and more recently Rapport, Laidlaw, Humphrey and others indicate that if the concept of freedom has not been understood as pivotal to the discipline, neither has it ever disappeared from anthropological discussion for long.

In the face of contemporary global events – including the expanded use of surveillance technologies in Europe, the American war against terror (in the name of freedom) waged in many foreign countries, and the growth of Pentecostalism with an emphasis on spiritual liberation in Africa and Latin America – the expectation is that anthropology can benefit from reassessing the place of freedoms and liberties within the discipline at distinct analytical levels. This, perhaps the first, international conference on the theme of “Freedoms and Liberties in Anthropological Perspective” will offer a stage to reassess the conceptual status of liberty and freedom in anthropological work.

During the conference we will examine freedoms and liberties in their epistemological aspect – does anthropology, as a mode of enquiry, demand certain kinds of freedom? – and from the side of ontology – ‘what kinds of object of thought and action are freedoms and liberties and where in particular do we see them foregrounded?’.

Speakers will include Mauro Almeida, Diane Austin-Broos, Veena Das, Nadia Farage, Peter Gow, Tobias Kelly, Alex Hall, Mette High, Hideko Mitsui, Stavroula Pipyrou, Nigel Rapport, Adam Reed, Noa Vaisman.

Conference organisers are Moises Lino e Silva and Huon Wardle.



Mauro W B Almeida (Campinas)

The Concept of Forest Citizenship

As stated, freedoms and liberties have been themes of perennial concern across a range of human science disciplines, but curiously to a much lesser degree in anthropology. This makes for a puzzling contrast with the increasing and pressing demands posed on anthropological research by contemporary issues – from the use of research in war, to offensive depictions of indigenous people in Latin America, not to mention ontological-political dilemmas over the frontier separating human-animal rights and issues over the definition of humanity along the ontogenetic path from cell to birth.

Drone war technologies, “justified” torture in the name of freedom are comparable with animal experimentation and programmed killing of animals, whether in laboratories or in camps, in the name of human happiness. These remarks suggest that reassessing the place of freedoms and liberties within the anthropological discipline should encompass the reconsideration of the long-standing anthropological dogma of separation between the human and the non-human. The underlying issue is that the ethnocentric mechanism which denies rights to some people — constructed as lesser brands of humanity, or as outright sub-humans — are similar to the anthropocentric postulate that reserves freedoms and liberties to humans as opposed to non-human beings. The issue of which freedoms and liberties are inherent to humankind is therefore co-extensive to the issue of demarcating human and non-human worlds. We should contemplate the possibility that humans are those beings who are granted freedom and liberties, instead of assigning freedom and liberties to a human category previously defined.

These considerations are here the background for the utopian project of a “forest citizenship” or florestania idea. The idea is indebted to the ontological lessons of Amazonian and Andean world-views which expand the domain of sentient and intelligent beings. The florestania notion extends citizenship rights – and the “freedoms and liberties” historically assigned to town dwellers — beyond the western notion of a polis and spread these rights among non-humans. In other words, “forest” citizenship is really about extending human freedoms and liberties to those who dwell in a larger oikos. The neologism florestania, suggesting immediatly to Latin ears the extension of city-zenship to forest –zenship, is intended to convey the possibility of a generalized commonwealth in which humans and animals, plants and hills, rivers and rocks, all share universally recognized rights and are acknowledged as part the body politic.

Diane Austin-Broos (Sydney)

Livin’ This Way: Freedom and Aboriginal Self-determination

In the heady days of the 1970s, Aboriginal self-determination as a legal-political movement was seen as a counterpart to earlier decolonisation movements in the Third World. In a political sense, both could be interpreted as ‘freedom movements’. Yet hopes for an Aboriginal self-determination have been at best frustrated and at worst undermined. This paper sketches how and why this point was reached. It also questions a legal reading of self-determination that tends to overlook social and resource issues. Is there a self-determination or autonomy specific to Aboriginal lives and how is it at odds with popular notions of autonomy, freedom and property in non-Indigenous Australia? Where self-determination is concerned, does it matter that these socialities, along with their materialities, conflict? The paper considers the way in which ideas of private property are implicated in liberal views of freedom.  It also discusses how this issue bears on Will Kymlicka’s account of ‘freedom and culture’ as it might apply to Aboriginal self-determination.

Nadia Farage (Campinas)

Freedom of the Lonely Predator

E.La Boétie, in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, projected the image of freedom in the wild animal, the one which refuses to live and breed under captivity, as opposed to man, who gives up his autonomy for the State. The wild animal, master of itself and in consequence, nature as a domain of freedom were indeed recurrent images in Western dissident thought, coming up in Romantic poetry and literature and under stronger political enphasis, in the libertarian discourses in the end of the XIXth to the first quarter of the XXth century. Nevertheless, the equation between freedom and nature would take a turn in the work of P.Kropotkin.Taking the image of the wild animal, the lonely predator, as an extreme and even impossible pole, P.Kropotkin  delineates nature as ruled by solidarity among individuals and species. Thus, for the anarchist thinker, solidarity encompasses freedom and the result is a notion of a highly socialized natureculture, a network of sentient life based on liberties. The present paper shall argue that when applied to the industrial and urban universe of the beginning of XXth century, such ideas gave place to unexpected practices of solidarity of workers towards domestic species and so established the historical background for the actual debates on forest-ship, a broadened citizenship for all living beings.

Peter Gow (St Andrews)

Jeronimo’s declaration of independence: Piro accounts of savagery, slavery and freedom

External accounts of the history of the Piro people of the Bajo Urubamba river since the late nineteenth century have been dominated by concepts of slavery and liberation. These accounts are driven by Euro-American liberal ideologies. Insofar as these liberal ideologies are the coin of Piro people’s relations to important external agents, such as the state, they have come to adapt how they discuss their lives to coordinate with them. However, they retain an entirely autonomous understanding of slavery and liberty, one which its crucially uncoordinated with liberal discourses. This autonomous understanding is an account of freedom as, in Clastrean terms, autonomy.

Alex Hall (York)

Surveillance, Discretion and ‘Smart’ Border Targeting

In international ‘smart’ border programmes, passenger data is used to target risk. Data targeting gives the illusion that authoritative distinctions between mobile people are already present in the data. The question is not simply how data ‘objects’ come to identify passengers as risky or trusted, but how data intelligence and discretionary judgement are intertwined within ‘smart’ border governance. This paper draws on qualitative fieldwork with staff at a European border targeting centre. It proceeds on the notion that data ‘profiles’ and matches are active objects, but the paper goes beyond deterministic techno-scientific approaches by examining individual analysts’ encounters with data as a means of understanding the everyday production of security within ‘smart’ border governance. More specifically, the paper focuses on the meaning, experience and enactment of discretion – as an exercise of judgement, a power relation and an ethical moment – within data encounters, arguing that the changing meaning of discretion in data-led border security governance warrants attention. When the public is reassured that a person will ‘check’ all automated risk matches, understanding precisely how security decisions are taken is important for our understanding of the surveillant targeting that underpins the increasingly ‘free’ movement of certain passengers across international borders.

Mette High (Edinburgh)

Is there such a thing as ‘mindful mining’? Scriptural Freedoms in Mongolia’s Gold Mines

Many lamas struggle to support their wives and children on the relatively meagre alms they receive at monasteries in the mineral-rich region of Uyanga.  Drawing on their contacts with local mining bosses, some lamas have now joined the search for gold as part-time miners. Within their practice of Mahayana Buddhism, however, mining is considered emblematic of violent and oppressive acts that infringe upon the desired relationship between people and the environment. Rather than seeing their involvement in mining as evidence of ‘wrongful conduct’, Uyanga’s lamas refer to some of the principal teachings of the Buddha to assert the legitimacy of both their actions and religious insights. By considering the intersections of economic opportunities and scriptural interpretation, this paper shows how creative orthodoxy can produce new freedoms for a monastic community.

Tobias Kelly (Edinburgh)

Freedom of Conscience and Pacifism in Mid-Twentieth Century Britain

Freedom of conscience plays a key role in modern liberal ethics. In popular understanding it is conscience that helps us to tell right from wrong, and forces us to act for the greater good against the odds, going to the heart of what it means to be a moral person. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares in its very first article that all human beings are ‘endowed with reason and conscience’. As such, freedom of conscience is widely recognised as an ethical principle of great importance, and is set out in multiple human rights documents and national constitutions. Yet, if freedom of conscience is central to modern liberal understandings of the moral person, what is conscience and how do we know it when we see it? How do we distinguish it from self-interest or fanaticism? And, why and how are claims of conscience given priority in debates about the public good? A foregrounding of interior individual conscience raises particular issues in terms of the ways its presence can be made socially and politically persuasive. The central problem of a politics that seeks to prioritise conscience is that, the origins of claims to conscience in interior moral sentiments can make them politically unpersuasive in practice. Those who act out of conscence must therefore constantly try and make that conscience concrete to others in order to have purchase. Academic discussions about freedom conscience have largely been philosophical, legal and theological. However, claims about conscience are also part of broader social and cultural practices. This paper therefore asks how is it possible to talk about freedom of conscience at all, and what it is possible to say when doing so? It does so through an examination of the specific example of British conscientious objectors to military service in the Second World War. By the mid-1940s over four million people were serving in the British armed forces. However, those people who held a ‘conscientious objection’ to military service could apply for exemption from conscription. Outside of claiming conscientious objection, there were multiple ways in which someone who wanted to avoid fighting could do so, ranging from medical exemption, to simply going absent without leave. Seeking recognition as a conscientious objector therefore represented a very particular form of conviction. The paper examines the meanings, motivations and dilemmas associated with making claims about freedom of conscience in mid-twentieth century Britain.

Hideko Mitsui (Macau)

Freedom as Cosmopolitan Habitus

This paper attempts to respond to one of the key questions posed by this conference (“can anthropology demand certain kinds of freedom?”), by introducing a cosmopolitan individual’s quest for reflexive forms of freedom in early 20th Century Japan. During what is now remembered as the Taisho democracy period (1912-1926), comparable to what the Weimar period is remembered in German history, the idea of freedom (a recently introduced foreign concept) demonstrated its redemptive and violent potential. The idea of freedom was, on the one hand, inspiring people to initiate social movements to fight social inequality and injustice, it was simultaneously, seemingly without any contradiction, driving people’s imperialist desires for colonies in Korea and China, where Japan could freely extract their natural resources in order to support the modern and comfortable lifestyle for all Japanese. Muneyoshi Yanagi, an art collector and writer known for his “folk arts and crafts (mingei)” movement that located beauty in the hand-crafted objects in Japan and Korea, was one of few intellectuals in Japan who voiced concerns for the aporia of freedom. This paper traces Yanagi’s search for more reflexive forms and habits of freedom that he bricolaged and lived by through his love of folk arts and crafts of the world, poems by Whitman and Blake, Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism, among others. It then explores the relevance of Yanagi’s epistemology and habitus to our own anthropological inquiry.

Stavroula Pipyrou (St Andrews)

Violence and the Construction of Civil Society: freedoms and liberties of analysis

There is an ever-growing scholarly dissatisfaction with the interests of civil society as primarily framed in relation to progressive groups and democratic ideals. The degree that freedoms of association, speech and religion differ within the so-called “global civil society” highlights the impossibility of universal interests as civic groups hold vastly different and competing views. Fostering unrealistic preconceptions of unity, the term ‘civil society’ itself becomes problematic, even regarding basic membership criteria.

This paper starts with a puzzle. What freedoms and liberties can the researcher enjoy when working with allegedly mafia infiltrated civic groups? Should social scientists continue to employ pejorative terminologies such as “uncivil”? Let us not forget that much of civil society’s power is the outcome of encounters with “criminality for a cause” or civic disobedience. However, the civic engagement of European far-right groups and organised crime syndicates has suffered from scholarly neglect. A fruitful analysis of ambivalent organisations, targets and interests should embrace academic freedoms and liberties even if this means acknowledging the unpalatable potential for violence to reach civic goals.

Nigel Rapport (St Andrews)

When Stanley Spencer died in 1959 the most common phrasing in the many obituaries that appeared in the British press concerned this ‘art rebel’ or ‘rebel painter’ who had remained ‘one of Britain’s most controversial painters’. ‘The most fulfilled, courageous and irreplaceable British artist of the century’, it was explained, ‘Spencer was one of the few contemporary British artists who could be called with some confidence a man of genius as distinct from a man of talent’. Yet ‘many people cordially dislike Spencer’s work (…). His deformations and distortions do not appear to be arbitrary or theoretical but rather as if things bulged when he looked at them.’ But then Spencer did never ‘paint to please but because he must convey to canvas the sometimes curious, but always compassionate, visions of his mind’. And he would not e diverted from his vision. It could even be said that the erstwhile ‘explosive enfant terrible’ of British twentieth-century art came to feel ‘more strongly about his ideals of truth and personal liberty even then about art’.

In this talk I apply the theme of freedom and liberty to Stanley Spencer’s life and art. Often described (and dismissed) as a maverick, an English eccentric, a village innocent or fool, and a mystical visionary, I use Stanley’s own words as well as those written about him in order to explore two key questions:

  • In what ways and to what extents can Stanley Spencer be described artistically as his own man, pursuing his own creative path?
  • Did the insecurities that Stanley Spencer felt in regard to a British public that he saw as often uncomprehending, censorious or uninterested speak of a hindrance to his creativity or are they more properly seen as interpretations of Stanley’s own that actually feed into a creative process that was natural to him? Does the ‘controversy’ surrounding his name evidence his unfreedom or the reverse?

Adam Reed (St Andrews)

Free life: libertarian activism in the city of purposes

This paper explores the ways liberty and freedom is figured by a group of libertarian activists in London at the dawn of pundit blogging (circa 2001-2002). These are subjects who claim a certain expertise in freedom, who present themselves as technicians of the free life and devote their energies to identifying and differentiating between the free and unfree act. They are also subjects who imagine themselves campaigning or petitioning in defense of liberty. Attention is paid to the manner in which freedom is spatialised in the city and the blogosphere, the articulated relationship between ethics and free life, and the connections drawn between individual purpose and free association. As well as engaging with the emergent literature on freedom in anthropology, the paper aims to examine the consequences of attempting to take seriously the claims of subjects who ardently believe that their lives are not socially driven. How is an anthropological description possible? On what basis can one narrate the society or culture of such activism? These questions are elaborated through an ethnographic investigation of property ownership, the dominant form in which rule-making, freedom and the social are for them expressible. Finally, the paper asks what the dangers of seeking the free life might be, for libertarians and anthropology.

Noa Vaisman (Durham)

“The truth will set you free”: Alternative visions of freedom and human rights struggles in contemporary Argentina

This paper originates in an ongoing project about the “living disappeared”. These close to 500 individuals were abducted when they were infants or very young children by the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983. They were given new identity papers and assigned new names and new families—many times entering into kinship ties with military personnel or individuals who had strong ties with the regime and its ideology. These individuals are now in their 30s and most are still unaware of their origins and traumatic past. For the past three decades continuous attempts to locate and identify each one have been carried out in the country. Led primarily by the human rights organization Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo these struggles brought to the development of various institutions, among them the National Bank of Genetic Data and to the use of various technologies, central among them the DNA identity test. The DNA test is carried out on a blood sample or, when the individual refuses to provide one, on biological material collected from objects the individual was in contact with. These biological remains (or shed-DNA) are collected many times against the wishes of the person involved. In legal documents, social debates, and human rights literature the test and the subsequent identification of the individual are framed as a right to the truth and as an instrument of freedom. The truth uncovered opens “the road to freedom” as many of Abuelas’ press releases state. But what kind of freedom does the truth produce? This paper is my attempt at providing an ethnographically grounded answer to this question; I develop the argument using a few court cases that deliberated the right of the individual not to know his biological/genetic identity. I conclude with some reflections on the ethical dilemmas I have been facing in conducting research and writing about human rights activism, truth and freedom.

Back to freedom technologists series…

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