Material as opposed to what? Three recent ethnographies of welfare, biological labor, and human dignity

By Leo Coleman

Fennell_Last coverLife Support (Kalinda Vora)A new materialist studying housing projects, a feminist-Marxist postcolonialist, and a Foucauldian bioethicist—what do they have in common? This sounds like the start of a very bad academic joke. But a great deal of cultural anthropological research has in fact been motivated and disciplined—made readable as part of a common project—over the past fifteen or twenty years by such oddly overlapping interests in materiality or materialisms of diverse stripes, on the one hand, and reasoning about biology and the biological constitution of the human, on the other. Drawing on usefully heterogeneous philosophical and social-scientific currents, the discipline has turned to examine the physical effectiveness of things, networks, or infrastructures in shaping populations, and the medical and technical regulation of the biological life of these populations. World-spanning (and world-making) institutions and infrastructures have been opened to ethnographic investigation under the rubrics of technopolitics and biopower. 

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