19 February, 2015: Food for Thought with Peter Pels

Presenter prof. Peter Pels discussed the anthropology of the future as the future of anthropology.

Tomorrows from Elsewhere: On the Anthropology of the Future as the Future of Anthropology

The NWO-project “The Future is Elsewhere” (2010-2015) researches different ways in which images of the future determine what we do in the present; the approaches range from case studies in development thinking to science fiction that focuses mostly on the so-called digital revolution. This is the kind of social scientific work that, among other things, ‘unhastens’ science, debunks all-too-optimistic modern myths, and compares what people do with what they say they do (which usually leads to disappointment about the latter). It may be more important, however, to understand that an anthropology of the future provides a different kind of focus on culture. It is not interested in futurology as predicting the future, but in futurology as a typical symptom of modern cultural life – in the future as a way of modifying the present. “The Future” is a cultural construct that has long come to define what it means to be culturally modern – especially by replacing Divinity or Fate by secular prognosis, emphasizing the malleability (or ‘developmentalism’ of modern thinking, and orienting daily activity away from the present. However, that future is, for the greater part of humanity, a “tomorrow from elsewhere”, conceived in a foreign setting. As such, an anthropology of the future seems to target a new kind of cultural construct on a global scale of social aggregation. It seems to pit “civilizations” against each other, since “we” seem to have the future, while “they” - the people who live in “traditional” settings – lack it. However, this cultural construct is itself traditional: it has been a staple of Western forms of self-consciousness for at least two hundred years, probably longer. It has led modern social scientists to remain largely blind to the fact that so-called ‘traditional’ people have futures too (if only because they have children to educate). It has therefore also prevented us from seeing that “the future” may become a psychological addiction for many modern people (in some cases even resulting in economic crisis); and that we use it to discriminate against groups of people, both at home and elsewhere in the world, as being “backward” (one result of which is that modern Muslims are striking back). An anthropology of the future that includes the study of the cultures of modern humanism, therefore, may turn out to be indispensable for both pedagogical, psychological, and political reasons, and may prove an asset to an increasingly multidisciplinary and global social science.

Last Modified: 24-02-2015