Immersion Lecture: Foundations and Debates in Anthropology

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Time of Event: 
Monday, February 29, 2016 - 09:30 to 10:30
In this lecture on foundations and debates in anthropology, Dr. Paige West presents the history of anthropological ideas and investigations. She first defines epistemology as a framework for what we know and how we produce knowledge. She highlights how European exploration of the world as the start of systematic inquiry about other societies and cultures, and she notes that ideas about cultural evolution and the progression of social systems reflected Enlightenment ideas. She then focuses on the material and intellectual impacts of colonialism and imperialism, which were oriented toward bringing resources and knowledge from the world to the metropole, or the colonial capital. Critique of these approaches to understanding cultures led to the ethnographic turn in anthropology, which studies cultures in their own context. She ends with critiques of the concept of culture and cultural evolution to highlight the epistemological difference between colonial and anticolonial anthropology.

Reading list

Ortner, S.B. 1984. Theory in anthropology since the Sixties. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 26(1), 126-166.

Presentation Slides

Click here to download the presentation slides.

Paige West joined the faculty at Barnard College and Columbia University in 2001, the year after earning her PhD in cultural and environmental anthropology at Rutgers University. She is currently Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University and chair of the department of anthropology at Barnard College. Dr. West’s broad scholarly interest is the relationship between societies and their environments. More specifically, she has written about the linkages between environmental conservation and international development, the material and symbolic ways in which the natural world is understood and produced, the aesthetics and poetics of human social relations with nature, and the creation of commodities and practices of consumption. Since the mid 1990s she has worked with indigenous people in Papua New Guinea. She is the author of three books and the editor of five more. She has also published many scholarly papers. In addition to her academic work, Dr. West is the co-founder of the PNG Institute of Biological Research, a small NGO dedicated to building academic opportunities for research in Papua New Guinea by Papua New Guineans. Dr. West is also the co-founder of the Roviana Solwara Skul, a school in Papua New Guinea dedicated to teaching at the nexus of indigenous knowledge and western scientific knowledge.  


Event type: 
Immersion Speaker
Event Attendance: 
Private Working Group
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