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To Study the Egyptian Uprisings Requires an Anthropology of Contingency

December 2, 2011

But Mubarak's resignation wasn't just the end. It was also a beginning. How might an anthropology of social action work in this uncertain present with its unpredictable future?

Describing, analyzing and interpreting the ongoing volatility and unpredictability of Egyptian society as they struggle to crate a new order in the wake of the Tahrir protests and Mubarak’s resignation–continued strikes by labor and professional groups, Salafi violence against Coptic, Shi’ite and Sufi groups, Coptic protests, violence by the interim government, frequent returns by people to Tahrir Square, artistic expression, shifting news frames–requires an anthropological approach that is comfortable with contingency.

At least, that’s the argument I make in a short essay I just published in the on-line journal Anthropologies, published by the graduate students at the University of Kentucky, where I gave a talk in October.

The gist of it is that an anthropology of contemporary Egypt needs to be able to grasp the uncertainty of social action in everyday life, as well as political life. And, indeed, there are accepted ways of thinking about this in social theory:

It is well accepted by now in social theory that chance interactions create higher order predictable patterns. Practice theories, in particular, have emphasized the fact that structures are an emergent property of the behavior of millions of social actors pursuing their own strategies, all behaving indeterministically. An ethnographic account of history unfolding must necessarily include description of the outcomes of an aggregate of multitudes of causes, none of which are necessarily uniform with its others.

But that’s almost the easy part. Ethnographic explanations of social change must also grapple with “the native’s point of view,” and that point of view is itself changing in Egypt:

As Egyptians look to a future, it is with a growing recognition that the future is contingent. Even while they plan future events, small or large scale, they do not succumb to the illusion of predictability. The possibility of constructing a new and better Egypt remains amid the tensions and ambiguities that come with uncertainty.

You can read the full essay on-line here.

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