Anthropology and Social Change

Anthropology and Social Change MA and PhD Programs


The Anthropology and Social Change is unique among graduate programs in the United States due to its focus on activist anthropology. We believe that anthropologists should analyze, discuss, and explore the possible; that they should research alternative institutions; that they need to collectively reflect and debate the dilemmas of other possible worlds. This collective effort of understanding "real utopias" takes the form of analytic and ethnographic study of existing alternatives in the present.

Food sovereignty in California, environmental/climate justice models in Latin America, worker cooperatives in Oakland, social centers in Italy, autonomous systems of justice in Guerrero, community gardens in Detroit, self-managed factories in Argentina, "good government" of the Zapatistas, buen vivir (good life) and plurinationalism in indigenous Bolivia, participatory democracy in Kerala, solidarity economics of Mondragon, participatory economics in Winnipeg, pedagogy of the block in African-American communities, alternative environmentalism in Afro-Colombian river regions, marginalized medical practices in South Asia, solidarity unionism in New York City, communal agriculture in Malawi, shack dweller democracy in South Africa, biodiversity in Brazil, restorative justice in Ohio, digital commons, independent media, and autonomous food systems in Japan--these are only some of the examples of the areas where our students do their scholarly and activist work.

When we speak of activist ethnography we refer to a specific research methodology, which rests on the notion of activist research--a reflective and transformative practice that integrates the community of practice at every step of the research process. Activist research is a practice of intellectual production that does not accept conventional distinctions between researcher and research subjects. Rather, the aim of activist research is an integral relationship that transforms both the researcher and the community into active participants in producing knowledge and in transforming themselves. As contributors to the book Constituent Imagination suggest, research is an uncertain process wherein the researcher knows "how to start but not how to end," an "open process that discovers new possibilities within the present, a collective wondering and wandering that is always difficult and never resolved in easy answers."

We welcome students interested in becoming activists and scholars. Anthropology and Social Change offers an opportunity to develop both theoretical and practical knowledge relevant to careers in education and social justice work. Our graduate students will work with some of the most prominent activist scholars and progressive organizations in San Francisco Bay Area, as well as with core faculty from the department and the Institute. In this process of encounter and co-learning, students and faculty are expected to share scholarly ideas, debates, and practices, as well as practical skills in research, organizing, grant writing, policy analysis, legal and environmental work, and media. We offer media skills (strategic filmmaking, writing and publishing, Internet skills, radical radio), and organizing skills (legal skills, policy analysis, environmental skills, campaigning, art-making, and organizing skills).

Together with the activists of the World Social Forum, we believe that "another world is possible." The role of the new social movements, we are reminded, is not to conquer the world, but to make it anew. What, then, is the role and responsibility of anthropology and other social sciences? In a world riddled with so many crises, few things appear to be more relevant than systematic research of counter-hegemonic knowledge and practices. Social scientists should leave pessimism for better times. Anthropology, in particular, is well equipped to participate in the "nowtopian" task of constructing social scientific knowledge that looks beyond inequality, hierarchy, and ecological disaster.



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Our Approach to Anthropology

Our relationship to anthropology is defined by our engagement with the ethnographic method. We believe that good anthropology begins and ends in the field. Anthropology and Social Change is a part of the broader movement that seeks to return ethnography to the forefront of anthropology. Together with new Journals like HAU, or contributors to the Insurgent Encounters, Constituent Imagination, and Team Colors book projects, we are interested in ethnographic theory, and share the ambition to rekindle the theoretical potential of (activist) ethnography. As activist anthropologists, we are interested less in the "ruthless criticism of all that exists" and more in what are colleagues from HAU call "ethnography of everyday theory." Going back to the critical concepts we bring from the field, and returning those concepts back to the people we do research with, in a manner of gift, is what makes us activists and anthropologists.

Distinctive Approach to Methodology

In our graduate program we give special attention to research and to what we call activist ethnography. Our signature approach to methodology rests on investigation of different alternative research models and strategies associated with militant and activist anthropology. We emphasize co-research and direct action, horizontality and self-activity, seen as an essential ingredients of collaborative knowledge production. Activist ethnography, our distinct approach to activist research, attempts to combine activist interest in drifts, militant research, co-research, workers inquiry, insurgent investigation, and guerrilla history, with prefigurative and postcapitalist research. In this experimental play with different forms of militant and activist research, we strive to construct a distinct model of a postcapitalist ethnography.

Participatory Approach to Learning

The graduate program in Social and Cultural Anthropology brings together scholars and activists engaged not in teaching but in co-learning. Our approach to co-learning is inspired by a long and beautiful history of education developed in popular universities, modern schools, universities of earth and without walls, and free schools. We find ourselves in the tradition and legacy of educators such as Leon Tolstoy, Paul Robin, Francisco Ferrer, Emma Goldman, Alexander Niell, Ivan Ilich, Paul Goodman, Angela Davis, bell hooks, and Paulo Freire. We are excited to learn from past educational experiences in the Bay Area: Black Panther community schools, San Francisco Liberation School, New College of California, and Berkeley Free School are only some of the exciting traditions that inspire our educational vision. We conceive the classroom as a convivial space of facilitation and consultation, of interactive and horizontal processes of knowledge exchange and production.

Convivial Approach to Communication of Knowledge

We offer several forms of convivia, or convivial spaces of knowledge communication:

Emergency Library is a space that affirms the original meaning of the library as a communal institution: it is a convivial space of exchange of books, poetry, and ideas. In this convivia, we exchange ideas, skills, and organizing knowledge with the communities outside the Institute. We are scholars on call, responding to the emergent needs of the communities in struggle, who might be in need of legal advice, activist companionship, scholarly input, or a media suggestion. We bring this information not as impositions but as gifts, in the spirit of exchange and mutual aid, learning from the communities in the process.

Political Laboratory is held once each semester as a weekend-long convivial encounter of local or international scholars working on a particular project, students, and selected participants from the local community. Together they think collectively about a particular idea, book, concept, or project.

Atelier of Insurrectionary Imagination is a space of occasional magic, where artistic production is combined with political imagination, and subversive creativity. Here, artists inspire students and members of the community to dream collectively and explore the unsettling alchemy of art and social justice.

Autonomous Classroom is an experimental class created convivially by MA and PhD students, a class where the world is turned upside down, students become teachers, teachers become students, and all graduate students autonomously design a class that they teach and self-manage over the course of one semester.

Guerrilla Workshop is an improvised event-space where students, faculty, or students and faculty, present on their current work. This includes papers to be presented at various conferences, report backs from academic or activist events, and dialogues relevant to anthropology, social justice, and critical theory.

Dialogues and Interrogations: Instead of interrogating people, in this public convivia, coordinated by Sasha Lilley, we interrogate ideas. This takes form of a bi-monthly conversation between activist journalists and prominent organizers and activist intellectuals.

Nomadic Cafe: this is where we have nomadic discussions on spaces, places, and non-spaces.

Insight/Incite: our participatory cinema monthly event, in collaboration with Shaping San Francisco and New Nothing Cinema.

Events, Workshops, Research Working Groups, and Visiting Scholars

The program regularly hosts lectures, conferences, and workshops on variety of social justice issues that bring together scholars, activists and artists, both local and international. A one-day political laboratory on Radical Pasts, Radical Futures combined the intellectual and political experience of social movement theorists and activists Selma James, Peter Linenbaugh, Andayie, Gustavo Esteva, George Katziaficas, Ruth Reitan, and Scott Crow. Aymara feminist from Bolivia, Julieta Paredes, gave a workshop presentation of "feminismo communitario." Against the Grain producer Sasha Lilley interviewed Iain Boal on his book on communes in Northern California. Silvia Federici gave a lecture, and organized a political laboratory, around the issue of Reproductive Labor and the Commons. Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber gave a key-note lecture on the first 5000 years of debt. Arturo Escobar presented on anthropology and post-capitalism. Our fist visiting activist scholar was John Holloway. We co-sponsor events such as American Indian Movement conference, The Western Workers Labor Heritage Festival, and the Institute for Social Ecology summer school.