by Sara Bonfanti

Pic.1 SPA Logo

“None of us started this culture of hatred and bigotry, but many of us benefit from it, whether we want to or not. If we are not actively working to end it, we are complicit in sustaining it. It’s time–far beyond time–to do the work.” This is the message signed off by Rebecca Lester (Washington University), President of the Society of Psychological Anthropology [SPA] in the wake of BLACK LIVES MATTER last June 2020. The heinous event prompted the association to organize their biannual Meeting this year, around the much compelling theme INTERROGATING INEQUALITIES. A theme that troubles all social sciences, but stings a field of research stocked up with practitioners.

Questions about psychology and culture have characterized the field of anthropology from its inception, and have fundamentally shaped the discipline’s engagements with human differences. With the conference theme of Interrogating Inequalities, scholars were encouraged to radically re-encounter their own data, methodologies, theoretical commitments, engagements with the anthropological canon, forms of writing and research dissemination, and the sub-discipline more broadly.  The SPA aimed to prompt participants to reflect not only on the colonial dimensions and de-colonial possibilities of anthropological work, but also to radically reimagine what it means to be a psychological anthropologist in today’s world.

Although I never framed myself as a psychological anthropologist, I did study the field at large, took inspirations from eminent scholars (from Benedict to LeVine, Good to Farmer, Fanon and Devereux) and applied some insights on the relation between mind and culture, subjectivity and embodiment in my own work. After many years of walking different paths, last week I went back to some core concerns of my ethnographic practice, such as empathy in the field, across and beyond cultural schemas (see Naomi Quinn).

Pic.2 “Drawing Hands” by C. M Escher, 1948

Specifically, I gave my contribution to the Panel “Let Anthropology Draw: towards an Alternative Sense-Making”, where, together with international colleagues and under the guidance of Manuel Joao Ramos (ISCTE – Lisbon) we pondered: How can graphic anthropology allow us to engage with an embodied and affective ethnography based on “being-in-common” (Nancy 2000)? In the light of drawings made by researchers, research interlocutors, or both, the panellists tried to bridge the gap between psychoanalysis and anthropology regarding intimacy, transference, desire, and unconscious. From my side, I reflected on the methodologies and ethics of engaging with informants’ artwork, analysing a collection of sketches drafted by a composite cohort of South Asian migrants in Europe. In “Drawing one’s place out of scratch” I highlighted the multimodal entanglement between narratives and handmade pictures of homes rendered by some of my interlocutors. If anthropology is an interpretative practice, participants’ artwork arose from improvisation and imagination, giving shape to their subconscious, recognising the intersubjective nature of any ethnographic encounter and moving beyond verbal language, towards pictorial mind sharing. Privileging subjectivities and emotions, handmade pictures shared by participants did more than visualise what already told. They did transfer the unutterable into a graphic metaphor that the ethnographer could possibly understand within a multimodal way of communication (Jewitt and Kress, 2003). My conclusions attuned with Erin Manning’s book (2016), whose titled opened this Post, positing how much mental activity escapes our conscious awareness and defies standard and dialectical accounts of knowledge, reason, and agency. In the legacy of Tim Ingold (2011), redrawing anthropology means to reconsider artisanal visual culture (handmade, other than hi-tech mediated) as a leftover: rather a fluid grammar that takes our understanding further in the form of an undercommon.

Pic. 3 Young participant’s artwork

Out of 35 Panels and 5 Plenaries, which run from Tue 6 to Sat 10 April, I was swept away by the radical engagement of talks, transdisciplinary approach and self-critical attitude that went further any default mode oftentimes exhibited in other public research events. Among those, the Panel “Phenomenology of Inequality”, impressively led by Thomas Csordas (UCLA), discussed on how person-centred and phenomenological methods can effectively disrupt accounts of violence blinded by an institutionalised focus on damage. Likewise, the Plenary opened by Tanya Luhrmann (Stanford), plead anthropologists to “Reach Out”, and translate our research beyond academia, learning to blend clear social theory within the literary craft of ethnographic writing.

Hereafter comes a list of books in psychological anthropology hot-from-the-press which were awarded prizes for their originality and rigour:

Elizabeth Fein – Living on the Spectrum: Autism and Youth in Community (NYU Press 2020)

Alexander Laban Hinton – It Can Happen Here: White Power and the Rising Threat of Genocide in the US (NYU Press 2021)

Janis H. Jenkins and Thomas J. Csordas – Troubled in the Land of Enchantment: Adolescent Experience of Psychiatric Treatment (University of California Press 2020)

Laurence J. Kirmayer, Carol M. Worthman, Shinobu Kitayama, Robert Lemelson, Constance A. Cummings (editors) – Culture, Mind and Brain: Emerging Concepts, Models, and Applications (Cambridge University Press 2020)

Sara E. Lewis – Spacious Minds: Trauma and Resilience in Tibetan Buddhism (Cornell University Press 2020)

Tanya M. Luhrmann – How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of invisible Others (Princeton University Press 2020)

Saiba Varma – The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir (Duke University Press 2020)

Sarah S. Willen – Fighting for Dignity: Migrants Lives at Israel’s Margins (Pennsylvania University Press 2019)

As a European scholar I felt a sense of estrangement from some debates, which resonated familiar in content, but far from my experience (living in the global village has not eradicated differences altogether). While the SPA is possibly the most elitist affiliate of the AAA (American Anthropological Association) in terms of race and class, I welcomed their openness to international contributors and frank effort for widening their membership. However, most works from the SPA networks are of outstanding quality, and I recommend checking out both their book series “Culture, Mind and Society” and their official journal Ethos. The latest issue features a tribute to Professor Naomi Quinn, former President of the SPA and leading voice in the Society for Feminist Anthropology, a major figure in cultural cognitive studies (esp. applied to the American marriage model). In memoriam of the Professor, I would like to mention her book A Cognitive Theory of Cultural Meaning (co-authored with Claudia Strauss in 1997), that broke new ground in seeing how mind and society interplay. Inspired by her reflections, we may wonder: how are experiences of homemaking internalized, and which neural activities get activated when we try to externalize them, by means of verbal or visual communication?

Pic. 4 In memory of Naomi Quinn

For more info re: the SPA and their Meeting just concluded please see here:


Ingold, Tim, ed. 2011. Redrawing anthropology: Materials, movements, lines. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Jewitt, Carey and Gunther Kress. 2003. Multimodal literacy. New York: Peter Lang.

Manning, Erin. 2016. The Minor Gesture: Thought in the Act. Durham: Duke University Press.

Strauss, Claudia and Naomi Quinn. 1997. A Cognitive Theory of Cultural Meaning. Cambridge University Press.