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Experiencing Diversity and Mutuality

The 10th Easa conference under the title “Experiencing Diversity and Mutuality” is aiming to exploit and accentuate the crucial importance of direct – ethnographic – experience of diversity and mutuality in ethnology and anthropology. It will initiate discussions of the concept of mutuality. To experience a particular way of life does not mean only to observe and participate, but to enter mundane world of sounds and noises, colours and sight, smells and tastes, touch and heat… Direct ethnographic experience makes social anthropology reliable scholarship. Anthropologists and ethnologists can provide many different relevant views on diversity and mutuality from their own perspective.

Over the last few decades, diversity has gained ascendancy among the central values of primarily western societies. Articulated in different discursive contexts and identified on different levels, both cultural and biological diversity have been extolled as an enriching legacy, a collective possession, a resource for the future or a precondition for unity: a unity which emerges from diversity. The notion of human and cultural diversity has been instrumental in imagining, carrying out and legitimizing processes of supranational and international integration or ‘unification’ taking place on the level of global capitalism with its advanced diversification of products and consumers as well as its reliance on ethnically or ‘racially’ diverse labour force as a competitive advantage. The growing consensus that cultural diversity is an important asset has found its way into several documents, in particular those formulated by UNESCO such as the declaration Our Creative Diversity (1995) and Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001). The centrality of culture and respect for cultural diversity for social cohesion, international peace and security and the development of a knowledge-based economy are similarly emphasized in a wide range of documents proposing the definition of the identity of Europe. An early document of this kind was The Declaration of European Identity from 1973 which proposed the notion of the European identity as the diversity of cultures.

Anthropologists have been facing diversity since the beginning of social/cultural anthropology as an academic discipline. The main aim of the conference is to deal with public discourse on diversity, cross-cultural communication and, at the same time, the absence of speaking about underestimated aspects of mutuality, including post-colonial, post-imperial, post-socialist, and post-racial. Experiencing processes of late (or post-) industrialism and modernity, anthropologist study the present-day situation “in the field” and equally accentuate consideration of constructed and “natural” environments. When speaking of diversity, the conference will not overlook the flip side of the “intercultural dialogue”: new racism, ethnic nationalism, cultural fundamentalism and “soft” modes of exploitation.

The current appeal to diversity might be coupled with anxieties over divisiveness that diversity can represent or entail; it might be also thwarted by fears of heterogeneity, difference, alterity. It is not only on the supranational level that the notion of diversity has been instrumental, but also – although largely in an earlier period – on the national level where nations have been equally conceived and integrated with the help of the same rhetorical device of unity-in-diversity with regions representing the latter. Within the Europeanization process, although this was equally the case of former continental empires, this rhetorical device also makes possible to join regional and supranational against the national. Yet nation-statist mind-set still assumes that unity and homogeneity is preferable to diversity and difference, cultural monism to cultural plurality.

While cultural diversity is often coupled with or opposed to unity and homogeneity, this conference will be aimed at articulating the notion of diversity with the notion of mutuality. Mutuality has been given scant attention by social anthropologists. One reason for its neglect may have been that the concept of mutuality was eclipsed by an overlapping concept of reciprocity which, on the contrary, was fortunate to become one of the key concepts of the discipline. There must be other, more critical reasons as well. In particular, certain strands of thinking about mutuality have been submerged both in the life sciences and social sciences due to radical social practices and social revolt associated with that kind of thinking. In biology, mutuality was proposed as one of fundamental interspecific relations by some anarchist thinkers, yet it was soon subdued by the Darwinian, and even more so by the Social Darwinist, notion of competition. The most threatening ideas of reductionism – be they in genetics, evolutionary psychology or new kinds of culturalism – are getting a response in public, while anthropological criticism of these reductionisms is still too weak.

The conference will endeavour to answer questions such as what can we do with mutuality today, what are the modalities of its experience, why is it relevant, how can we relate it to diversity, etc. As anthropologists have an experiential bias, they will presumably tend to provide their answers from the perspective of experienced situations, shared with their local interlocutors. Anthropology needs rethinking the variety of mutuality in its present contexts, yet prior to this there is further ethnographic work to be carried out with the aim of identifying the variability of mutual agency and cultural assumptions about mutuality (as well as diversity), describing contexts of mutual agency, examining different forms of mutuality, etc. The idea that mutually recognized cultural diversity is a prerequisite for peaceful cohabitation is being developed for instance with reference to the Europeanization and the EuroMed process; here the sense of mutuality comes close to that of sharing (e.g. mutually shaped identities, mutual memories and experiences).

Mutuality, rather than unity, may be found beyond the diversity of cultures; it may result in a mutual search for compatibility among differences. Mutual borrowing is another instance where mutuality may result in new diversity, produced through processes of diffusion, syncretism, creolization or acculturation; these ‘cultural flows’ are in turn related to empire-building and colonialism. Yet mutuality is not always opposed to competition and not always linked with co-operation; mutual religious practices like shared sanctuaries or shared festivals are a case in point. The notion of mutuality is also often extended to include other biological species, e.g. in various notions of the partnership with nature or of mutual management of biodiversity mobilizing a variety of its ‘co-natural’ approaches and techniques applied in natural parks and protected areas but also in ‘traditional’ and ‘sustainable’ agriculture, and so forth.

Anthropological thinking on biodiversity management and mutualist approaches in ecology but also a variety of biodiversity ideologies, as well as other related priorities listed in European research strategies, will be especially appreciated. The conference will stimulate discussions of environment, copyright and cultural survival, natural reservations and protected areas, and it will emphasise some main topics of the 7th EU Framework Programme, e.g., biodiversity, climate changes, and volunteering, as well as complex organizations, visual and popular culture.

The special accent of the conference will follow – or push – the spreading and application of anthropological knowledge in non-academic spheres through the defining of new professional opportunities for anthropologists in policy-making, economics and marketing expertise, education, media counselling and mediating, and other kinds of career opportunities for younger scholars who are most heartily invited to participate with poster presentations.

The conference will also be aimed at reflecting on the discipline’s own diversity – and the mutual dependence or recognition – of its various traditions and subdisciplines. It will open floor for discussions of boundaries between streams of folklore studies, (European) ethnology and social/cultural anthropology, as well as encourage the exchange of knowledge between social/cultural anthropology and biology, ecology, economy, law, history, linguistics, political sciences and other disciplines that contribute to the discussion of “experiencing diversity and mutuality” - and challenge them. .