Moving Forward, Glancing Backwards: Graduate Symposium in Cultural Anthropology

On Friday, May 12th 2017 the graduate students of the cultural anthropology program organized a half-day symposium as part of the celebrations marking 50 years of anthropology at Victoria University. The symposium, titled, “Moving Forward, Glancing Backward: Past, Present, and the Possible in/of Anthropology” was aimed as an engagement with the academic and non-academic community – both within and beyond anthropology. Attended by over 50 people it comprised of two panels and one interactive session followed by lunch. The graduate symposium was a chance for the graduate student community of anthropology in Victoria engage with graduate students, faculty, and former anthropology students from across Aotearoa New Zealand.

Hosted over 3-days (May 10th-12th) the 50th anniversary programme highlighted the history of anthropology at Victoria, examined the changing conditions currently shaping the discipline, and allowed for speculation on the potential future trajectories of anthropological knowledge at Victoria, in Aotearoa New Zealand, and beyond.  The celebrations opened on the morning of Wednesday 10th with a Pōwhiri and Marae Kōrero at Te Tumu Herenga Waka where Dame Dr. Joan Metge and Bernie Kernot, two of the founding members of the programme back in the 1970s talked about the people, personalities and tensions of bringing anthropology to the university (which included some much needed interference from Raymond Firth, ongoing pressure from Maori students, and the inevitable push and pull of starting anything new).

Following this, the graduate students were invited to a masterclass with Distinguished Professor Michael Jackson (programme alumni and Distinguished Professor of World Religions at Harvard University), who also delivered a keynote address on the Thursday morning, Existential Scarcity and Ethical Feeling. The keynote was followed by two panels – Commoning Ethnography and Reclaiming Anthropology – comprised of anthropologists from throughout New Zealand who each elaborated on the present and future of anthropological knowledge and engagement (future posts to come on this). Thursday evening concluded with a second keynote – Alternative Facts and Uncommon Truths: Rivers and Other Realities – delivered by Professor Dame Anne Salmond from the University of Auckland.

The graduate symposium on Friday drew together former and current anthropology students with the intention of generating useful approaches to anthropological thought and action in the everyday. The symposium opened with a roundtable discussion focussing on the trajectories and experiences of former Victoria anthropology students working in private and public sector. The roundtable included Dr. Tanja Schubert-McArthur (Waitangi Tribunal-Ministry of Justice), Mr. Aidan MacLeaod (MBIE), Ms. Tarapuhi Bryers-Brown (Thinkplace) and Mr. Ben Steele (MFAT).  The discussion provided insight in to how the future of anthropology might present itself as instrumental to decision making and engagement beyond the bounds of academia.

Following the roundtable was a panel featuring graduate students’ work from around Aotearoa New Zealand. Aimed at addressing the potential of anthropological knowledge in relation to local and global issues the presentations covered a variety of topics including lifestyle migration and the search for the ‘good life,’ breakfast and brunch practices, modern-day slavery in the Philippines and Hong Kong, research ethics in Papua New Guinea, the urban homeless in Wellington, and health, culture, and lifestyle in contemporary Tonga.  The final portion of the symposium was an interactive session between audience members, panellists, and staff and graduate students from the Cultural Anthropology Programme at Victoria. This intentionally less-formal conclusion to both the graduate symposium and wider 50th anniversary celebrations allowed undergraduate students – the future of anthropology – to ask questions and put forward their ideas surrounding the potentials and limits to anthropological discourse in a complex and changing world.  We, a trio of newly-minted anthropology PhD candidates, saw the graduate symposium as a chance to envision the new directions of our discipline.

We as organisers also realised the value and potential, not only of engaging with anthropological knowledge, but also the productive nature of learning enabled by and in a graduate symposium. The comradery, the ideas engaged with, and discussion around what we plan to do with our scholarship in different spheres of life made evident the importance of planning and being part of graduate student led events as a way to do anthropology and graduate life. On that day, the Hunter Council Chambers became a lived example of collective effervescence, and we were glad to be help organise this!



— Callan Sait, Jared Commerer, and Zoe Poppelwell

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Zoe Poppelwell is a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington.  Her research explores the ways in which nurses and parents interact with premature babies on a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Aotearoa New Zealand. Her general research interests include medical anthropology, and the anthropology of reproduction and childhood.

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Jared Commerer is a PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington. His research interests include: anthropology of conflict, violence, and war; anthropology of consciousness; critical realism; ethics and morality; human enhancement; human rights; militarism; philosophy of science and social science; political anthropology; resistance; and, social theory.

mugshot2snipCallan Sait is a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington. His thesis explores the role of robotic technologies in reconceptualising “good care” and caregiving practices in Japan. His general research interests include science and technology studies, multispecies ethnography, ontological politics, personhood, and care.


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