Anthropology and Character conference organiser, University of St Andrews

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in or organising a conference


The conference will explore the contemporary status and uses of ‘character’. This will include a look at the diverse ways in which character operates as a live category for human subjects in the world and an exploration of its potential as an analytical category within anthropology and the broader academy. Moving beyond the now largely dismissed and problematic deployment of character as a descriptor of nationhood or culture (part of mid twentieth century debates centred in North American anthropology), the conference aims to examine what the reintroduction of character might add to scholarly conventions of analysis focused on subjectivity, the nature of individualism and personhood. It also wishes to explore how the category may allow us to rethink the terms of discussion in contemporary anthropology; in particular, around ‘hot topics’ such as the anthropology of ethics, ontology and materiality, Christianity and human-animal relations. In short, we want to suggest that the work that ‘character’ does outside the academy in connecting together diverse fields of social life and experience might provide a model for the potential of the category in anthropological writing more generally. Thinking through character may allow us too to draw out unexpected points of connection or analogy across usually differentiated domains of analysis.

One of the strengths of the everyday use of character is that it seems to identify sets of actions, intentions and mental states as essential to individual human being (we can speak of these indexing a subject’s ‘true character’ for instance). But at the same time the category seems able to also detach or extract certain actions, intentions and mental states from the individual human subject, to excuse them as ‘out of character’ (think, for instance, how this works in ideas of criminal responsibility and legal assessments of ‘good character’ [see Tadros 2005]). The category is vitally linked to the ways we think about the modern subject and the condition of interiority or inwardness [see Taylor 1989, Faubion 2011], yet it can equally be made to stand for external qualities to which subjects aspire, such as virtue [see Collini 1985, Lynch 1998]. In addition, character can be transposed to assessments of non human qualities that are taken to individualize [see Candea 2010]. We can speak of the character of sheep or trees, of particular pets, and of the character of made things such as buildings or cities [see Sennet 1994]. Subjects, whether human and non human creatures or non living materials such as urban spaces, can even be accused of ‘lacking character’. The conference wishes to take this dynamism of character, including its apparent contradictions and dramatic shifts in deployment, seriously, as a starting point for anthropological investigation.

Contributors have been approached with this in mind. A number of listed paper-givers bring to the conference specific anthropological research experience on the uses of character in diverse fields; i.e. in locales where character is a live category for the ethnographic subjects they are working with (such as courts of law, heritage conservation, Christianity, ethical campaigning, fiction reading, nationalist activism). Others focus their attentions on the question of translation, whether character is a useful analytical category in the anthropological description of societies where the term appears absent (for instance, in understanding Mongolian shamanism); or on the theoretical work of introducing the category to anthropological debates where it might have obvious purchase (such as kinship, the emergent anthropology of ethics or the field of human-animal relations). In addition, some contributors are invited for the multidisciplinary perspectives they bring to the study of character. It is notable, for instance, that the character turn in literary theory and criticism is rich but also surprisingly late (1980s to present), often centred on empirical studies of historical transformations in character use (perhaps best exemplified in the work of Professor Lynch, one of our planned speakers from North America). There is strong and relevant work in law, philosophy and education, and cultural geography; representatives from these fields will also contribute. Part of the ambition of the conference therefore is to open a cross-disciplinary conversation, which might allow the anthropology of character to sit alongside and benefit from other academic traditions. Indeed, we believe that a focus on character might reveal alternative avenues for dialogue, fresh points of comparison and difference between anthropology and other academic disciplines in the social sciences and humanities.

The theme of the conference also sits nicely within the intellectual interests of the host institution. The Department of Social Anthropology has a long-term commitment to cutting-edge anthropology, grounded in reflexive work on conventions of analysis. It also has strong intellectual interests in the creation of qualitative methodology (Anthropology of Character will necessarily be concerned with questions of innovative methodology) and in the links between interpretive ethnography and historical scholarship (some of the most interesting literature on character studies is precisely concerned with transformations in the uses of character over time). Finally, the conference theme also speaks to the broader and peculiar alignment of subjects within the School. We are distinct at St Andrews in belonging to a School with Philosophy and Film Studies, academic disciplines with obvious stakes in any emergent refiguring of character (the former especially in the domain of moral philosophy, the latter especially in the field of filmic characterization).
Event typeOther