Virginia University; Edimburgh University

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Kath Weston is a British Academy Global Professor at the University of Edinburgh and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia. Her current research focuses on bodies and visceral engagement in ways that draw on political ecology, kinship, the anthropology of finance, STS, and identity politics. Weston's books include Animate Planet: Making Visceral Sense of Living in a High-Tech Ecologically Damaged World (Duke 2017), Traveling Light: On the Road with America's Poor (Beacon 2008), and Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship (2nd ed. Columbia 1997). Her British Academy award project, now underway, is titled, Body Finance: How a Scientific Revolution and a Credit Revolution Combined to Change the Way We Make Money.

Academic profile.






Counterfactual Ethnography:

Imagining What It Takes to Live Differently

 Kath Weston

British Academy Global Professor, Social Anthropology, University of Edinburgh

Professor of Anthropology, Anthropology, University of Virginia


Not since the emergence of the concept of fact in early modern European legal history and its migration into the domain of science has the fact, in its categorical sense, drawn so much attention and sparked so much controversy. Headlines mourn the demise of fact-based reasoning and worry about the proliferation of technologically enhanced "deepfakes" that alter images in ways which allow them to be mistaken for originals. Professors create lectures on "the invention of the fact" to provide context for changing political circumstances. At the same time, counterfactual narratives have gained prominence as a means for imagining what it would take to live differently in a world marked by profound inequality and ecological crisis. Counterfactual "what if" narratives consider paths not taken: how things would or could have turned out differently "if only" X had done Y or Z had never happened. Suppose the conquistador Hernán Cortés had never been born. What would have changed? Imagine that locally generated electricity with direct current had triumphed over centralized alternating current and all container ships had solar sails. What would the world be like now? History, philosophy, and literature have all played in the fields of counterfactualism with the goal of denaturalizing contemporary social arrangements. Even more striking, then, that anthropology, which has fostered many forms of experimental ethnography and made denaturalization its province, has scarcely participated in either the generation or the analysis of counterfactual scenarios. Why should this be so? Is it simply that anthropology has always made it its business to highlight the diversity that emerges from universal capacities shared by humans, and thus has no need to resort to "what-if" scenarios in order to denaturalize, or is there something more? In an era of engaged anthropology, does counterfactual ethnography have anything to contribute to the changes that many hope to see in the world, and if so, what would counterfactual ethnography look like?






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