APLA at AAA 2018: Magical Thinking and Tinkering

How Social Actors Produce the Social in Times of Crisis and Reform

Saturday, November 17th 8:00 am – 9:45 am
San Jose Convention Center, MR 211 B
Invited by the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology

Occupy Greek Solidarity” by Michael Fleshman. Image cropped for use. CC BY-SA 2.0.

In a global context of forced mobility, growing inequality, and economic restructuring and austerity, actors in the social domain face an expanding sphere of intervention and, often, shrinking material resources to address it. Working through “relationality” to generate cohesion or “solidarity”, within and between citizens (Muehlebach 2011), these actors are tasked to give concrete shape to elusive ideals of a healed, revitalized social. Moreover, in contrast to those bureaucratically distributing or controlling benefits and access to citizenship (Auyero 2012, Dubois 2010, Ticktin 2011), they do so with little means to enforce or elicit citizens’ participation or compliance. In a context in which the impact of their work is fragile and hard to gauge, yet felt to be ethically urgent, how do actors (professionals, civil servants, volunteers) understand their own interventions into the social fabric? Building on recent approaches to bureaucratic work as inscribed in utopian aspirations to produce the public good (Bear and Mathmur 2015), we suggest that the practical work of conjuring a new social requires a particular modality of wishful thinking-cum-acting that can be usefully understood as analogous to magic and witchcraft, in the classic anthropological sense of the terms.

Bureaucratic acts and artefacts are similar to witchcraft rituals in that they generate resources through an opaque, invisible transformative power (Herzfeld 1992), leading in some cases to rumors of bureaucracies as occult economies (Aretxaga 2003; James 2012; Comaroff and Comaroff 1999). We want to expand this approach by emphasizing a different aspect of magic that is more fitting to the work of social actors who precisely want to move away from ‘cold’ bureaucratic procedures. Magic functions not only as a vessel or idiom of power, but also as “a pragmatic attitude, built up of reason, feeling and will alike” (Malinowksi 1982 [1948]: 24), allowing for meaningful action within and upon “chains of causation” (Evans-Pritchard 1976: 21) that are too complex to control or fully grasp. ‘Magic’ thus provides an analytical lens that allows to ask how clients perceive and try to ‘work’ social services and bureaucracies, as well as to ask how social actors themselves try to ‘work’ the social despite the limited realities of their work. Through what means do social actors infuse their actions and relations, which are often small and modest in scale, with a potency for influencing the social? What philosophies about the travelling of acts through the social body underpin their practices? How do they relate their own forms of “magical” thinking and tinkering of the social to the bureaucratic powers of state administrations?

Drawing upon ethnographically grounded papers that examine diverse aspirations and projects to reshape and heal the social across several regions (Europe, Japan, Latin America), this panel aims to offer an analytical perspective for exploring the magical modalities embedded in the conjuring of a new social, in a time in which global politics and everyday experience seem increasingly under the specter of magic, secrecy and the occult (Comaroff and Comaroff 2002).

Organizers: Milena Marchesi (Radboud University) and Anick Vollebergh (Radboud University Nijmegen)

Chair: Marieke van Ejik (University of Washington)

Discussants: Susan Hyatt (Indiana University, Purdue University at Indianapolis) and Ann Marie Leshkowich (College of the Holy Cross)


Disaster Preparedness through “Magical” Play: Designing New Socialities across Japan and Chile” by Chika Watanabe (University of Manchester)

Regenerative Welfare, Intense Affect, and Indirect Modelling: the Ethics and Magics of Social Work in Paris and Milan” by Anick Vollebergh (Radboud University Nijmegen)

The Magic of Solidarity: Managing Uncertainty in Austerity Greece” by Heath Cabot (University of Pittsburgh)

Urban Planners and the Production of the Social: Responses to the Accommodation of Asylum Seekers in Germany” by Maria Schiller (Max Planck Institute for the Study or Religious and Ethnic Diversity)

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