Different But Not Different: Ethnographies of Substitution

Organizers: Nandita Badami (UC Irvine) and Katie Ulrich (Rice)

“Substitution” is a mathematical operation, an element of the scientific method, a labor management technique, a consumer choice, a manufacturing strategy, and even a political maneuver. Material regimes of substitution are imagined both as simple replacements, as is the case with the business plans of entire industries that churn out food substitutes for meat, gluten and sugar; as well as innovations that enable function in excess of original form, like prosthetics that enhance human capability beyond mere able-bodiedness. While substitution and equivalence have made up our conceptual infrastructure of exchange value for centuries, complex algorithmic encryption mechanisms (in which digital characters are substituted for one another) have recently begun to dictate our everyday landscapes of contemporary informational exchange. Some substitutes, like patented replacement parts, are designed to be specialized parts of highly technical closed systems; others give way to open systems through processes of informal repair and bricolage. Erstwhile regimes of substitutes are replaced by newer ones framed with different moralities as we turn increasingly from synthetics to organics, from plastics to biodegradables. 

In focusing on “substitution” as an analytic we follow anthropologists who have theorized modes of relationality that are at once anthropological objects encountered in the field as well as conceptual methodologies in themselves, such as comparison (Choy 2011), equivocation (de la Cadena 2015) and placeholders (Riles 2011). While the formal act of substitution may seem straightforward, we hope to decenter the assumptions that inform it by questioning how similarity and difference are conceived, come to matter, and when. To this end, the panel is interested in the ideological work that the concept and/or act of substitution performs as an ordering device. We are looking for papers that could include (but are not necessarily limited to) the following considerations: 

  • The manner in which substitutive processes structure the way we imagine change, producing the conditions for what is possible to think
  • The political and ethical stakes involved in how transitions are materially figured as processes of substitution
  • The underlying assumptions that inform our conception of what substitution entails, including relations of difference that are in excess of simple oppositional relation (or replacement)

We welcome papers that engage with our core theme conceptually within a wide range of geographical contexts and ethnographic topics, including but not limited to: magic, models, metrics, fakes and copies, money and exchange, codes and encryption, automation, mechanization, generic drugs, prosthetics, synthetics, renewable energy, activism.

Please send your abstracts (250 words) to Nandita Badami (nbadami@uci.edu) and Katie Ulrich (kmu@rice.edu) by Thursday, March 28.

Choy, Tim. 2011. Ecologies of Comparison: An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

de la Cadena, Marisol. 2015. Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Riles, Annelise. 2011. Collateral Knowledge: Legal Reasoning in the Global Financial Markets. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.