Elements: matters, analytics, worlds

Daniel Fisher
Anthropology
UC Berkeley

Mei Zhan
Anthropology
UC Irvine


How do critical social and cultural inquiries matter in a world of matters? What does scholarship in and with the material from social scientific and humanistic corners enable in understanding the predicaments and ironies of the present? Such questions animate a wide array of scholarship across social scientific and humanistic scholarship. This research group takes reemerging interests in material-semiotic elements–such as air, water, fire, and earth that make up the world we inhabit–as a point of entry into a broader discussion of materiality, materialism, ethnographic praxis, and the possibilities of co-imagining and co-constituting worlds through ethnographic inquiry. Such elements may be conceived as material forces at work in the world, as heuristics that live historical lives, and also as agentive figures that trouble durable legacies of Cartesian dualism. Building on an ongoing collaboration among scholars at UCD, UCI, UCB, MIT, Rice U., and UPenn, all of whom have worked on topics in STS, medical anthropology, and the politics of Indigenous knowledge and ecological infrastructures, this group aims to deepen a productive conversation around elements as at once ‘cosmic’ matters, analytic categories, and media for the world-building work of its diverse interlocutors.