Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies

Rethinking Difference

Rethinking Difference: Beyond Language, Culture, and Indigeneity

The innovative format of this event promoted an optimum amount of high quality debate around a crucial topic within the field of anthropology and adjacent disciplines. Our aim was to explore the range of scholarly approaches to the analysis of cultural difference, seeking to get beyond the pitfalls of relativism and binary thinking that this may entail.

Lead panel. We began the day with a panel led by three leading international scholars, who have developed contrasting and complementary perspectives in their work.
Professor Andrew Canessa (University of Essex) spoke of his experience of studying indigeneity in an Aymara speaking region of Bolivia from the point of view of everyday existence, looking, in his words, ‘at the subtleties along the edges in an unequal and highly racist world’. The relationship between the mountains and the Aymara, which sustains quotidian human life in material and spiritual ways, is a central strand in his thinking.

Professor Catherine Allen (George Washington University) reflected on her long professional engagement with Quechua highlanders of southern Peru. Her ethnographic study of community ritual chewing of coca leaves, enlightened by a dramaturgical approach in which she acknowledges Goffman, opened up understandings of Quechua ways of relating to the natural world, in particular the mountain beings with whom they share their lives.

Professor Martin Holbraad (University College London) proposed a conceptual framework that links to the debate on the ontological turn (Stengers; Viveiros de Castro). Holbraad’s reflection interweaves his experience both as a philosopher and as an ethnographer of Cuba. He asks what conceptualisations we need in order to talk about the alterities we perceive, arguing the need for the analyst to develop a corresponding ‘alterity of thought’.

Keynote. Professor Marisol de la Cadena (University of California, Davis) followed, with an inspiring and thought-provoking Keynote Address entitled ‘Uncommoning Nature’. Her talk threw a spotlight on the part played by mountains as/and humans, in the political challenges lain down by Quechua peasant leaders from the southern highlands, to the central Peruvian state, in the context of its mineral extractivist economic policy.

Panels. The lead panel and the keynote prompted lively debate and laid the ground for the programme of panels that followed. Papers ranged across a wide range of themes, from human non-human relations in Bolivian, Peruvian, and Ecuadorian societies, to politics and indigeneity, and the discourses of language and identity. Speakers came widely from across the UK and included doctoral, early career, and established researchers. Some 50 people took part in the Conference, as speakers and participants in the discussions.

The keynote speech was delivered by Professor Marisol de la Cadena, University of California.
Panel Discussion video

Keynote speaker

Professor Marisol de la Cadena, University of California, Davis

Lead panellists

Professor Andrew Canessa, University of Essex
Professor Catherine J. Allen, George Washington University, D.C.
Professor Martin Holbraad, University College London


Rethinking Difference event programme (PDF: 375KB)
Rethinking Differences Abstracts (PDF: 600KB)

Publications by the lead panellists 

Martin Holbraad The Ontological Turn (link to Google books)
Catherine Allen The Living Ones (PDF: 560KB)
Andrew Canessa From foetuses to mountain ancestors (PDF: 5,961KB)