Reviewed by: National Association for the Practice of Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Social movements
Secondary Theme: The Political
Utopian thinking can be dangerous, disregarding entire social groups in order achieve an ideal society, or placing unwarranted faith in technological progress. Visions of utopia can elide historical inequalities, justifying political oppression or even eugenics movements. However, the visions enshrined in various bills of rights or those underlying the renewed push toward universal basic income have the potential to inspire and sustain progressive social movements, galvanizing broad coalitions around imagined egalitarian futures.
This interdisciplinary roundtable brings together scholars and practitioners from anthropology, design, and literature to discuss the utopias they encounter in their research. An anthropologist of international development considers the visions that guide organizations and individuals as they recover from disasters. A design researcher of social networks reflects on how individuals and corporations understand what it means to connect - and disconnect. A scholar of Afrofuturist and science fiction literature presents imagined futures and alternate histories that attempt to correct social injustices visited upon subaltern populations. What constraints are placed on these imaginings? What issues or groups are omitted from these utopias, and what separates ideal from reality?
Responding to development anthropologist James Ferguson’s call (2010) to move past “a politics largely defined by negation and disdain” and to replace the easier question of “what are we against?” with the harder question of “what do we want?”, this roundtable concludes with a discussion of what visions and ideals guide, challenge, or otherwise influence us personally in our work as activists, scholars, teachers, and citizens (broadly conceived). Inspired by and extending previous utopian visions, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Economic and Social Bill of Rights (1968), and putting them in conversation with contemporary progressive political movements, the participants reflect on the future of work, the future of democratic engagement, and what values transcend our respective disciplinary and institutional boundaries. How do we avoid the pitfalls of utopian thinking, balancing the necessity of critique with the equally urgent need to propose alternatives? How do we develop, articulate, and share these visions with our colleagues, the communities we engage with, and the public at large? How do we make these imagined futures a collective reality?