Before nation: Scale-blind anthropology and foragers’ worlds of relatives

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Cross-culturally, tiny hunter-gatherer-cultivator communities refer to themselves by such terms as “real people,” “humans,” and “kinspeople.” Anthropology has generally neglected their “we designations,” because its large-scale project is predicated on ethnonymic identifications. Ethnographers either assign these groups proper names or use the local terms as if they were proper names, leaving local identity categories understudied. Inspired by Benedict Anderson’s “styles” of imagining communities and the “ontological turn,” I argue that indigenous we designations reveal modes of “being many” unlike that expressed in the modern “nation.” The kin-based idiom used by the South Indian foragers that I consider in this article, in fact, signals a subversion of nation. Their mode of being many accommodates diverse members (including nonhumans) at the price of low scalability, whereas the national style assembles unlimited numbers of dispersed but similar members. Focusing on scale, scaling, and scalability, I question scholars’ inattention to locals’ self-determined horizons of concern when analyzing indigenous cultures and ontologies and to huge disparities in population size when comparing indigenous and Western societies. My case illustrates how scale-blind anthropology generally distorts understanding of tiny indigenous communities’ lifeways, ontologies, and political struggles.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)209-226
Number of pages18
JournalCurrent Anthropology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology


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