Skip to content

114th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association

Familiar/Strange; Denver, CO, November 18–22, 2015

For nearly six decades, Horace Miner’s tongue-in-cheek description of middle Americans’ body practices have introduced students to anthropology’s strategy of casting common sense in new light by making the familiar strange. Unlike so many little-read academic pieces, his 1956 sardonic spoof “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” remains by far the most downloaded article from the American Anthropologist. Despite its dated references to hair curlers—not to mention its assumptions about American gender relations—contemporary social science teachers and their students clearly find Miner’s piece resonant and instructive as an exercise in making the familiar strange.

The familiar/strange dyad, intended to spark an aha moment in Miner’s reader, is a durable disciplinary tool with a venerable history. Indeed, Edward Sapir called in 1921 for the destructive analysis of the familiar as anthropological method, and centuries before, the essayist Montaigne had described South American cannibals to the detriment of his French contemporaries. Both Clyde Kluckhohn’s 1944 and Clifford Geertz’s 1984 descriptions of anthropologists themselves as, respectively, eccentrics interested in bizarre things and merchants of astonishment indicate the 20th-century salience of the familiar/strange dyad.

However productive familiar/strange can be, whatever liberatory insights it may encourage, it also carries the historical freight of primivitism, whether in modernist or antimodernist forms. For decades, anthropologists and others have labored to make visible the invisible political-economic underpinnings of a disciplinary toolkit that compares us to them. Used without historical political-economic contextualization, the familiar/strange trope may veil past and present relations of power and powerlessness by race, class, caste, religion, and gender/sexuality, both within and across societies, thus obscuring more than it reveals.

But familiar/strange nevertheless continues to work productively as a strategy for knowing and communicating across sub-fields and genres of anthropology. Well-contextualized, it can denaturalize taken-for-granted frameworks and provide scaffolding for new-found, often empathetic engagement. It is mobilized across contemporary topics ranging from human biological variation, evolutionary history and the materiality of past lifeways, to the study of health disparities, linguistic practices, and activist, multimedia interventions that critically engage contemporary political contestations around the globe. Its ubiquity—its status as meme—provides all the more reason to scrutinize its multiple uses and effects.

In making Familiar/Strange our thematic focus for the 2015 AAA Annual Meeting we encourage reflection on the durability of this trope and the questions of power and inequality it sometimes elides, with the broader aim of stimulating exploration and expansion on what it simultaneously levers open and nails down. Anthropologists of diverse backgrounds and varied interests are thus invited to engage familiar/strange explicitly: its productive and liberatory as well as obstructive functions.

Our theme invites both anthropologists and our partners in knowing—the communities with whom we work, those whose pasts we engage, the public we aim to reach—to explore how processes of estrangement and familiarization operate as tools of knowledge production across anthropology’s breadth and in our interdisciplinary engagements. We look forward to receiving proposals that press us to grapple with both the problems and productivity of this durable tension in these early decades of our discipline’s second century.