Tomsk State University
Department of History

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Nikolay Ssorin-Chaikov gives lectures on the anthropology of the gift and visual anthropology

On March 24–28, 2014, the well-known ethnographer and anthropologist, lecturer at the Department of social anthropology of Cambridge University, Nikolay Ssorin-Chaikov gave open lectures on the topics of ‘Anthropology of the gift’ and ‘Visual anthropology’, at the TSU Laboratory for social and anthropological research.

Up to 60 people attended the lectures regularly, among them – representatives of TSU departments of history, philosophy, economics, psychology, journalism, the TSU Higher School of Business, and Institute of Arts and Culture. Also, other Tomsk universities’ faculty and representatives of Tomsk organizations attended the course, including Tomsk Polytechnic University, Tomsk State Pedagogical University, Tomsk State University of Architecture and Building, and Tomsk regional museum of local history.  

The anthropology of the gift

Gift exchange is considered one of the fundamentals of the functioning of traditional and pre-state societies. ‘The theory of the gift’ constitutes a classic area of research in anthropology of the twentieth century and deals with the understanding of the traditional role of the gift and with the description of how, in so-called ‘modern’ societies, the gift exchange is gradually being displaced by the exchange of goods and market relations.  

During the lecture course, the classical theory of the gift was considered through the prism of contemporary ethnographical research and the two intertwined theoretical questions – first, what is the gift in ‘modern’ societies? In the creation of what relations is the gift involved? What are moral and social dilemmas of the gift? What do these dilemmas shed light on with regard to various types of modern society and, first and foremost, neoliberal culture matrices of modernity? Second, the course revealed how the very ‘modernity’ takes the form of the gift. The subject of analysis here is ‘development’, ‘modernization’, state and market reforms, the ‘blessings of civilization’, and international aid as a gift of modernity. How and by whom is this gift offered and received and how does it live? What relationships of the debt, dependence, and gratitude does it produce? The subject of comparative analysis here is colonial and neocolonial relations, state paternalism, and neoliberal messianism.

Topics of the lectures included the classical theory of the gift; the term ‘reciprocity’ and various interpretations of it; the issue of the gift in contemporary society and the issue of modernity in the theory of the gift; the development and modernization as a gift (philanthropy, humanitarian aid); empire as a gift (orientalism and the social distance between ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarity’); offerings, tributes, gifts to kings, tsars, secretaries-general, and presidents; approaches towards the cult of personality and the gifts to USSR leaders; diplomatic missions and diplomatic gifts; the gift and international law: natural and positive law.

As a result of the course, the participants became familiar with the theory of the gift and the gift exchange, the main stages of its development, and the socio-historical context thereof. They also got the idea of how modern society and neoliberal politics are understood in terms of the logics behind the gift. The lectures were thought to provide instruments for analyzing contemporary issues including in state reforms and international relations.

Visual anthropology

Within the course themed ‘Visual anthropology: introduction’, the attention was focused on issues of the ‘optical’ analysis of reality. In this context, visual anthropology is interpreted not only as ethnography which uses documentary methods but also as the study of the visible with the use of ethnographical methods. What is visible and what is not? What is the ratio of speech and silence? Is the limit of transparency an obstacle for understanding? These and other questions were looked at during the lectures based on ethnographical texts and films. The latter represented different genres and included such films as ‘Taiga Nomads’, directed by Heimo Lappalainen, 1993; ‘Jaguar’, directed by Jean Rouch, 1955-1967; ‘Seven up series’, directed by Michael Apted, 1964, etc. The difference in the genres was based on the textual and visual presence in the work of a researcher/director and the ratio of this presence and the voice and vision of informants themselves. As these examples showed, both in visual and textual representation, anthropological work by an ethnographer involves a dialogue.

When creating the ‘Taiga Nomads’ film, Nikolay Ssorin-Chaikov acted as a research adviser and the discussion of this film sparked a particular interest among the participants. During nearly a year, from the beginning of autumn to the middle of summer, film makers had been watching the life of the Evenki society in several locations. Captured on camera were the traditional nomadic ways of life, the life of Evenki children in a care home and their education in Soviet school, as well as the forms of local government of native small-numbered peoples of Siberia. At first sight, it seems, there is no author narration in the film – it is the Evenkis who tell about their life. However, the subsequent discussion of the film helped reveal the author’s voice and vision in the very problem statement, the choice of connection layouts, and the organization of the storyline.

Empirical case studies taken from the films, photographs, and texts shed light on various anthropological approaches to the analysis of visible social and cultural phenomena. During the course, attention was paid to the concepts by Pierre Bourdieu (the issue of visuality as a cultural phenomenon); by Clifford Geertz (the impact of globalization and decolonization of the life of contemporary ‘aboriginals’); by Nikolay Ssorin-Chaikov and Joseph Kosuth (ethnographical conceptualism and museum ethnography as an art); by Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Clyde Kluckhohn, and Margaret Mead (the supervision and surveillance in the societies of control, the limits of transparency, and the ‘optics’ in social life).

Thus, if historically anthropologists were mostly interested in local cultures and their so-called ‘vanishing scenery’, whereas the concept of discourse ethnography is being introduced at present. Social reality can be studied not only in terms of territorial loci but within thematic fields as well. New study subjects here are ‘technoscapes’, ‘ethnoscapes’, ‘mediascapes’, ‘ideoscapes’, and other streams within which words, people and other things travel. And here the central question for a visual anthropologist, as is the case for other humanities researchers, remains that of how much of the observed reality is accurate within the limits of accepted interpretations.

More on the lectures by N. Ssorin-Chaikov please see here:

Listen to what they say

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The project "Man in a Changing World. Identity and Social Adaptation: Past and Present" is funded by the Russian Government
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