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Imagining the Future: Aspirations for Change and the Ruins of Progress


June 15-17, 2023


Dr. Kathrin Eitel, UZH

Prof. Annuska Derks, UZH


Prof. Penelope Harvey, University of Manchester and Prof. Karen Waltorp, University of Copenhagen 


This CUSO workshop is an invitation to critically interrogate ideas, aspirations and ruins of progress. The idea of progress, and its associates modernization and development, may seem hopelessly outdated. However, assumptions and aspirations of improvement are with us everywhere (Tsing 2015: 20) – they are part of our daily life, inscribed in technological fixes that seek to tackle various social and ecological issues, and determine future imaginations. The ideology of progress also continues to prevail across economic, political as well as scientific institutions (Brightman and Lewis 2017: 2). Innovation, as a means to achieve progress, has become the buzzword of our time and is often presented as a driver of change and panacea for a myriad of problems that we face in our current era. Anthropologists are well positioned to challenge these beliefs in progress and innovation by being able to trace empirically the multiple understandings and processes involved in the un/making of these ideologies 'at work'. Anthropological studies have long pointed out the contradictions, uses and abuses, and afterlives of ideas of progress, triggering processes of overheating (Eriksen 2017), environmental destruction and increasing inequalities as well as prompting imaginations of a better future and new forms of life. We invite PhD students from anthropology to reflect on how assumptions, expectations, enactments and afterlives of (technological) progress figure in their ethnographic research projects. The main focus of the workshop is to understand the processes that shape inequitable prevailing ideologies of progress at different research sites. By also focusing on power asymmetries, postcolonial and heteronormatively constructed narratives and images about technology, innovation and improvement, the workshop aims to demystify (onto-)normative concepts of progress and unveil the multiplicity of perspectives and the sociocultural constructions of knowledge and technology (cf. Knox 2020). By establishing a comparative base, doctoral students will be invited not only to share their initial findings, but also to collaboratively elaborate and analyze the prevailing ideologies of progress that thwart their globally distributed research projects. Questions we might ask are: How is (the ideology of) progress made and unmade in our contemporary world? How can we understand this persistent 'will to improve' (Li 2007)? What kinds futures are imagined? How are innovation and technology presented, promoted and implemented as solutions for problems as diverse as climate change, infertility, food security, sustainable energy, or poverty? What unforeseen outcomes and (dis)connections are created in the process? Who is benefitting? Who and what is overlooked? What sorts of new moral selves and economies are being put into practice? How do ideas, practices and outcomes of progress shape global interconnections, as well as the interconnections between humans and nonhumans? And what are the afterlives of progress? This workshop will be of interest for PhD students conducting research in a broad range of fields. This includes but is not limited to: technology and digitalization, development and inequality, climate change and political ecology, labour arrangements and new forms of work, medical and reproductive technologies, infrastructure and human-nonhuman relations.


Monte Verita, Ascona


Participation fee: CHF 60 

For students of the CUSO universities (Geneva, Lausanne, Neuchâtel and Fribourg) and from the universities of Bern, Zürich, Luzern and Basel, accommodation and meals are organised and covered by the CUSO doctoral program in anthropology. Travel expenses will be reimbursed based on half-fare train ticket (2nd class) from the student's university to the place of the activity.



Deadline for registration 02.05.2023
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