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The ambiguities of kidney disease amongst Yolŋu renal patients in Australia’s Northern Territory
Stefanie Puszka

Chronic diseases such as kidney disease and the way they are governed can lead to uncertain bodily states, social conditions and temporalities of life. Yolŋu, an Australian Indigenous people, are afflicted by an epidemic of kidney disease. Through ethnographic research with Yolŋu patients and public health actors, the chapter considers how the uncertainties of kidney disease are mobilised and politicised in attempts to shape the governance of renal services. Drawing on F.G. Bailey, the chapter explores the conflicts and contradictions that arise within biomedicine and its intersection with Yolŋu practices of kinship and health, and how they are navigated and exploited by patients and in healthcare systems. The chapter argues that medical risk technologies do not necessarily lead to bodily certainty, and can institutionalise ambiguity by transforming social and temporal dimensions of health. The chapter shows that practices of strategic ignorance amongst some public health actors, and relations of care and alliance between patients and health professionals, offer an alternative means to governing health through the ambiguities of kidney disease and dialysis treatment. These moves do not seek to resolve underlying tensions and contradictions in renal patients’ health and care, enabling epistemic openness and moments of alliance between Yolŋu and public health objectives.

in The anthropology of ambiguity
Interfacing between alternative economics and entrepreneurial innovation in Ecuador
Alexander Emile D’Aloia

The Popular Solidarity Economy (PSE) in Ecuador is a form of heterodox economics originally promoted by previous left-wing governments as an alternative to neoliberal capitalism. At the same time, government and NGO staff employed to promote it pushed the importance of ‘added value’ – a concept that closely aligns with global cultures of entrepreneurialism. Precisely what the value was or how one was supposed to add it, however, was never made clear. At times added value aligned closely with modern management concepts of ‘value-added propositions’; at other times it referred to the labour and sociality behind goods and services. This chapter explores the ambiguity of ‘added value’ to make a methodological contribution. While anthropologists of policy have often explicitly or implicitly acknowledged the ambiguity of what policy is, I argue that it is important to make these assumptions explicit. The goal is not to argue for a specific definition of ‘policy’ but rather to highlight how our techniques for analysis affect the knowledge we generate. Consequently, by making them explicit, we can best judge the insights of others and work toward generating alternative analyses. In describing how I approached the challenging analysis of ‘added value’, I offer an alternative analytical technique for approaching the ambiguity of policy, one that does not automatically assume that policy only ever serves to paste over the gaps.

in The anthropology of ambiguity
Abstract only
Sitting and being with ambiguity
Mahnaz Alimardanian
Timothy Heffernan

Drawing on the magic and power embedded in ambiguity as it is highlighted in dramatic literature, the editors’ afterword reviews the key themes of the volume from not-knowing to temporality, uncertainty and otherwise. The chapter encapsulates ambiguity’s definitions, reflections, projections and feedback across the ethnographic contexts of the book. It concludes by emphasising the power of sitting and being with ambiguity as it creates fields of openness, timelessness and plasticity; and of the importance of ambiguity’s feedback in social analysis.

in The anthropology of ambiguity
Crises of understanding in the age of COVID- 19
David J. Rosner

This chapter discusses the interrelation between contingency, uncertainty and ambiguity as applied to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will ground this analysis in a discussion of a specific cultural context, that of the USA. The chapter will start, in the spirit of a philosophical anthropology, with analyses of how catastrophes, such as pandemics, world wars, natural disasters and genocides, suddenly reveal the uncertainty, contingency and ambiguity of the world. The chapter then explores how specific cultural and political factors in the USA unfolded in such a way that COVID-19 produced a particularly deep and recalcitrant sense of epistemological trauma and a crisis of understanding. Arguments will then be offered to show that, when perspectives of open-endedness, open-mindedness and humility are embraced, new perspectives, scientific advances and novel solutions to existing problems are more easily produced.

in The anthropology of ambiguity
The suppression of complexity in Australian governmental responses to climate change
Jonathan P. Marshall

Simone de Beauvoir insisted that ambiguity and uncertainty are important parts of human life, ethics and politics, and yet people often defend themselves against this ambiguity. Ambiguity arises because humans live within extended complex systems, which are unpredictable in detail, difficult to conceive and hard to put boundaries around. De Beauvoir herself downplays ambiguities in the name of ‘freedom’ and avoids extending ethical concern to the nonhuman world because she considers it ‘determined’ with little value. Martin Buber’s writings on relationality help us understand varieties of concern and suggest ways concern can be both extended and retracted. These understandings are used here to explore the ways that Australian climate and energy policy suppresses (or creates) ambiguity and avoids facing up to problems of complexity, largely through ‘the religion of The Market’. This is illustrated through considerations of: a) current government policy, b) the construction of the New Energy Market, and c) the then political oppositions’ alternatives. The chapter argues that openness to ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity and the unintended consequences of human interaction with the ecological world are essential for dealing with problems of climate change and ecological destruction.

in The anthropology of ambiguity
Marginalised activists, powerful agents of change
Sabrina Steindl-Kopf

This chapter examines collective action in a postsocialist and postwar city, arguing that ambiguity is an integral part of contemporary activism and essential to the dynamics of Belgrade’s bike activist movement. Ambiguity was entrenched in activists’ narration of an ‘Other Serbia’ as a powerful marker of their own identity and their imagining of a better future. An ‘Other Serbia’ incorporated tropes of crisis, morality and Balkanism, creating moral simplifications of Serbian society and politics. By engaging with these moral simplifications activists’ imaginations produced ambiguous situations in their daily practices and constituted challenges to their engagement. Activists manoeuvred ambiguous situations through the particular conceptualisation of their activism as anti-politics – the moral and affective opposite of mainstream politics. Through transparent actions activists put forward their trustworthiness vis-à-vis ‘corrupt’ others and assured themselves of the legitimacy and rightness of their cause. In so doing, activists addressed perceived ambiguity by taking action and initiating concrete activities that were believed to improve mobility in the city and the lives of cyclists.

in The anthropology of ambiguity
Gil Hizi

This chapter describes shifting ethical standpoints within pursuits of person-making. It highlights the centrality of indeterminacy, as a state of ambiguity, in people’s attempt to achieve moral and economic competency and how this phenomenon is heightened by the market economy. This is particularly evident in individuals’ engagement with self-cultivation practices, where they seek to alter and evaluate their behaviours. Drawing on a study of young adults who attend workshops for interpersonal skills in urban China, and in particular, one woman interlocutor, the author delineates how technologies for self-cultivation juxtapose workplace demands, familial values and changing life circumstances. Under global capitalism, these practices illuminate and reinforce people’s multiplicity of ethical priorities and their challenge of achieving existential mastery across social life. This indeterminacy reveals the limits of Foucault-inspired paradigms of neoliberal subject-making when describing processes of person-making.

in The anthropology of ambiguity

The concept of ambiguity – as context, state, situation or feeling – is defined as possessing many things at once (or perhaps being less than this or coming to be nothing at all) resembling both confusion and a position from which clarity might emerge. Moving beyond now dominant expressions of ‘certainty’ and ‘uncertainty’ in a world affected by viral contagion, climate change, economic instability, labour precarity and (geo)political tension, this volume considers the concept of ambiguity as a mode of expression, narration, process, condition, impediment or, indeed, as the grounds for launching critique. Each chapter challenges assumptions about ambiguity by positioning the concept at the centre of theorising to consider it as method, methodology, or a form of sense-making in life and in ethnography. In turn, this volume illuminates how anthropologists embrace the confusing albeit rich nature of ambiguity as it is encountered in the field as well as in the making of ethnography, thereby highlighting its generative and destructive modes as the source of dynamism across knowledge-experience, certainty-uncertainty, and ontology-nonontology. The works of Simone de Beauvoir and the Manchester School of anthropology are used as a conceptual guide throughout.

Menara Guizardi
Carolina Stefoni
, and
Elenora López

This chapter analyzes Bolivian women’s relations with the Chilean state through its agencies and local officials. Three thematic axes delimit its main discussions: (1) the processes of migratory documentary regularization; (2) access to public health; and (3) access to housing. The main objective of the chapter is to show how borderization processes led by the Bolivian and Chilean states have a particular impact on the women due to the intersectionality of their migratory, gender, and ethnic status. The ethnographic findings reveal an intimate relationship between the violations operated by the Chilean state by denying basic rights to these women, and their mobilities and the development of female agency. Furthermore, these data show that transborder displacements are strategies performed by women to solve everyday family problems.

in The elementary structuring of patriarchy
Menara Guizardi
Herminia Gonzálvez
, and
Eleonora López

This chapter analyzes the testimonies of Bolivian Aymara women about the relationship between the unequal constitution of gender divisions of labor in their families of origin, the productive and reproductive overloads faced by them and their female relatives, and the articulation of transborder chains of care that sustain these women’s mobilities. The chapter starts with an overview of the application of the concept of care in the study of transnational and transborder mobility. Then, the female testimonies are analyzed to show the contradictions the gender mandate implies for the migrant women. The chapter also deepens in the patterns of overload that the interviewees experience and the feminine chains of mutual support that they articulate to respond to gender inequalities. Finally, it resizes some key concepts applied in the studies of transnational female migration to provide them with analytical precision in contexts where mobilities are articulated from the ethnic structuring of kinship.

in The elementary structuring of patriarchy