Navigation auf


ISEK - Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies Social and Cultural Anthropology

Human Existence, Individuals and Relations

International Symposium

University of Zurich
Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies
18-19 October 2019
Room: AND 3.44 on 18 October and AND 4.02 on 19 October


Anthropology has hardly dealt with the individual “as such”, it has rarely empirically researched them, discussed their nature, structure, cultural malleability and position within society. We see an urgent need for this discussion. May it be noted that anthropology’s discussions about “individualism” as an ideological construct, emic “concepts of the person” or the “biographical approach” that aims at understanding life-histories are not empirical studies of individuals.

This need arises from the fact that anthropology loses sight of the individual in the course of data collection and writing up of research results. Anthropologists encounter individuals in the field, interact with them and observe them. At the same time, anthropology has established itself as a social science that focusses on shared patterns of behavior, social and cultural structures. Therefore, it is the researcher’s main interest to abstract social and cultural patterns from his or her experiences with individuals. Correspondingly, anthropologists write about individuals as performers of social roles, members of social groups, individuals share their experiences with others and their lives exemplify general patterns. The individual “as such” - as a unit to be studied in itself - disappears from the anthropologists’ writings and appears to be superfluous in the context of the anthropological project. Their relevance for the anthropological project thus remains unclear. We would like to clarify the individuals’ status and importance for anthropology.

The need for this discussion, so we argue, can also be read from the fact that the individual has not entirely been muted in the course of the history of anthropology. The individual resurfaces time and again from Kluckhohn and Murray (1948: 53) to Nadel (1951: 91-97) to Reyna (2002: 132-133) without, however, having been taken up and turned into a subject of discussion. In recent years, the idea to study the individual and to clarify its status within anthropology has slowly gained impetus. Writers like Michael Jackson (2005) apply ideas from existential philosophy to their writings and authors like Nigel Rapport (1997), Albert Piette (2019) and Jan Patrick Heiss (2015) openly raise the question how we should conceive the individual and research it.

Within the context of this discussion, the role of relations deserves special attention as many an anthropologist conceives the individual as products or nodal points of social relations (Ingold 2013: 9, Law 1997) whereas some others accord a largely independent status to the individual and perceive them as nearly completely free to interpret the world and to act within the limits set by external conditions (Rapport 2003: 84-85). As the example of sociologist Georg Simmel (1999 [1917]) shows, a position that would occupy the middle ground would also be possible. For Simmel, individuals exist in themselves, they are embedded in social relations and carry within them the traces of social relations. However, Simmel did neither reduce individuals to beings entirely determined by social relations nor did he think them as entirely free.

Within the purview of our conference, we intend to discuss the individual “as such”, their nature, structure and malleability and place a special emphasis on the role and weight of social relations in and for their lives.

The conference is supported by SNF and UZH Alumni.


Preliminary program

“Human Existence, Individuals and Relations”


Friday, 18 October 2019





Heiss, Jan Patrick, PD Dr., University of Zurich

            Some Introductory Remarks on Our Topic



--- Break ---



Empirical studies



Torterat, Gwendolyne, Dr., University of Paris Nanterre, France

Observer un être humain au travail. Quelques propositions méthodologiques pour en restituer sa singularité



--- Break ---




Clough, Paul, Prof. Dr., University of Malta, Malta

The Ethnographic Study of One Individual Over a Long Term: its implications for research on undocumented West African immigrants in Europe



Heiss, Jan Patrick, PD Dr., University of Zurich, Switzerland

Traces of the longue durée in Individuals



--- Lunch ---



Highlighting Traits of The Individual



Lems, Annika, Dr., Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle, Germany

The Existential Kinetics of Lifeworlds: Thinking Individual Lives between Wholes and Parts



Piette, Albert, Prof. Dr., University of Paris West Nanterre, France

A Tale of Neanderthal or Indifference as A Condition for Collective Life



--- Break ---



Studying Individuals



Quack, Johannes, Prof. Dr., University of Zurich, Switzerland

Reflections On The Relationship between Studying Anthropos and Studying




Montes, Stefano, Dr., University of Palermo, Italy

Individuals in Theories, Cultures and Fieldworks



--- Dinner ---



Saturday, 19 October 2019


Semiotic perspectives



Walsh Matthews, Stéphanie, Prof. Dr., Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada

Individual Failings for a Semiotic Fitness



Tsala Effa, Didier, Prof. Dr., University of Limoges, France

Forme sémiotique de l’individu: au gré des dispositifs



--- Break ---



Theoretical papers



Kneubühler, Marine, PhD candidate, University of Lausanne, Switzerland

Le volume comme forme pour penser l’unité de l’être humain vivant en société



Poletti, Samuele, Dr., University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Towards an Intersubjective-I: Prospects for an Existential Anthropology 



--- Lunch ---




Wardle, Huon, Dr., University of St. Andrews, United Kingdom

Cosmopolitan interiority: Georg Simmel, and the Ambiguous Power to Legislate A Social World of the Individual’s Own Making



Gardner, Don, Dr., i.R., University of Lucerne, Switzerland

Reflections on A Severed Toe: Anthropology, Agency and Temporality



--- Break ---



Final discussion 15:30-16:15h


Summing up and next steps





Further information: