Author Archives: Patrick LAVIOLETTE


About Patrick LAVIOLETTE

Dept. of Social & Cultural Anthropology, Tallinn University, Estonia

EASA review

Theodoros Kyriakides (a doctoral candidate in the anthropology of illness at the University of Manchester) provides a blog review for Savage Minds of the recent 13th Biennial EASA conference, held at Tallinn University in Estonia from 31 July to 3 August.

Over at the Allegra site, one can find some recent interviews with EASA President Noel Salazar as well as the co-chairs of the conference’s scientific committee, Carlo Cubero and Patrick Laviolette. A visual archive of the conference has also been collated.


Best of Material World Blog: Landscape and Place

Patrick Laviolette (EHI, Tallinn University, hosts of EASA2014)

In terms of providing reflections on the material dimensions of place and landscape, here are some links to what I feel have been amongst the more provocative postings on the blog over the years. Many of the authors to the links below implicitly, or sometimes even explicitly ask: how do we depict our spatial experiences through the digital medium of blogging?

In Feb 2007, Graeme Were put up a piece simply entitled ‘Footpaths‘ by Kate Cameron-Daum. It is an eye-catching post which stirred my own curiosity on methods of walking, particularly in the countryside. Similarly, Peter Oakley’s observations at Tyntesfield house in A Roof with a View, reflects upon the postmodern condition of a heritage site standing below some scaffolding.

With some contrast perhaps, Dimitris Dalakoglou’s research summary on roads in the border region of Albania and Greece talks of movement, fixity and transgressive ‘materiality’. In a stunning photo-montage, Tony Whincup’s Water on Water project equally raises politically charged issues over morality, national agendas and cross-cultural understandings.

David Sutton’s post Looking Good gives MW readers an informative review of Cristina Grasseni monograph Developing Skill, Developing Vision (Berghahn, 2009) — a book about the environment and so much more. Similarly, anthropologist and curator Claire Melhuish provides a review of the exhibition ‘Land Architecture People‘.

In keeping with the themes of design and urban space, Jo-Anne-Bichard & Gail Knight posted a ‘toiletscape’ piece that is both fun as well as seriously challenging at the same time. Aliine Lotman’s research synopsis on ‘Dumpster Diving‘, waste and disgust in Barcelona equally captures much of the essence to approaches grounded in material culture studies (i.e. those which are anthropologically informed whilst also being innovative, inter-disciplinary and ethnographically rich).

Similarly, an in-depth posting in our ‘Occasional Papers Series (no.3)’ by Sabrina Bradford & Abby Loebenberg recently sparked the possibility of rethinking the impacts of hurricane Katrina. Theirs is a multi-media reflection on ‘disaster landscapes’, a theme which resonates with my last two selections from MW blog postings.

Matt Voigts (picking up on a reoccurring public transport meme which Aaron has also identified as one of his favourites) sent a digest on memorialisation cycles. It is a telling personal account in the vein of ‘contemporary past archaeologies’. In seeing a ‘ghost-bike‘ relic, he reveals how things of mourning can create social affects upon both our historical imaginaries as well as the design possibilities for urban planning.

And at around the same time, Francisco Martinez & Larissa Vanamo offered us an astute interview from a few years back with the fascinating and controversial ‘doomsday prophet’ Pentti Linkola.



Theorising Personal Medical Devices: New Perspectives

CfP, Symposium hosted by the Social Analysis of Health Network, Cantab

Closes Monday 14 July

Having worked with Professor Julienne Hanson at the Bartlett School of Graduate Studies for some time, I became increasingly aware of the relationships between materiality and social well-being. Indeed, there is currently some fascinating scholarship on the issues dealing with ethnography and technology as well as the home, the indi-vid(s)ual and collective forms of medical care.

This current symposium CfP is a fine example of this, featuring medical anthropologists known in the UCL community as well as within EASA and other networks.

For further info please see:

Social Analysis of Health Network (SAHN) website:


18-19 September 201, Post-doctoral Suite, 16 Mill Lane, University of Cambridge.

Fuelled by the accelerating pace of technological development and a general shift to personalised, patient-led medicine alongside the growing Quantified Self and Big Data movements, the emerging field of personal medical devices is one which is advancing rapidly across multiple domains and disciplines – so rapidly that conceptual and empirical understandings of personal medical devices, and their clinical, social and philosophical implications, often lag behind new developments and interventions. Personal medical devices – devices that are attached to, worn by, interacted with, or carried by individuals for the purposes of generating biomedical data and/or carrying out medical interventions with/on the person concerned – have become increasingly significant in clinical and extra-clinical contexts owing to a range of factors including the growth of multimorbidity and chronic disease in ageing populations and the increasing sophistication and miniaturisation of personal devices themselves.

Paper proposals should of: a paper title, authors/co-authors, a short abstract of fewer than 300 characters, a long abstract of fewer than 250 words.

Submissions from both early career and more established researchers are welcome, with a small number of the presentation slots reserved for early-career researchers (i.e. doctoral students or researchers in their first post-doctoral position). Thanks to Wellcome Trust funding we are also able to offer a limited amount of funding towards travel costs and cost of attendance for three early career presenters. Please specify if you would like to be considered for this.


CfP Materialities of Religious Engagement

CfP for papers to be included as part of panel proposal called ‘materialities of religious engagement’ for this year’s British Association for the Study of Religions conference.

Where: This year’s BASR conference will be held at The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.

When: 3rd-5th September, 2014.

250 word abstracts may be sent by 16.06.’14


Rethinking the Technophobia of Old Believers

Kriistina Pilvet (EHI, Tallinn Univ.)

This posting deals with the Old Believer’s congregation of Piirissaare — a little island situated in lake Peipus which makes up part of the Russian-Estonian border. The main focus of this case study is the interaction of their identity and the modern technology they use in order to perform their culture in the peripheral region of one of Europe’s more avant-garde ICT countries.

Normative discourse on Old Believers, especially in Estonia, has often presumed some insularity, un-moderness and technophobic behaviour from the representatives of the given congregation. This narrative is so embedded in the representation of Old Believer’s that it has become a ‘norm’. Several different sources starting from academic publications in anthropology (Dolitsky & Kuzmina 1986; Vorontsova 2000; Filatova ; Ziolkowska 2011) and ending with different travel agency brochures and web sites (, as well as ethnographic films (Brummend 2011) tend to associate Old Believers with traditionalism and a restrained way of life. Such sources thereby contrast this situation with what the modern audience may call “nowadays modern lifestyle” which involves several different interactions with the material world in a most contemporary manner. It has thus been assumed that technology in its digital and industrial manifestation has been prohibited in the vastness of the current field.

The boundary between traditional and modern has been clearly lined in the context of the given field. But if to look deeper into the subject, we realise that those binary oppositions are actually creations of the modern world itself which attempt (via those imageries) to contrast themselves from the Old Believers, thus expanding the gap between the rest of the world and the Old Believer congregation. These actions manage to work as constant hints for the ‘otherness’ of the community. My observations of the field in the given congregation has lead me to alternative conclusions; it is that Old Believers have always interacted with the modern world in the terms of the values and technological innovations which progress may offer. Moreover, they have never denied the usage of technology within their everyday doings.

Technology in the given congregation has become a part of their culture, since it serves as a means of reproducing their traditional actions. In the ceremonial life of the Old Believers, they have preserved many elements of an older time. However, in the modern areas of their living, some innovations in the rites of their life cycle together with the local specificity have appeared. It is that technology does not contradict the traditional in the given example because those seemingly binary opposites manage to work hand in hand by complementing each other. Technology is seen as a highlighter of the true Old Believer identity since it improves their traditional practices. Roughly speaking, technology may function as a method of becoming a ‘better’ Old Believer.

Fishing is considered by me as the most characteristic features of the complex ‘identity-set’ for the Old Believers of Piirissaare. The geographical location of the island has contributed to their everyday-life. Today, even the most ‘old school’ inhabitant of Piirissaare accompanies his fishing practices with several technological innovations such as GPS devices, motorboats, motorbikes, mobile phones (Horst & Miller 2006) and so on. It is perceived as an inherent element of their everyday-life doings since it manages to improve the practices and simultaneously reproduces the identity of Piirissaare’s Old Believers.

Peipus pier

Fig. 1 Piirissaare pier (Lake Peipus 2013, photo by the author).

The island’s overall appearance constantly alludes on their traditional practices, demonstrating its most commonly used facilities within the main landscape of the place (Fig. 1). By walking along the closely pressed houses that are traditionally lined up in the row, creating the long and narrow street, you can find numerous stakes that are covered with the fishing nets which have been put up there in order to get dry or in some cases to get fixed. The overall action usually takes place in front of the house, rarely if ever the requisite is situated behind the house.

This is the place where also the disassembled motors of the boats and old motorbikes are often ‘presented’, thereby not allowing to forget the true essence of the island (Fig. 2). The smaller technological devices used in fishing (GPS devices, mobile phones) are revealed solely in the lake, during the fishing procedure, when they are used for the initial purpose. At that same time as their usage, technology adopts its meaning. It becomes one in the case when it is used – outside of the human context it stops to function as a technology. “It is a system that contains itself a technological device and a human who uses it, maintains and repairs it” (Dusek 2006: 33). Despite the picturesque view of the technological devices in the front yard of their houses, they start to function as one only within the lake when they are used.

Peipus boats

Fig. 2 Old Believer boats (Peipus 2013, photo by the author).

GPS devices manage to designate the location of fish, whereas mobile phones serve for the designation of the fisherman themselves. One of my informants once claimed: “ I don’t even remember when there was a last time when I went fishing on the lake without the GPS device with me, it has become so normative.” Thus, usage of those devices together with the motorboats that allow them to move faster and the motorbikes that are used for transporting the heavy engines to the pier, have become normative for the Piirissaaare’s Old Believer’s due to their auxiliary factor within the system of their working habits.

Work (fishing in particular), as one of the defining elements of the Piirissaare’s Old Believer’s identity is improved by the means of modern technology. Taking this into consideration, the initial boundary that was set up between the traditional and the modern fails to work as confronting in the given case, since ‘oppositions’ are working in a reciprocal relation. Modern, in the face of technology, manages to highlight traditional (fishing) and thus reproduces the characteristic features of Old Believer identity. They do not suspend themselves from the modern world and the innovations that this world may offer. On the contrary, they manage to carry their values through life, simultaneously adapting in the modern world.


Brummund, Marc (dir). 2011 Film: Fish and Onion. Doco film.

Dolintsky, A. & L. Kuzmina. 1986. Cultural Change vs. Persistence: A Case from Old Believer Settlements. Artic. 39(3): 223-231.

Dusek,V. 2006. Philosophy of Technology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Horst, H. & D. Miller 2006. The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication.Oxford: Berg.

Vorontsova, L. & S. Filatov 2000. “Paradoxes of the Old Believer Movement”. Religion, State & Society. 28(1): 53-67.

Ziolkowska, M. 2011. “Anthroponynmy as Element Identificational Minority. The Characteristics of Polish Old Believer’s Names”. ESUKA – JEFUL. 2(1): 383-398.

Jacques Le Goff [1924-2014]

Born on January 1st 1924 in Toulon, historian Jacques Le Goff has died on 1 April in Paris aged 90. He took up a teaching position and eventually headed up the Paris based School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS). He was one of the main proponents of ‘New History’, inspiring a shift in historical research from an emphasis on political figureheads and mata-events to social memory and historical anthropology.

le GoffThroughout a long career in higher education and public broadcasting, Le Goff transformed views of the Middle Ages from a dark and backward time to a period that set the building blocks for modern Western civilisation.

Outside the lofty towers of academia, Le Goff hosted a weekly history programme on the public radio station France Culture. He also constibuted as an historical advisor on many films, including the 1986 adaption of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose featuring Sir Sean Connery.

Le Goff was editor-in-chief of the highly respected Annales, the mantra journal for historians concerned with long-term social research. His many books included works on Middle Age intellectuals, bankers and merchants, a biography of King Louis IX and a seminal work on the introduction of the concept of Purgatory.

As a junior researcher in Prague, Le Goff witnessed the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948. Throughout his life he was a frequent commentator on current events, as a committed pro-European and devout agnostic humanitarian.

Awarded the prestigious Dr. A.H. Heineken prize for history a decade ago in 2004, Le Goff was praised with the words “By transforming our view of the Middle Ages, you have changed the way we deal with history”. At the time the jury described him as “without doubt the most influential French historian alive today”. Sadly the comment is no longer quite accurate but the influence of his work will certainly endure.

See for a more complete obituary.

Yuri Vella’s celebrated at Tartu World Film Festival

The University of Tartu has recently hosted its XI annual Maailma World Festival of Documentary Film (March 15-22). The event opened with a session to honour the career of the Siberian filmmaker, reindeer herder and environmentalist Yuri Vella [1948-2013] In memoriam: Filming and Being Filmed.


The festival session dedicated to Vella’s memory included documentary tributes from his closest filmmaker friends — those who have been on his camps numerous times and whom he called whenever he needed a camera. Olga Kornienko lived not very far from Yuri’s place and specialises in filming the native people of the Khanty-Mansi area. Vella often asked her to be present at some of the significant moments in his life in order to record it. Liivo Niglas, while living in Estonia, has always been receptive to his calls. These filmmaker friends of Yuri Vella and their materials kicked off the festival with a discussion focusing on Yuri and on the relationship between his oeuvre and their own documentary styles.

Stephan Dudeck, anthropologist at the Arctic Centre of the Univ. of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland has written an obituary to mark the passing of his friend, teacher and mentor.

Y Vella




Stuart Hall [1932-2014]


Recent obituaries for the late doyen of cultural studies, who also greatly influenced material culture studies, Professor Stuart Hall, have appeared in the Jamaica Observer and the Guardian.

A founding member of the New Left Review, Professor Hall is probably best known in the UK as an inaugural member of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University when, in 1964, he accepted the invitation of its Director Professor Richard Hoggart to join as the Centre’s first research fellow. Hall himself became Director of CCCS a few years later in 1968.

Born in Kingston Jamaica, Hall fled for the UK in 1951 to take up a Rhodes scholars fellowship at Merton College, University of Oxford. He famously abandoned his thesis on Henry James to become an activist in London and during a CND march in 1964, met what would become his life long partner, historian Catherine Barrett. The couple moved to Birmingham and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

CCCS itself had a limited lifespan, being closed down more than a decade ago in 2002. But the students and spirit of cultural studies have lived on to prosper beyond the wildest expectations of its founding intellectual ‘radicals’. This year, a 50th anniversary project in the History Dept. at Birmingham University, funded by the AHRC, celebrates the various legacies of CCCS.


Absence, Presence, Distance

At the end of January ’14, the Estonian Graduate School of Culture Studies and Arts hosted its fourth international Winter School at Tallinn University. The event, entitled Absence, Presence, Distance: Ways of Seeing the Past, featured such prominent speakers as Zymunt Bauman (Leeds), Mieke Bal (Amsterdam), Victor Buchli (UCL), Francois Hartog (EHESS, Paris), and Miri Rubin (QM London) amongst others.

In addition to public lectures, film screenings and multi-media exhibitions, this winter school included student seminars and workshops, guided visits throughout the city’s medieval and post-industrial landmarks as well as some fine dinning and plenty of drink.

Over 120 postgraduate students were involved in a week’s worth of discussion intended on revisiting the traditional distinction between absence and presence. They discussed and debated how far from an object or event we need to be to see it clearly. And they considered what it actually means for something or someone to be situated in historicity — located, either singularly or simultaneously, in the past, the present and the future.