Category Archives: Occasional Paper Series

Call: Occasional Paper Series

We launched our Occasional Paper Series (ISSN 2158-5660) in 2010 with the intention that it would provide a novel, peer-reviewed, forum in which to publish research that would be hard to publish in the conventional home of an academic journal, but that was more extensive or rigorous than a blog entry. Since then, we’ve published a white paper on cultural protocols, a multimedia guide to plastic pollution and citizen activism, a paper (written by an undergraduate) about the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina on Waveland, LA, and an extensive book of experimentation inside UCL’s Ethnographic Collections.

We are actively seeking further submissions to continue harnessing the power of the web to publish alternative and interesting things. Submissions can include:

1. Alternative writing formats

2. Photo essays

3. Sound and Video

4. Comics, Manga, Animations

And so on…

All submissions are peerreviewed by our chief editors or editors at large and will be indexed by the library of congress. Please contact Haidy Geismar ( for further information about how to submit work.

Occasional Paper No 4: Properties and Social Imagination

Haidy Geismar, UCL Anthropology

We are pleased to announce the latest issue of our Occasional Paper Series as well as the relaunch of the site with new and improved design by our newest editor, Matt Hockenberry.

Properties and Social Imagination is a book length project that drew on explorations and experiments by students and staff working with UCL’s Ethnography Collections.

The project has drawn together Masters and PhD students, staff, and a team of scholars and artists based in the College for Creative Arts at Massey University. Our primary focus is UCL’s ethnographic collections and we have explored the dynamic ways in which the formal qualities of stone, wood and cloth create new cultural sensibilities and new collaborative research practices. Our projects instantiates the dynamism of collections-based research and presents a number of visual projects inspired by these processes, demonstrating that collections are not static but continually in motion.

Housed within the Anthropology department, the ethnographic collection is used as a teaching collection, but our understandings of what can be learnt from it have changed radically over the past few decades. The collection, comprising over 3000 artifacts, contains objects from every continent of the world, made out of every kind of material, and referencing many different cultural groups and practices. Originally part of the Henry Wellcome non-Medical collection, the collection was gifted to UCL in the early 1950s and has been periodically added to over the years through fieldwork of departmental staff. The collection was separated from its original catalogue and supporting documentation and arrived in UCL as essentially a series of orphaned objects. This was of less concern to anthropologists at that time, who were able to draw the collection extensively into their teaching, allowing students to handle objects as three-dimensional illustrations of the cultural groups, ethnographic data, and theories they were being taught at the time. For many decades the collection was used to exemplify ritual and artistic traditions, regional variation and specificity, and as a tool in the comparative analysis of cultural production. With the emergence in the 1990s of Material Culture Studies as a subfield within the department, the collection was increasingly recognized as a storehouse of materials – different forms with properties that themselves contributed to the cultural environments that had produced them.

We wanted to respect the unique qualities of each object in the collection, rather than subsuming their materiality to understand them as “typical” or “illustrations” of culture located elsewhere. We wanted to explore what we could learn from the objects themselves, starting first and foremost with their material properties. We chose three objects – a piece of unadorned barkcloth from Sulawesi, a greenstone adze from Papua New Guinea, and a carved wooden Aboriginal spear- thrower from Australia and breaking into small groups started to explore the objects, from their surfaces, both outwards and inwards.

Our starting questions were:

  • What kinds of cultural information, context and knowledge may be found in the form of the object itself?
  • What kinds of research methods can be developed from a focus on the material or physical properties of objects?
  • What methods can we, as anthropologists, contribute to others (material scientists, artists, and so on) working with materials?

Working in groups we pulled apart our understanding of what the objects were, using the sensory experience of the objects and their physical forms as the starting point to engage with the cultural uses and practices that these objects inhabit. Alongside these investigations, our project partners in New Zealand worked remotely with these, and other, objects from the ethnographic collections, making them the centerpiece of artistic explorations of form, physical encounter, and indeed loss.

The book can be downloaded here and is also available to purchase as a print copy here:


Occasional Paper No. 3: Space and Place in a Disaster Landscape – the phenomenology of Hurricane Katrina recovery in Waveland, Mississippi

Announcing the third of our Occasional Paper Series:

Space and Place in a Disaster Landscape: the phenomenology of Hurricane Katrina recovery in Waveland, Mississippi

By Sabrina Bradford and Abby Loebenberg

Sabrina Bradford is a senior Anthropology student enrolled in the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at the University of Mississippi. She is a native of Waveland, Mississippi and has been present for every hurricane that has struck the town since 1991, including Hurricane Katrina. She and her family survived Katrina’s surge, remaining in their Waveland home, which received substantial structural damages as a result of the surge waters that inundated it.  This paper was drawn from the experiences and recovery process of that event.

Abby Loebenberg is a Barksdale Fellow at the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at the University of Mississippi. Abby completed her doctorate in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford in 2011, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. Her research areas include: material culture, sociality and space and childhood.


In this paper, written especially for Material World’s Occasional Paper Series, the authors explore critically the concept of the ‘disaster landscape’ with specific reference to the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina recovery in Waveland, Mississippi.  Drawing heavily on the auto-ethnographic work of a Waveland native, the paper explores how the anthropology of landscape is engaged through memory.  In this light, the paper argues that the concepts of ‘benchmarking’ and ‘breaking of the home’ have particular resonance with the collective and individual construction of place respectively. This goes to support a wider discussion of the importance of physical markers in grounding our relationship to time and space.  The paper concludes that stark reality of complete disaster reveals the relevance of recognizing the cultural landscape in contemporary communities, both for personal, and collective recovery.


We cannot help but feel that the word ‘loss’ is entirely too simple to describe the magnitude and complexity of the void left in the lives of those whose places of memory are reduced to spaces of rubble.  This paper examines a town, marked and defined by the overwhelming destruction such a ‘loss’ entails. The Mississippi town of Waveland in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  In particular, the cultural relevance of landmarks and borders will be investigated, using an anthropological lens, to determine what happens to a space when its sense of place is both challenged and erased. This allows us to reflect on the socio-cultural consequences of a singular event that breaks and remolds the landscape into a different one, substituting new, harsh memories for the old, familiar ones. Oliver-Smith & Hoffman (2002) have argued, “disasters divulge matters of time and space use. They bring to the fore the power of place and attachment” 1 It is this power that is attached to the landscape. A landscape that due to human occupation may be argued to be, “considered inseparable from, and integral to, the day-to-day activities and values of its occupants” 2.

In our vernacular, a ‘locality’ is often described to a stranger using physical geography as a tangible indicator for what exists in the present and what had existed in the past. Through such a method, ‘locals’ are able to shape the geography of an area into a socio-historical or spiritual landscape held together with ‘landmarks’ holding specific meanings. Landmarks act as both cultural touchstones and are incorporated into oral tradition as a connection to the past and guide for the future 3. Landmarks, materially, are key to the way people make the landscape local and are inherently representative of how the landscape has made them. This relationship is so familiar, that it is imperceptible. That is, the landscape often, in day-to-day reality, seems to be a container for activities, rather than the actively-shaped cultural world that Basso 4, Cruikshank 5, and Morphy and Flint 6 have argued it to be. However, when a tremendously destructive event occurs, the familiar landscape physically becomes a tabula rasa, revealing how, while the landscape may shape many of the material aspects of a culture, more than anything the landscape shapes the collective memory.

While Casey made the argument that it is “our inevitable immersion in place and not the absoluteness of space that has ontological priority in the generation of life in the real” 7, he de-emphasizes the temporality and, sometimes, temporariness of place itself. A culture that remains in the same physical space but is faced with the removal of its sense of place finds itself fighting to maintain the integrity of its sense of self. One example of this lost place is the post-disaster landscape. While the normal context of the landscape was one that was a product of the inhabitants’ collective understanding of place, the post-disaster landscape forces new social roles that re-shape the ghostly after-image of the landscape, into a new physicality and materiality born of necessity. Although all landscapes, like culture itself, are not static and are subject to change 8, the landscapes themselves provoke a palimpsest of competing memories made concrete as salvage and re-construction attempts to rebuild a sense of place and self.

Disaster Anthropology

While anthropologists have documented the role of disasters since World War II, it is only recently that disasters have actually become a focus for anthropological research in their own right.  Post World War II, research on human behavior during bombardment evolved into a research study of natural and technological disasters with anthropologists amongst the earliest contributors. These experiences, however, were more of footnotes on studies from anthropologists who were studying other issues in areas that had been affected by a disaster 9. Anthony F. C. Wallace was the only anthropologist that actually conducted research that primarily focused on the disaster experience through works such as Prelude to Disaster: The Course of Indian-White Relations Which Led to the Black Hawk War of 1832 (1970) and St. Clair: A Nineteenth Century Coal Town’s Experience with a Disaster-Prone Industry (1988) 10

When disasters occur, human intervention may naturally follow. These interventions can take the form of relief groups setting up distribution centers to that of emergency aid workers bringing in heavy equipment to clear roads or set power-lines. As Bender has noted, these interventions are “done not so much to the landscape as with the landscape, and what is done affects what can be done” 11. The disaster ‘culture’ that exists following a storm is one of both attachment to the past and apprehension of the future. While people are emotionally bonded to the memories of the landscape, there is a fear of not being able to recover what was lost, or even worse, completely losing the sense of place. A landscape so filled with memory “serves to draw people towards it or to keep them away, permits the assertion or denial of knowledge claims, becomes a nexus of contested meaning” (Ibid).


Hurricanes are one of the most destructive natural forces on earth. In Waveland, Mississippi, we estimate that 95% of homes and 100% of businesses and government buildings were destroyed after Hurricane Katrina. It is somewhat ironic to note, that the word hurricane is itself representative of a culture that no longer exists. The word is one of the few remaining from the decimated Tainos tribe of the West Indies who called their god of evil, Huracan 12. The Huracan was said to have been “a natural phenomenon of such violence as to be unnamable in any European language” 13. In historical anthropology, such as Evans-Pritchard’s work with the Azande 14, these types of enormously destructive natural forces are often attributed the status of the supernatural, where social order is predicated on appropriate rituals to placate said forces. Destructive, life-threatening events can thus be assimilated into a socio-natural order by the claim that these rituals were incorrectly performed, and thus the god’s reaction with anger, warranted. In today’s parlance, these events too, are often called ‘acts of God’.

NOAA. "Satellite Photo of Hurricane Katrina." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 29 August 2005.

NOAA. “Satellite Photo of Hurricane Katrina.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 29 August 2005. <>

On the 29th of August 2005, the small coastal town of Waveland was marked as the ‘ground zero’ of Hurricane Katrina by the National Weather Service. The storm’s thirty-six foot surge destroyed all of the town’s major infrastructure including buildings, roads, and bridges. The trees that had marked the town’s leafy streets were stripped away creating a haunting scene which was described by many as “worse than a war zone.” Remnants of homes were lefts perching over twenty-foot up in those trees with established enough roots to hold fast against the driving water. Not only is land an important asset and a symbol of individual livelihood in this town, but its loss, and the loss of public assets threatened livelihood on the most basic level.   While the destruction of the town was devastating, the destruction of landmarks virtually erased the history of Waveland.

Continue reading


  1.  Anthony Oliver-Smith and Susanna M. Hoffman. Catastrophe & Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster. Santa Fe: School of American Research, 2002. 10.
  2.  James Corner and Alex S. Maclean. Taking Measures Across the American Landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. 19.
  3.  Keith Basso. “”Speaking with Names”: Language and Landscape among the Western Apache.” Cultural Anthropology  3, no. 2 (May 1988): 99-130
  4.  Steven Feld and Keith Basso eds. Senses of Place, (Santa Fe: School of American Research) 1996
  5.  Julie Cruikshank. “Getting the Words Right: Perspectives on Naming and Places in Athapaskan Oral History. Arctic Anthropology, 1990: 52-65.
  6.  Howard Morphy and Kate Flint. eds Culture, Landscape and the Environment, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 2000
  7.  Edward Casey. “How to get from space to place in a fairly short stretch of time.” In Steven Feld and Keith Basso eds. Senses of Place, (Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1996), 17
  8.  Barbara Bender. “Time and Landscape.” Current Anthropology, 2002: S103-S112
  9. e.g Cyril S. Belshaw. “Social Consequences of the Mount Lamington Eruption.”Oceania, 1951: 241-252, Eric Schwimmer. Cultural consequences of a volcanic eruption experienced by the Mount Lamington Orokavia. Portland: University of Oregon, 1969
  10.  Anthony Wallace. Prelude to Disaster: The Course of Indian-White Relations Which Led to the Black Hawk War of 1832. Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library: Volume 53. 1970,  Anthony Wallace. St. Clair: A Nineteenth Century Coal Town’s Experience with a Disaster-Prone Industry.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1988.
  11.  Barbara Bender. “Time and Landscape.” Current Anthropology, 2002: S105
  12.  National Weather Service. Tropical Cyclone 101: An Introduction. July 27, 2004. (accessed April 20, 2012 
  13. James Corner and Alex S. Maclean. Taking Measures Across the American Landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.7.
  14. Edward Evans-Pritchard. Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929 (1963 ed).

Material World Occasional Paper Series – Call

Some time ago I put out a call for papers for our Occasional Paper Series. Indexed by the Library of Congress, this is our attempt to explore the possibilities of thinking about how Material World could also be thought of as an open source, online publication. Since that last call, we’ve migrated the blog to a better platform, and I think we are now in a much better position to explore the possibilities of online publishing.

We are therefore always interested in contributions to the OPS which push the boundaries of our blog-like format. Obviously the broad theme is an engagement with material and visual culture and the development of a thoughtful perspective on the issues this engagement raises. Are you working through the medium of sound, film, or photography? A graphic novel or series of paintings perhaps? Do you have a conversation or interview that provokes discussion about the material world? Would you like to have more multi-media in your work but are restricted by the formats of journal articles, books and academic theses and dissertations.

The OCP aims to make such work broadly available to the public. We are less interested in unpublished PhD’s, or unpublishable articles, and more interested in works that would find it hard to get published elsewhere primarily because of their form.

Our OCP is fully peer reviewed, indexed by the Library of Congress and permanently available online. Please email Haidy Geismar if you are interested in submitting something to us.

Occasional Paper No. 2: A Citizen’s Guide to Plastic Pollution

[Moved from the initial Publication date of January 1st]
We are pleased to announce the publication of our second Occasional Paper, A Citizen’s Guide to Plastic Pollution, Max Liboiron, of NYU Media, Culture and Communication. (ISSN 2158-5660)

A Citizen’s Guide to Plastic Pollution
Plastic pollutes in a variety of ways, from leaching chemicals into our bodies and the environment to ending up in the world’s oceans and being ingested by many marine animals. This larger issue is punctuated by smaller questions: can I eat out of microwaved plastic? What is BPA and how do I avoid it?

The Citizen’s Guide to Plastic Pollution is a presentation and a manual. The presentation discusses how plastic pollutes your body and the environment. It covers how to be as healthy as possible as a consumer in this Very Plastic world. Yet the issue is much larger than any individual consumer, so it also discusses the political, scientific, and social changes that need to happen to deal with plastic pollution effectively. The manuel outlines best practices of the politics and consumption of plastics.

You can download the pdf of the manual here: CitizensGuideToPlasticPollution

Or Download the podcast for ipod and computers, mobile devices and audio only here

Announcing Our Inaugural Occasional Paper and our new Occasional Paper Series

We are pleased to announce the launch of the Material World Occasional Paper Series, in which we make available longer, more formal texts (and other forms suitable for digital publishing) that would not otherwise be widely accessible and which we feel develop the critical framework on material and visual culture that we aim to promote through Material World Blog.
Our Occasional Paper Series is peer reviewed and is indexed as a serial by the Library of Congress as:
Material World Occasional Papers Series
ISSN 2158-5660
Our inaugural paper is by Dr. Jane Anderson (UMASS) and Dr. Gregory Younging (UBC) on the use of cultural protocols in protecting indigenous knowledge. The paper was prepared for a Canadian Public Art Funders Professional Development Meeting on Aboriginal Arts.
Jane Anderson and Gregory Younging
Discussion Paper on Protocols
The last ten years has seen the development of intellectual property protocols for Indigenous knowledge protection. These protocols cover a matrix of interests and audiences and range from the specific to the more general. Protocols are context driven policy and provide guidelines for behavior. In this sense they function to change people’s understanding of an issue, and in this context they seek to encourage reflective behavior when it comes to Indigenous knowledge use and misuse. This paper will explore the pragmatic utility of protocols. As protocols are not dependent upon the adoption of new legislation, it is possible for them to be driven by contextual needs as well as responsive to changing expectations of law. Protocols provide one innovative tool for the protection of Indigenous knowledge. The paper will discuss this current trend; considering what works, and what doesn’t, and why protocols offer a practical possibility for protecting contextual and community generated knowledge and knowledge practice.

The full paper can be downloaded here: PROTOCOLS_DiscussionPaper
Those interested in submitting a longer paper for publication in the Material World Occasional Paper Series should email Haidy Geismar