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Speaker:  Professor Peter Redfield (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

5 June 2019


The lecture

Approaching human mobility from the perspective of milieu — the intimate, inclusive envelope of immediate environment — this lecture focuses on humanitarian equipment, from refugee camps to innovative devices that seek to provide for basic needs such as water and sanitation. Such objects offer little prospect of producing a satisfying response to human suffering. They also increasingly reflect market interests as much as technocratic planning. Nonetheless, their very inadequacies can expose conflicting assumptions about human needs and aspirations. Tensions between understandings of what constitutes a satisfactory life emerge at a mundane level, positioning these devices as scalar connection points between individual experience and social imagination. Milieu, I thus suggest, can serve as a revealing conceptual site to investigate the political terrain exposed by human mobility, including rival strains of humanitarian concern, rights advocacy, national identification and ecological anxiety.

The speaker

Peter Redfield is Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Trained as a cultural anthropologist sympathetic to history, he concentrates on circulations of science, technology and medicine in colonial and postcolonial contexts. The author of Life in Crisis: The Ethical Journey of Doctors Without Borders (California 2013) and Space in the Tropics: From Convicts to Rockets in French Guiana (University of California Press, 2000), he is also co-editor of Forces of Compassion: Humanitarianism between Ethics and Politics (SAR Press, 2011). He is currently working on collaborative projects related to humanitarian design.

Redfield is President of the Society for Cultural Anthropology for 2017-19.


The Annual Elizabeth Colson Lecture is named in honour of Professor Elizabeth Colson, a renowned anthropologist.