From the Archives

By Nandita Badami (UC Irvine)

Johnson, C. D., T. A. Kohler, and J. Cowan. 2005. “Modeling historical ecology, thinking about contemporary systems.” American Anthropologist 107 (1): 96–107.

Moore, O. K. 1957. “Divination: A New Perspective.” American Anthropologist 59 (1): 69–74.

Roscoe, P. 2014. “A Changing Climate for Anthropological and Archeological Research? Improving Climate Change Models.” American Anthropologist 116 (3): 535–48.

Werbner, R. P. 1973. “The Super Abundance of Understanding: Kalanga Rhetoric and Domestic Divination.” American Anthropologist 75 (5): 1414–40.

Many anthropologists use their research to address the present. Casting our field of expertise as the “now,” we most commonly think about the “right now,” even while drawing on history or historical sources. Not without reason, we have spent a fair amount of our disciplinary past worrying if we have in fact been too presentist. We have accused ourselves of collapsing space into time (Fabian 1983), of atemporality (Stocking 1983), and of synchronic bias in fieldwork methods (Crapanzano 1986). With a few notable exceptions (Appadurai 2013), the future has not typically been a central subject of anthropological concern.

This situation is rapidly changing. Several of us operate in fieldsites against backdrops of one or another form of complex, impending crises. While following the socio-technical rollout of solar energy in India, I spent time with individuals working in environmental policy. Most of these individuals were engaged in the technical, economic, and social production of “solutions.” Behind every solution—both envisaged and realized—was an imagination of the future into which that solution was seen to be intervening.

If solutions are the cultural conduits through which the future is brought into and enacted within the present, then modern environmental policy practices resonate strongly with more “traditional” modes of engaging with the future. Who can forget that the Ndembu tossed small objects in baskets (Turner 1967) or that the Azande fed chickens poison (Evans-Pritchard 1937) in order to understand the causes of social distress and peer into possibilities of resolution? What follows is an attempt to read such practices alongside the work of environmental modeling, as analyzed within the pages of this journal.

An African sorcerer predicting the future with seeds. Photograph, ca. 1930. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In “Divination: A New Perspective” (1957), Omar Khayyam Moore draws a direct link between magic and cultural practices of problem solving. Writing at a time when the dominant engagement with divination was a critique of its efficacy, Moore advanced a functionalist suggestion. Describing Nagasapi “shoulder blade divination”—the practice of burning an animal shoulder blade and interpreting the resultant cracks to decide which direction hunters should take while locating game—Moore suggested that divination operated as a socially coordinated act of problem solving. The divination he described produced randomization in decision-making, ensuring that no single area of the forest would be overexploited through hunting. In effect, Kayyam analyzed a culturally specific practice of prediction as a device through which crises were ordered and managed.

It could be argued that a similar desire to control the outcome of potential or ongoing ecological crises informs a culturally specific activity of prediction we are perhaps more familiar with today: resource-use modeling. In “Modeling Historical Ecology, Thinking about Contemporary Systems” (2005), archeologists C. David Johnson, Timothy A. Kohler, and Jason Cowan describe the techniques through which they model settlement behavior among the inhabitants of the Central Mesa Verde region of Southwest Colorado from 600 CE to 1300 CE. They do so specifically to reconstruct the rate of forest-cover depletion in conjunction with the rate of the consumption of biomass (used for household heating and cooking). Their principle political investment is not, however, the findings of the archeological model. Rather, they wish to advocate for the application of a similar modeling technique to understand and prepare for the consumption of biomass in our more immediate future.

Scientific blueprints of this nature have limited efficacy if they do not take social contexts into consideration. In “The Super Abundance of Understanding: Kalanga Rhetoric and Domestic Divination” (1973), Richard P. Werbner underlines the importance of social context in the process of meaning making while describing performances of persuasion in the domestic seances of the Kalanga of Botswana. Arguing that practices of divination rely on a “matrix of metaphors” that impart “cognitive control”, Werbner discusses how meaning is produced in a “contextually relevant” manner (1419). Both the diviner and their audience must come to an agreement about symbolic meaning —making interpersonal relationships both the context as well as the content of any act of divination.

This emphasis on the social resonates with Paul Roscoe’s more recent article “A Changing Climate for Anthropological and Archeological Research? Improving Climate Change Models” (2014). Roscoe argues for the more robust inclusion of social beliefs and practices in current data for modeling the future emission of greenhouse gases. For him, present modeling practices incorporate the social as too much of a variable. This betrays a lack of engagement with academic work on political and group behavior. He criticizes Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that engage studies of economic behavior but do not consult experts in noneconomic aspects of group behavior like anthropologists and archeologists. If they did so, he suggests that many variables of economic models would be rendered redundant, making predictions sharper and more accurate. In advocating for the inclusion of anthropological knowledge into the modeling process, Roscoe is not simply studying how we engage with the future as a cultural object; he is staking a claim for the role of anthropology in the collective production of solutions for our ecologically uncertain future.

Taken together, these articles might be read in two ways. First, as an exercise in bringing older anthropological concerns, questions and methodologies of accessing the future to bear on present scholarship. Second, we could approach the archive not just as a repository, but a tool through which to consider our constantly mutating collective preoccupations about the future, as we move from belief and divination to science and modeling. Given this shift, rendering “the future as cultural fact” might be more politically relevant than ever before.


Appadurai, Arjun. 2013. The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition. New York: Verso.

Crapanzano, Vincent. 1986. “Hermes’ Dilemma: The Masking of Subversion in Ethnographic Description.” In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by George E. Marcus and James Clifford, 51–76. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Evans-Pritchard, Edward Evan. 1937. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.

Stocking, George W. 1984. “The Ethnographer’s Magic: Fieldwork in British Anthropology from Tylor to Malinowski.” In Observers Observed: Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork, 70–120. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Turner, Victor. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


Badami, Nandita. 2019. “From the Archives: The Future in our Disciplinary Past.” American Anthropologist website, March 6.

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