Spotlight on… Istvan Praet

Istvan Praet

Position: Reader in Social Anthropology at the University of Roehampton

Bio: Born in Belgium, Istvan studied anthropology in Leuven. He then moved to the United Kingdom, where he obtained a doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford University in 2006 based on his research into conceptions and practices around shapeshifting amongst the Chachi – an indigenous group in Ecuador. Before joining Roehampton in 2010, he worked as a visiting fellow in the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale in Paris, a research fellow at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Oxford, and a Richard Carley Hunt Fellow at Cambridge.

Research interests: Istvan’s research interests focus on anthropological perspectives on the question of life; the interface between the animate and the artificial, between what is alive and what is dead; animism; astrobiology; outer space studies; environmental humanities; and the anthropology of nature.

Current work: Social scientists study the exploration of outer space as an arena where geopolitical, environmental and neo-colonial imaginaries are taking shape. Identifying those dimensions is one of the key aims of Istvan’s current research. But his research also deals with what is possibly one of the least understood aspects of contemporary space exploration: the fact that a lot of it takes place on Earth. In their laboratories, planetary scientists experiment with elaborate simulations of entire planets and model hypothetical alien biospheres in ever more sophisticated ways. Istvan is also interested in astrobiology and he is particularly fascinated by the fact that astrobiologists conduct fieldwork in so-called extreme environments; such terrestrial ‘analogue sites’ serve as proxies for what happens on planetary bodies elsewhere. A characteristic feature of Istvan’s work is that it takes these newly emerging, ‘rocket-less’ forms of space exploration into account.

Click on the following to see Istvan discussing his research:

Previous work: Animism – typically defined as the attribution of living qualities to non-living things – has long been a topic of interest in anthropology and beyond. In his book Animism and the Question of Life, Istvan challenges the prevailing consensus that animism is based on a tendency to be overly generous in attributions of life. Instead, he argues that if animism has one outstanding feature, it is its peculiar restrictiveness. Animistic notions of life are astonishingly uniform across the globe, insofar as they are restricted rather than exaggerated. Within animism, life is always conditional, and therefore tends to be limited to one’s kin, one’s pets and perhaps the plants in one’s garden. Thus, it emerges that ‘our’ modern biological concept of life is stranger than generally thought.

Teaching: Istvan convenes three anthropology modules: ‘Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology’, ‘Theory: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives’ and ‘The Anthropology of Life and Death’. The latter module looks at the question of life, in its broadest sense, from a variety of anthropological perspectives, focusing on an eclectic array of topics – from ethical debates relating to new biotechnologies (e.g., genetically modified crops, cryopreservation, soft robotics), modern medical techniques (organ transplants and trafficking, bio-piracy) and artificial intelligence, to animistic perspectives on life and death.

Did you know…?

  • that Istvan only knows one joke and has never worn a wrist watch;
  • that Istvan’s last name, ‘Praet’, literally means ‘from the meadow’, attesting to his origins in the Flemish pampas;
  • that Istvan used to be an amateur magician.

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