2017/05/24 | University | Humanities & Society

Learning to see everyday life

Veena Das, one of the most renowned social anthropologists of our time, was a guest at the University of Bern, for this year’s Anthropology Talks hosted by the Institute of Social Anthropology. Over the course of three days, the scholar, who holds the Krieger Eisenhower chair at Johns Hopkins University in the USA, presented her key concepts and current research in two lectures and three workshops.

By David Loher

Social anthropology tries to understand macro processes through micro observations. Therefore, "the everyday" or "the ordinary" is one of the most fundamental categories of anthropologial thinking – both empirically and theoretically. For this year’s Anthropology Talks from 16 to 18 May, the Institute of Social Anthropology invited Veena Das to present her current work in which she grapples with the challenges of understanding the everyday. As one of the very important voices of current social anthropological debates, Veena Das is perhaps the researcher, who has most consistently made the everyday the object of her work. In 2016, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Bern.

This central theme of the everyday was also at the centre of the keynote lecture with which this years Anthropology Talks were opened. The lecture "Violence of and Against the Everyday. Learning to See What is Before Our Eyes" considered the question of how ethnography can contribute to understanding "the texture of the everyday". Especially in light of events of spectacular violence it is often difficult to recognise the mundane forms of everyday violence.

Seeing the broad picture through the mundane everyday

Veena Das gathered most of her ethnographical material in her long-term fieldwork in communities in the slums of New Delhi; she looks back on more than 50 years of research, detailed empirical data spanning this entire period. She has observed how slum residents from New Delhi develop strategies to have their informal settlements recognised by the state. She has studied which effects government compensation payments to the victims of the anti-Sikh riots have had on family constellations and ideas of social relationships. And she has analysed – as an example of her most recent works – how anti-tuberculosis programmes fail in the northern Indian town of Patna because they are based on false assumptions by the World Health Organization and the Indian health authorities about the division of labour between the public and private health care sector works. Veena Das then brings her small, sometimes inconspicuous observations into conversation with the big – you are tempted to say existential – questions: How can we think the relationship between morality, law and justice? How does the normalising power of the government shape ideas of a good life? And most important: how can ideas and forms of human life and cohabitation become a point of reference for critique of the contemporary world order? 

"Be part of the world"

The keynote lecture gave a hint of the breadth of Veena Das’ research. Her work ranges from questions of medical anthropology and legal anthropology, to those of social relations and kinship, or, more broadly: relatedness to the anthropology of the modern state. In her work, she has often crossed disciplinary boundaries, most particularly in her collaboration with psychiatrists and philosophers. Her research questions are philosophical questions and at the same time deeply ethnographic. This is shown in the repeated engagement with the thoughts of the two philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell, or in her work on ethics of and in everyday life. Yet, for Veena Das, social anthropology goes beyond the academia. She sees the discipline not only as a science, but also as a "means to be part of the world and engage with it", as she puts it.

The workshops accompanying the keynote lecture offered the opportunity to discuss some of Veena Das’ main themes in greater detail. Advanced students, researchers and lecturers of the institute, and social anthropologists from other institutes in Switzerland and Germany discussed Veena Das’ latest work with her. Here the two main focuses were Wittgenstein’s comments on Frazer’s concept of culture, and a large-scale empirical study on interventions in the public health sector in India.

Across all the events, the question of the future of social anthropology was a central focus. Where is the discipline developing in terms of methodology and theory? And which topics will occupy social anthropologists in the future? Or, in general terms, how can social anthropology contribute to understanding the contemporary world? Veena Das’ humble but radical suggestion: learning to see what is before our eyes.

About the person

The social anthropologist Veena Das holds the Krieger-Eisenhower chair at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA and is one of the most important scholars in social anthropology. She previously worked at the Delhi School of Economics for more than 30 years, until 2000. Between 1997 and 2000 she was also at the New School for Social Research. Veena Das is a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and at the Academy of Scientists from Developing Countries. Among other distinctions, she received the Ghurye Award in 1997, and the Anders Retzius Award from the Swedish Academy for Anthropology and Geography in 1995. In 2009 Veena Das received the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Nessim Habif prize from the University of Geneva. Veena Das holds several honorary doctorates, including one from the University of Chicago. Last year she received—as the first anthropologist—an honorary doctorate from the University of Bern for her work.


Anthropology Talks is a bi-annual three-day lectures and workshops series. The Institute of Social Anthropology invites leading social anthropologists, who shaped the current debates of the discipline. In the public lecture and the accompanying workshops, the invited scholars present their work, and discuss their most recent research with advanced students, doctoral students, professors of the institute and other researchers from Switzerland and abroad. The format of Anthropology Talks was initiated two years ago. The first guest was the US American social anthropologist James Ferguson.


The research of the Institute of Social Anthropology aims to understand macro processes from a micro perspective. This means it analyses through participant observation, how people in different regions of the world with their different local traditions and histories perceive global economic changes and cultural processes. It analyses how these changes affect people’s lives and how they deal with them. The institute carries out research on current social issues, and contributes a critical voice to the discussion of contemporary global challenges. The institute challenges the dominant Eurocentric perception of the world with its attention to the multitude of non-privileged standpoints and marginal voices. It understands informants of ethnographic research not as "carrier of knowledge" and objects to study, but as research partners, who are experts of their own lives and their environments. 

About the Author

David Loher works as a post-doc at the Institute of Social Anthropology at the University of Bern. He is specialised in the anthropology of migration and legal anthropology. Loher’s most recent work focuses on the relationship between moral and legal responsibility.