The term ‚anthropocene‘ refers to the current geological epoch in which the impact of human activity on the surface of the earth and on the atmosphere exceeds that of any other biophysical force. While the determination of valid stratigraphic evidence to identify this tipping point in the planet’s geohistory remains contested among geoscientists, the anthropocene has turned into a concept widely acknowledged beyond the environmental sciences. As diverse publics are made aware of mankind’s destructive potential and the possible future of an unliveable earth, the term ‚anthropocene‘ is also acquiring a morally charged, political salience.
By the same token, we also see a renewed anthropological interest in human environment interactions as well as in their lasting and often irreversible impact on the biosphere. Informed by new research programmes such as Political Ecology as well as Science and Technology Studies, anthropologists are addressing „the entanglement of things natural and things social [by] probing into the co-constitution of species, of animate and inanimate elements, of social and biological potentialities, of human and other life forms. Along such fault-lines, new worlds emerge as objects of anthropological interest.“ (Kirsten Hastrup, „Anthropology and Nature“). Such new worlds have already been charted by anthropologists such as Tim Ingold and Philippe Descola, and currently are being eloquently evoked by Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing.
These shifts challenge anthropology to reposition itself not only vis à vis other disciplines in the sciences and humanities, but in a more general way, as a knowledge-making enterprise within the episteme of (late) modernity that is being called upon not only to be able to explain how the present emerged from the past, but also to develop prognostic skills and forecast possible futures for humanity. What do these changes entail for German-language European Ethnology, a discipline considered to be one of the „minor anthropologies“ (Lins-Ribeiro/Escobar) within the increasingly globalized, yet asymmetrically structured academic field of anthropology? The proposed paper will argue that European Ethnology – and its sibling orientations that go by other names – are well-positioned to take up these challenges. While the paper is not based on empirical research, it will critically survey and analyse current literature and also point out earlier approaches in European Ethnology that resonate with the more recent interest in more-than-human socialities and environment-human relations. Prominent among them is the suggestion to develop a Relational Anthropology that integrates life sciences and ethnography (Stefan Beck 2008), building on the specific epistemic legacies of Volkskunde and its precursors.