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The drama of cultural change

What happens when the basic values and social mechanism of society are challenged? And how does change influence how we view ourselves as human beings? This is at the heart of a new anthropological project at the University of Bergen.

Professor Annelin Eriksen, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen (UiB), photographed in July 2018.
FUTURE ANTHROPOLOGY: Anthropologist Annelin Eriksen belongs to a group of researchers at UiB developing new concepts and methods for studying the future.

Professor Annelin Eriksen from the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen (UiB) has long been interested in how change affects human beings. She did her PhD on religious and cultural change among the population of the Pacific island state of Vanuatu.

Now she has set her sights on how technology creates cultural change and alters our view of what it means to be human. She will do this by investigating groups of people who are particularly and intensively preoccupied with the future.

A look at human futures

She heads the Research Group on Human Futures, which is dedicated to anthropological research on the future. The group members are all working towards securing funding for ground-breaking anthropological research projects.

“Our starting point is the idea that the future is fundamental to human understanding of contemporary society. In particular, we are researching future developments related to societal challenges such as ecological crises, economic uncertainty, deprivation and dispossession, food management, energy and wealth,” says Eriksen.

She is herself interested in how new technology brings about dramatic cultural change.

“In conjunction with this we will study religious movements that are preoccupied with the future, emerging concepts of freedom and the use of new technologies and how this changes perceptions of what the human being is in the future,” says the anthropologist.

Another member of the Human Futures group, Professor Bjørn Enge Bertelsen, has received major funding from the Research Council of Norway for his project Urban Enclaving Futures, which officially launches in October 2018.

From the Pacific to the future

When doing field work for her PhD and later post-doctoral project in Vanuatu, Eriksen observed how Pacific islanders who had converted to Christianity questioned fundamental social and cultural dynamics that usually were taken for granted by most people.

“There are different types of cultural change. I am particularly interested in the kind of cultural change that might in the long run significantly change social systems. One of the key focuses of my research has been religious and cultural change, and in particular the changing conceptualisations of personhood. One of my main concerns has been to conduct comparative studies with other researchers to look at religious imaginations across regions,” she says about her recently finished research project on religion and cultural change, funded by the Research Council of Norway: Gender and Pentecostalism.

Now Eriksen is moving from change in the Pacific to changes brought by technology in human futures. In the process, she and her fellow UiB anthropologists are quietly redefining their discipline by taking field work from small-scale villages to cryonics labs.

“My human futures project is linked directly with technological change. In particular I am curious about how notions of immortality are being pushed in new medical technologies, e.g. gene-editing, as well as in new religious movements and transhumanism. Silently, but significantly, this might change the very idea of what a human being is. My new research project will include field work to be conducted in cryonics facilities and research environments on artificial intelligence, or A.I.,” says Annelin Eriksen says about her exciting new research on human futures.