Bruce M. Knauft

Description of Research Interests

Recent Interview (November 2012)

Theoretical interests:

Empirical interests:


What is the relation between cultural diversity and trajectories of contemporary change? How does social life in different world areas reflect specific cultural histories in relation to colonialism, capitalism, and modern cultural and political economies? These questions inform my anthropological interests. In general terms, I am interested in the articulation of critical and cultural theory with the ethnography of social action and lived experience. My larger goal is to cultivate a creative tension between anthropology's longstanding appreciation of cultural diversity, on the one hand, and its critical exposure and analysis of disempowerment and inequality, on the other. My interest in the relation between subjectivity and power crosses a number of topical areas, including cultures of modernity and marginality; political violence, ethnicity, and nationalism; religious change or conversion; gender and sexuality; political economic history; and the history of anthropological representations. I read diversely across critical theory, contemporary ethnography, and history, and I enjoy mentoring students interested in working in diverse world areas. My own fieldwork and primary ethnography have been based in interior Papua New Guinea. I have also done brief work in India. My current research includes American neoimperialism in relation to the reaction and resilience of national and local cultures in different world areas.  Broad trends in the field of contemporary cultural anthropology are analyed in my recent paperAnthropology in the Middle.”

My books include an edited volume on the anthropology of becoming alternatively modern in different world areas (Critically Modern: Alternatives, Alterities, Anthropologies , Indiana University Press, 2002) and an ethnography of cultural transformation and change among the Gebusi of Papua New Guinea (Exchanging the Past: A Rainforest World of Before and After, University of Chicago Press, 2002). My volume Genealogies for the Present in Cultural Anthropology (Routledge Press, 1996) addresses the general question: "How are we today to understand culture, power, and representation?" This book critically evaluates developments in cultural theory and critical representation during the 1980s and early 1990s, including the anthropological relevance (and occasional irrelevance) of cultural studies, postcolonial studies, practice theories, Foucauldian perspectives, postmodern feminism, queer theory, and multiculturalism. Excesses are identified and strengths incorporated into a forward-reaching anthropological awareness. My larger argument is that anthropology need be no less rigorous or ethnographically nuanced for being theoretically contemporary.

My other books include a consideration of Melanesia as an ethnographic world area in relation to Anthropology as an academic discipline (From Primitive to Post-colonial in Melanesia and Anthropology , University of Michigan Press, 1999); an analysis of the "flamboyant" culture areas of the south coast of New Guinea (South Coast New Guinea Cultures: History, Comparison, Dialectic , Cambridge University Press, 1993); and a monograph on sorcery, violence, and spirituality among the Gebusi of Papua New Guinea (Good Company and Violence: Sorcery and Social Action in a Lowland New Guinea Society , University of California Press, 1985;

Graduate students who I've been primary advisor for have worked (or are working) in a variety of world areas, including parts of South America, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and North America. Most of them have been quite successful. I enjoy teaching and am continually stimulated by interactions with students and colleagues.