Q & A with: Luis A. Vivanco

January 24, 2019

In your opinion, which is the most fascinating entry you have written for Oxford Reference and why?

I think the term hau is the most fascinating. It’s a Polynesian word that has various meanings, one of which refers to the essence of an object, person, or place. Cultural anthropology has numerous indigenous terms that remain untranslated into a European language, because to translate them would strip them of the meanings, uses, and contexts in their original setting, which may be more equivocal or subtle than any translation would allow. In his classic 1925 book, The Gift, the founder of French anthropology, Marcel Mauss, refers to the Maori meaning of hau as ‘the spirit of the gift.’ Mauss’s concern in this book was to explain how gift-giving and reciprocity create and maintain social and moral bonds between people. As a spiritual essence that resides in the object a giver shares with a receiver, hau demands that the receiver reciprocate the gift. What Mauss found especially significant about hau is its recognition of the moral and spiritual obligations that characterize and perpetuate acts of gift-giving, and by extension, social relationships. Mauss’s influential argument has meant the term hau has been widely recognized in the discipline for decades.

But the story of hau within anthropology does not end there. In 2011, a journal of ethnographic theory named HAU was founded (See the journal here). Its aim is to promote ethnographically-driven writing and research to fuel the development of new theoretical insights and debate in the discipline. Just as Mauss drew on the Maori term to advance his own theoretical understanding of gift-giving, the journal’s proponents recognize the theoretical potential for anthropology that comes from encounters with indigenous knowledge and world views that are alien to, and even challenge, Western categories and knowledge. And perhaps this is why I am so fascinated by the term hau: it’s a constant reminder that cultural anthropology’s potential lies in the learning and insights gained from encounters with other cultures that may have radically different epistemologies and ontologies than our own.


What would you say is the most unusual/obscure term in your subject area?

The term joking relationship is rather unusual and obscure. It refers to a specific type of social relationship in which it is expected for an individual to joke with, and even tease, another individual, and for that other individual to not take offence. According to A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, it can be found where systemic conflict exists between two individuals who are making competing demands on the same thing or individual. Its goal is to reduce the potential for disruptive social tensions. A good example is a joking relationship between a husband and his mother-in-law, in which both may be making competing claims on the attention and/or labour of a wife/daughter. The requirement of humour and light-heartedness blows off steam before it can build and explode (and one wonders, do our mother-in-law jokes try to do something similar?).

The phenomenon of joking relationships figured prominently in mid-twentieth century British social anthropology, which encountered these relationships in sub-Saharan Africa, because it lent ethnographic support to the theory of structural-functionalism. This theory sought to explain how a society’s social structure functioned to maintain social integration, order, and harmony, and joking relationships appeared to offer a functional mechanism to achieve these things. As the theory lost prominence and receded into the disciplinary background, however, the term joking relationship also lost visibility.


What is the one term or concept that everyone—from students to everyday web users—should be familiar with? Why?

Perhaps it is predictable given the subject and title of this dictionary, but it has to be culture. It is the central term that frames anthropology’s investigations of human diversity. Today, there is a loose consensus that culture refers to the plurality and relativity of human meanings, institutions, and behaviours, all of which are understood to be shared, learned, adaptive, and symbolic. I say ‘loose consensus’ because for a long time anthropologists have disagreed over how to define it more precisely. Indeed, in 1952, two prominent anthropologists famously compiled a list of culture definitions in which they identified 164 distinct definitions! If such a thing were done today, I have little doubt that the list would be even longer, which made writing this definition especially challenging. This situation doesn’t hobble or paralyse cultural anthropologists, however; most of us see it as the sign of a vibrant discipline that is both hospitable to diverse philosophical and theoretical orientations, and committed to the ongoing critical analysis of its basic categories and concepts.

Anthropologists, of course, recognize that the word ‘culture’ is ubiquitous in both popular and academic vocabularies. Some would even suggest that the discipline can take a certain amount of credit for this situation. But most anthropologists are quick to point out that most uses of the word are not really ‘anthropological’ because they tend to view culture as a more superficial or optional phenomenon than we do. For example, it is common to refer to ‘culture’ as the arts, music, fashion, theatre and other forms of self-expression or creativity, and ‘cultured’ people as those who appreciate these things. Anthropologists interpret ‘culture’ quite differently, positing it as the collective social patterns, perspectives, and actions that a group of people take for granted as self-evident and appropriate, that underlie and shape all of these activities, and for that matter, all other aspects of their lives as humans, from politics and economics to religion and kinship. In other words, all people are ‘cultured’, because as anthropologists see it, culture is a fundamental characteristic of being human rather than something in which you can choose to participate.



Luis A. Vivanco is Professor of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Vermont. He has a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Princeton University. His scholarship focuses on understanding the cultural and political dimensions of environmental change, environmental social movements, and sustainability discourse, mostly in Latin American research settings. He has written a number of ethnographic monographs, journal articles, and book chapters on aspects of this work, including most recently a book on the anthropology of the bicycle as a ‘green’ vehicle (Reconsidering the Bicycle: An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing). He has also authored a number of OUP books including Cultural Anthropology: Asking Questions About Humanity (with Robert L. Welsch), Anthropology: Asking Questions About Human Origins, Diversity, and Culture (with Robert L. Welsch and Agustín Fuentes), and Field Notes: A Guided Journal for Doing Anthropology. Most recently, he authored A Dictionary of Cultural Anthropology, available on Oxford Reference.