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What Does the Future Hold?

It’s a big question. The word ‘future’ itself can have many different connotations.

Six social anthropologists at Durham University sit down for six different conversations about what answers – and what further questions – we might find. Through the fascinating lens of their current research, these thinkers will look at what kind of futures we might imagine for ourselves, and what powers we have to make them happen.

Listen to this specially-commissioned series below, or via your usual podcast-streaming platforms. Episode descriptions and audio transcripts are available under each track.

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Episode 1: Energy Futures with Simone Abram


We begin this series with Professor Simone Abram, who makes the case for why anthropology is here to help when it comes to thinking about the future. We hear all about her research exploring how engineers, economists, scientists and other energy system designers shape the technologies we can expect to see in our lives in the coming years. This work means imagining different versions of tomorrow all the time – and shows us that working together is the only positive way forward.  

In this episode, Simone refers to a book called Energy Futures, written by a collective of anthropologists around the world, packed with case studies on energy worlds of the future.  

Read the episode transcript here. 

Produced for Durham Book Festival with support from Durham University. Presented and directed by Lucie McNeil.  

Simone Abram is a social anthropologist who works with colleagues across the university exploring futures of/with energy. She is participating in a number of research projects that focus on different energy issues and technologies and leads a national network for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in energy research. She has published several edited books on energy and power, and a web-collection on ‘our lives with electric things’. She is a professor in the department of Anthropology at Durham University, and is one of the directors of the Durham Energy Institute. 

Episode 2: The Telling Life of Trees with Kate Hampshire

Professor of Anthropology Kate Hampshire is working with chainsaw operators in the North East of England: foresters and arborists who cut trees for a living. In this episode, she explores the concepts of time which are deeply interwoven in the life of trees and the practice of tree surgery. Reflecting on her hands-on research in the field (or in this case, woodland), Kate asks how we might hold the future in the face of existential uncertainty about our species and our planet.  

Read the episode transcript here.  

Please note that this interview was recorded before the illegal felling took place at Sycamore Gap. 

Produced for Durham Book Festival with support from Durham University. Presented and directed by Lucie McNeil.

Kate Hampshire is a Professor of Anthropology. Most of her research over the last 25 years has been on healthcare in Africa, but she recently began a new project on chainsaw operators in northern England, bringing insights from her previous work on practices of care and temporalities to understanding the relationships between people, machines and trees that emerge in the act of cutting living wood. 

Episode 3: Painting a Sustainable City with Felix Ringel

What does a sustainable urban future look like? Social anthropologist Felix Ringel has spent years studying the urban communities of post-industrial cities in Germany – communities who have first needed to regain a sense of future, before then looking at what work might be necessary to make those futures a reality. Hope is useful, but we need determination too. In this episode, Felix tells us about passionate youth councils, imaginative planning, and how local people turned an entire apartment block into a work of collective art – before the bulldozers arrived.  

Read the episode transcript here.

Produced for Durham Book Festival with support from Durham University. Presented and directed by Lucie McNeil. 

Felix Ringel is a social anthropologist and Assistant Professor at Durham University. His work focuses on time, sustainability and urban development in postindustrial Europe. His first monograph Back to the Postindustrial Future: An Ethnography of Germany’s Fastest-Shrinking City (2018, Berghahn) investigates the effects of severe population shrinkage in the German city of Hoyerswerda. He is currently writing his second monograph, After Sustainability: An Anthropological Investigation of a ‘Climate City’ in Crisis 

Episode 4: Planning for the Next Pandemic with Hannah Brown

In the post covid-19 era, it is clearer than ever that we need to think about how to manage a future that includes epidemic and pandemic diseases. Professor Hannah Brown is determined to ensure that any future responses consider the full breadth of research and insight into previous epidemics, and that anthropologists have a seat at the table when it comes to making those decisions. Hannah talks about the importance of detail – of looking at the whole picture, identifying ‘blind spots’ and using past learning to plan as best we can for the future.  

Read the episode transcript here.

Produced for Durham Book Festival with support from Durham University. Presented and directed by Lucie McNeil. 

Hannah Brown is a social anthropologist specialising in medical anthropology. Most of her work has explored epidemic diseases and how people respond to them in Sub-Saharan Africa. She is interested in how families and communities manage care for sick people, how institutions such as hospitals, clinics and development organisations try and support people during these crises, and how the international community responds to epidemics, including through emergency response, longer term projects, and scientific research. 

Episode 5: Running in the Dark with Michael Crawley

In this episode, social anthropologist Michael Crawley thinks about the impact of technological advancement and ‘cyborgification’ in the world of athletics. There are limits on what we consider humanly possible, but those limits are increasingly being challenged and changed. Focusing on the research for his new book about endurance, Michael asks: at what point do athletic achievements become less about the athletes and more about the technologies that facilitate their success? And what implications does this have on what it means to be human? 

Read the episode transcript here.

Produced for Durham Book Festival with support from Durham University. Presented and directed by Lucie McNeil. 

Michael Crawley is a social anthropologist and assistant professor at Durham University. He is interested in running, self-tracking and endurance practices more broadly. For his PhD he conducted the first long-term ethnographic study with Ethiopian long-distance runners, and subsequently published Out of Thin Air: Running Wisdom and Magic from Above the Clouds in Ethiopia (Bloomsbury, 2020) based on this experience. This book won the Margaret Mead Award in 2022, and was longlisted for the Ondaatje and William Hill Sports Book of the Year awards. His next book is about endurance and will be published by Bloomsbury in 2024.  

Episode 6: Resisting Reconciliation with Nayanika Mookherjee

In the final episode of this series, we hear from Professor of Political Anthropology Nayanika Mookherjee. Nayanika joins us from home to talk about her work around post-conflict reconciliation. Expectations of forgiveness often make it incumbent upon survivors to reconcile and seek closure as an exhibition of ‘moving on’ for a ‘happy’ future – but what if this fails to address injustice? Drawing on her recently published book On Irreconciliation, Nayanika examines the need to not forgive as a political stance, and how irreconciliation can create an indeterminate future – or ‘frozenness’.  

Read the episode transcript here.

Produced for Durham Book Festival with support from Durham University. Presented and directed by Lucie McNeil. 

Nayanika Mookherjee (FRSA) is Professor of Political Anthropology in Durham University and Co-Director of the Institute of Advanced Study. She has published extensively on public memories of gendered violence during wars, On Irreconciliation (2022 Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Special Issue Book series), violence, ethics, aesthetics and transnational adoption. Based on her widely-acclaimed book The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories and the Bangladesh War of 1971 (2015 Duke University Press), she co-authored a graphic novel and animation film Birangona and ethical testimonies of sexual violence during conflict (www.ethical-testimonies-svc.org.uk) and received the 2019 Praxis Award (fed into https://www.muradcode.com/). She is currently finishing her book titled Arts of Irreconciliation and the Bangladesh War of 1971.

This podcast series has been specially commissioned for Durham Book Festival 2023, produced by New Writing North in partnership with Durham University.