Toward an Anthropology of Plastics

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  • Saskia Adelle Abrahms-Kavunenko
Materially plastics are ambivalent. In spite of their often lauded quality of creating seemingly untethered imitations, representations and replacements, they have a materiality that leaks, off-gasses and disintegrates. They are accomplished at mimicry yet frequently unable to be remoulded. They are ostensibly resistant to microbial contamination yet absorb environmental pollutants and leach endocrine disrupting plasticizers. This article argues that, due to the material influence of plastics, their ubiquity, and the societal transformations that they have enabled, that anthropologists need to pay sustained attention to this material. Moreover, it argues that anthropological methods and theories are crucial to understanding plastics at a vital moment in their (and our) history. It articulates three ways in which anthropology can engage plastics at all stages in their lifecycles. Firstly, to study plastics challenges what it means to exist: whether or not human beings are bounded or permeable entities, experienced as individuated, collective or somewhere in between. Secondly, plastics disrupt what people know, are willing to know, or are persuaded is worth knowing about the production and disposal of the products that they consume. Thirdly, the materiality of plastics expose contemporary inequalities. Plastics can create unseen violence, both in their geographically unequal toxic distributions and in the vastness of their temporal effects.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Material Culture
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)3-23
Number of pages21
Publication statusPublished - 2023

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