Methods Intensive Master Class 2023 with Lyle Fearnley: The Anthropology of Knowledge

by Lejie Zeng

In late July 2023, the IMPRS hosted a Methods Intensive Master Class on “The Anthropology of Knowledge.” Led by Lyle Fearnley (Associate Professor, Singapore University of Technology and Design), the Master Class encompassed a public lecture and two workshops within the span of one week. The workshop topic was selected by the first cohort of IMPRS students, who were just completing their first year of the doctoral program.

The Master Class traced a genealogy of anthropological debates on the nature of knowledge, exploring its relationships with witchcraft, science, religion, and culture. The first aim was to reconsider what knowledge is or is not in the field of anthropology, incorporating the perspectives of both anthropologists and (non) human actors being studied in different cultural, geographical, temporal, and linguistic contexts. The second aim was to discover where the history of knowledge can bring new insights to anthropology. With these goals in mind, the workshops were organized around two main aspects: 1) how anthropologists treat knowledge and rationality within the classical culture paradigm and in contemporary works, and 2) how recent anthropologists are experimenting with reintroducing historical time and temporality into their accounts of knowledge and culture.

Workshop I, “Anthropology of Knowledge beyond the Human,” introduced the scholarship of selected anthropologists and their works, from the classic enthnoanthropology of the early twentieth century to twenty-first-century works that challenge epistemological closure and anthropocentrism in cultural accounts of knowledge. Prompted by the question of “cultural translation” raised in our discussion of British anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s study of witchcraft (mangu) among the Azande (1976), we began to rethink indigenous activities as sociocultural practices and actions embedded in local knowledge, an approach that transcends simple linguistic, semiotic, and ontological definitional frameworks, especially those based on Eurocentric epistemologies. This discussion encouraged the participants to break down teleological notions and bring different forms of knowledge and entities of agency into play—for example, by considering who or what owns and exercises knowledge. Anna Tsing’s work on matsutake mushrooms and Eduardo Kohn’s research on forests offered illuminating hints by incorporating more diverse non-human actors into anthropological accounts of knowledge, acknowledging the world beyond the human, and probing how different kinds of knowledge and its resources come together to form open-ended knowledge assemblages.

Workshop II, “Concepts of Time in the Anthropology of Knowledge,” started with the concept of “survival” (first introduced by Edward B. Tylor in 1871) and its capacity to draw new links between past and present. This was followed by an introduction to the extended concept of “revival” as an alternative to “survival,” highlighting the need to decouple “survival” from an evolutionary, Eurocentric narrative of human progress and turn attention instead to “heterogeneous” times in which “the present is interwoven with multiple pasts” (Georges Didi-Huberman in “The Surviving Image,” 2002, 63). The discussion opened up new spaces for doctoral students to think about how to incorporate the different temporalities of materials, human beings, skills, and knowledge into their research and, equally importantly, how to narrate the synchronicity, asynchronicity, and flux of these temporalities, especially across different cultural contexts.

At the end of the workshops, Dr. Fearnley introduced several topics that he is working on with his students. One of these is wet markets in China, investigating different cultural and ontological understandings of food “freshness” and how it has led to different social, economic, and biological practices among shoppers, poultry vendors, salesmen, peasants, etc. Dr. Fearnley’s fieldwork on Chinese poultry markets, tracing people’s everyday practices, vividly showed us how human actors in China with different bodies of knowledge have evaluated food quality and safety differently, and how markets could be redesigned to achieve different standards and expectations.



The Methods Intensive Master Class offers a forum where participants from a spectrum of disciplines can critically compare, confront, and combine their specific methodological skills and training. The IMPRS hosts this creative space to explore agendas, discuss limits, and expand the cross-disciplinary boundaries of the history of science. The history of science has developed into a unified study of artifacts, practices, action, and knowledge that brings together a multitude of scholars with different methodological skills and preferences. The Methods Intensive Master Class series mobilizes that methodological diversity as a reflexive tool for assessing the current state of the discipline and its cross-disciplinary potential. With every season, the series deepens our learning journey as we navigate questions concerning the essential characteristics of the history of science and knowledge: Which topics are of interest for historians of science, and which methods do they customarily draw upon? What methods are we currently using to investigate the making of knowledge? What are the exemplary studies? How can the effectiveness of different methods be assessed? Ongoing reflection and exploration of research methods, established and cutting-edge alike, are vital to enriching the research capacities of future historians.

For information on past Methods Intensive Master Class activities preceding 2021, please click here.


Lyle Fearnley teaches anthropology at Singapore University of Technology and Design, where he is Associate Head of the Humanities and Social Sciences. He holds a Joint PhD in Medical Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco. Dr. Fearnley’s research examines how science and technology are entangled with health in areas beyond the medical clinic, such as disease pandemics, food and agriculture, or waste management. He has authored numerous works including Virulent Zones: Animal Disease and Global Health at China’s Pandemic Epicenter (Duke University Press, 2020), an honorable mention for the 2021 Francis L. K. Hsu Book Prize. In 2021, Dr. Fearnley was a finalist for the Falling Walls Science Breakthrough of the Year (Social Sciences and Humanities). He is also co-editor, with Anthony Stavrianakis and Gaymon Bennett, of Science, Reason, Modernity: Readings for an Anthropology of the Contemporary (Fordham University Press, 2015).