Essentialist assumptions about human beings persist in scientific practice, despite their erroneous logic. This talk will examine essentialism related to research on, and handling of, academic collections of human remains. Historically human remains, and skulls in particular, have served to produce various forms of scientific racialization and racism, confining people to fixed notions of identities and legitimizing violent systems of exploitation and oppression. Contemporary handling of these human remains aims to account for the problematic and violent past, examining the provenance of particular human remains, often leading to their restitution. Despite the different political and ideological motivations of contemporary practice, it too often relies on essentialist categorization and inaccurate or erroneous assumptions. This talk will examine the problematic logic of social essentialism and challenge its prevalence in scientific practice, and in the political handling of such remains. The presentation will further consider the effectiveness of such a politics of “strategic essentialism” in addressing the diverse injustices related to collections of human remains.
Dr. Jonatan Kurzwelly is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology Institute, of the University of Göttingen, and Research Associate at the Department of Anthropology, University of the Free State.
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