In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Anthropocene

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Disputed Origins of the Anthropocene
  • Political Economy and the Anthropocene
  • The Anthropocene as a Racial Process
  • Decolonizing the Anthropocene
  • Other S(-)cenes
  • Multispecies and More-than-Human Ethnography in the Anthropocene
  • Scale and Scope: Situating the Anthropocene in Time and Space
  • Interdisciplinary Collaboration and Methodological Innovation in the Anthropocene
  • Toward a Queer and Feminist Anthropocene
  • Rethinking “the Human” and Human Futures

Anthropology The Anthropocene
Nicholas Kawa
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0272


Soon, the Anthropocene will be formally submitted as a chronostratigraphic unit of the Geological Time Scale. This means, in effect, that Homo sapiens will be recognized as a dominant geological force on the planet. But how are anthropologists engaging with this concept in ways that inform larger debates? And what vital concerns or challenges are being raised by anthropologists and scholars in related disciplines as the Anthropocene becomes an increasingly familiar framework for understanding humanity and its place on Earth? One of the underlying motives for the recognition of the Anthropocene is to call attention to humanity’s pervasive impacts on the planet, which are understood as largely damaging for humans and other organisms that live on the Earth. However, the Anthropocene’s root causes still remain hotly disputed. Some see the Anthropocene as a broader extension of humanity’s long-established tendency of landscape modification or niche construction while others assert that the capitalist system is the underlying cause of the Anthropocene’s emergence. Extending from these debates, anthropologists and other social scientists have looked into the ways that the Anthropocene intersects with histories of race and racism, colonialism and neocolonialism, extraction and extinction, and what anthropological methods—from archaeological excavation to multispecies ethnography—can tell us about the differing dimensions of this confounding time. In a more philosophical vein, the Anthropocene has prompted academic researchers to question basic disciplinary distinctions, heuristics, and taken-for-granted assumptions. For anthropologists specifically, it has prompted a re-evaluation of human-centered analytics and inherited notions about what constitutes “the human.” Without a doubt, this literature and the scholarly debates that animate it will only grow and evolve with time, but here a focus is placed on the origins and politics of the Anthropocene, with specific focus on its relationship to historical and contemporary inequalities. This bibliography also considers what the Anthropocene means for socio-cultural theory, anthropological methods, and movements toward decolonization and collective liberation in a deeply compromised world.

General Overviews

Slews of think-pieces, review articles, and scholarly polemics have sought to assess the significance of the Anthropocene, its conceptual limitations, and what it means for the future of humanity, the planet, and scholarly inquiry. Crutzen 2002 is most widely recognized for introducing and popularizing the term, but a range of scholars in the social sciences and humanities have offered critical analyses that synthesize and extend the debates surrounding this new geological epoch. Chakrabarty 2009, for example, shows how the Anthropocene challenges basic disciplinary boundaries, by dissolving distinctions between “natural history” and “human history.” Crist 2013 further argues that despite attempts to muddle the nature/culture divide, the very naming of the Anthropocene reinforces a deeply anthropocentric view of the world and in the process—as both Haraway, et al. 2016 and Moore 2016 note—it flattens human difference and responsibility. In relation to the field of anthropology specifically, both Mathews 2020 and Gibson and Venkateswar 2015 make the case that the Anthropocene offers opportunity for methodological and theoretical experimentation as well as more ambitious forms of research collaboration. At the same time, Sayre 2012 suggests that the growing recognition of the Anthropocene highlights the need for deeper scholarly engagement at the intersections of social and environmental justice (see also Crate and Nuttall 2016). Finally, as Latour 2017 observes, perhaps more than anything, the Anthropocene represents a double-edged sword that holds the potential to either unite anthropology as a discipline or exacerbate its internal divisions.

  • Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. The climate of history: Four theses. Critical Inquiry 35.2: 197–222.

    DOI: 10.1086/596640

    In this influential piece, Chakrabarty asserts that the Anthropocene requires a melding of “global histories of capital” and “the species history of the human,” which ultimately pushes the limits of contemporary historical understanding.

  • Crate, Susan A., and Mark Nuttall, eds. 2016. Anthropology and climate change: From encounters to actions. New York: Routledge.

    In the introduction to this edited volume, Crate and Nuttall make the case for why climate change in particular and global environmental changes broadly demands the attention of anthropologists. While they do not address the Anthropocene specifically, they set the stage for why this area of investigation is pressing for anthropologists, including its impacts on human cultures and human rights.

  • Crist, Eileen. 2013. On the poverty of our nomenclature. Environmental Humanities 3: 129–147.

    DOI: 10.1215/22011919-3611266

    Crist provocatively argues that the naming of the Anthropocene betrays humanity’s deep-seated anthropocentric worldview, which she argues is at the root of the current ecological crisis.

  • Crutzen, Paul J. 2002. Geology of mankind. Nature 415.6867: 23.

    DOI: 10.1038/415023a

    Here Crutzen, who is known for coining the term “Anthropocene,” makes his case for why humanity should be recognized as a dominant geologic force on the planet.

  • Gibson, Hannah, and Sita Venkateswar. 2015. Anthropological engagement with the Anthropocene: A critical review. Environment and Society 6.1: 5–27.

    DOI: 10.3167/ares.2015.060102

    This review article examines anthropological engagement with the challenges of global climate change as well as shifting focus in anthropological research that extends beyond the human, including multispecies ethnography and increasingly interdisciplinary investigation.

  • Haraway, Donna, Noboru Ishikawa, Scott F. Gilbert, Kenneth Olwig, Anna L. Tsing, and Nils Bubandt. 2016. Anthropologists are talking – about the Anthropocene. Ethnos 81.3: 535–564.

    DOI: 10.1080/00141844.2015.1105838

    This article is an edited transcript of a conversation held at Aarhaus University in 2015 in which Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, Nils Bubandt, and other prominent scholars discuss the flaws in the Anthropocene’s conceptual framing as well as the ways it can still serve as a useful tool for disrupting sedimented ideas about humanity, ecology, and the sciences.

  • Latour, Bruno. 2017. Anthropology at the time of the Anthropocene: A personal view of what is to be studied. In The anthropology of sustainability. Edited by Marc Brightman and Jerome Lewis, 35–49. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-56636-2_2

    This lecture lays the ground for what the Anthropocene might mean for the future of anthropology. On one hand, this new epoch represents an opportunity to unite a fractured field and prove its political relevance. On the other, it can exacerbate unresolved tensions within the discipline, particularly in its relationship to science, generalizability, and even the conception of the human.

  • Mathews, Andrew S. 2020. Anthropology and the Anthropocene: Criticisms, experiments, and collaborations. Annual Review of Anthropology 49: 67–82.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-102218-011317

    This review highlights key critiques of the Anthropocene’s conceptualization—including the dangers of obscuring human difference and differential responsibilities in this new epoch—while also drawing attention to forms of scholarly experimentation and research collaboration that have emerged in its wake.

  • Moore, Amelia. 2016. Anthropocene Anthropology: Reconceptualizing contemporary global change. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22.1: 27–46.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-9655.12332

    This article draws on ethnographic research in the Bahamas to question the conceptualization of the Anthropocene while also introducing the notion of “Anthropocene spaces” (where Anthropocene-aware research takes place) and “Anthropocene Anthropology,” which Moore argues can serve to both counter and complement the narratives of this new geological epoch produced by the geophysical sciences.

  • Sayre, Nathan F. 2012. The politics of the anthropogenic. Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 57–70.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-092611-145846

    This review synthesizes debates regarding humanity’s alteration of the Earth’s geology and climatic system, but in doing so, it makes the case that the simple recognition of planetary anthropogenic change must be followed by questions of social and environmental justice.

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