Anthropologies #21: Weather changes people: stretching to encompass material sky dynamics in our ethnography

Originally published at savage minds as part of the anthropologies special issue 21 in 2015 (see original here) edited by Jeremy Trombley and Ryan Anderson, this piece was written by heid jerstad as a reflection on weather work in anthropology.


For most people, the climate change issue is a bundle of scientific ideas, or maybe a chunk of guilt lurking behind that short haul flight. The words have fused together to form a single stone, immobile and heavy. Change is a bit of a nothing word anyway – anything can change, and who is to say if it is good or bad, drastic or practically unnoticeable?

But what about climate? It is a big science-y word, neither human nor particularly tangible. Climate is about a place – engrained, palimpsested, with time-depth. That big sky, those habits – the Frenchman advising wine and bed on a rainy day, the Croatian judge lenient because there was a hot wind from the Sahara that day. This is weather I am talking about, seasons, years, the heat, damp and sparkling frost.

People care about the weather. We consider ourselves used to this or good at observing that. My home has more weather than other places – it is colder in winter, the air is clearer and brighter – because it is mine. My sunsets – this is eastern Norway – are vibrant and fill the sky, my sky will snow in June with not a cloud, my nose can feel that special tingle when it gets to below -20˚c. The north is not gloomy in winter – the snow is bright white, the hydro-fuelled streetlights illuminate empty streets and windows seal the warmth in.

What is your weather? It would be safe to assume it is part of the climate and I would go out on a limb and say I think you care about it. Am I wrong?

When the weather matters to people, the task becomes one of bridging this caring and the climate change science and projections. Looking at the impact of these weather changes in different areas of life is, then, going to make up a steadily larger part of useful climate change research.

Mead famously convened a conference with Kellogg titled ‘The Atmosphere: Endangered and Endangering’ in 1975, and Douglas published Risk and Blame in 1992. In the new millennium Strauss and Orlove (2003), Crate and Nuttall (2009) and Hastrup and Rubow (2014) brought edited volumes to the debate. It seems to be fairly well established, then, that climate change is a matter for anthropologists, as phrased by the AAA statement on climate change: ‘Climate change is rooted in social institutions and cultural habits. … Climate change is not a natural problem, it is a human problem.’ What then, can anthropologists do, about this problem?

Anthropologists provide description. The mapping of people’s stories of how the weather is ‘going wrong’, stories of change, and of coping and consequences is underway (Crate 2008 described the effects of unusual winter melt on the Vilui Sakha in Siberia, Cruikshank 2005 explored the tendrils of meaning surrounding glaciers between Alaska, British Colombia and the Yukon territory). Linked to the description, of course, and not really disentanglable from it is the explanation. Explanations and understandings of weather and weather changes in the places where they are happening, whether Chesapeake Bay, the Marshall Islands, or Rajasthan, India, fill in the social significance of what had been an empty sky (Paolisso 2003, Rudiak-Gould 2013, Grodzins-Gold 1998). The weather changes, in fact, constitute one of those satisfying areas of inquiry which concern those asked as much as the anthropologist.

The question of knowledge, however, can still seem a barrier when climate scientists are those with a mandate to understand changing weather. Anna Tsing, in the Firth Lecture at the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth’s (ASA) 2015 conference in Exeter, brought the contextual ecological study of mushrooms and the trees that they are mutual with in the forests of Japan and China to illustrate the gains anthropology can make when we give up scepticism of natural science. Earlier in the year, Moore, at the launch of the Centre of the Anthropology of Sustainability (CAOS) at University College London used microbial research to break down the bounded image of the body, where on the cellular level culture and biology shape each other – for instance when poor black women in the States eat fish which contains mercury and this affects the biological development of their children. Tsing and Moore brought together what might previously have been considered within the remit of ecology or biology to make important points about the capacity of anthropology—and to suggest where we might go next, expanding vision of social science. When mushrooms and microbes are appropriate topics for anthropological research, then looking at the climate and its material as well as social effects (rotting, drying, illness (Jerstad 2014)) starts to look feasible.

The anthropocene is a term which has been shown to have considerable analytical purchase outside of geology, illuminating moral and political debates about blame, the north-south divide and the global movement of materials, people and plants (Chakrabarty 2014, Tsing 2013). These ideas have been applyied in the study of climate scientists themselves (Simonetti 2015) as well as climate policy (Lahsen 2009). The anthropocene, i.e. the world as subject to the effects of human activities such as climate change, may be read as a set of material relationships, where the weather, bodies and landscapes meet, as Ingold showed (2010). This term allows the larger picture, where the world and all the people in it – those people for whom climate change matters – to be considered in a single conceptual space. In this space climate change can be seen as part of the encompassing extra-somatic human activity which defines our world as we are starting to understand it.

The anthropocene and climate change, however, both involve the challenge of how to follow the conceptual and material threads that lead from these global issues and into particular, ethnographically described lives:

 A close examination of scientific practice makes clear that localizing is as much a problem for climate researchers as it is for ethnographers. This holds not only for the interconnectedness of the global and the local climate, but also for the separation of climate change as a ‘scientific fact’ on the one hand, and a ‘matter of concern’ on the other. Climate research offers an insight into a messy world of ramifications, surprising activities and unexpected “social” context (Krauss 2009:149–50).

Anthropological work has the reflexive capacity to deal with the messy world Krauss refers to here, where these ramifications, surprising activities and unexpected ‘social’ context are part of the particular places where we, as anthropologists, work, taking cues from events and observations around us. In my own fieldwork I found all kinds of unanticipated connections between weathers and other aspects of life. With a research proposal full of religion and ‘belief’ I ended up with far more material interests, guided by the sometimes patient and sometimes exasperated villagers with whom I lived in the western Indian Himalayas.

I was walking with Karishma to get green grass one day during the monsoon. She told me that our village (Gau) is famous for being misty, and therefore that the girls are known, both for working hard and for being beautiful, because even though they are outside the mistiness keeps them pale. So apparently on festival days people say that the girls from this village are gori (white) because there is so much mist here. But Karishma pointed out that this can’t be true because there is mist only in the rainy season. Then she said that the girls here wear sweaters to stay gori. Also, she said girls of this village have a reputation for being hard working so people ask for them in marriage when there is a household where work is to be done. This (I think) might be part of why quite a few of the new brides in Gau are not used to doing as much work as women do here. But then Karishma said fairly that it is not just the girls who work hard, everyone works hard in this village (well, most people). She said that when girls go away to study, like she did, then they come back more beautiful. That is to say pale from not being outside. She was saying how on the other hand I had become more black (kala) since being there in the village (this was true).

People, whether Himalayan villagers or Norwegian PhD students, live with weather on an ongoing basis, and consistently live in the weather, which is not always catastrophic but does always impinge (think food perishability, wardrobe choices, sitting in the shade). The considerations people have with regards to the weather, then, necessarily translate to potential climate change concerns. Climate change is a threat, it has potentially deadly dimensions, but weather is inherent to our world, and I would not want to pathologize it.

Weather relates in fundamental ways to sensation and the body, thermal infrastructure, agriculture and animal husbandry, health and illness, disasters and other areas of anthropology (that is to say life). Weather may be implicated in all kinds of ways with other areas of life – for instance the hot/cold symbolism in India which classifies illness, the body, food and even moods. I think that it can be surprisingly easy to forget or ignore weather precisely because it is so pervasive. And this resistance of the mind against focusing on it is a risk when it comes to climate change. It can be tiring to think about. How, after all, do you write about the wind? And people have (Parkin 1995, James 1972, Hsu and Low 2007), but personally I find it challenging just to make a start – capturing the sky with a few black marks on paper feels so unrealistic. In that sense it is a great stretching area for our minds, about the material and the social, about what we mean with words like ‘impact’ and ‘atmosphere’ and the connections between people and places.

Finally there is the role of anthropology in clarifying the terms of the climate change debate. This is a new kind of challenge, it is a global one (hence the usefulness of Tsing’s work, who demonstrated the crucial part material relationships and meetings play in globalisation (2005)), it is to do with both technologies and nature (we can apply Latour, who shows in ‘we have never been modern’ (1993) how ‘modernity’ has not succeeded in cutting us off from the material and natural world around us), it is political, historical (hence Chakrabarty, whose work pushes us to think in new ways about how we are positioned in history and what place climate change has in this context), and there is something about it which is pushing at the edges in all these areas and others, in which new terms are required to even conceive of some of these problematics. Building on what we understand and moving further, in ways that might tread new neural pathways and enable new realities, simply from the newness of our thinking, feels like a worthwhile undertaking. I suggest that the orientation of research which maps out the weather-weight of social life can help bring the people back into climate change.

So the immovable stone of ‘climate change’ is being loosened up, pulled apart to reassemble in illuminating and constructive ways by people contributing to blow away the fog obstructing understanding, using the culminations of what we know so far and the ways in which we can think new thoughts. This effort rewards.





AAA statement on climate change. 29th January 2015. Accessed 1st July 2015.

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