Anthropology and Environment Society
Oral Presentation Session
It’s easy to imagine that the way we orient ourselves on the surface of the earth could be intimately tied to the ways in which we apprehend ourselves as persons. But what kinds of conceptual distinctions b(l)ind us to the earth we tread and against which we figure ourselves and others as persons? Studies relating spatial orientation to human sociality have focused on the contrast between egocentric and allocentric spatial Frames of Reference (SFoRs). Ego- and allo- are distinguished by the location of their coordinate’s Anchors--e.g., in the body (left/right) or outside it (cardinal directions). In contrast, the Ground of spatial descriptions--the background against which Figures stand out--affords a distinction orthogonal to ego-/allo-. For example, the three main SFoRs (Intrinsic, Relative, Absolute) are similar in that their Grounds are ad hoc and unconstrained. In contrast, speakers of languages like Quechua use an “environmental” SFoR with Grounds constrained by their shared knowledge and experience of a familiar territory. For speakers of such “environmental” languages, the communicative context itself is grounded in practical experience and knowledge of a specific territory such that a person is recognizable as a potential interlocutor to the extent that they share this. Finally, studying the Grounds of spatial descriptions helps identify a thread common to three ethnographic observations about Quechua communities: the relative absence of ethnonyms despite their cultural variability, their framing of anxiety about territorial abandonment and dispossession in terms more existential than economic or political, and their recognition of places as persons.