Anthropological investigations of vitality: Life force as a dimension distinct from space and time

Bhrigupati Singh


In what ways do anthropologists study vitality? Located in a familiar anthropological predicament—a return to a once familiar place like a field site after a significant gap of time—this article argues that in ways ranging from the everyday question“How are you?” to the familiar research tool of the household survey, we are already implicated in the study of vitality. Rather than a precise definition of vitality, this article offers the idea of life force as a dimension, analogous to space and time that anthropologists and their interlocutors inhabit and investigate. Drawing on the ethnographic strangeness of mundane alterations over time and with help from the Henry James novel The sacred fount, this article offers three critical issues in the anthropology of life force: the desire to know and to measure life force; subsequent doubts about life force, including whether or not it exists at all; and vampirism and envy in transactions of life force.


vitality, life force, household surveys, Henry James, witchcraft, ethnographies of doubt

Full Text:


DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/701185