Ambivalence and the study of contradictions

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Deana Jovanović. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.002


Ambivalence and the study of contradictions

Deana JOVANOVIĆ, Center for Advanced Studies of South-eastern Europe (CAS SEE), University of Rijeka (Croatia)

In response to the 2016 HAU debate “Anthropology and the study of contradictions,” I suggest that the anthropological focus on people’s (mutually opposing) dispositions opens more possibilities to capture power relations than the focus on propositions or utterances, proposed by some authors in this debate. I add to the debate an anthropological focus on the future, and I introduce the importance of ambivalence in the study of contradictions.

Keywords: Contradictions, ambivalence, HAU debate, Serbia

In the recent HAU debate, “Anthropology and the study of contradictions” (Berliner et al. 2016), five anthropologists adopted an individual-centered and phenomenological perspective on contradictions to address the question of the “social agent” and how contradictions could be described from an anthropological point of view. In this response I will restrict myself to two observations: first, I propose that the anthropological focus on people’s (mutually opposing) dispositions opens more possibilities to capture power relations in the study of contradictions than the focus on propositions or utterances. Second, I add to this debate an anthropological focus on the future, and I introduce the notion of ambivalence, which I see as immensely important in the study of contradictions.

The debate mainly focused on propositions and utterances in people’s everyday lives. Richard Shweder especially introduced “the law of non-contradiction,” which is a universally binding logical rule and a regulatory norm in the search for truth. The law guarantees, he argued, that two mutually “contradictory propositions cannot both be true (at least not in the sense and at the same time); nothing can be both itself (A) and not itself (~A) (at least not at the same time and place); [2]propositions that are unambiguous in the reference are either true or false and not both” (Shweder 2016: 9). He also argued that the example of the environmentalist smoker, provided by David Berliner, was not an example of mutually opposing propositions; rather, he saw it either as a sign of a person’s weakness of will, lack of conviction, hypocrisy, or as a principle bounded by “compartmentalization.”

My position in this debate follows that of Michael Lambek’s, who argues that “most utterances (voiced phrases) are not in the form of propositions and hence not of the kind that submit easily to contradiction, at least not logical contradiction” (Lambek 2016: 7). I add that the anthropological focus on propositional logical orders does not problematize power relations in the constitution of the contradictions/inconsistencies, such as those of the frequent-flyer environmentalist, the environmentalist who smokes, or the anticapitalist intellectual who actively partakes in academic capitalism. Hence, I argue that one needs to take into account the work of power embedded in structural relations, how power relations are constituted through everyday practice in different social and historical contexts, how they get (re)legitimized through an interplay of agency and structure (in a Bourdieu’s sense), and how power relations create various inequalities. Rather than asking how contradictions/inconsistencies are resolved on an individual level (and focusing on how “compartmentalization” serves to preserve the harmony of the nonsplitting self, as proposed by Berliner and Shweder), anthropology should be more problematizing peoples’ participation in the reproduction of social, political, and economic conditions while living and dealing with contradictions.

In order to overcome conceptual confusion in the study of contradictions (and to prevent narrowing down of its scope), I propose to shift the focus from people’s propositions or utterances, and to place it on people’s dispositions. I use the notion of disposition here to refer to the ways in which people are oriented to things, people, and objects in regard to their futures, which further shape people’s everyday experiences, subjectivities, and selves. In practice, dispositions entail statements, propositions, utterances, behaviors, attitudes, affects, emotions, and beliefs, the concepts mentioned by the authors in this debate. Hence, I argue that the study of “ambivalent statements, contradictory attitudes, incompatible values, and emotional internal clashes” (Berliner 2016: 5) is a part of the greater task of understanding people’s different (and many times mutually exclusive) dispositions toward their futures and their everyday lives.

My ethnographic material gathered between 2012 and 2013, in a copper-processing town (called Bor) in East Serbia, shows that a lot of mutually exclusive dispositions in relation to futures, which constituted ambivalence, emerged among my interlocutors. By focusing on ambivalence I gained specific insight into how mutually conflicting dispositions were experienced as “true” for the same people, at the same place, at the same time, and even toward the same objects. Hence, such focus opened the potential to see how people, who encountered myriad contradictions, chose not only one or the other (“either”/“or”) but how they selected both (“both”/“and”) (Lambek 2016: 7–8). It is important to notice that in this approach I recognize the role of the law of noncontradiction in creating the type of framework that enables one to speak of ambivalence. The study of ambivalence I introduce [3]here builds on the study of propositions but shifts the focus of the study of contradictions to dispositions. I will now illustrate the notion of ambivalence with a reference to one of my interlocutors’ stories.

Slavka (age 42) hoped that she would finally start her private business. After prosperous Yugoslav period, her town went through a rapid decline during the 1990s and the 2000s. During the time of my fieldwork, people experienced some signs of hope for mutual revival of the town and the copper-processing company, since the state invested in the industry during political campaigns. The investment into the company and the town’s appearance has been represented by the politicians and by the official media as “the revival” of the town and the company, which dominated the town’s economy. However, in some news, and through discussions among each other, people could find out that the “revival” was a political and managerial “scam,” that the overindebted company could be still sold “for peanuts,” and that people might be left to struggle without any help in the future.

The possibility to start Slavka’s private business was dependent on whether the head director of the company would give the orders to the relevant authorities in the municipality, and provide the necessary approvals. Without his permission it would have been impossible. She saw the head director as “a savior” but also as “a criminal”; he was a person who loved the town, “a good manager” and “a crook.” She thought of herself as a failure, as she had to be the part of economy of favors, but also as a winner who knew how to navigate such corrupted setting. Dismayed by this situation, she perceived the industrial company’s projections of a “rise” with doubt, anger, and disbelief, and with trust, desire, and hope. For Slavka, the statue of the Phoenix, made by the company to mark new rise of the town, simultaneously predicted a rise and a new fall of the town and the company.

I encountered myriad similar examples of ambivalence. People simultaneously perceived pollution as hope and as a risk—it was a life-giving and a life-taking substance at the same time (Jovanović 2016b). While risk and hope mutually reinforced each other, they both became a framework for anticipations of people futures (Jovanović 2016b). People weighed up, maneuvered, accepted, neglected, and bargained with risks of pollution which became an integral part of how they invested in hope (Jovanović 2016b). In addition, pollution was something they resented, what they endured and liked as a particular marker of their identity and a way of life (Jovanović 2016a). This feeling was accompanied by a feeling of pride, sometimes even mixed with a particular ironic enjoyment of such endurance and impudence (Jovanović 2016a).

Ambivalence in my research helped me to understand the ways in which my interlocutors dealt with and stood toward myriad ambiguities (situations) and contradictions (embedded in a wider social arrangement and on an individual level). Hence, it enabled me to understand that while hope entailed a more optimistic disposition toward the future (being hopeful), people’s ambivalence referred to a more doubtful disposition, or rather to an attitude toward the future consisting of both a positive (optimistic) outlook and a negative (pessimistic) one. Many of my interlocutors were expecting both good and bad, they saw themselves as good and bad, and they were feeling “in between.”[4]

In his presidential address to the American Sociological Association, Neil Smelser (1998) brought the notion of dependence together with that of ambivalence in an attempt to establish the “logic of ambivalence” (Smelser 1998: 7). For him, ambivalence serves as a postulate “for purposes of understanding, analysis, and explanation . . . beyond the scope of rational-choice explanations” (Smelser 1998: 5). His analysis points to a quite relevant condition in which my interlocutors were embedded, and which is also important for the understanding of anthropology as a “science of contradictions.”

While the rational choice theory proposes that a person always has the freedom to choose or not to choose, Smelser insightfully points to situations in which “dependent situations breed ambivalence” (Smelser 1998: 8). He then calls attention to a context of interdependence where actors feel “locked in” by personal or institutional commitments and constraints:

The form of dependence may vary. A subordinate person in a power relationship is politically dependent; a person who is committed to a religious or social movement cause is ideologically dependent; a person in love is emotionally dependent. The common element, however, is that freedom to leave-choice is restricted because it is costly politically, ideologically, or emotionally. Thus, dependence entails a certain entrapment. (Smelser 1998: 8)

As such, ambivalence is important to take into account in the study of contradictions. The example of a frequent-flyer environmentalist points to ambivalence, and enables us to understand sets of dispositions that cannot come into equilibrium with one another in (his or her) everyday life. The environmentalist will take the plane to visit another continent to attend a conference against climate change, and to present her or his groundbreaking research. The plane will enable her or him to return soon to her or his family that she or he is supporting, and she or he might even smoke to reduce the stress. The entrapped environmentalist is, however, not alone. My research shows that ambivalence was precisely an effect and a coping mechanism in a social environment where people were dependent on what they wanted to eliminate and escape: on pollution from the smelting factory, on restricted possibilities for employment in a mono-structural economic environment, on approval of the head director, and on an inefficient and nearly bankrupt state that was supposed to “save” the company.

Hence, we should recognize that people are not defined by rational choices of “either”/“or,” and not confine analysis to rational behavior where individuals adjust means to the achievement of their ends, for which the rational choice theory has been criticized. I suggest that the specific focus on dispositions with reference to future entails a privileged domain for the anthropological study of contradiction precisely because contradictions consist of encounters with the social, political, and economic conditions on which people are reliant on, and which more than often “work against” them. Hence, I believe that the focus on ambivalence in the study of contradictions, which frequently appears as both an effect and a coping mechanism, has a potential to repoliticize power relations and to embed contradictions in actual contexts, where the simple choice of “either”/“or” is a very rare instance for people.[5]


I thank Phaedra Douzina Bakalaki for insightful comments on the first draft, Dr. Stef Jansen for his suggestions on my work on ambivalence, and anonymous reviewers for their feedback.


Berliner, David. 2016. “Anthropology as the science of contradictions.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (1): 1–6.

Berliner, David, Michael Lambek, Richard Shweder, Richard Irvine, and Albert Piette. 2016. “Anthropology and the study of contradictions.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (1): 1–27.

Jovanović, Deana. 2016a. “Heroic endurance under the smoke: Ethnographic notes from an industrial town in Serbia.” Toxic News, November Issue, https://toxicnews. org/2016/11/08/heroic-endurance-under-the-smoke-ethnographic-notes-from-an-industrial-town-in-serbia/?iframe=true&theme_preview=true. Accessed November 8, 2016.

———. 2016b. “Prosperous pollutants: Bargaining with risks and forging hopes in an industrial town in Serbia.” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology. doi:10.1080/00141844.2016. 1169205.

Lambek, Michael. 2016. “On contradictions.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (1): 6–8.

Shweder, Richard. 2016. “Living by means of the law of non-contradiction.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (1): 8–13.

Smelser, Neil J. 1998. “The rational and the ambivalent in the social sciences.” American Sociological Review 63 (1): 1–16.

L’ambivalence et l’étude des contradictions

Résumé : En réponse au débat publié dans HAU en 2016 “Anthropology and the study of contradictions”, je veux émettre l’hypothèse qu’un angle d’approche anthropologique fondé sur les dispositions (mutuellement opposées) des individus crée plus de possibilités de rendre compte de relations de pouvoir qu’une focale, recommandée par certains auteurs de ce débat, sur les propositions et les paroles. L’auteur contribue à ce débat en y ajoutant un intérêt anthropologique pour le futur et introduit l’importance de l’ambivalence dans l’étude des contradictions.

Deana JOVANOVIĆ is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies of South-eastern Europe at the University of Rijeka. Deana holds a PhD in Social Anthropology (University of Manchester), and she researches urban, political, and environmental anthropology. Her research focuses on anticipations of futures, hope and risk, urban infrastructure, and reproduction of social inequalities in deindustrialized and reindustrialized urban environments across East Europe.

Deana Jovanović
Center for Advanced Studies of Southeastern Europe (CAS SEE)
University of Rijeka
Sveučilišni odjeli
Radmile Matejčić 2
51000 Rijeka