An Anthropological Perspective, London: Routledge 2022

Christoph Wulf

This book has five aims. First, I want to show that today we are living in a period that can be described as the Anthropocene, the age of humans, an age in which human beings largely determine the fate of the planet. I examine the negative effects of industrialization and modernity, such as global warming, the destruction of biodiversity, acidification of oceans, pollution, depletion of non-renewable resources, etc. (Gil and Wulf 2015). These developments are destroying the foundations of life and thus of human beings. We see, therefore, that it is essential that the education of future generations involves a reflective approach to this situation, with the focus on changing it. This is a responsibility that lies both with us and younger generations. Understanding the conditions of the Anthropocene and contributing towards making sustainable development a reality are therefore important tasks of human development and an education that looks towards the future.

Second, I aim to demonstrate that such a change in education and socialization can only succeed on the basis of the previous educational ideas that have evolved since the beginning of modernity. We still accept the validity of the views of Comenius, i.e. that the important thing is to provide everyone with a comprehensive basic education. In later times, three aspects came to gain importance for pedagogy: the access of specific individuals to universal norms, the rationalization of the world in which we live, and the principle of representation. These three trends – universalization, rationalization and representation – contribute to the development of modern sciences which, despite their cultural origins which happen to be European, are valid right across the world. In the Enlightenment of the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first to question the idea of education as a means of achieving overriding goals and indeed the goals of education itself. Education should no longer be an instrument of normative specifications but should respect and develop what is the child’s own. For Rousseau it is largely this that justifies and legitimizes education. This is picked up by Wilhelm von Humboldt’s New Humanism in the 19th century. Humboldt firmly places the individual at the center of development. An individual’s general education is the primary task. By means of this, the individual is prepared for the demands of his or her future life. Education and human knowledge are closely linked. Human education is not possible without knowledge of human nature, without anthropology. Anthropology, for its part, aims to look at the education of human beings and our species. In the second half of the 20th century, anthropology and educational anthropology became more important as the basis of education. The starting point was uncertainty as to how human beings are to understand themselves today and what this fundamental uncertainty means for the way they are raised and educated. With the establishment of a pedagogical anthropology, questions concerning the historical and cultural character of education have come to gain importance. Educational anthropology sees education as a basic condition of human beings, which it explores from a  historical, ethnological and philosophical standpoint.

Third, I want to demonstrate that, in view of globalization and the conditions of the Anthropocene, it no longer makes sense to understand education only from the perspective of Europe and the West. Because of its interest in culture, educational anthropology is also interested in perspectives from other parts of the world. I look at Confucianism in China and thoughts about pedagogy in India during the second half of the 20th century (Michaels and Wulf 2012, 2013, 2014), to show that ideas and practices have been developed there that add important perspectives to Western ideas. This still remains valid even though these ideas are only of secondary importance in China and India, given the dominance of Western influences. After all, today one third of the world’s population live in these two countries. The highest goal of Confucianism to create a “good person” is a worthy goal, which does not become any less important because, from a Western perspective, some of the methods chosen are unacceptable. Confucian “inclusive humanism” is determined by the fact that here the human being is understood as a sentient, social, political, historical, and metaphysical being. It encompasses a sustainable integration of body and mind, a fruitful interaction between self and community, a harmonious relationship between the human species and nature, and responsiveness between humans and the Dao. Self, community, nature and transcendence are thus the defining elements of Confucian anthropo-cosmic humanism. In view of the violent relationship of human beings to nature, to other people and to themselves, which is expressed in the Anthropocene, efforts to reduce violence and deal with spirituality in India are also important challenges for Western countries.

Fourth, I aim to show that educational anthropology is not a clearly defined field. Pedagogical anthropology is more a perspective from which one can look at many phenomena and human practices that are of direct importance for education (Wulf 2013). In this book I have selected four examples. In the first example, I examine the question of what anthropological and educational significance repetition has. The starting point is the realization that human life processes such as breathing, drinking, eating or sexual intercourse are repetitive (Resina and Wulf 2019). But the phenomena of repetition go further. Mimetic processes are particularly important for education, and Plato and Aristotle recognized their central importance for human development (Gebauer and Wulf 1995). Mimetic processes are repetitive. But they don’t make exact copies like a copying machine, they are productive or even creative; they combine the familiar with the new. Rituals also have a repetitive structure in which mimetic and performative processes play a central role in the creation of social relations and communities (Wulf et al 2010; Michaels and Wulf 2014). Imagination, which is so often underestimated compared to language, is also an important area of educational anthropology. It plays a substantial role in all cultures (Hüppauf and Wulf 2009; Wulf 2018). Grasping, promoting and researching imagination is a difficult task. With the world changing effects of digitalization and the expansion of a virtual reality, imagination is becoming increasingly important. In an international ethnographic study, we were able to show the influence of digitalization on young people’s lives in all parts of the world today and how, despite all cultural differences, it has a uniforming effect (Michalis, Varvantakis, and Wulf 2017). My research in educational anthropology is about exploring the importance of iconicity, performativity and materiality as well as the tacit or silent knowledge that is an integral part of this. From a methodological point of view, I have tried to elaborate the historical and cultural character of selected areas of the contemporary world and to use this knowledge in order to contribute to educational anthropology.

Fifth, I want to show that it is necessary for the future of humanity and thus for the education of the young, to deal successfully with the three big conflict areas “violence / peace”, “alterity” and “sustainable development”. Violence in its various forms is still a challenge (Damus and Wulf 2017). These include the manifest violence and the potential violence of military weapon systems with more than 15,000 atomic and hydrogen bombs. There is also the structural violence of the international world order as well as the many forms of institutional, symbolic and imaginary violence. Added to this are the challenges associated with cultural, social and economic differences, with the growing migratory flows worldwide and with experiences of alterity in general (Wulf 2016). Since these conditions contain enormous potential for violence, they must be dealt with in the education of the younger generation. The target of sustainable development is the realization of a continuous process of change in society as a whole which will lead to the preservation of the quality of life of the present generation and at the same time secure the options for future generations to shape their lives. Today, education for sustainable development based on the 17 UN goals is a recognized way of improving individual prospects, social prosperity, economic growth and ecological compatibility. It is an open question as to whether such a turnaround will succeed in society and in education.


Damus, Obrillant and Wulf, Christoph et al. (ed.) (2017) : Pour une éducation à la paix dans un monde violent. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Gebauer, Gunter and Wulf, Christoph (1995): Mimesis. Culture, Art, Society. Berkeley; University of California Press.

Gil Capeloa, Isabel and Wulf, Christoph (ed.) (2015): Hazardous Future: Disaster, Representation and the Assessment of Risk. Berlin, München, Boston/MA: De Gruyter.

Hüppauf, Bernd and Wulf, Christoph (ed.) (2009): Dynamics and Performativity of Imagination. Images between the Visible and the Invisible.New York: Routledge.

Kontopodis, Michalis, Varvantakis, Christos and Wulf, Christoph (ed.) (2017): Global Youth in Digital Trajectories. London, New York, New Delhi: Routledge

Michaels, Axel and Wulf, Christoph (ed.) (2011): Images of the Body in India. London et al.: Routledge.

Michaels, Axel and Wulf, Christoph (ed.) (2012): Emotions in Rituals and Performances. London et al. : Routledge.

Michaels, Axel and Wulf, Christoph (ed.) (2014): Exploring the Senses: Emotions, Performativity, and Ritual. London et al: Routledge.

Resina, Joan Ramon and Wulf Christoph (ed.) (2019): Repetition, Recurrence, Returns. Lanham: Lexington Books/Roman & Littlefield.

Wulf, Christoph et. al. (2010): Ritual and Identity: The Staging and Performing of Rituals in the Lives of Young People. London: Tufnell Press.

Wulf, Christoph (2013): Anthropology. A Continental Perspective. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wulf, Christoph (ed.) (2016): Exploring Alterity in a Globalized World. London et al.: Routledge.

Wulf, Christoph (2022): Human Beings and Their Images. Imagination, Mimesis, Performativity. London: Bloomsbury