Sarah Jain Awarded the 2005 Cultural Horizons Prize

SCA is proud to award the fourth annual Cultural Horizons Prize to Sarah Jain (Stanford U) for her article "Dangerous Instrumentality: The Bystander as Subject in Automobility" (CA 19, no. 1 (January 2004):61-94).

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Sarah Jain, "Sarah Jain (Stanford U)." March 22, 2005.

2005's doctoral jury--Zeynep Gursel (UC Berkeley), Rebecca Howes-Mischel (NYU), and Matthew Wolf-Meyer (U Minnesota)--praised the essay as "a brilliant example of how an interdisciplinary approach can put anthropology productively in conversation with such diverse disciplines as legal studies, design, urban planning, and history. . . . Jain attends to diverse historical voices," and situates them historically/culturally, effectively challenging the dominant anthropological belief that one needs to 'be there' to be properly anthropological."

Cultural Horizon Prize Jury Statement 2005

We are happy to award the 2004 Cultural Horizons Prize to Sarah Jain for her article “’Dangerous Instrumentalities’: The Bystander as Subject in Automobility” (19.1).  Our determining criteria included creativity in subject matter and methodology, innovation and depth of ethnographic research and presentation, interdisciplinary potential, and potential for political impact.  In all of these categories, we found Sarah Jain’s work exemplary and worthy of award. 

Jain’s article is a brilliant example of how an interdisciplinary approach can put anthropology productively in conversation with such diverse disciplines as legal studies, design, urban planning, and history.  Jain’s analysis on the historical formation of “common sense” about automobility is incredibly valuable both within anthropology and across the disciplines.  Her approach to the idea of "common sense" shows how it is mutually constitutive with the law -- a particularly important point -- and further shows how the law is culturally constructed and then legitimizes itself through recourse to "common sense."  She goes on to show how un-commonsensical the law is when it comes to the "dangerous instrumentality" of automobiles – their inanimate culpability -- and how historically and culturally rooted it is in the envious decisions of a handful of judges in the early part of the 20th century.  Jain moves from this to discuss how subject positions are produced by legal foreclosures, in this case that of the “bystander.” 

It is precisely Jain's ability to bring alive the social context of historical legal proceedings that make this an interesting piece for anthropology; in so doing, she provides a model of historical ethnography and demonstrates what research recourses remain available to the scholar interested in an anthropological genealogy of a particular subject position – in this case, that of the bystander.  Jain attends to diverse historical "voices," situates them historically and culturally, and effectively challenges the dominant anthropological belief that one needs to "be there" to be properly anthropological.

Rather than a static geographic field, Jain’s field is on the move -- automobility as it defines public space in the US.  In this sense this article serves as an inspiring example of anthropology investigating cultures of connection by focusing on an object whose movements brings together many different individuals, registers of meaning and interests which collectively shape various subject positions.  Moreover, there are very clear legal and ethical stakes for Jain as she outlines the peculiar status of the automobile in American culture, an object that evades the laws which normally protect consumers.  Jain provides readers with a very clear answer for how automobiles and automobile makers might be held responsible in "strict liability," potentially leading to a more bystander-friendly environment.

In conclusion, Jain’s article intelligently contributes to further understanding of such classic anthropological topics as the constitution of common-sense and the construction of particular subjectivities while pulling anthropology into new domains.  As young anthropologists we find this article an inspiring horizon towards which to aspire.

--Zeynep Gursel (UC Berkeley)

--Rebecca Howes-Mischel (NYU)

--Matthew Wolf-Meyer (U Minnesota)

About the Cultural Horizons Prize

The SCA has long been distinguished by having the largest graduate student membership of any section of the AAA. Recognizing that doctoral students are among the most experimentally minded--and often among the best read--of ethnographic writers, this award asks of SCA's graduate student readers, "Who is on your reading horizon?"

This spirit gave rise to the Cultural Horizons Prize, awarded yearly by a jury of doctoral students for the best article appearing in Cultural Anthropology.

View the Prize Page