André Köbben (2017), one of the principal figures of 20th century Dutch anthropology, was 92 when he argued that vanity in academia has harmful effects and should therefore be addressed and tackled. Having recently published his obituary (Bovenkerk, Brunt and Tromp 2020), we now want to take up his observations and further explore ‘vanity’.

Köbben’s concern with vanity reflects the immoral undertone it has in many places in the world. Excessive self-worth remains frowned upon, despite an apparent increase of new forms of digital narcissism in, for instance, politics, academia and the media. The gloomy image of Dorian Gray’s exchange of his soul for eternal youth that Oscar Wilde (2000) depicted still permeates contemporary thinking. At the same, vanity also connotes a quality of emptiness, transience and futility. Its double meaning opens up questions about cultural consistency. How is vanity conceived in different localities, among different social groups, and in different situations?

Vanity, in essence, is about the relation between the self and its (social) environment. Anthropological attention to vanity, however, has mostly centred on the potential harm of ‘confessional tales’, associated with ‘vanity ethnography’, as a disproportionate and narcissistic style of navel gazing (Van Maanen 2011[1988]: 93). Yet, we believe that vanity deserves a more thorough consideration, and we therefore invite authors to reflect on the role of vanity in the multiple social worlds that ethnographers inhabit. For example, a potential field of interest is the role of vanity in politics. Max Weber (1946) noted that in the pursuit of power, politicians are continuously reminded of the unique quality of their leadership and judgment, turning vanity into an ‘occupational disease’. How, then, does this inevitable vanity relate to current political spectacles, such as the recent Democratic and Republican Conventions in the United States, or contemporary populist politicians and their personality cults?

Other topics could include the effects of technologies, such as mobile phones and their cameras, GoPro’s and tracking and social media applications, which facilitate lifelogging and self-imaging and online posting. Similarly, aesthetic practices, such as cosmetic surgery and rejuvenating interventions, have created new languages of rights to beauty and fitness worldwide (Edmonds 2010), while a discourse of self-love has reached almost divine status in present coaching and mindfulness therapies. Is vanity perhaps always in the eye of the beholder? Are the underlying ideals and practices fundamentally different from the morals that Oscar Wilde addressed in his Dorian Gray? Or are there other mechanisms at play?

Etnofoor invites authors that engage with these issues either in the form of an ethnographic case study or from a methodological, theoretical or more practical/personal perspective, to submit an abstract for a paper or a (audio)visual essay of no more than 200 words to before November 1, 2020. The deadline for authors of accepted abstracts to submit their full papers is February 15, 2021.


Bovenkerk, Frank, Lodewijk Brunt and Henk Tromp. 2020. In Memory of André Köbben. Etnofoor 32(1):145-148).

Edmonds, Alexander. (2010). Pretty Modern. Beauty, Sex, and Plastic Surgery in Brazil. Durham: Duke University Press.

Köbben, André. (2017). Over de Rol van IJdelheid in de Wetenschap. Amsterdam: Rozenberg Publishers.

Van Maanen, John. (2011[1988]). Tales of the Field. On Writing Ethnography, second edition. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Weber, Max. (1946). From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Translated and edited by H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wilde, Oscar. (2000[1890]). The Picture of Dorian Gray. London: Penguin.