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The perilous identity politics of anthropology
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
In 1989, the department decided to organise a grand celebration of its
25th anniversary, for reasons still obscure to me. A quarter-century is
not an impressive time span and besides, the foundation of the department
was very much a technical and even terminological affair: before 1964,
social anthropology had been taught in the same dilapidated building,
aptly named Barracks B, by roughly the same staff, in the Section of Ethnography.
Be this as it may, in connection with the celebration, Raymond Firth was
invited over. Firth, then pushing ninety, gave two lectures during his
visit, one of which was entitled “The future of social anthropology”,
where he spoke of biotechnology, computers and other recent phenomena
that demanded the attention of anthropologists. It was during question
time after this lecture that a colleague, known for his quirky sense of
humour, rose in the packed auditorium and asked the venerable old man:
Is it true, Professor Firth, that Fredrik Barth and other contemporary
anthropological scholars are standing on your shoulders?
Firth, vaguely sensing that he had been given a part in an in-joke, answered roundly and graciously that “well, if they do, at least that suggests that they can see further than me.”
Now, the question is, do we see further than the people on whose shoulders
we are perched, or has a nasty fog descended on the scenery? Clifford
Geertz seems to have moved towards the latter position towards the end
of his life, although he was frequently seen, by self-professed scientific
anthropologists, as one who had paved the way for the horrors of postmodern
obscurantism. In a recent book essay comparing James Clifford and Pierre
Clastres – an unlikely pair, but offering a thought-provoking contrast
– Geertz concludes: “Whatever the flaws of his approach, Clastres
’knew where he was going, and he got there.” Clastres, in
Society Against the State, describes a South American tribe struggling
to retain its old way of life. Clifford, in his Routes, a book
about travel, movement and ethnography, on the contrary ’seems stalled,
unsteady, fumbling for direction’, and his text has ’a hesitant,
stuttering quality (what can I say? how can I say it? with what right
do I do so?)’. Postmodernism taught a generation of anthropologists
to dissect the menu without bothering to look at the banalities of the
food; it concentrates on the wallpaper patterns instead of the quality
of the woodwork, just as scholars with a neo-Darwinian bent – adherents
of selfish-gene biology – appear to mistake the recipe for the food.
The most evangelical expressions of neo-darwinism, representing a search
for simple answers to complex questions, could be seen as resulting from
despair at apparent postmodern fragmentation, but ironically it deals
in abstractions of a comparable kind to those of a Derrida or Lyotard.
Is the party over? Anthropologists of my generation were somehow given
the distinct impression that early-to mid-20th century anthropology was
sparkling with magic. It held a confident belief in its huge intellectual
task and, quite evidently if usually muttered under one’s breath
or even denied up front, its moral mission consisting in improving the
world, but especially improving the Western middle classes. Disdainful
of the competition, be it quantitative social research, a-theoretical
historiography or reductionist sociobiology, social anthropology held
the banner high, but not so high as to make itself vulnerable to criticism
for vulgarity and sensationalism. The era of anthropological identity
politics proper began just after the Second World War, by which time the
number of professionals and teachers in the discipline was sufficient
for anthropological scholars not to have to worry about making their writings
accessible or interesting to outsiders.
Haven’t we all sat in social anthropology seminar rooms, whether
in Oxford, Oslo or elsewhere, listening to presenters taking liberties
with certain conventions of the discipline, only to be met with reactions
of the generic kind “Hmm... very interesting, fascinating even,
but is it anthropology?” In sum, and I do not want to go into details
at this stage, there is a lack of openness in social anthropology which
is at best puzzling, at worst embarrassing. Some years ago, there was
widespread professional concern with the ways in which our battered old
concept of culture had been hijacked by academic non-anthropologists while
we were simultaneously busy dismantling it. Although anthropologists are
nowadays everywhere outside the academy, the internal identity politics
of our discipline is still militantly obsessed with boundary maintenance
and gatekeeping. I can think of several departments which wouldn’t
dream of hiring a member of staff with a Ph D in another subject than
anthropology. Collaborating with academics in other disciplines is considered
respectable as long as one doesn’t “lose one’s professional
identity as an anthropologist”. You know this as well as I do. But
isn’t this somewhat out of character for a discipline to which one
of the truly foundational texts is Marcel Mauss’s The Gift?
Mauss begins his essay by distinguishing between the three phases of gift
exchange: giving, receiving and returning the gift. Anthropologists, almost
like Scandinavian aid donors, are perfectly happy to give their concepts
and theories to outsiders, but are less enthusiastic about the offered
return gifts in the form of analyses inspired by anthropological thought
but not part of it. There is a fear of impurity in anthropology, a fear
which makes sense, perhaps, in the context of Mary Douglas’ theory,
but not in intellectual life.
This fear of impurity, or of intellectual contamination, is perhaps
nowhere more evident than in the realm of popular anthropology, or public
anthropology if you like. I have recently devoted a whole book to this
topic (Eriksen 2006) and will not reiterate my argument about popularisation
here. Attitudes to light-hearted “popular anthropology”, typically
represented in this country by Kate Fox and her very entertaining book
Watching the English (Fox 2004) vary and, I think, should vary.
However, there are different kinds of popular anthropology. One or two
are plainly populist, commercial literature aiming to entertain but not
to make substantial new contributions to knowledge about the condition
of humanity. I have no grumbles against such books, but they fall outside
the scope of the present concerns, which are about the ability of anthropology
to contribute intellectually to the long conversation about humanity,
not just the one about anthropology. It is disconcerting to note that
on recent lists of the 100 most important intellectuals in the UK and
the world, respectively, a grand total of one anthropologist was represented,
namely Clifford Geertz on the global list. Now that he is gone, the number
would be nil.
You may not be interested in lists of this kind, but I could mention
other examples, such as the very comprehensive bestseller lists on Amazon,
the professional backgrounds of contributors to the London Review
of Books, Prospect or the New York Review of Books,
or a dozen similar indicators suggesting the wider intellectual significance
of social anthropology. This is not a time for complacency. Anthropology
has, in the past, succeeded spectacularly in combating racial prejudices
and biological determinism, accounting for – and, at least in the
case of Margaret Mead, contributing to – cultural change, and throwing
unexpected analogies and thought-provoking contrasts into the world, sometimes
succeeding in “making the exotic familiar and the familiar exotic”,
to paraphrase Malinowski. Our failure to define a single public agenda
over the last decades – and I am using the word public loosely,
to include the media, politics and general intellectual debate –
is actually quite serious. It does not mean that anthropologists are,
generally, working with useless and irrelevant topics, that they are engaged
in a self-enclosed activity of high sophistication akin to the “glass
bead game” described in Herman Hesse’s last and most important
novel, Das Glasperlenspiel, translated into English variously
as The Glass Bead Game and as Magister Ludi. The glass
bead game has no ulterior point beyond that of allowing its players to
display their dazzling skill and intellectual dexterity, and as the novel
shows so clearly, the singleminded commitment to the game demanded of
its players make them unfit for living in the world. Among other things,
Hesse’s novel was clearly a comment on self-enclosed, self-congratulatory
academic pursuits with little relevance beyond the academy. Novelists
and poets have been known to regard literary studies, not least in their
poststructuralist versions, in such terms. But anthropology? Well, clearly
no. What attracted many of us to anthropology in the first place –
the possibility to raise fundamental philosophical questions while simultaneously
engaging with the world of real existing people – is still there.
But, and I regret this very deeply, it is increasingly to be found inside
One feature of contemporary anthropology which may contribute to its
failure to attract intellectual interest from outside could be the absence
of clear theoretical positions. As Bruce Knauft recently pointed out (Knauft
2006), theoretical perspectives are not so much absent in contemporary
anthropology as they are mixed:
Knauft then gives a partial list of the “first team” of
American anthropology, noting that not a single one of them is associated
with a particular theoretical paradigm. Perhaps what Knauft is really
saying is that anthropology has become more like history (only less eloquent),
an ideographic field of study, far from being a nomothetic science. But
there is more to his argument than that. His view is that the opposing
poles that defined anthropology for most of the last century, have lost
their magnetic force and are no longer seen as indispensable. Versions
of Marxism, structuralism, hermeneutics and phenomenology, even healthy
injections of structural-functionalism, have made their way into the shared
theoretical toolbox of anthropologists to which nobody has a right of
priority. In saying this, it is clear that Knauft is playing down a few
real existing polarities, such as the rather deep gulf between interpretive
anthropologists and neo-Darwinists, but as a diagnosis of American cultural
anthropology and most European social anthropology, it is fair enough.
Knauft nevertheless uses the word “post-paradigmatic” to designate
contemporary sociocultural anthropology, but this usage of the term must
remind us of Lévi-Strauss’ Brazilians, or Baudrillard’s
Americans, who had ostensibly taken the journey directly from barbarism
to decadence without passing through civilization on the way.
The timidity of contemporary anthropology contrasts sharply with the
grand visions and ambitious theoretical programmes characteristic of early-
to mid-20th century anthropologies. In this country, indeed in this city,
the end was announced as early as 1950 by Evans-Pritchard in his lecture
“Anthropology and history”. Expanding on his earlier critique
of Radcliffe-Brown’s positivism, Evans-Pritchard now seemed content
to see social anthropology as an interpretive discipline. This statement
did not detract many of his contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic
from continuing to develop their distinctive, and often hugely ambitious
theoretical programmes, from Lévi-Straussian structuralism to Marxist
anthropologies and the so-called cultural materialism of Marvin Harris,
as the latest projection of what Edwin Ardener – another great Oxford
man – called “high modernism” in anthropology. In Ardener’s
view, modernism in anthropology ended around 1980, when the grand theories
seemed to fizzle out. A decade later, Henrietta Moore suggested that anthropology
as a unified discipline had ceased to exist (Moore 1996), having been
replaced by a series of overlapping but distinct practices. This is clearly
an overstatement at the very least: I can think of few academic professions
with a stronger collective identity than anthropologists, and perhaps
this is where our current problem lies: we have, it appears, so much to
tell each other that we forget to invite others to join the conversation
and, similarly, have little time, on our own part, to join theirs.
I said that this is not a time for complacency, but it is also, like
it or not, not a time for grand theory. Contemporary anthropologists commenting
on the state of the art, from Wendy James to Kirsten Hastrup, from Talal
Asad to Joao de Pina-Cabral, never seem to call for the resurgence of
all-encompassing theories with an objectivist bent. Their caution is obviously
well founded – as Evans-Pritchard noted more than half a century
ago, the scientific programme of structural-functionalism had failed to
yield a single “natural law of society” – yet, what
we have taken away from our students (and ourselves) is the joy and enlightenment
involved in comparing and evaluating distinct theoretical programmes.
For my own part, one of my great formative moments as an undergraduate
was the departmental seminar, it must have been around 1982, when Eduardo
Archetti accused Marvin Harris of being a vulgar Marxist, following Harris’s
just-so materialist stories about cultural changes in American society.
Things, we thought then, are more complex than they seem – but we
remained Pyrrhic sceptics and not mere disillusioned sceptics in that
we continued to believe that the answers were to be found somewhere.
Be this as it may. It is nonetheless a fact that when grand theory tries
to return in this postmodern era, it recalls the famous formulation from
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte about history repeating
itself as farce. I am thinking, of course, of the evangelical movement
known variously as sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and Darwinist
social science. The après post hangover, which we are still trying
to come to terms with, seems to be a time for good, solid work with sensible
ambitions and a modest scope, not for grand visions about life, the universe
and everything. Now, this is not a condition unique to anthropology, and
it may not even be a problem when all is said and done. What is disconcerting
is the fact that non-anthropologists no longer have a clear notion of
what we are doing. Anthropology is defined through its epistemology, not
its object, says Kirsten Hastrup. She is right in improving on Malinowski’s
view that we study problems not peoples – the ethnographer’s
reflexivity is now an established and integral part of the process of
inquiry – but we have to be able to offer something more tangible.
Before immodestly offering my own suggestions, I suggest a brief detour.
I am going to argue that the loss of the primitive to anthropology was
like the loss of Eastern Europe to Western socialism.
* * *
Perhaps the last truly great theoretical contribution from anthropology
– many of you will doubtless disagree with this – the last
strikingly original perspective offered from anthropology to the world,
with enduring consequences – was Mary Douglas’ Purity
and Danger, published more than forty years ago (Douglas 19666).
She could still write as though the Lele were an autonomous society uncontaminated
and uninfluenced by the wider colonial or neo-colonial world. Maybe that
has something to do with the originality and timeless quality of her book.
She could write from the much criticised, but commanding heights of the
ethnographic present. This has been impossible for a long time. What we
are now capable of producing is increasingly snapshots of societies undergoing
Now, the study of complex societies has been an accepted part of anthropology
for a long time. In his BBC lectures, delivered in 1950 and published
the following year, Evans-Pritchard (1951) takes a rather positive view
of anthropological studies in complex societies, although he admits that
British anthropologists have so far concentrated on so-called primitive
societies. Evans-Pritchard mentions a number of reasons for studying small-scale
societies, but he fails to mention the most obvious reason, namely that
knowledge of the full range of social and cultural variation is necessary
for anthropology to live up to its name, the study of humanity. Other
anthropologists of Evans-Pritchard’s generation and the next also
supported his view that the study of complex societies should be part
of our collective endeavour, and many undertook such studies themselves,
but the most widespread view remained – and remains? – that
the small-scale study should form the basis of social anthropology. This
is quite obviously no longer the case, not least since small-scale societies
have to be studied in their wider geographical and historical context.
It is almost as if Rivers and the diffusionists have struck back at Malinowski.
Anthropology has been capable of handling this shift methodologically,
but the question deserves to be raised as to whether the change has affected
the anthropological imagination in any way. When, around fifteen years
ago, I decided to title my introductory textbook Small places - large
issues, borrowing a phrase from Geertz, there was already an element
of wishful thinking in it: there was already the looming suspicion that
anthropologists nowadays neither studied small places nor raised large
Moreover: The theoretical onslaught from postmodernism and postcolonialism
came at the least convenient time conceivable – as you will recall,
it began in the early 1980s, just as anthropology was recovering from
the often timely and pertinent, but extremely demanding critiques from
feminism and Marxism. As anthropology struggled to reinvent itself through
taking in world history, imperialism and gender as constitutive features
of its quest, new calls for radical change came from another direction.
Complaints about closet positivism in anthropological terminology, the
impossibility of objective comparison, the literary nature of anthropological
texts and so on were heaped on top of existing complaints about the shortcomings
of 20th century modernist anthropology. In one sense, we recovered fully
from these critiques by moving towards less ambitious (and, indeed, less
coherent) theoretical frameworks and placing greater emphasis on the local.
But in another sense, the general feeling must have been that the party
was over and the magic was gone. From being a body of secret knowledge
containing all the important keys to an understanding of the world, anthropology
became just another mundane way of knowing fraught with all the familiar
contradictions and dilemmas of other lofty scientific projects, and firmly
pulled down to earth, into history, as an enterprise of ambiguous moral
value. Enter the anthropology of transnationalism.
At this stage, it would be disingenuous not to, at least, consider the
possibility that the loss of the primitive may have affected the confidence
and intellectual creativity of anthropology.
There is a Gary Larson cartoon which depicts a group of North American
Indians about to hide away their stereo, their TVs and computers just
as two bespectacled foreigners are approaching the village. One of the
native Americans shouts: “Anthropologists! Anthropologists!”.
Larson’s comment illustrates a reality which has loomed over our
subject ever since Malinowski wrote the introduction to Argonauts
of the Western Pacific: The end of the primitive. Today Malinowski’s
fears have in a certain sense been fulfilled. To quote Geertz again: cultural
differences “will doubtless remain - the French will never eat salted
butter. But the good old days of widow burning and cannibalism are gone
forever.” (Geertz 1986: 105). Typical Ph. D. projects in anthropology
at the Scandinavian universities in recent years have dealt wiith identity
politics in a North American Indian reserve, unemployed men in an Oslo
suburb, second-generation Turkish girls in Drammen and their transnational
links, youth of Mahgrébin origin in a Paris suburb, the “dot
com” hype in Swedish enterprise culture, and so on. Not much swidden
agriculture, sharecropping or witchcraft there – and if African
witchcraft is studied these days, it is likely to be seen as a reaction
to neo-colonialism and the neoliberal policies of the World Bank. Witchcraft:
yes. Magic: no.
The way anthropology is still taught, it is as a 20th century discipline
with a strong continuity from Malinowski, Boas and Mauss. Key terms are
historical particularism and cultural relativism as a methodological device,
intensive hands-on fieldwork, and the total social fact. In spite of intervening
attempts to fashion alternative projects – notably materialist anthropologies
drawing their intellectual energy from Darwin or Marx, structuralism and
methodological individualism – and in spite of scathing critiques
of the entire project of anthropology, the central tenets of early 20th
century anthropology are still taught our students as noble guiding principles.
If I am correct in this, we obviously need to ask if it is not time to
The three key persons mentioned – I suppose I should apologise
for leaving out Radcliffe-Brown, but his enduring influence is more complicated
– were all socially marginal in their societies. While Malinowski
was an immigrant and Mauss was Jewish, Boas was both. Among the first
recruits to the subject, there was a striking overrepresentation of people
who had sound reasons to feel ill at ease in the society in which they
lived, and the small networks of professional anthropologists at the outset
of the Second World War included women, Jews, homosexuals, immigrants,
Communists and uprooted cosmopolitans with a colonial background. The
anthropological communities were small and full of intellectual excitement,
knowing that they were treading where no man or woman had trodden before.
With the confidence of cult members, they were convinced that their brand
of secret knowledge was capable of unlocking the hidden mysteries of culture
The critical implications of social anthropology were obvious, although
rarely brought to fruition in Britain. As you all know, the most successful
application of anthropological cultural relativism in commenting on Western
society was that of Margaret Mead with her books from the Pacific, initially
focusing on gender roles and socialisation, later concentrating on the
so-called problems of culture change. But Boas and Malinowski too, and
French antropologists of a more literary bent like Michel Leiris and Roger
Caillois, also contributed to debate over contemporary issues, often using
examples from remote places to shed light on domestic matters. Indeed,
Evans-Pritchard himself is on record as having said that his studies of
Zande witchcraft could shed light on political processes in the Soviet
Through most of the twentieth century, anthropology took much of its
intellectual power from its ability to draw bold comparisons and making
surprising contrasts, thereby creating a sense of wonder and strangeness
(Verfremdung) in the wider world. For reasons well known to you,
comparative anecdotes about Trobrianders, Kwakiutl or other “Amongtha”,
to use George Stocking’s term, stories, are likely to incite as
much disgust as naïve wonder these days. The story about the painting
in Kwame Nkrumah’s presidential suite says it all. In the historian
Herman Lebovics’ account,
In this image there is a dual implied critique of anthropology –
it is about both colonialism and knowledge imperialism – but the
most common interpretation sees it as an expression of the complicit role
believed by many to have been played by anthropologists during colonialism.
The book clutched by the anthropologist in the painting, Evans-Pritchard
and Fortes’ African Political Systems, could reasonably
be read, in a slightly paranoid spirit, as a useful manual for the colonial
service in a period when indirect rule was the preferred form of political
domination in Africa. Now, the actual relationship between social anthropology
and colonialism was far more complicated both in France and Britain than
often assumed by leftist or postcolonial critics. As documented extensively
by Jack Goody in The Expansive Moment (Goody 1995), the relationship
with colonial authorities could be strained and difficult, although anthropologists
doubtless received much practical assistance from the colonial office.
As shown recently by Andre Gingrich (2005), German anthropology in the
same period, that is the Nazi era, was consciously geared towards facilitating
German colonial expansion in Africa following military victory in Europe.
Areas of specialisation among British and French anthropologists, too,
tended to coincide with the areas ruled by their countrymen. Yet, as Goody
shows, very little anthropological research was funded by colonial authorities
– most of the money in the “classic” era came from American
research foundations – and the Cambridge “applied anthropology”
course for civil servants working in the colonies was never a great success.
Be this as it may, the relationship between European social anthropology
and colonialism remains ambiguous, a generation after the publication
of Talal Asad’s Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter
In America, the situation was different. One might have expected American
anthropologists to have evaded allegations of hidden imperialism. Whereas
French and British anthropologists described societies which were dominated
politically by their own governments, a main project of American anthropology
consisted in rescuing the rich heritage of Native American cultures from
oblivion, documenting languages, myths, customs and so on among peoples
which might shortly disappear as culture-bearing groups. Nevertheless,
as you well know, very articulate intellectuals with a Native American
background, most famously Vine Deloria and his extremely critical book
Custer Died for your Sins (1969), claimed that whereas European
settlers had taken their land, their economy and their political autonomy,
the anthropologists and other social scientists had stolen their last
remaining resource, namely the right to define who they were.
More difficult to falsify than more or less flimsy allegations about
complicity in colonial expansionism, criticism focusing on symbolic and
definitional power continues to gnaw at anthropology’s self-confidence.
Contemporary anthropologists sensitised to the problems of representation
have for many years been full of the sentiment described by Geertz as
“what can I say, how can I say it?”. Following books like
Asad’s and Deloria’s, a considerable library of books and
articles written in a similar, deeply critical vein have seen the light
of day, and as a result, light-hearted comparisons between “The
West” and the “Amongthas” have been relegated from academic
anthropology to the realms of business studies and travel writing.
Good riddance, you may think, and rightly so, but I am personally convinced
that the loss of the radical Other, those peoples formerly described as
primitive, has been a more serious blow to sociocultural anthropology
than we are usually prepared to admit. It was, after all, the ability
to juxtapose the Western life with that of remote, usually small-scale
societies that gave anthropology its identity in the wider world, and
it contributed in no small degree to the intellectual confidence of its
Now, more than twenty years have passed since Edwin Ardener proclaimed
the end of modernism in social anthropology, where, admittedly, he chiefly
argued about the decline of distinct theoretical programmes; but it has
also been twenty years since the publication of Writing Culture.
A number of bids for a rejuvenation or reorientation in anthropology have
been submitted in the intervening years, while most of us – naturally
– have got on with our work in a spirit of business nearly as usual.
In the context of engaging with the world, it has been suggested that
we relinquish cultural relativism and embrace human rights (Kearney 2004);
that we developed mixed methodologies to be able to study modern culture
(Archetti 1994); that we take the study of history more seriously, and
so on. Yet the old confidence in the cosmic importance of what we are
doing has faded. Naturally, when “the natives” began to talk
back, this did not just have a theoretical or epistemological significance:
Anthropologists were – and are – accustomed to seeing themselves
as academic spokespersons for the small peoples, giving them a voice and
visibility they would otherwise not have had. When so-called natives have
serious reservations about being described by anthropologists, since they
see themselves as perfectly capable of identifying themselves, the anthropologists,
it would seem, have to go elsewhere.
In the old spirit of cultural relativism, anthropologists tended to
function as cultural radicals at home and cultural conservatives overseas.
Now that we are all in principle consociates in Alfred Schütz’s
sense, that is people sharing the same time and space, as opposed to contemporaries
who only share the same time, this formula, which was always objectionable
anyway, has lost all credibility. Obsessed with everything that divides
humanity for a hundred years, anthropology could now be ready to return
to the commonalities, that which holds humanity together.
Exoticism has been a negatively charged word for a long time among anthropologists.
Yet it remains a fact that whereas it is easy to define a twentieth-century
anthropology trapped in exoticist presuppositions – increasingly
implicit as the century went on – it is much more difficult to delineate
and define a twenty-first century anthropology completely devoid of “radical
Otherness” as a category.
There are a number of possibilities, and several of them will be exemplified
later in this conference. The problem, the way I see it, is not the absence
of non-exoticising anthropologies, but the difficulties in talking about
the anthropological project as founded in a particular Erkenntnisinteresse,
Let me quote from one of the speakers at this conference: “When
the entire structure of the profession is called into doubt, it is hardly
surprising that most British anthropologists still prefer to keep their
heads firmly buried in the sand”. The context of this pronouncement
was political radicalism and a critical questioning of the interests served,
tacitly or openly, by anthropologists working in the societies that were
by now known as the Third World. The author was Keith Hart, writing in
the British Journal of Sociology in 1974. His point of view was
that the anthropology of his time was sterile and irrelevant outside the
seminar room. More than thirty years on, this is still a concern not to
be sneered at. It is still common to speak of anthropologists working
outside of the academy as “not working as anthropologists any more”,
as if preserving one’s academic virginity was all that mattered.
Before we begin to discuss what a 21st century anthropology ought to
look like – and a wishy-washy, non-committal pluralism is not an
acceptable answer – there are a few more points I should like to
make concerning the relationship between academic anthropology and the
non-academic social and political world.
First, regarding the invisibility of anthropology in the public sphere
and policy, there is a terrible possibility that people out there perfectly
well know what anthropologists do and have some fairly sound notions about
the way we reason about the world – but they are not interested!
Only last week, I went out to have a few drinks with some friends, and
one of them spoke of a development project in Malawi. Whereas the Europeans
were keen to build wells and schools, local chiefs had told the development
officers that the first priority should really be to secure funding for
rainmaking rituals, which are very expensive and involve large expenditures
on food and so on. Of course everybody had a laugh at this, but a few
years back, I might have taken on the social responsibility of the anthropologist
by saying something about local priorities and the importance of getting
to know people really well before embarking on development projects funded
and managed by foreigners. However, everyone present knew this argument
backwards and forwards already, but it didn’t matter. On a more
general note, it is clear that in recent years, there has been a perceptible
impatience in the European public spheres, e.g. in questions to do with
immigration and the cultural diversity brought through them. One possible
response to this situation, might be to accept a countercultural position
which would come easily to many anthropologists, who are used to representing
minority views, but which would ultimately be a gesture of resignation.
Second, grand theory remains a temptation in spite of many years of
“the end of modernism”. Some time back in the 1980s, Ernest
Gellner claimed that the success of postmodernism was due to a great demand,
among students and academics, for obscurity. Today, it seems as if the
intellectual public, certainly in the Anglophone world, is more inclined
to be enthusiastic about simple answers to complex questions, as witnessed
in the current popularity of selfish-gene biology. Although evolutionist
adaptationism can be illuminating and may shed light on many of the topics
we work with as social anthropologists, it is ultimately a kind of anti-anthropology
since it rejects irreducible complexity in favour of single-factor causalities.
Third, the supreme symbolic power of the academy can no longer be taken
for granted, and this seems to have had some unfortunate consequences
for our activities in the public sphere. If you are going to have an argument
with a journalist or someone else with a much poorer formal education
than yourself, it will now be an argument between equals. Many of us have
experienced that if we say something slightly controversial in the seminar
room, we may expect a polite discussion afterwards; but saying the same
thing in the media may lead to vigorous and often extremely passionate
disagreement. Against this kind of controversy we have no instant means
of protection other than keeping mum. Naturally it would be totally irresponsible
of an anthropologist who has knowledge which is relevant for, say, warfare
in Iraq or Afghanistan, not to share it with the greater public for fear
of controversy. Yet it seems that this mechanism, ultimately one of self-preservation,
functions far too often and has reduced the amount of necessary public
interventions of anthropologists to a historical low in the English-speaking
* * *
Let me now, by way not so much of concluding but trying to open up a
discussion, suggest some ways in which we might begin to think, collectively,
about the relevance of social anthropology in a century of disenchantment.
The continued importance of ethnographic fieldwork is, I think, beyond
questioning, although methodological pluralism has been with us for a
long time. What passes for qualitative data in sociology is a weak soup
indeed, compared to the thickness of the ethnographic stew – consisting
of an elephant of empirical stuff and a rabbit of theory, to use Godfrey
Lienhardt’s metaphor, but cooked in such a way that the taste of
the rabbit comes through in every spoonful.
Moreover, and this is an epistemological point closely related to the
methodological one, Kirsten Hastrup is right in saying that anthropology
is “ defined by its epistemology rather than its object” (Hastrup
2005: 146) – as a form of anti-fundamentalist knowledge which she
describes with the term “pragmatic enlightenment”. It is the
enlightenment of Diderot rather than that of Voltaire, a soft-spoken enlightenment
which is self-aware and knows that there is more than one truth, that
two descriptions are better than one, to quote Bateson. I am less happy,
incidentally, witth Hastrup’s view that “...it is possible
to believe in some sort of progress – not in the sense of belief
in a unidirectional history or a teleological drive towards the perfect
social state, but rather in acknowledging the possibility of learning
from history.” (ibid.: 147) There has got to be more to in than
that. But Hastrup’s main point is well taken: Anthropology can no
longer deal in absolute truth, and as we sometimes tell our students,
if you have problems coping with complexity, you might want to study another
These internally uncontroversial points about methodology and epistemology
have, I should like to argue, the potential of catapulting anthropological
knowledge and thought back to the centre stage of intellectual life, and
to make major contributions to policy and development issues. When this
impact has failed to materialise, the short explanation is probably that
we are too obsessed with our academic identity. Thus the perilous identity
politics of my title.
Now the question is how a 21st century social and cultural anthropology
without a shred of residual exoticism, but armed with a superior methodology
and epistemology, can conceivably make a difference in the world at large.
Jonathan Benthall thinks we should set ourself modest aims. A few years
ago, he wrote that ‘theoretically, anthropology ought perhaps to
be the queen of the social sciences’ (Benthall 2002a: 10). He then
adds, immediately, that it should probably be seen as a ‘service
discipline’ instead; small,but with the potential to infl uence
‘more mainstream discipines’. But could it not be precisely
its slightly countercultural character, which enables it to look at the
world with fresh eyes from unexpected angles, that has the potential of
placing anthropology in a central location? The myths of uniqueness that
defined twentieth-century anthropology were very helpful in internal identity
politics, but they simultaneously created strong and impenetrable outward
boundaries. If anthropology continues to surround itself with a mystical
aura internally, the trade-off will consist in it being undersold externally.
A possible solution might consist in making a real effort to study the basic institutions of society – any society – essentially through ethnographic methods, in the same way as we should – again – begin to address the central intellectual questions of today, in the domains of development, democracy, rights, human nature and the environmental crisis. This is being done already, but in too modest a way to make an impact proper. But let me return to the empirical questions. Rather than studying down, we have to begin to study sideways and up. Up to now, as far as the ranking of the social sciences goes, the economist says important things; the sociologist says useful things; but the anthropologist says fascinating things.
Arguably, saying fascinating things, whether or not good for a laugh,
may be better than saying nothing, but we can do better. Anthropological
studies of everyday life in a modern society, municipal politics, diplomacies,
government corporations, schools, hospitals and even military academies
exist, but most of them focus too much on culture and too little on the
features of the social organisation, in its formal as well as informal
aspects. The crowded field of minority studies, in no way matched by an
equal interest in majority studies, may indicate that anthropologists
(and certain other social scientists) are happy on the margins. This is
ultimately unproductive and may boost tendencies of cocooning. Anthropology
should confidently locate its focus of enquiry to the centre of society,
using ethnographic methods not so much to create wonderment and surprise,
but to reveal hidden or unacknowledged features of mainstream society.
In this way we would be able to generate knowledge which is not only truthful,
but also relevant and – dare I say it – useful.
There is no particular reason why anthropologists should confine themselves
primarily to working “at home” or become a less cosmopolitan
or global discipline; the point is that just as our predecessors took
on the central institutions in their small-scale societies, we should
now do the same thing in large-scale societies. This professional bias
places us, incidentally, in a privileged position when it comes to globalisation
During the lecture mentioned a while ago, Raymond Firth was asked about
his choice of fieldsite in the Pacific. He replied that since social anthropologists
study universal problems of society, they might as well do it in places
where it is pleasant to spend a while. In this context, I would say that
since social anthropologists can study anything, they might as well apply
their phenomenal methodological toolbox to places where important things
happen, and not be afraid of explaining to others what they are doing.
In conclusion, either we place ourselves immodestly at the centre stage of intellectual life and of the societies studied through our methods – through our superior methodology, our ability to raise relevant questions and apply them to the key arenas, and our insistence on telling the whole story and not just a slanted version of it – or anthropology could very quickly come to be seen as an anachronism from the 20th century, unable to make its small facts speak to the big issues.
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