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The perilous identity politics of anthropology

 

Keynote lecture, “21st century Anthropology”, University of Oxford 28–29 June 2007. Later published in Raul Acosta, Sadaf Rizvi and Ana Santos, eds., Making Sense of the Global.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen


This lecture is intended as a contribution to what Keith Hart (1998) has called “the long conversation of anthropology”. My aim is straightforward. I am going raise a few critical questions about the state of our art in the early 21st century, aided by a very limited, slanted and selective reading of the anthropology of the last century. This will be about some of our successes and some of our failures, and with the title of this conference in mind, it is almost inevitable that I shall also speculate somewhat on future prospects.


Allow me to begin with an anecdote from my home department, the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo. Back in the 1970s, the young and brilliant anthropologist Jorun Solheim wrote a rather knotty and theoretical article with the lengthy title, if my memory serves me correctly, “Er det riktig å si at moderne antropologiske forskere som Barth og Bailey står på skuldrene til Raymond Firth?” In other words, or plain English, “Is it correct to assume that modern anthropological scholars such as Barth and Bailey are ‘standing on the shoulders’ of Raymond Firth?”. Generations of students had to read the mimeographed typescript, originally an exam paper and an exceptional one at that, which concluded that there was a strong and clear continuity from Firth’s reworking of functionalism to the transactional models devised by people like Barth and Bailey.

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 a cocoon.

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:

[T]he reification and contestation of named ‘isms’ and their progeny – materialism, Marxism, interpretivism, postmodernism, and even those that cultivate a distinctive subject position of politics or authorship, such as feminism or multiculturalism – are no longer as subject to explicit theorization or paradigmatic contestation as they were 10 or 15 years ago, notwithstanding their enduring threads, lineaments, and academic politics. Theoretical disputes between paradigms or subject positions are no longer as prominent as they were. (Knauft 2006: 408)

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 historical change.

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 issues.

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 reinvent ourselves.

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 and society.

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 Union.

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,

It depicted, in a great surge of force, a giant Nkrumah breaking the chains of colonialism. The figure was surrounded by dramatic storm clouds and flashes of lightning. At his feet, fleeing towards the edge of the canvas, as if to avoid the storm and the wrath of the emancipator by leaving the frame, were three small figures. One was a pallid white man carrying a briefcase: a capitalist. The second scurried holding a Bible: a missionary. The third figure, smaller than the other two, but the most important for us, was a man carrying a book. Its title was legible: African Political Systems. He’s the anthropologist. (Lebovics 2005)

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 (1973).

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 practitioners.

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, knowledge interest.

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 countries.

* * *

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 subject.

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 research.

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.

 

References

 

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