Useful Anthropology (and “Political Gonorrhoea”)

Posted on May 16, 2008 by


A variety of thoughts on the “uses” and “usefulness” of anthropology were provoked by Lorenz Khazaleh’s synopsis on African anthropology, which also contains links to online papers of the World Anthropologies Network, a source of especial importance to some of the issues I wish to cover in this blog.

Within the North American context it is not difficult to encounter opinions that academics in general, especially in the social sciences and humanities, should “get out there” and “do something useful.” In fact it is this very same type of overt anti-intellectualism that is used by so many online commentators in justifying the work of anthropologists in counterinsurgency intelligence gathering in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least two assumptions are at work in this “get out there and make yourself useful” notion.

To quote the words of a Ghanaian scholar, the late Herb Addo at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad (a former supervisor and one of my first and most important inspirations in getting me to think about Eurocentrism, developmentalist ideology, and world-systems analysis), one implicit idea is that, “all the thinking that needs to be done has already been done.” He disagreed, and faulted Marx as well for arguing along similar lines that we need to go beyond understanding the world to actually changing it, as if the thinking was the lesser practice, and as if thinking were not a practice.

The second assumption is much more basic, and involves a simple question that critics of the Ivory Tower do not ask themselves — if I were not a professor, I would probably be a convenience store clerk, at least for a while, maybe permanently, now how would that be socially more useful and a more valuable contribution than my “getting out there” and teaching? Perhaps the idea is that I teach in my natural state, even while I sleep, and that doing it is not a form of doing, and involves no getting out. I don’t doubt for a moment that some would prefer the convenience store clerk or waiter — for some, being served by someone struggling to survive gives them a perverse sense of self-fulfillment, and they do not get that fulfillment from me. For others, real work is tangible, material, physical, concrete.

Some of these biases return in the context of debates between Caribbean scholars in the early 1990s in the University of the West Indies, and reappear as well in the chapter by Paul Nchoji Nkwi that Lorenz writes about. In the Caribbean, at the onset of structural adjustment programs and austerity measures implanted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, suddenly the region was cast as one where “scarcity” was the dominant state of existence. Never mind that a few years before scarcity in petroleum rich and agriculturally fertile places was not an issue, and a few years later, that scarcity would suddenly vanish. Like African states, Caribbean states can have a great wealth of resources, and it is scarcity that is manufactured by world capitalism and fabricated by particular ideologies. Once the word “scarcity” is mentioned, it is a green light for economists to rush in and reshape the terms of discourse (after all, theirs is a science of “the management of scarce resources” as was the classical definition of economics) — humans become “human resources,” knowledge becomes “human capital,” and so forth. It is in that context that some scholars — the upholders of laws of scarcity, foreign investment, and divestment of even profitable state enterprises — attempted to mute critical thinkers such as Herb Addo. The idea at work here is that “critique” is like navel gazing, it’s now time to produce research that is relevant to policy and to specific development programs.

In the African context Nkwi notes that anthropology had to be either useful or be gone. Usefulness is defined here as making a contribution to health and development programs. In fact, the “making a contribution” idea, so prevalent in anthropology and academic discourse more generally, presumes that there is already some larger project in place, to which we fit in and adjust ourselves, to which we contribute. Critique is not useful, especially not in situations of scarcity — this, presumably, is what Nkwi is referring to. That is also state-led anthropology. In conditions of scarcity manufactured by oppressive regimes, fabricated by the workings of the capitalist world market, where already existing natural wealth is exported to the upper class and away to foreign capitalists, people’s health and wellbeing are challenged much more than by micro-bacteria alone. An anthropology that is critical of the state, of the workings of power and political practice, can become very useful precisely for challenging one of the biggest threats to the welfare of so many Africans: the state itself. Will the state pay for its own deconstruction? Most likely not — indeed, universities in different parts of Africa have not been spared by repressive violence.

Let’s hear from one Ugandan anthropologist, presently dividing his time between Columbia University and Kampala:

Mahmood Mamdani, former professor at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda:

I remember seeing him (Idi Amin) when he came to the University. It was the 50th anniversary of Makerere and he came with an entire battalion of troops, armed. He stood there and said, “I came with a full battalion so that when you raise your heads from your books, you know who has power.”

We just froze completely.

Then he went on to say: “On my way, I stopped at Mulago (the university teaching hospital), and I looked at your medical records and I saw that most of you are suffering from gonorrhoea.” Then he paused and said, “I will not tolerate you spreading political gonorrhoea in Uganda.”

That was as explicit a warning as you can get. Students knew there would be no second chance. This man was ruthless and he would strike ruthlessly.

There may have been no unanimity among African anthropologists about how to be “useful” to their societies, but perhaps there is more unanimity now? Unanimity is one of those things that like scarcity can also be manufactured and then managed.