Maurice Bloch: “Reluctant Anthropologist” or “Anti-Anthropologist”?

Many thanks again to Lorenz Khazaleh at antropologi.info for bringing my attention to this fascinating interview with Maurice Bloch, where views are expressed that sit perfectly well with the thrust of the Open Anthropology Project. This also ties in with my response to the comment that I am “ambivalent” about my own work that one can find here.

Interviewed by Maarja Kaaristo in Eurozine in February of this year, Maurice Block makes several statements that I found to be critically relevant.

First, on anthropological knowledge:

Anthropologists don’t usually talk about the basis of their knowledge because they take it for granted. What they do talk about, and what they tend to use in their representation of the knowledge of the people they study, is a kind of second level that assumes an earlier level….More and more, I began to stress that the basis of our knowledge, the knowledge that we use to making inferences, is based much less on culture than anthropology tends to believe. So many anthropologists began to think of me as an anti-anthropologist.

Second, concerning applied anthropology, the discussion seems a bit muddled, perhaps as a result of the interviewer conflating “development experts” with “applied anthropologists”, with Bloch’s response largely focusing on critiques of the former, and the problems posed for the work of the latter who do not necessarily fall in line with the goals and practices of development agencies that hire them as consultants. Let’s move on before someone asks me why people are not wearing enough hats.

Third, on the two senses of the term “anthropology” and the disappearance of institutional anthropology:

(a) I would like to distinguish between two senses of the word “anthropology”. It can refer to institutions inside universities, which are called “anthropology departments”. Anthropology departments teach and are coherent insofar as they have a tradition. That’s one sense of anthropology – as institution. It’s very possible that anthropology departments will disappear, there’s no reason why they should continue existing. They only exist insofar as they’re useful in terms of teaching and developing a tradition. It may well be that they just disappear; it wouldn’t bother me very much. That’s why I’m not very interested in the crisis of representation, because I’m not that interested in anthropology as an institutional system.

(b) On the other hand [there are] the general questions of anthropology, which exist irrespective of anthropology departments. In fact, I would consider that all human beings are anthropologists: all are concerned with the general theoretical questions about the nature of human beings, about explanations of diversity and similarity. Of course I’m not worried about the continuation of this form of anthropology, it seems to me impossible that it could ever disappear.

Fourth, on letting anthropology departments die, and what the loss would be:

One could say, all right, let anthropology departments die, let them spend their time considering themselves to be the most fascinating phenomenon in the universe, and let them get on with fewer and fewer students. Then we could just forget about anthropology and start again. Yet if we did that it would just be repeating the mistakes of the past. To lose the knowledge, both theoretical and empirical, which has been accumulated – and I fear that is what’s happening – because anthropologists have not been addressing those questions that are burning questions for human beings. Other people have done it and have not made use of what anthropologists have learned.

Fifth, on anthropology in public debates:

Having said this, there’s another thing that has to be said, and that is that when professional anthropologists join the anthropological debate, which they rarely do, it may well be that their role is one of caution. Because we have learned that easy answers don’t work. So we anthropologists will always have a negative role and I think that’s right. But I think we should engage with the general questions that people are ask, rather than spending our time navel gazing.

I rarely agree 100% with anything anyone says, but I am close to doing so in the case of Bloch’s comments above, and in that interview as a whole. There are questions that remain however:

(1) How do we ascertain what is “navel gazing”–is it the abstract discussion of how the human soul is formed, or is it the seemingly pointless question of “why aren’t people wearing enough hats”? I hope people will see why that vignette from Monty Python remains so brilliantly germane to the work we do.

(2) Not letting anthropological knowledge accumulated over past generations simply vanish, is one thing. To locate that knowledge, and to identify it with the continued existence of anthropology departments, is another. I do not believe that the death of departments means the death of knowledges that were generated in such departments, or that suddenly they become more closed off to a wider public.

8 thoughts on “Maurice Bloch: “Reluctant Anthropologist” or “Anti-Anthropologist”?

  1. Very interesting comments. I have also had another take on the “examining the navel” comment, and this was that anthropologists have been extremely involved with looking at, dissecting, questioning and validating our field. At times I wonder that we are at least as involved in writing about anthropology as in doing anthropology, and that writing must be presented as validation of anthropology and other anthropologists.

    This is a great website. I am so glad I found it. I was following Maurice Block links.

    1. Thank you very much Dr. Wilson-Fall, your visit and your message are both much appreciated. That really is a curious circular bind, and I like how you put it: “we are at least as involved in writing about anthropology as in doing anthropology, and that writing must be presented as validation of anthropology and other anthropologists.” It is also very fortuitous given the changes about to take place on this site, and the project of which it forms part, within the next 24 hours in fact. I gravitate toward the idea of writing about anthropology as a Western knowledge system, a mode of consumption by a certain class within the West, and a means of producing the world for that class and for the authorities. The last part we need to do without, or at least I do, that is, “presented as validation of anthropology and other anthropologists” — I want to get past that kind of slavish deference whose purpose is part of a game of power-knowledge, to secure itself as a discipline in a never ending quest for respectability in the midst of tremendous self-doubt. (Otherwise I confess that I personally find writing about anthropology in public to be tiresome now, regardless of objectives.)

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