Not Radical Enough: Disengaged Anthropology (1.5)

“The choice to rely … on cultural anthropologists in the rebuilding of a defeated enemy has particular resonance now as the United States struggles to rebuild a stable and viable Iraq. … As the occupation of Iraq appears more complex by the day, where are the new Ruth Benedicts, authoritative voices who will carry weight with both Iraqis and Americans?”
—–Alexander Stille, “Experts can help rebuild a country,” The New York Times, 19 July, 2003.

(Notes and comments on:
Bunzl, Matti. (2008). The quest for anthropological relevance: Borgesian Maps and epistemological pitfalls. American Anthropologist 110 (1): 53-60.)

Reasons for Irrelevance: It’s an Inside Job

The discussion between Bunzl and Besteman-Gusterson has some rewarding points to it. Bunzl begins by observing what most of us already know to be the case that,

Put simply, many of us chafe under a perceived public irrelevance, especially when compared to the glory days when anthropological titans like Margaret Mead and Ashley Montagu regularly addressed millions and had a real impact on debates in education, public policy, and beyond (2008: 53).

Specifically, Bunzl chooses to use one single text as the focus, or as the vehicle, for his critical analysis of why this is so. He thus speaks of Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back, edited by Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson, and published in 2005. He says that the authors in that volume (which I have yet to read myself) took on top public “pundits” in the U.S., from Thomas Friedman to Samuel Huntington. George Marcus, in a quote on the front cover, called it “a bold attempt … to remake the terms of public debate.”

Bunzl sees the book as failing to achieve its aims of recouping the legacy of Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, of anthropologists becoming engaged as public intellectuals, noting that the book was largely ignored, for all its heroism (2008: 53).

The book failed in its aims, Bunzl argues, for a number of reasons:

“the book was issued by the University of California Press, an outfit not particularly known for its ability to reach broad audiences. As a result, Pundits was essentially an inside job. It was written by anthropologists, of course. But it also appeared in an anthropology series, although one explicitly devoted to public engagement. And yes, the blurbs cited earlier were by other anthropologists as well. Pundits may have staked a claim to the public sphere, but, as far as I can tell, few outside the world of anthropology knew, let alone cared, about that” (2008: 54).

Bunzl criticizes them for narrowing “punditry” to the workings of reactionary myth-makers who work to support the privileged, while ignoring the presence of successful left-wing pundits (eg, Michael Moore, Naomi Klein), and distancing themselves from public punditry. Bunzl asks: “if progressive punditry is in fact possible, then how do we explain the persistent failure of contemporary anthropologists, including those in Pundits, to play a more prominent role in the public sphere?” (2008: 54). He sees this gap in the book’s foundation as one that undermines the whole premise of the book.

Bunzl’s question has to do with why anthropology has largely disappeared from the public sphere. Is it due to powerful exclusionary forces, working on top of and against the discipline, from outside the discipline, or are there reasons internal to the discipline that can help to explain anthropology’s public irrelevance? (2008: 54).

Some might object that anthropology does not need to be publicly engaged, does not need mass audiences, and thus eschew the common goals of both Bunzl and Besteman-Gusterson. I disagree. Anthropology will not reside safely in peace, ensconced in the Ivory Tower, because there too it is suffering from increased marginalization, and that’s in the cases of universities that actually have an anthropology program of some sort. Moreover, any discipline whose purchase covers a wide range of publicly relevant, directly relevant, issues should say something in public. There is no point being a mute bystander as public debates rage about race, the family, violence, religion, and thus act like some dog in the manger. Even those disciplines that some might think engage in “navel gazing” — philosophy, English literature — have had, and have, scholars with a higher public profile than we do, and here I am speaking only of the North American context. If we were speaking of scholars in places such as France, even Trinidad & Tobago, then this discussion would not be as relevant, or relevant in the same ways.

Bunzl’s main argument is, “there is something about the contemporary variant of sociocultural anthropology, for which Pundits is paradigmatic, that has precipitated its increasing marginalization” (2008: 54).

Bunzl says, admitting to producing a pithy sound-bite:

“the glory days of U.S. anthropology seem to be over because today’s anthropologists are not radical enough” (2008: 54)

Generalizing, as the Bongo-Bongoists Rear their Ugly Heads in the Cayman Islands

On pages 55 and 56 Bunzl takes us through a familiar, but effectively condensed, review of the demise of positivist science in anthropology, the questioning of searches for universal laws, the emergence of ideas of anthropology as a science of meaning, based on interpreting specific discourses, and greater attention paid to how knowledge is not neutral, but is a function of power, privilege, and hierarchy. The problem, as Bunzl argues, is that in the course of these developments, anthropologists began to reject generalization. Generalizations were seen as part of a discourse of objectivity and expertise, a language of power in Lila Abu-Lughod’s view.

(We should also recognize that the critique of power in anthropology typically extends only as far as our analytical and rhetorical practices, and not our very institutionalization, i.e., that which enables to speak Abu-Lughod as a professional authority, as a professor, and the exclusions that had to occur in order for her to occupy that position.)

Generalizing assumes that the analyst can stand outside of what is being analyzed, and tends to take small cases, and diverse differences, and flatten them out, homogenizing them, producing pictures of coherence and timelessness (2008: 56).

So far so good, except that I now worry that perhaps “generalization” has been confused with “totalization” and “universalization”, which it resembles. Generalizing about what appears to be the case, for the most part, that is, by and large, does not remove the analyst (a figure in the crowd itself, who notes where most of the crowd is heading), and does not pretend that there are no differences (most of the crowd surged forward, but some of us remained behind). The opposite of generalizing is the incessant natter of what Ted Llewellyn called the Bongo-Bongoists — these are obnoxious and sometimes agitated hecklers who interrupt to say, “but in my tribe, among the people I study, among the Bongo-Bongo, no such practices exist.” I recall being taken to task for, of all things, generalizing about how deeply slavery marked the Caribbean experience and how “blackness” was still stigmatized as the most negative, socially undervalued identity. The objections? That in the Cayman Islands (a wealthy colony packed with white expatriates) … that in Montserrat … in places where pearls and turtles were the backbone of the economy, and so forth. In other words, in the tiny micro-exceptions the generalization did not work…except that it does, because it is generally accurate for most places, most people, and most times.

The other extreme, of course, is to see the Bongo-Bongo as representatives of all of humanity — the logical shortcoming here is generalizing from the single case. But that does not mean that one cannot and should not generalize from multiple, or most cases. The Cayman Islands don’t prove generalizations about the Caribbean wrong; instead, it’s that we cannot let the Cayman Islands stand in the way of such generalizations, nor, worse yet, serve as a template for understanding the rest of the Caribbean.

As Bunzl explains, the rejection of generalization leads to the rejection of the concept of culture. Culture “militates against the specificity of partial truths” and yet those renouncing culture still had an idea of culture, as “contested, temporal, and emergent” (which is surely also a generalization in its own right) (2008: 56). In Abu-Lughod’s view, “culture” also became a conceptual tool for othering.

Don’t YOU Dare to Other ME

Again, this is a problem in anthropology — when we speak of “others” we are making the mistake of bundling a whole set of very different ideas into one, as if all “othering” was “bad” and somehow evitable. Whether we choose to “other” or not, there will always be persons who are different, who stand aside, and outside. You cannot “invent” or “construct” an “other” — you might be able to invent or construct an image of an other, but not the person who is other, that person who is not me. It is ironic then, that in battling against culture, Abu-Lughod ends up right back in the trap of universalizing — without culture, there are no others, and we are all the same — or, we are all bundles of particular specifics, that defeat generalizing language…except, of course, for the term “specificity” itself which can then become a substitute for culture, difference, and otherness. (I will say a lot more about these issues in coming months, especially once I summon the energy to finally do an in-depth review of Vassos Argyrou’s Anthropology and the Will to Meaning.)

This is not deny the seduction of plunging oneself into deep specificity, into fragments of knowledge, of diverse tales and documents and persons and voices. Whether this means that exoticism has thus been defeated is still very much open to question in my view, and the fact that these wonderfully dynamic, localizing, particularistic feats of writing are almost always done in some thatched hut village in Indonesia or wherever else, except at home, leads me to think there may be no good answer. A second question has to do with the assembling of fragments and specifics: who does the assembling, the editing, the rewriting, and according to what framework? Is it purely random, escaping all of one’s prior socialization? I very much doubt it — it’s just that the framework has been silenced.

Let’s Hear from the Book Club

This leads me to pity what we do to students, pitching one approach after another, one trend after another, one ethnography after another, one theory after another, one big-name author after another, leaving so many to become confused, always running on a bibliographic treadmill, becoming professors and always on an angry and/or anxious lookout for the next big book, which we must all read, and all of us must quote. I hate that feeling, that I have been involuntarily recruited into some small town book club, where it is to be assumed that we have all read the latest Ong-and-Tsing, as if these were the only ones to read, as if they ought to be read.

Bunzl argues that ethnographies of the particular, like (guess who?) Anna Tsing’s In the Realm of the Diamond Queen, are still caught up in positivist epistemology (2008: 57):

Sociocultural anthropology may have rejected a scientistic variant of positivism, but it retains, even augments, a more immediate form, one that purports that all empirical phenomena are amenable to observation and description. What else, after all, is the demand to eschew false generalizations in the interest of more accurate representations of complexity?

Bunzl also observes how old abstractions and generalizations are often replaced by new abstractions and generalizations, except that these are less amenable to criticism; that “culture” might be rejected as an essentializing abstraction, but not so much “gender” and “class” as other essentializing abstractions (57).

[See my posts on anti-anti-essentialism: here, and there.]

The Devil is the Details

Bunzl, referring to Borges’ famously funny story of the quest for the ever more perfect map of the empire, which then grew to the size of the empire itself, argues:

Driven by an unselfconscious demand for “exactitude in science,” it is on a quest to find the perfect representation of human reality, one that is free of all essentialisms and generalizations. What it does not realize is that such a representation—if it could be had at all (and, of course, it could not)—would be entirely unwieldy. Even worse, it would be altogether useless, not because it would be false but because it would be true (57).

Where Pundits fails, in Bunzl’s view, is its repeated, persistent charge that America’s top pundits are “simplistic.” Indeed, how many of us who are anthropologists have heard that a book is great because it is “sophisticated” and treats “complexity” complexly, or something along these lines? Sophisticated? A sophisticated text that “explodes” that which it “interrogates”, with a fine sense of complexity — talk about a bad mixing of metaphors, almost all of which stink of elitism and domination.

Bunzl ends by calling for renewed respect for an epistemological program that existed and still exists in anthropology, in the figures of Boas, Geertz, Sahlins, and Ortner, a program that,

recognizes the limitations of anthropological generalization but is not terrified by this possibility. It knows the impossibility of finding laws in a natural scientific sense but is prepared to uncover meaningful connections through interpretive speculation. It is aware that in a philosophical sense, all empirical knowledge is provisional, partial, and subjective, but it seeks to transcend that limitation to find the truth about the world. It understands that objectivity is not fully possible but strives for it nonetheless (59).

This statement can be taken further, as it opens out onto similar goals and tendencies across the social sciences, humanities, and yes even the natural sciences. I will talk more about this when I finally review and produce some notes from Immanuel Wallerstein’s Open the Social Sciences, which I read over a decade ago.

I should note the discussion that followed the article within the pages of the American Anthropologist:

Besteman, Catherine and Hugh Gusterson. (2008). A response to Matti Bunzl: Public anthropology, pragmatism, and pundits. American Anthropologist 110 (1): 61-63.


Bunzl, Matti. (2008b). A reply to Besteman and Gusterson: Swinging the pendulum. American Anthropologist 110 (1): 64-65.

Responses from the Anti-Pundits

Besteman and Gusterson seem to be particularly offended with the criticisms of their book, even stating that Gusterson was “heavily criticized” — I don’t know, it seemed to me that Gusterson was criticized more in passing, and was hardly the focus of Bunzl’s piece. The more important point is that the editors of Pundits insist that their target was not punditry as such, but right-wing punditry, and not generalizations as such, but crassly inaccurate ones that justify imperialist programs. These two sets of authors, who would seem to be sympathetic to one another, seem to have passed each other in a foggy night.

Besteman and Gusterson, offer an unnecessary listing of names of people they think are examples of something different to what Bunzl claims, which also serves to define the “in group,” and to exclude Bunzl of course. Lists are always problematic in these cases, and best to avoid, not only because they are objectionable devices used to privilege certain speakers, and thus create a hierarchy, but also because in this case the list offered by the editors is so very short when compared to the thousands who constitute American Anthoroplogy alone. In other words, they make Bunzl’s points twice for him.

The editors get on to something interesting, finally, which has to do with their reasoning as to why anthropology is not publicly relevant as it once was:

It is true that today’s anthropologists are not household names in the way Margaret Mead was. But the reward structure of the contemporary neoliberal academy grants tenure, promotions, and pay raises for academic books and refereed articles and disdains those who write for a popular audience. Mead herself was forced to build a career in the interstices of academia and public life. Also, since Mead’s time, anthropology has moved away from sustained attention to some of the issues that deeply interest so many U.S. citizens: family, marriage, divorce, children, adolescence, love, romance, and parenting. Finally, anthropologists cannot afford to lose sight of the texture and nuances of the communities and issues we study. A deep knowledge born out of long-term relationships with interlocutors based on trust is our distinctive contribution to public discourse. Appreciating and translating nuance is an ethnographic project at odds with roughshod punditry. In saying this, we are not agreeing with Bunzl about a supposed anthropological aversion to generalization but are, rather, pointing to a friction between ethnography’s interest in nuance and the glibness of some punditry. We believe that a public anthropology combining the phrase-making skill of a Friedman with the nuance of a Geertz and the passion for social justice of a Paul Farmer is possible.

Was this Rewarding? Well, on the one hand…and on the other hand…

I am very happy to see Besteman and Gusterson raise the issue of the “reward structure” of the “neoliberal academy” that emphasizes certain kinds of publications in certain venues (for the non-tenured mind you…the tenured have a choice, one that is usually exercised in doing everything possible to achieve greater rewards, such as full professorship, a standing in multiple editorial boards, sitting on various committees of high-powered funding bodies, and so forth). They are right to raise this issue, except that structure precedes neoliberalism, and they are part of the academy, and the academy has very conservative biases in terms of its everyday working assumptions and practices. Otherwise Besteman and Gusterson are to be applauded for going on the record.

We need to keep in mind that academics themselves serve as the guardians and police of this reward structure. They themselves frown on certain publications, even on the very teaching texts that they use for teaching, an attitude that I will never understand. They sneer at websites, and arch an eyebrow at a newspaper column. Hopefully we can start hearing academics making a lot more noise about what gets rewarded and how, and I think this is slowly starting to happen.

It is also interesting to see the editors of Pundits confess to the fact that much of what anthropologists study is simply not interesting to a wider public, a terrible self-indictment. Bunzl’s response to the response seemed to me to be a little circumspect and tranquilized, missing some golden opportunities to turn the “dialogue” into a moment opening out onto transformation. Too bad.

4 thoughts on “Not Radical Enough: Disengaged Anthropology (1.5)

  1. Selectively, on two smaller points (with potentially deep implications).

    The shifting canon you describe (“What? You haven’t read the latest…?”) seems associated with a strange form of intellectual myopia. In some cases, groupthink and close-mindedness are involved. Selectively respecting people according to what they have read may have worked when there was this idea that the sum total of all knowledge could be found in l’Encyclopédie. But we now live in a world where “information overload” is a common concept and it’s simply impossible to “read everything.” (Even the whole Wikipedia.)
    One strategy to cope with the quantity of written word out there may be to get everyone to read just the very best material (using criteria such as publisher prestige, citation rank, institution name). It’s the approach taken by a lot of PTR committees but it seems counterintuitive in terms of actual academia.
    A more appropriate strategy, in my mind, is to make sure we all read different things, and that we allow ourselves to discuss things on those bases. In fact, I tend to think that dialogue is often more important than reading. Call me a linguistic anthropologist.
    To a French-speaker like yours truly, it seems especially important to be using diverse sources and the “you haven’t read this???” attitude seems especially problematic. If I were snarky enough, I’d be able to retort with pointed remarks about how inappropriate people’s use of French authors has been, over the years. “So, you think you understood Bourdieu? Well, I have news for you…”
    But I snark rarely.
    If I remember correctly, Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach (it might have been another teaching book) had something about making a list of the journals to which colleagues in a department are subscribed so that a new hire could subscribe to journals which aren’t in that list. The concept being that we shouldn’t all cover the same ground. Seemed like a very good idea, to me. It could prevent a number of turf wars and academic fads might have less impact.
    We haven’t even talked about interdisciplinary or non-disciplinary work.

    The second point is about the legs on which the tenure system’s hegemony stands. Although there is, in fact, a reward and punishment system in place, the tenure system depends not on coercion but on a sort of agreement about The way things “work.”
    With all due respect to those colleagues, even some of those tenured and tenure-track academics who wish to be the most “radical” in discussing the tenure system seem to agree with the fundamental ideas on which that system was originally built (and which serve for its maintenance). Simply put, some people who are highly-trained critical thinkers seem to have some difficulty thinking critically about the system in which they live. “Oh, sure, there are problems with that system. But, at least, we have this system to protect us.” To a relative outsider, this seems especially strange. Protect who? From whom?
    The broad situation with the tenure system is in a (boiling frog slow) process of getting closer to “banally evil” bureaucracy. In hegemonic, not totalitarian context. Many people complain. But many of those still seem to believe that they depend on the tenure system to survive.

    Ah, well…

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