The Leftist Discipline Debates its Right Wing?

Another very interesting debate has been prompted by an article by Hugh Gusterson, that is, the same article in Foreign Policy that was previously discussed on this blog. In my review I noted Gusterson’s contention that anthropology is “the most left-leaning discipline.” My writing on this blog seems to endorse another view, that anthropology contains a smallish core of radical critique (ask the Marxist political economists in anthropology if they think they have captured the discipline — I listened to the late William Roseberry at a conference in Toronto in 1998 claim otherwise), but that it also contains a much bigger core of either conservatively disengaged (not “objective”) and right wing inclinations. In a previous post I just finished characterizing it as the whitest of disciplines, and that is largely true: anthropology faculty and students are still predominantly, perhaps overwhelmingly, WASPs — which does not speak to either “left” or “right” but does betray something of an ethnic and perhaps class appeal that has broader political implications. Incidentally, my own acronym does not look as nice, it’s something like WLNRC (white, Latin, nominal Roman Catholic). Some have also disagreed with Gusterson, in blogworld the ones I know of for sure are Marc Tyrell of In Harmonium who posted his disagreement here, and Mark Dawson (an anthropologist in the employ of BAE Systems), who posted a strong disagreement over at Ethnography.com.

Ethnography.com now takes centre stage with its own internal lively debate, coming with the strong response to Dawson by Cynthia Van Gilder in “Wake up and smell the (Fair Trade) coffee,” a great post worth reading in full. Van Gilder, I must confess, and with thanks, gives us different lenses by which to judge anthropology, as a whole, as a left-leaning discipline within the context of American public political discourse. That is a strong qualifier, given the pronounced rightward bias of American politics that is quite unique in the Western world of the G-8. Having said that, Van Gilder makes some very impressive points, very quickly and deftly: this discipline is leftist since it dares to support evolutionary theory, human rights, analysis of class stratification, and cultural relativism. It will be interesting to see the reactions and responses if any. Note that both Van Gilder and Dawson write for the very same blog.

I wonder how Van Gilder might respond to the fact that at least some prominent introductory anthropology texts, in the service of culture, claim that homosexuality is culturally learned behaviour rather than something “natural” or biological? That it is learned, not natural, and thus open to reprogramming has been a favourite line of the anti-gay rights movement. In my experience that claim of culture rather than nature has stirred some students into hoots of derision: who has been teaching kids to be gay in the American Bible Belt? What does being “in the closet” mean if there isn’t shame and stigma that teaches against homosexuality? If it is learned, who is teaching it? Moreover, what to make of the apparent anthropocentrism of cultural anthropology, perceived by some students in these introductory texts’ claim to reserve language, cultural, symbolism, and learning as the preserve of only the human animal? It sounds, as some say, like a rehash of Christian doctrine, one not consonant with the facts of contemporary zoology.

I am also still wondering if Gusterson meant his point to have a strategic impact, with unforeseen consequences that might undermine his strategy, or was rather an unmotivated observation, with unforeseen strategic impacts. It is hard to tell, given that pronouncements of either “left” or “right” tones of the discipline can play into someone’s hands, hands not originally intended to receive the “gift.”

7 thoughts on “The Leftist Discipline Debates its Right Wing?

  1. While I agree wholeheartedly with most of your post and have, myself, blogged about the issues on a personal level. I think the textbooks (and you don’t specify which ones) are trying to present a fully anthropological view of homosexuality which moves beyond the nature/nurture debate. There are many instances of culturally-constructed homosexuality where individuals engage in homosexuality not necessarily driven by genetically-inherited behavior. And as Foucault pointed out, homosexual behavior is not coterminous with being a “homosexual”. Having taught the intro class more times than I care to consider, I believe the intent of most intro texts is to tackle the issue from that perspective. But, yes, class discussion always does veer to our cultural issues. I see that Kanye West recently made a strong public reprimand against the use of the word “fag” bringing himself one step closer to the right to wear Christ’s crown of thorns. (The last comment was written firmly with tongue-in-cheek.)

  2. I forgot to add. I loved Roseberry’s book on Anthropologies and Histories. When I was in graduate school, I was the only one who read it. I never could understand that. But I suppose juxtaposed against the Clifford and Marcus issues it wasn’t as trendy and “important”. I think it stands the test of time better, however.

  3. Hi Pam! I like your approach better than what I used in the past when I had to teach Introductory Anthropology and Sociology. I didn’t want to mention Conrad Kottak’s Cultural Anthropology by name, lest it start one more Internet battle, but that was the example I was thinking of. I have since seen similar statements in two more, but I would need to have all of those items at hand to double check (I instead leave them buried in my office). Anyway, just to say thanks again for your posts above, I think they already point to much more interesting discussions.

  4. You don’t see much debate between Cindy and I on ethnography.com for a simple reason, 9 out of 10 debates, she wins! She has gift for clarity and a grasp of theory that always impresses. She is also co-owner of ethnography.com with myself. Thanks for noticing the conversation.

    Regards,
    Mark

  5. Oh, and to be clear… I am an anthropologist in the employ of BAE systems in Iraq on a Human Terrain Team (I never like to seem like its a fact I am hiding!)

  6. Max,

    I haven’t looked at Kottak’s in years. If you are ever to teach the intro again (which I am sure you would just as soon not) I would suggest you look at Richard Robbins text. It hasn’t got one ounce of insipid pandering. For that I am grateful. And thank you for all the good info in your posts.

    Pam

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