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.”