Anthropology’s Many Deaths and the Birth of World Anthropologies (1.4)

The longer version of the title might have been:

How many anthropologies does the West need to produce before they become ‘World Anthropologies’?

The tradition of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects and abstract ideas has all of the shortcomings that we already know. Like “cultural extinction,” which suggests that cultures as ideas and practices can “die,” and having “died” can never “live again” without being a fake, a mock of the past “incarnation,” so too is there a problem with talking about the deaths and rebirths of anthropology. The idea assumes a radical discontinuity between traditions, and a sequential, almost evolutionary progression of anthropologies. The reality is that all of these anthropological traditions are accumulated and flattened out in front of students, taught to them time and again regardless of their sometimes obvious irrelevance.  In other words, they all remain readily available, even when we erect taboos around some of the very theories we teach. Anthropologists can also be very conservative about their faiths when it comes to their teaching practice, not to mention self-reverential, and acutely self-conscious (note how almost all of their courses have either the word “culture” or “anthropology” in the title). “History of anthropology” and “theories of anthropology” are courses that are usually very transparent as heritage work, often offering neither room for critical thinking about anthropology as an object that needs to be put in its place in the world-system, nor tackling anthropology as a peculiar way of knowing and engaging the world, as something that needs to be explained as much as anthropology can explain. Instead, when such courses are taught as heritage, for loyalty-building, and showing off our long history, the result is that we that place our baggage on the shoulders of students and hope that there will be a new generation of lackeys to carry our bags further.

While anthropologists may get the reputation for being overly self-critical, reflexive, self-flagellating, etc., etc., this is usually hype that is propagated to score a certain blunt point (this line of argumentation often masks a reactionary objective). In actual practice, some of those who can sound most critical in one instance, can quickly turn around and aggressively defend “established practice” and “widespread norms,” conveyed even with the facial expressions that bring to mind enraged hawks. That is one reason why some of the genuinely more radical students, encouraged in class to be cutting edge and dream of new possibilities, can suddenly feel deeply betrayed and bewildered when set upon in private by one of the same spokespeople of dissent and innovation who attempt to then rein in the students they supervise. They must feel they are dealing with deeply schizophrenic characters, and in some cases they are actually quite right.

In other words, when it comes to Western, and Westernized, institutional anthropology touting itself as a self-critical agent of change, I tend not to buy it. I know how much of anthropologists’ focus remains on prestige authors, prestige journals, prestige degrees, knowing the right people, getting all of one’s citations in order, and making the annual pilgrimage to the conference of the American Anthropological Association, a complex of behaviour that does not even remotely suggest disquiet, nor the critically necessary disillusionment that comes with actual detachment from the established order and the search for either new ideas and/or more rewarding and transformational social praxes. It all looks very much like “business as usual” to me. The only change is that my level of distrust reaches a new height.

Having said this, it was with great interest that I read the following passage in Gustavo Lins Ribeiro’s 2006 article in Critique of Anthropology, titled “World Anthropologies: Cosmopolitics for a New Global Scenario in Anthropology” (Vol. 26, No. 4, 363-386) which can be read online here for free:

I wrote in another text (Ribeiro, 2004) that anthropology is a phoenix whose death, or drawn-out agony, has been pronounced several times, at least since the 1920s when Malinowski urged anthropologists to conduct more ethnographic fieldwork in face of a vanishing native world. Anthropology’s many deaths and rebirths indicate the discipline’s ability to transform itself and turn its critique onto itself, magnifying and redefining its interests, attributes and theories. The abundance of alternatives has become a powerful stimulus leading to a constant reappraisal of the discipline’s fate, field, objectives, programs, characteristics and definitions. The many resurrections and reincarnations of anthropology can only be understood if we consider that it is a highly reflexive discipline that projects itself onto and receives feedback from the topics and subjects it studies. As a consequence, anthropology is fine-tuned to the sociological changes that historically occur. In a globalized world we need to have more diverse international voices and perspectives participating in any assessment of the frontiers of anthropological knowledge. Indeed, a globalized world is a perfect scenario for anthropology to thrive since one of our discipline’s basic lessons is respect for difference. A discipline that praises plurality and diversity needs to foster these standpoints within its own milieu. The time is ripe for world anthropologies. (p. 380)

Before setting out my own concerns with what is presented in the article, and specifically the passage above, I want to direct the attention of readers for a moment to two separate items on two blogs that have recently appeared that feed into this discussion. I think they should be read in order. One is an exchange between Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology and myself over the question of the use of the term “anthropologies” by others outside of the institutionalized discipline. The second is Tony Waters’ very welcome piece of provocation on titled “The Eyewitness Fallacy: Are Studies of China Best Done in China, or the British Library?“. The second piece ties into the last comment written by Lende at the end of the first piece.

My own preliminary set of concerns with Ribeiro’s article and passage above include the following:

  • What exactly is this “new global scenario” and how can one manage, like Ribeiro, to speak about it without mentioning imperialism, recolonization, invasion, occupation, torture, militarization, racist exclusions, xenophobia, and exploitation in the world’s various export processing and free trade zones? What is new, and what is new about world anthropologies that they can address these phenomena in new ways?
  • If “anthropology” is as fine-tuned to the sociological changes that occur, as Ribeiro claims, then why are anthropologists usually very late in recognizing those changes, and when  they do appear to recognize those changes they opt to use some especially obtuse and opaque ways of naming those changes (i.e. “cosmopolitics”)?
  • The emphasis appears to be on “many” and “more” — the sense I get from the article as a whole is that “world anthropologies” involves many and more voices, perspectives, etc., of anthropologists who in many cases were trained in Western hegemonic centres and then returned home to either spread or further develop the discipline there. What do these anthropologies continue to share in common? What makes them recognizable and intelligible to each other as anthropologies? How much different are the spawn from the mother ship?
  • Is this a grand appeal to the centre from the (semi)periphery? Pay attention to us! Do different and multiple world anthropologies need to write themselves in English into established Western anthropological journals? Why? What is the motivation in doing so, and why does the periphery need to sell itself back to center?
  • How can one tell the difference between one institutional anthropology and another, aside from linguistic and geographic differences?
  • What do World Anthropologies think of that much bigger world: World Non-Anthropologies? By that I mean the many non-Western institutions (and even Western ones for that matter) that have never accepted anthropology, and that in some cases actively reject it as something to be taught at university?
  • If World Anthropologies is about “dehegemonization,” then where is the critique of hegemony?

This is the second in what may become a full series on “world anthropologies” and any early feedback is welcome. See the first post here. Out of order as usual, in a coming post I will try to produce an outline of what “world anthropologies” claims to be, along with some of the questions raised by its own proponents.

7 thoughts on “Anthropology’s Many Deaths and the Birth of World Anthropologies (1.4)

  1. I couldn’t agree more on some of the issues you have raised. Anthropology as a thing, in and of itself, has “produced” nothing. We should never be so foolish as to suppose we have. Its appalling disgusting that we should exist; that we collect and give voice to the histories and anthropologies (referencing your previous discussion) of others simply because we have the money and power to do so. A marginalized discipline giving voice to a marginalized humanity, our existence is a necessary evil borne of a need for opposition. We should never believe the myths of our own making.

  2. Thanks for the mention!

    I see a tension between anthropologists as chroniclers and reporters, reporting diversity abroad for consumption at home, and anthropologists as aiming to drive a wedge of change in prevailing approaches, ideologies, and relations. Given that we live in a global world, perhaps these two have come closer, in both critical and enriching fashions, than in previous times.

    I do agree with the “business as usual” line – but isn’t that true of every disciplinary field or any grassroots or political or economic organization.

    Why teach, practice and critique anthropology unless we believe it can make a difference? Sure, there’s the minor quibble that we haven’t quite figured out how to make a consisent good difference yet, but I am willing to bet that anthropology can. Just like Obama. Yes we can.

    -Daniel Lende

  3. Thanks Daniel (and I finally remembered to correct your name in the post above). I love your note of inspiration!

    I definitely agree with both Pam and yourself that the aim is to struggle to improve and hopefully transform what we do so that it better reflects our best principles and aims. I believe that the many forms of experimentation and diversification of research areas in anthropology are a reflection of that drive.

    From what I have read thus far, I am not convinced that “world anthropologies” does much to broaden the transformation of anthropology — and one could argue that even within the U.S. alone there are already multiple anthropologies, so I worry about the subtle state-centrism that is being smuggled back in with the notion of internationalized pluralism. Many of the world anthropologies are themselves tied to the state and to development goals, definitely not a radical transformation, but more of a (necessary?) accommodation.

    What would be interesting for me is an institutional anthropology that embraces its institutional siblings with less defensiveness, while acknowledging and learning from its non-institutional variants, the many other anthropologies that are not forged in the hands of professional academics. This is all I mean by “open” which should be read as “Open!” My personal desire is for an anthropology that — and I am using deliberately simplistic terms so as to make the message brief — acts as a Trojan Horse of the “non-West” at the gates of the “West.”

    However, by and large, I sense there is an widespread reluctance to enter another phase like that of the 1970s-1990s, when “postmodernism” became the label for all that was unholy, even if the epistemic bases of what was called postmodernism were instead quite familiar and as some would argue only a pretense of heterodoxy. The backlash has been so severe in some cases, and it gets taught to young students, that any further self-criticism is viewed as treason, and it’s that kind of reactionary stiffening that if anything will hasten the demise of institutional anthropology, or, propel it into a new life as a servant of the Pentagon where it can go back to being science in the service of powerful sponsors, and “the Others” can be put back in their place as objects, as data, as creatures to be manipulated.

Comments are closed.