Another Chapter 2

Meant to post this up last week then got carried away having fun again.

2. A Changing Anthropology.

It has been suggested that ethnographers are tricksters who use rhetorical techniques to convince readers of the truth of their words (Crapanzano 1984). One such technique is the tale of entry, where one begins an ethnography by establishing the distance of ones subject, it’s ‘otherness’. It reflects the starting point of ones cultural transformation. I appreciate Crapanzano’s argument and in the past I enjoyed a righteous yet silent chuckle whenever such a tale of entry popped out in my assigned readings. Yet here I continue the tradition, not to deceive, but because having a common structure makes ethnographic tales easier to write. The true challenge facing ethnographers today is not that of truth, but of purpose – “why should we care if you were there or not? Why does this story matter to me?” So let us begin this ethnography with a twist, not with story of a journey into far off lands, but rather with a tale of a naïve student-researcher returning from a trip to Mexico:

‘Hey great to see you! Nice tan! I’m happy you are back!”


‘Where did you go?’


‘Oh wow, what a great place for an anthropology project. Do you have pictures?’

‘umm.. yeah… well Mexico wasn’t really the ‘place’ for my anthropology project… I just had to get away… my project is on how academics share and make knowledge accessible online. You know, like open access publishing, blog…’

She looked at me for a brief second, then cut me off while looking at her friend, “Owen is soooooo funny.”

Turning back to me she excused herself, “I’m so glad you’re back. Your tan looks great! I have class and have to go. Message me k? Bye.”

‘umm.. yeah… see ya soon I guess.’ I replied. Not surprised at her reaction I could have expected to be cut off sooner. I always ran into trouble describing exactly what it was I studied, especially to friends and relatives who had never heard of cultural anthropology. I made a mental note to keep such descriptions as brief as possible.

Besides, my research into the internet was already old news. “You are still talking about Facebook?” she and others might think. But she hadn’t spent years reading anthropology essays – investing energy in the oddest of debates which give life to this story. Part of what makes this research interesting is how it is an anthropology project at all, given its extraordinary subject, that of anthropologists and the internet. And to explain this we must first engage with a rather prickly subject – that of defining anthropology – a question one might assume simple for a graduate student but like the world around it anthropology has always been changing and with these changes it has become an increasingly difficult discipline to define.

2.1 Anthropology – what is it?

If it is understood by many that anthropological fieldwork can be done by a Canadian in Mexico, the same cannot be said of anthropological research practiced online and at home. Is it really anthropology if you are discussing the online practices of those around you? As this brief tale of entry introduces, anthropology is a broadly defined term that often requires a lot of careful contextualizing. The following section addresses introduces a discipline divided in its directions – a reality that manifests itself just as clearly in online public spaces as it is does reading through peer reviewed publications.

Anthropology is an eclectic discipline that has come to cover numerous areas of interest. Originating with the extremely broad definition of “the scientific study of mankind”, anthropology has since taken on a range of positions and specializations. This research focuses on cultural or social anthropology. It is often taught alongside archeology, biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology – in what is called the “four fields approach” which is popular in the United States. At Concordia University anthropology it is taught alongside sociology with numerous courses being listed under both. It is practiced and taught in different ways; as a science, as an art, and/or as something in between.

Beyond different ways of being organized the focuses and interests of anthropologists have changed, obviously, with time and place and with who you ask. This is simply to point out that within anthropology there are a number of approaches that push anthropology in different directions. Yes this is an admission of ineptitude – it is impossible for me to speak for all of the anthropology out there. So as to not trick you into believing my words let us instead look briefly to descriptions given by others. Talal Asad writes:

“When Evans-Pritchard published his well-known Introduction to Social Anthropology in 1951, it seemed reasonably clear what the subject was about. “The social anthropologist”, he explained, “studies primitive societies directly, living among them for months or years, whereas sociological research is usually from documents and largely statistical. The social anthropologist studies societies as wholes – he studies their oecologies, their economics, their legal and political institutions, their family and kinship organizations, their religions, their technologies, their arts, etc. as parts of general social systems.” The doctrines and approaches that went by the name of functionalism thus gave social anthropology an assured and coherent style.

Today by contrast even this coherence of style is absent. The anthropologist is now someone who studies societies both ’simple’ and ‘complex’; resorts to participant observation, statistical techniques, historical archives and other literary sources; finds himself intellectually closer to economists or political scientists or psycho-analysts or structural linguistics or animal behaviorists than he does to other anthropologists.”

(Asad 1973:10)

Within this diversity there is much debate as to the goals and directions of anthropology, which makes a lot of sense given the general nature of human research. It requires that researchers adapt methods and approaches to new research settings. But what defines it today?

Distance and Difference

Some feel anthropology should be practiced afar, stressing the importance of long term fieldwork and the ability of an ‘outsider’ to make different observations than an ‘insider’. But many argue that the boundary dividing “us” and “others” is for a number of reasons impossible and/or impractical to draw. People do not conform to neat and natural boundaries, nor do research questions. As such, anthropologists have returned from the far off field to practice at home,

“On sheer empirical grounds, the differences between Western and Non-Western societies are blurrier than ever before. Anthropology’s answer to this ongoing transformation has been typically ad hoc and haphazard. The criteria according to which certain populations are deemed legitimate objects of research continue to vary with departments, with granting agencies, with practitioners and even with the mood shifts of individual researchers. Amid the confusion, more anthropologists reenter the West cautiously, through the back door, after paying their dues elsewhere. By and large this reentry is no better theorized than were previous departures for faraway lands.” (Trouillot 2003:9)

Not only are “… the differences between Western and Non-Western societies” blurrier, but so too is the sameness within Western and Non-Western societies. As brought up in class discussion, do you really have to fly abroad to do “anthropological” research? Or with so much migration going on, do you not have neighbors who might equally help with ones research? Then with the internet we can ask, can you not consult them from here? Such realities have brought into question taken for granted assumptions of what anthropology is. It has necessarily adapted itself to the world around it, and as a result debates have been raised as to the proper direction with which the discipline can identify and justify itself.

Let’s accept then, that anthropology is practiced differently at different times within different academic institutions, by different anthropologists, and that a history of practice, debate and disagreement glues it all together. This version of anthropology’s history being constructed points to changing research contexts, goals and purposes – and alongside those changes the story of a relatively unchanged publishing strategy that doesn’t always fit. This is also an attempt to locate the research within its disciplinary history, to establish how it is an anthropology project at all.

How then did we get from a “science of the whole nature of man”, where anthropologists were keen on taking scientific measurements of peoples skull size to determine their evolutionary advancement and place in nature, as was advocated by Dr. James Hunt in his opening address to the Anthropological Society of London in 1863 (Rainger 1978:53), to today’s similarly defined anthropology, the “study of mankind” as defined appropriately by Wikipedia, and most relevantly this anthropological study of anthropologists and the Internet? Certainly Borneman, when he published his article “Anthropology as Foreign Policy” (1995), at around the same time the Internet was taking off, would have had something to say about this study. He writes:

“Fieldwork among the foreign, not the reading of texts, and not the salvage or preservation of vanishing ethnic identities, remains anthropology’s unique location from which it makes continued contribution to knowledge. Fieldwork offers privileged insights not into already constructed cultural “texts” but into the conditions of possibility of such texts and the processes by which they take on form and meaning. During the course of fieldwork, anthropologists experience the foreign and intergroup relations directly, in an empirical fashion not comparable to experiences in the archives (on the function of hospitality in fieldwork see Herzfeld 1987). Study of written texts and participant-observation are distinct practices that offer different insights. They should not be collapsed together into trendy cultural studies, where they are often used as an alibi by bourgeois academics to avoid the discomforts and uncertainties inherent in face-to-face interaction with strangers.9)”

(Borneman 1995:669)

Yet here we are, fifteen years later, with not just an Internet, but numerous Internets, and this anthropological study of Anthropology that’s largely been done online. As will be developed, new communication technologies have changed the way people work. Where Borneman and many other anthropologists saw the Internet as a site of static texts, a giant archive if you will, new generations of researchers are using the Internet to interact and communicate with each other. Contrary to Borneman’s argument that “the study of written texts” and “participant-observation” are distinct practices, with new communication tools like blogs and twitter, texts become interactive sources for use in research, that benefit enormously from the direct participation of the researcher and all involved. This participation is what makes the new mediums effective, in that authors establish more ‘direct’ contact with the audience then they had in the past. The distance between author and reader, given the ability for many to publish ideas rapidly, has shrunk, making it possible to engage and be engaged through writing. The interactive and timely character of these communication tools make them ideal for a new kind of ethnographic engagement, and in consequence they have challenged conceptions of anthropological research strategies – welcome the internet ethnographer.

This happens to be the result of bypassing peer review. One click publishing provides the ability to experiment with different writing styles and to foster different standards of presentation and consumption. It also means that anthropologists can now represent themselves in public discourse, instead of leaving the job up to journalists. But as nice as it sounds to say the Internet changed Anthropology, the truth is that Anthropology is an academic discipline that has always been changing, with or without the Internet. Within an academic discipline are internal and external mechanisms of change. So before we answer the question “how is the internet fueling change in anthropology?” let us dig deeper into the history of anthropology, to better understand the pressures and motivations that have pushed anthropology to change, and in particular how the Internet has provided fuel and opportunity for these particular pressures.

2.2 Ethnocentrism and anthropology.

Anthropology was born within the contexts of European exploration and the subsequent colonization and exploitation of the newly discovered world. Anthropology was the scientific study of the discovered ‘others’, and it was to a militarily dominant and colonizing Europe that anthropology was first in service. Colonization, empire, and the expansion of European powers made and for some continue to make anthropology important. Erickson and Murphy write:

“No other event in history was as significant for anthropology as the voyages of geographical discovery. The voyages put Europeans in contact with the kinds of people anthropologists now study. They also launched the era of global domination of aboriginal societies by Europeans , and the associated eras of colonialism, imperialism, and slavery, with which anthropology has, justly or unjustly, been associated ever since.” (Ericksen and Murply 1998:27)

European exploration and conquest facilitated anthropology while a belief in the superiority of scientific methods over other ways of knowing entitled European social scientists to study other cultures. The scientists gaze was directed outward and the commentary was directed inward. This structure of a European center and a non-European periphery came to define anthropological research. In this way anthropologists worked within the goals and aspirations of European society, and consequently, as the goals and aspirations of European society have since come to be questioned, so too have the goals and aspirations of anthropologists. Wallerstein writes:

“Social science emerged in response to European problems, at a point in history when Europe dominated the whole world-system. It was virtually inevitable that its choice of subject matter, its theorizing, its methodology, and its epistemology all reflected the constraints of the crucible within which it was formulated.” (Wallerstein 1999:169)

As the world around anthropology changed so too did anthropology and the interests of anthropologists. One can argue a lot has changed since Anthropology was first institutionalized, but in other ways the institutions and structures of scientific research remain unchanged. Many seek to reformulate and even decolonize the discipline by incorporating a more diverse membership and more flexible research directions, arguing that Anthropology today needs to shed its ethnocentric structure. But motivation for a decolonized anthropology first required vocal critique from outside and inside the discipline and long before that would happen anthropologists were quickly spreading themselves out, not to decolonize, but rather to find new fields in which to contribute as hordes of new students following the advice of their parents and grandmothers, signed up to become anthropologists.

University expansion – lots more students

Anthropology spread into a number of subfields as the university system expanded rapidly after WWII,

“The runway expansion of the university system worldwide had a very specific organizational pressure for increased specialization simply because scholars were in search of niches that could define their originality or at least their social utility. ” (Wallerstein et al. 1996:34)

Growing numbers of anthropologists engaged new research areas and these new areas ended up bordering closely with, or overlapping, other disciplines. While the number of topics grew anthropologists developed these interests into distinct areas. Due to the way journals and academic research is distributed, communication between the sub-fields became unnecessarily limited. Wallerstein et al. (1996:6) discuss the logic behind such specializations,

“The creation of multiple disciplines was premised on the belief that systematic research required skilled concentration on the multiple separate arenas of reality, which was partitioned rationally into distinct groupings of knowledge. Such a rational division promised to be effective, that is, intellectually productive.”
(Wallerstein et al. 1996:6)

Academic disciplines were originally divided with the idea of maximizing a researchers effectiveness based on the belief that focus in a single discipline would be better than a general study spanning multiple areas of interest and approaches. A mathematician specialized in mathematics was understood to be better than a mathematician meddling in philosophy, and vice versa. The point here is that anthropology was originally established as a discipline distinct from the rest, and that in its development it came to address issues closely related to other disciplines. That researchers would find collaborators in other disciplines (which closely overlapped), as easily or easier than they would within anthropology, worked against the idea that the study of anthropology alone would be most productive. Wallerstein et al. discuss further the ways anthropology developed within the Western university system,

“In the course of the nineteenth century, the various disciplines spread out like a fan, covering a range of epistemological positions. At one end lay, first, mathematics (a nonempirical activity) and next to it the experimental natural sciences (themselves in a sort of descending order of determinism – physics, chemistry, biology). at the other end lay the humanities (or arts and letters), starting with philosophy (the pendant of mathematics, as a nonempirical activity) and next to it the study of formal artistic practices (literatures, painting and sculpture, musicology), often coming close in their practice to being history, a history of the arts. And in between the humanities and the natural sciences, thus defined, lay the study of social realities, with history (idiographic) closer to, often part of, faculties of arts and letters, and “social science” (nomothetic) closer to the natural sciences. Amidst an ever-hardening separation of knowledge into two different spheres, each with a different epistemological emphasis, the students of social realities found themselves caught in the middle, and deeply divided on these epistemological issues.”

(Wallerstein et al. 1996:9)

When Wallerstein et al. (1996) called on academics to “Open The Social Sciences” they were not asking for disciplines to be abolished. They point out the disciplinary phenomena of “area studies” brought into question the necessity of a targeted focus in one area. Area studies brought together numerous disciplinary approaches to engage current issues in particular regions. It showed that it makes sense to engage a number of disciplines/approaches to address any particular issue. Based on the success of these interdisciplinary engagements and as part of “opening the social sciences” they challenge the organization of researchers into narrow specializations, by suggesting all faculty sit within two faculties, and that multidisciplinary research teams be created every so often to address currently relevant research issues. In this way they argue that the original disciplinary divisions are less than ideal.

This argument should also have consequences in the ways academic journals are distributed – in that it makes sense for researchers to be able to access the work of other researchers, not simply those in the same specialization as themselves. The argument can be carried so far as to say academics should be reading work outside their own fields, and encouraging students to make use of multiple disciplinary sources. But the scholarly publishing system that anthropologists adopted from the hard sciences, works to funnel researchers into their own particular niches. Students are often disciplined against using sources from outside disciplines, and hence have no idea as to what is being said elsewhere – not that it would be possible to keep up with everything anyways. There is pressure then, within the social sciences, to break down unnecessary disciplinary research barriers.

Another blow to anthropology’s disciplinaryness came from anthropologists seeking to make their work useful outside the university setting. Ericksen and Murphy write,

“A conspicuous trend in late twentieth-century anthropology, at least in North America, has been the diversification of the traditional subfields into an increasing number of special interest groups. Arguably this trend began with the fifth subfield, applied anthropology, designed to accommodate the interests of anthropologists finding employment outside universities and museums.” (Ericksen and Murphy 1998:4)

Enter the fifth subfield of anthropology which seeks to address questions and issues relevant to other audiences. Anthropologists sought to make their research useful to others not just for employment reasons, but also because they have been morally challenged to do so. Understanding that anthropology has been structured in such a way as to be ethnocentric, some point to the need to make anthropology useful to others involved in the research, not just anthropologists. Deciding which questions and whose approaches anthropologists are to be put in use, has created a chasm between them.

2.3 Who is to be the anthropologist, and who is it to be done for?

Another way to answer the question “what is anthropology” is to look at the people practicing anthropology. Who is to be the anthropologist, and who is it to be done for? In the majority of academic journals, only those educated had, and today have, the means to engage in the discussions of anthropology. The voice of the subjects of anthropological research, was to be, and is, mediated by the anthropologist – sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. In this way the ethnocentric structure of a European center and a non-European periphery has been reproduced in the ways anthropologists create and distribute their work. Scientific journals propagate disciplinary knowledge among interested experts. And while there have been attempts to change it, as Trouillot argues, anthropology remains to a large extent, a discursive practice of the West. (2003:8) This is to say that the importance and motivation behind it continues to manifest from Western interests.

For one, the subjects of anthropological study have rarely been invited to participate as equal creators of anthropological knowledge. Johannes Fabian calls this the denial of co-evalness (Fabian 1991). Anthropologists choose the research questions, choose how to answer the questions, and choose who to share the answers with. We can say that the welcome anthropologists received by communities to conduct participant-observation among them was not reciprocated such that communities could learn, or engage in, anthropology and the repercussion has been that anthropological representations have been self-serving, left unfairly unchallenged.

But why? Anthropology, commonly defined as “the study of man”, excludes no person. An interest in people around you cannot be linked specifically to the West. In this way Anthropology is not simply “the study of mankind”, for it is an academic discipline that has developed in particular ways since being institutionalized within a growing university system. Trouillot writes:

“Academic disciplines do not create their fields of significance, they only legitimize particular organizations of meaning. They filter and rank – and in that sense they truly discipline – contested arguments and themes that often precede them. In doing so, they continuously expand, restrict, or modify in diverse ways their distinctive arsenal of tropes, the types of statements they deem acceptable.” (Trouillot 2003:8)

In other words as an academic discipline anthropology has legitimated particular forms of research. The system of editorial control and peer review works to select, filter and rank material. Professors, each with their own approaches promote particular arguments over others. These ideas once legitimated through peer review are then published and made available to other researchers. The system works to control who’s ideas get spread. Who however, is to be considered the anthropologist, or the anthropologists peer? According to many journals, that peer would be other expert anthropologists.

Calling for collaboration.

As academics, anthropologists write to each other in academic journals that control what is published and who is given access to the material. As science, anthropological work has a history of being privileged within dominant states – being seen as a more true form of knowledge. As scientists and experts, anthropologists saw themselves as, or were expected to be, the most able creators of that knowledge. And they came from a particular side. Talal Asad writes:

“But anthropology is also rooted in an unequal power encounter between the West and Third World which goes back to the emergence of bourgeois Europe, an encounter in which colonialism is merely one historical moment. It is this encounter that gives the West access to cultural and historical information about the societies it has progressively dominated, and thus not only generates a certain kind of universal understanding, but also re-enforces the inequalities in capacity between the European and the non-European worlds (and derivatively, between the Europeanized elites and the ‘traditional’ masses in the Third World). ” (Asad 1973:10)

The anthropological subject, labeled as the “Other”, or the “primitive” and “savage”, defines ethnocentric Anthropology. The taken for granted “us” – the anthropologists – demonstrates a particular relationship where early anthropologists were Europeans writing to Europeans, in European languages, about what they saw as “primitive” non-Europeans. Information flowed from “others” back to the academic home where anthropologists sought corroboration and review from their like-minded European peers.

Responses to academic articles come from other academics who write in appropriate and sensible ways. Researchers publishing within this system know what kinds of responses to expect, and they trust that responses will maintain academic standards. In this way, when “others” make their way into anthropology there is pressure to adapt and conform to the university traditions developed in the West. It makes sense for those seeking to decolonize anthropology, that academic standards be broadened to accommodate different standards set by different peers. The challenge here is between academic discipline and collaboration. The relevance of this being that there has been a need for other forms of knowledge construction and dissemination, and that academic journals and the system of peer review have not successfully incorporated a space for responses to academic work. Anthropology is not only to be done for anthropologists, unlike anthropology journals.

In this way anthropology as an academic discipline is a product of Western expansion and imperialism which had scientific pretenses and claims to special ways of knowing the world. As a discipline it works to reproduce and reinforce its membership, it guards its gates, not just anyone can publish in an Anthropology journal. The journal is a place reserved for the professional anthropologist. The gates of peer review, tied to particular hiring practices that empower it, have worked to control the direction, approaches and style of anthropology. It is no wonder then that researchers publishing their own work and sharing it with everyone on the internet might stir a little fire, especially as we introduce the need to collaborate with ‘others’.

Changing research relationships. The other strikes back.

As power relationships in the world changed so too did those between anthropologists and their subject of study. Subjects of anthropological research found ways of speaking back helping to attack and at the same time reveal the ethnocentric nature of the discipline. As Wallerstein et al. write,

“It is thus within the context of changes in the distribution of power in the world that the issue of cultural parochialism of the social sciences as they had historically developed came to the fore.” (Wallerstein et al. 1996:50)

Anthropology, through changes in the world and through external critiques that could no longer be ignored, came to be seen by some as being biased, narrow minded, colonial and even immoral.

Trouillot discusses the voice of minorities contesting representations made by anthropologists,

“Minorities of all kinds can and do voice their cultural claims, not on the basis of explicit theories of culture but in the name of historical authenticity. They enter the debate not as academics- or not only as academics- but as situated individuals with rights to historicity. They speak in the first person, signing their argument with an “I” or a “we”, rather than invoking the ahistorical voice of reason, justice, and civilization.” (Trouillot 2003:10)

A powerful example comes from Vine Deloria Jr., a Native American activist, scholar and lawyer, who became a vocal critic of anthropology. His work was published in scholarly journals and it had a powerful effect on many anthropologists (Grobsmith). Deloria Jr. argued that anthropologists did more harm then good by reinforcing and legitimizing negative stereotypes, all while spending money on research projects that were of no benefit to the communities involved. Indians, he writes, “… have been cursed above all other people in history, Indians have anthropologists.”

Educated in Western universities Vine Deloria Jr. held a powerful position from which to speak. He was able to respond to anthropologists in the language needed, which is as he puts it, the “vocabulary created by the Ph.D.” This points to the ongoing imposition and adoption of English around the world, which while being imposed, was also picked up and used by ‘others’ to respond. Caroline B. Brettell writes,

“Ethnological research carved out a niche for itself in the latter nineteenth century as the study of the far-off remote “other”. Those people among whom the anthropologist worked were often preliterate, and the languages they spoke certainly were not the language in which the ethnographer intended to publish the results of his or her research. There was virtually no chance for the subjects of anthropological investigation to respond, either critically or favorably, to what was written about them. Ethnographic authority survived under the cloak of distance and difference because the “natives” never knew what had been written about them. For Western sociologists, or for those anthropologists who study their own society with the tools and methods of research developed in the study of the far-off “other”, the situation has been somewhat different.” (Brettell 1995:9)

Soon “others” had less of an issue responding to anthropologists, in the necessary language and through the right academic institutions. The model of scientific publishing adopted from the hard sciences would have trouble integrating this kind of dialogue however, given the way the way only experts are given a voice to publish – regardless of the fact that people can read what is being written about them, and that they do seek to respond.

A Definition of Anthropology from the Outside.

Defining anthropology is as you can see, quite tricky, given the ways it has changed since first being institutionalized. The goals and interests of anthropologists vary, the picture seeming to be very diverse. Perhaps this is the result of anthropological training that concerns itself with diversity and difference – you will find what you seek. Sometimes, as anthropologists have argued, it helps to look at an issue from the outside as a way of escaping taken for granted assumptions. While anthropology covers a very diverse set of topics, it is also true that it does this in particular and identifiable ways. Deloria Vine Jr. describes the work of anthropologists more succinctly:

“An anthropologist comes out to Indian reservations to make OBSERVATIONS. During the winter these observations will become books by which future anthropologists will be trained, so that they can come out to reservations years from now and verify the observations they have studied.

After the books are written, summaries of the books appear in the scholarly journals in the guise of articles. These articles “tell it like it is’ and serve as a catalyst to inspire other anthropologists to make the great pilgrimage next summer.

The summaries are then condensed for two purposes. Some condensations are sent to government agencies as reports justifying the previous summer’s research. Others are sent to foundations in an effort to finance the next summer’s expedition west.

The reports are spread all around the government agencies and foundations all winter. The only problem is that no one has time to read them. So five-thousand-dollar-a-year secretaries are assigned to decode them. Since these secretaries cannot read complex theories, they reduce the reports to the best slogan possible and forget the reports.

The slogans become conference themes in the early spring, when the anthropologist expeditions are being planned. The slogans turn into battle cries of opposing groups of anthropologists who chance to meet on the reservations the following summer.” (Deloria Jr 1969:80)

Defining the anthropologist in simple and sensible terms, he argues that anthropology is largely about writing books and articles. It is an academic discipline in a university, and it is taught by teachers and studied by students. Students fight to be teachers by getting published or supporting what has been published, while teachers fight for financing. Anthropologists produce a lot to read, which once peer reviewed is used by administrators to select the next round of teachers. The whole system is wrapped within the universities productivity schedule. The goals are professional and performed in the interests of themselves.

His critique raises the question of whose interests anthropological research should serve. He attacks the costs involved in conducting all this research, arguing that it is wasteful and that it could be used to help communities. Anthropologists in this light are preying on marginalized communities as a way of advancing their careers, much like lawyers chasing ambulances. His and other reactionary responses to anthropology help to expose the narrow goals of ‘scientific’ research – challenging the ethics of what was assumed to be objective, true, and virtuous. Is it ethical to conduct “pure research” in politically marginalized communities? Working with this and other criticisms many anthropologists have changed, accepting the need to work with communities on research questions relevant to them. This presents a different set of motivations for an applied anthropology then had been presented in the earlier quote by Eriksen and Murphy, who argued many of the specializations in anthropology came from applied anthropology which was adapted to make anthropology a more practical profession outside the university. On one had is an applied anthropology that seeks to make itself useful outside the university, on the other is an applied anthropology with a moral obligation to transform traditional research relationships. Both involve adapting to new research contexts and questions. There is a common thread of desired collaboration, but very different answers when it comes to who those collaborators should be.

Collaboration can be difficult. To what extent is a research question meant to engage previous discussions in anthropology? At what point do they simply get in the way? Are all research questions relevant to a community anthropological? Does it need to be anthropological? Is it even possible to write to two or more different groups, properly, within a single report? Should anthropological journals be the place to distribute this work? Questions like these challenge the traditional means of distributing anthropological products. How can anthropologists address concerns and issues of communities, while also addressing concerns and issues of academics in the universities? Are they in some ways exclusive of each other? There has been pressure then, to find ways of creating and sharing knowledge to more diverse audiences, and to finding ways of incorporating more a more diverse group to work in creating and determining the directions of that knowledge.

To summarize, within anthropology there are numerous competing positions and a range of specializations, sub-fields, and areas of interest. Generally it is not a story about agreement , but rather of ongoing debate, disagreement and perhaps as a result oftentimes silence. The expansion of topics in anthropology has been a result of the expanding university system and the need to escape the narrow scope within which anthropology was originally institutionalized. It is also a result of anthropologists seeking to address questions not determined by other anthropologists, but rather by the communities involved. Here lies the trouble of a changing anthropology whose approaches and methods have grown such that the publishing system surrounding them doesn’t always fit.

2.4 Anthropology and public engagement.

It has been argued that anthropology has undergone a process of ‘cocooning’, where anthropologists have refrained from engaging with or to being held accountable by, academic audiences outside their specialized field and outside academia. In this way anthropologists isolated themselves from each other, from other disciplines, and from public media (Eriksen 2006:1-21). This was, as the quote from Wallerstein in the previous chapter pointed out, partially the result of a growing number of people trying to work productively. Many “niches” in anthropology can be violently opposed and debates that create splits and divisions are frequently left unresolved. It can be tiresome for anthropologists to continue engaging in them. At some point one must agree to disagree and then move on (at which point you will be blamed for keeping silent in an important debate). This partially explains why academics writing in differently specialized journals, do not necessary want to engage with each other. The engagement took place years ago, and they see little benefit to continuing a seemingly endless debate. The trenches of academic warfare have simply been dug too deep. But the cocooning of anthropology is not simply between anthropologists, but also between anthropologists and those outside the university. In this narrative, the university becomes an ivory tower, with brilliant wizards filled with answers – only that these brilliant wizards do not enjoy leaving their tower. Brilliant as they are, they prefer to ignore the real world to instead focus on pure science and issues of concern only to expert Wizards. Such a story comes out frequently in discussions of academia and its role in public life today, where the anthropologist is asked to move beyond the tower, to conduct research on behalf of the public good, to apply anthropology in the interests relevant to contemporary society.

Public engagement

Another consequence of this focus on publishing within academia as opposed to distributing it outside, is that the distribution of academic knowledge outside the academy is left to the media. And as close as we are to engaging in our intended subject, the internet and anthropology, let us step back one last time, to incorporate (at the last minute), the final piece of our history puzzle – the story of public engagement in anthropology. Thomas Eriksen writes,

“anthropologists have an enormous amount of knowledge about human lives, and most of them know something profound about what it is that makes people different and what makes us all similar. Yet there seems to be a professional reluctance to share this knowledge with a wider readership… Anthropological monographs and articles tend to be dense, technical and frankly boring, and in many cases they are preoccupied with details, allowing the larger picture to slip away from sight.” (Eriksen 2005:ix)

Public engagement in anthropology is not simply a matter of distribution and access, but of style and interest. Why would a wider audience seek to engage with anthropological material? As Eriksen states, much anthropology has acquired a particularly difficult to digest style, but he argues that anthropologists were originally actively involved in public debates. The retreat into ‘the ivory tower’ has been a phenomenon that came with institutionalization, the rapid growth of the university system, and as a backlash against political engagement of the past.

Anthropology was made famous by published works that were of great interest to European society. They captured the imagination of a large public audience. Malinowski, Mead and others appealed to public audiences. Thomas Hylland Eriksen writes,

“Since the Second World War, anthropology has shrunk away from the public eye in almost every country where it has an academic presence. Student numbers grow; young men and women are still being seduced by the intellectual magic of anthropology, ideas originating in anthropology become part of an everyday cultural reflexivity – and yet, the subject is all but invisible outside its own circles. In fact, one of the greatest anthropological publishing successes of recent decades has been something of an embarrassment…

… Paradoxically, as the discipline has grown, its perceived wider relevance has diminished. In the twentieth century, the day of Mead, Montagu and Evans-Pritchard, anthropologists still engaged in general intellectual debate and occasionally wrote popular, yet intellectually challenging texts.”

(Eriksen 2006:21)

So too did Dr. James Hunt, with his extreme political, scientific studies seeking to establish his conception of ‘the Negro’s place in culture’. Anthropologists did address broader audiences, contrary to later anthropologists writing only in scientific journals. They also addressed questions relevant to this broader public. So what happened? How, if anthropology was made popular by academics writing to broad public audiences, has it today withdrawn in such a way as to be called an ‘ivory tower’? How, and why, would new researchers be given the following advice:

“… the advice given to pre-tenure scholars was quite consistent across fields: focus on publishing in the right venues and avoid too much time spent on public engagement, committee work, writing op-ed pieces, developing websites, blogging, and other non-traditional forms of electronic dissemination (including courses).” (Harley et al 2008:)

It is not simply a matter of academics focusing on themselves, but also of academics imposing such standards on each other, revealing a pressure to keep things moving along – to not rock the boat. Publish in the right places. Avoid spending too much time elsewhere. This points to the importance of reproducing the system and of the period of transition that has come with the Internet and that we will soon be addressing.

In this way public engagement is a buzzword in academia while also being a thorn. Where academics find popularity, they also find controversy. To what extent can anthropologists engage with politically sensitive issues when they become offensive to their own governments. At what point do they become an embarrassment for a university? Take the work of Dr. James Hunt. He upheld scientific goals. Yet today his work is seen clearly as racist and bigoted. He established the Anthropological Society of London with the intention of mixing politics and science, seeking an institution that would promote his beliefs. He also encouraged researchers to engage with relevant public issues, regardless of the possibility of ridicule.

Justifying the cocoon.

Reactions against anthropology like Hunt’s contributed to Anthropology’s safe withdrawal into the ivory tower. The joy of ‘pure science’ is that no one can tell you how important the research is – if it is not understood today, it might become important twenty years down the road. The goal is simply to uncover and learn what was not known before. To peel away layers of meaning, till one finally reaches truth. The desires of ones collaborators need not be introduced. This escapes the pressure to be socially relevant, which depending on ones society, can be a very positive thing. Imagine today, as the United States wages war in the Middle East, how academics might be forced to make themselves useful? As Talal Asad was quoted earlier as saying, anthropology has always created knowledge most valuable to the dominant state. When the state calls on academics to contribute to world domination, the defense of ‘pure science’ as a means of withdrawing from brutal engagements almost seems valorous. ‘Pure science’ can help keep undesired elements, such as the military, from controlling and guiding the research questions of anthropologists. The limited distribution of scientific journals also helped shelter anthropologists from the responses of those they wrote about (Brettell 1995:1-24). This approach, of prioritizing ‘pure science’ ignores the needs of activists and communities. Yes it provides anthropologists with the right to lay out their own research directions, being privileged scientists. But it also provides anthropologists a way to ignore moral obligations.

To recap, we have established that anthropology is a changing discipline with a lot of competing directions. We’ve also established that the university system has grown in such a way that libraries are unable to subscribe to all the academic work that is published. Researchers writing to researchers, are unable to reach researchers. Equally importantly we’ve established that anthropologists have been morally compelled to find ways of changing ethnocentric structures within the discipline. With the focus on ‘otherness’ coming to be seen as problematic, some seek to reformulate the discipline, to integrate the ‘anthropologist’ and the ‘other’, to decenter anthropological research from particular distant people and places, as a means of addressing relevant issues while escaping biased narrow minded representations that had been formed from a limited base. In this way the questions anthropologists address are extremely broad. Lastly, anthropologists have a tense relationship with the media. Once a popular discipline in the public imagination, anthropology has become less popular and less understood – demanding an explanation when the word is used in friendly conversation. There is a need then for anthropology to establish itself as a public interlocutor, while admitting and accepting that anthropologists are people who impose their own motivations and directions, and that this engagement will certainly be political, and have political repercussions. Cocooning wasn’t the answer – so let us explore now an anthropology stepping out into the ‘open’.

Jeremy comments,

Maybe the idea of “pure science” could be debated a bit more. I doubt that anthropology can ever be “pure science”, or at least I can’t see what the meaning of “pure” would be in this phrase. And the pretense of doing pure “Science” can be used by people who confuse “dominant” and “objective”, and don’t recognize or acknowledge their own politics. For example, if one is doing advanced statistical work (Science !) about, say, the various sociological parameters that are correlated with prison riots ( Police work !), is that pure science ?

(I saw a few typos.)

Comment by Jérémy August 20, 2010 @ 10:35 pm


This comment corrects a misrepresentation this history of anthropology had developed. It is not only that anthropologists withdrew into science to avoid politics, but also that anthropologists have engaged in politically charged work while claiming to be objective and unbiased. The rhetoric of science has been used to mask bias – in this way taking particular points of view and imposing them universal.


4 responses to this post.

  1. My thought on reading the post/chapter; hoping this criticism can be taken and used constructively…

    You first say that:
    Anthropology is “the study of mankind” (according to Wikipedia); and you seem comfortable with this definition (I would support such; though I would go for the less gendered phrases “humanity” or “humankind”).

    But then you proceed:
    “Anthropology was born within the context of European exploration…”
    This is deeply ethnocentric from the outset. It assumes no one studied (tried to understand or think reflectively about) “humanity” prior to the age of European colonialism (c.1500-1950). I would recommend at the very least distinguishing “anthropology” from “modern anthropology” (or whatever you feel comfortable with) to indicate that you are looking at one particular tradition of anthropology, derived from the context of European (“Western”) colonial expansion.

    I would ask you to reconsider your critique of anthropology-as-handmaiden-of-colonialism, largely following in the tradition of Talal Asad. The problem with this critique is that in moving from a position of marginality – when Talal Asad first proposed it – to one of general hegemony (the paradigmatic story of “what anthropology is”), both inside and outside academic anthropology, Asad’s critique (and more generally Said’s related “Orientalism”) has gone from being revolutionary to reactionary. It is a critique which positively transformed anthropology (a successful revolution!), through further development in both “writing culture” school and postcolonial theory (e.g. subaltern studies). I most often find it used these days, however, to either rubbish anthropology in contrast to sociology, political science, geography and other disciplines, which blithely carry on deeply blinkered ethnocentric, Euro-American projects in the meantime (in places such as Singapore where I work); or within anthropology as a discipline (specifically American anthropology) the critique is used to justify disengagement with the world; i.e. “studying at home” because “studying abroad” is so morally suspect. I question, however, whether ignorance of “others” (however defined) is really so revolutionary?

    You also seem to reinforce and reinscribe anthropology-as-EuroAmerican-undertaking even up to the present day. This ignores the “world anthropologies” movement, which has gained some ground over the past ten years or so. It would seem, in a work about how anthropologists communicate with each other, taking this into consideration would be of substantial importance.

    You write very well and engagingly – particularly at the beginning of this post. The project portends to be a valuable one; I hope you bring it more up-to-date and try to conceive of the “anthropological community” more broadly. American and European universities certainly continue to exert power from a dominant, central position. But anthropology and the community of its practitioners is much broader than that.

    If interested, email me. I can provide a couple articles which might provide greater context to these comments.


  2. Dear Socect,

    I’m writing up a response to your suggestions, and just wanted to quickly say thanks for the feedback!


  3. I am going to disagree with Socect, primarily because he assumes as established that which would be better posed as an open question.

    First, I think it is highly questionable to assert that the critique of anthropology as colonialist has achieved anything near a position of hegemony within anthropology. Just how many courses are out there that really engage students in the subject of decolonizing anthropology? Not many–if anything, it would be a terrible sales pitch. Indeed, there are almost none. It is a subject that most anthropologists seem to want to downplay, if they even pause to consider it. The reaction against all sorts of critiques, wrongly but intentionally lumped under the heading of “post-modernist,” in fact displays how mainstream the reactionary defense has been against anything that offers friction and resistance to the anthropology of the old great founders. “We were right before, and now we are more right than ever!”

    In addition I think Socect is not taking care to distinguish between opinions coming from within anthropology–about the current state of the discipline–and those coming from without. Who is doing this rubbishing that he speaks about?

    It also seems very questionable to suggest, as Socect does, that “anthropology at home” is the same as “ignorance of others,” as if there were no others at home. I suppose this depends on where you call home, but even so there are very few homogeneous and remote homes left in the world, and those you think you knew so well, those on “self” side, are often much more “strangers” than some people realize. Couples married for 40 years, only to get a divorce late in life, would understand this principle very well.

    World anthropologies is something to be very careful about. Anthropologists from Brazil, Turkey, or elsewhere, trained in the methods, assumptions, and theoretical preferences of British and American anthropology (because that is where they may have been trained), often import these dominant anthropologies back to their homes, and reproduce them to some extent (and sometimes in another language). Some of the most archaic, scientistic anthropology is coming out of India, as if European anthropology went there, died, and became fossilized. World anthropologies, in other words, has also seen the worlding of Eurocentric anthropology–and we should be attuned to that phenomenon, rather than simply wish it away.


  4. Now we’ve got some debate! Thanks for joining in Max. This one is a tough one to step into though, as I find myself answering yes both ways.

    Isn’t writing about “others” in an anthropological sense always ethnocentric? [in that it starts by distinguishing a group from ones own]. I don’t think being ethnocentric is a fault in itself though. It is more a reality that has to be acknowledged and dealt with.

    So is anthropology as a discipline still ethnocentric? I think it is. I’ve been reading up on world anthropologies, and it seems to me the basic argument is that it is okay for world anthropologies to be different in scope and direction from that of European anthropology. No one wants European anthropology to be taught universally around the globe.

    But as Max points out, maybe the anthropology departments around the world really aren’t that different. Aren’t most of the departments run by anthropologists trained in “Eurocentric” anthropology? Isn’t this world anthropologies just a clever way to say “anthropology has changed”.

    So we’ve got praise for world anthropologies in that no single anthropological body is trying to directly control the entire group. But this also means we have numerous anthropologies, and they still might all be ethnocentric in their ideas, and many were educated in American and European anthropology schools. Even if they were not educated in Eurocentric anthropology, the system in which they publish may very well be the same peer review system adopted by European anthropologists from the hard sciences, which works to value one groups opinions over that of another, and which doesn’t give those other opinions much room in the discussion.)

    So what makes an ethnocentric anthropology so bad? Well, Max makes reference to “the archaic” and the “scientistic”. The science model adopted in anthropology, combined with Ethnocentric researchers, is the nasty combination that has turned strong opinions into what seems to be fact. It also a particularly narrow group of people talking, so its limited in that it isn’t checked or guided by public interests.

    The issue isn’t really about peoples curiosity. Malinowski and other Europeans were racist, prejudiced, etc… but so are most people. The difference is he published his work and had it reviewed by other Europeans, and no one cared for conflicting perspectives and opinions – ones that would help contextualize the bias of the researcher and the researchers audience. This is where there is a need to incorporate non-academic and non-expert opinion into the research and review process (ie, a key point for bringing in “new audiences”).

    How then is anthropology today not still guilty of this? The peer review system continues to judge anthropological work within an academic system that is ethnocentric. Looking back into my thesis, I found some support for this argument looking at where authors who published in the American Anthropology Associations journals came from. Most authors come from the UK, France, the US, Canada, etc.

    I also interviewed a researcher whose work had been refused not based on peer review issues, but rather on the editors opinion. They could not publish because the “scientific journal editor” deemed the work too controversial. The publishing system in anthropology is clearly biased, and unwilling to incorporate broad (but badly needed) responses to anthropological work.

    This shows how there might be a number of world anthropologies out there, but they are being excluded, or excluding themselves, from what is being published by the American Anthropology Association. So in terms of publishing, “world anthropologies”, are all ethnocentric. This is considered a good thing, in that world anthropologies work on issues relevant to researchers working within them. But does the issue of an “archaic, scientistic anthropology” remain?

    Okay to a point then. You can’t blame people for studying others, or studying in other places. And you can’t cut people off from studying others in the same places, because otherness isn’t geographically bound. Decolonizing anthropology then, is about understanding what kind of “science” it is, how its methods work to mask biased opinion in a box of science and objectivity, where anthropologists are the only ones allowed to assert what is true, what is fact, etc.

    Is the publishing system at fault? Can a more open review process help decolonize anthropology? And doesn’t this demand that anthropologists share their work more broadly, so that people read it and have the chance to respond? How can people respond if they aren’t even expected to read it? People reading it might just say “what the hell is all this crap you are talking about”, then they might stop reading it even if it was accessible. But since no one outside anthropology reads anthropology, there is no need to deal with that yet!

    Okay, there’s my run of the mouse wheel. Someone else jump on.


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