Thesis defended. Issue #1:representing anthropology & being cynical.

How was it?  Brutal [even if it was accepted with minor revisions!] !!! I’ll do my best to summarise the experience, and issues raised, over the next few posts.

The biggest issue that came up: Chapter 2.

Why, I was asked, would I present anthropology in such a negative light? What does such a negative portrait hope to accomplish? Why would I want to participate in such a horrible world? [real question] Why not lead from the strengths the thesis can make to the discipline? Why did I reference Vine Deloria Jr and why did I reference James Hunt?

To paraphrase the question: Haven’t people pooped on anthropology enough? Is it really necessary to select particularly nasty examples of anthropology to describe what anthropology is and how it has changed? Have anthropologists not changed enough already that you could just cite what they do NOW?

My answer: it hasn’t helped to shove anthropology’s dirty laundry under the rug. The history of anthropology shocked me to the core, and I wasn’t about to ignore it. Vine Deloria’s arguments, that I cite in chapter 2, are the best definition and critique of anthropology I’ve ever read. I stand by that reference 100%.

James Hunt? Well sure he isn’t representative of all anthropologists.  And I’ve been told I cannot say that “his work is seen as biggoted and racist” in a thesis, even if his work IS..  But the reason I chose James Hunt was that he founded the Anthropology Society of London with the intention of mixing politics and science, and he promoted public engagement.  Anthropologists aren’t all saints, and when they engage the public, it isn’t necessarily virtuous. That was my point. My bigger point was  that anthropologists get things wrong, and that we need to give people a place to respond and interpret anthropologists interpretations.

Finally, while I probably didn’t express this well enough in the thesis, chapter 2 was NOT a “complete” representation of the discipline. I was looking at the history of the discipline to find breaking points, frictions, that pushed the direction in different directions. The point I wanted to make in chapter 2 was that there are arguments for 1) increased collaboration with non-anthros, 2) increased public engagement, and 3) to “open the social sciences”.

Now say what you want, but I think the examples I give do back that up. I’m not sure I did that well enough in chapter 2 though. The reactionary response I received from one reader has forced me to correct this, to somehow open up chapter 2 with recognition that the points discussed are very selective and not trying to represent the discipline as a whole.

Many more posts to come…


I also learned the proper definition of “reactionary”. I used the word to represent a person “reacting”, which it is not. This has since been corrected, and I did my best to use it correctly in the paragraph above!!! Reactionary is restricted to a conservative backlash, someone defending the status quo, and not to someone getting pissed off by your actions.


When given the option to select your thesis committee, give it a lot of thought. Don’t allow faculty members to turn your thesis into a battleground, even if that’s what social science is all about.

Next post: Issue #2 – Why didn’t you include the following works? [list included]

13 responses to this post.

  1. Awesome. I’m glad to hear that you used Deloria, and that you stood by your decision to do so. His chapter “Anthropologists and other Friends” was a key early critical piece that I read, and it made me completely rethink the ways in which anthropology often presents itself in intro courses (as if it’s the shiny, brilliant, spot-free savior of the world). Using plenty of sarcasm and sharp wit, Deloria definitely helped set me on a particular track in anthropology, that’s for sure.


  2. Hey Ryan,

    Thanks for popping back in! I’m going to be adding a few final blog posts into the thesis, that discuss/deal with the defence feedback I received, as a way of making the iterative writing point stronger.

    I’d love to take this chance to work in some of your responses. I’ll be posting some ideas I have about public anthropology, and hopefully I can convince you to get drawn into some debate surrounding the topic of “public anthropology”.


  3. Another reaction at the defense of the thesis was about the understanding of what is public anthropology [is it the activism aspect, or making knowledge available and accessible to all …]
    Is public anthropology as defined here.-
    what you have in mind…”Public anthropology engages issues and audiences beyond today’s self-imposed disciplinary boundaries. The focus is on conversations with broad audiences about broad concerns”.
    Public Anthropology Classes

    Disseminating Student Research

    Faculty Research in Public Anthropology

    Greater Boston Anthropology Consortium
    Public Anthropology, a Roundtable Discussion
    In public anthropology, we take anthropology out of the academy and into the community. Public anthropology includes both civic engagement and public scholarship more broadly, in which we address audiences beyond academia. It is a publicly engaged anthropology at the intersection of theory and practice, of intellectual and ethical concerns, of the global and the local. As with other forms of public scholarship, it requires us to become involved in issues of public interest both across the world and down the street. These issues include not only such urgent public concerns as immigrants’ lives, eating disorders, women in the workplace, AIDS, human rights, transitions from mass violence, and the legacies …


  4. Posted by o.w. on April 10, 2011 at 3:50 am

    Dear Sima,

    Thanks so much for the followup comments. I just sent Max the “Post-Defence” version of the thesis, which tries to put chapter 2 into better context.

    I also made a few edits to make the difference between public anthropology, and anthropology in public, more clear.

    Thanks for the great links relating to public anthropology. I was asked to develop the section on public anthropology more, but I felt adding more references would have just taken it off on a tangeant so hopefully the small changes I made will be enough to see it clear. If they aren’t, I’ll bring the ones you list in!

    Thanks again!


  5. Good job on the defence. Congrats.

    Do you want to share the Deloria quote?


  6. Posted by o.w. on April 17, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks Dylan. Here is the quote I had selected to introduce the need for collaborative research methods:

    “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 1969:80)


  7. Hey Owen,

    Sorry for lagging in getting back to you. You know the drill.

    “I’d love to take this chance to work in some of your responses. I’ll be posting some ideas I have about public anthropology, and hopefully I can convince you to get drawn into some debate surrounding the topic of ‘public anthropology.”

    I am definitely looking forward to more of these discussions, since I find this topic both important and often frustrating. I really like how you are posting your thoughts and experiences with the whole writing and defense process…it goes to show that, like pretty much everything else, it’s a very human process, filled with hierarchies, opinions, bureaucracy, power issues, etc. Thanks for taking the time–and I can’t wait to see your final thesis.

    PS: If you’re interested, I think I am going to do an issue about applied, public, and academic anthropology later this year on a new project I started (the “anthropologies” project). Let me know if you might be interested: ethnografix at gmail dot com.

    PPS: I still love that Vine Deloria chapter, and I never get tired of the points he made. He reminds me of Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut: ironic and hilarious, yet brutally on point. I will never forget the first time I read Deloria. Especially that chapter.


  8. Posted by Owen Wiltshire on April 18, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    Thanks again Ryan!

    Apologies for failing to email you to get those comments on public anthropology, but I just started working a crappy temp job that has eaten up all my time. I was hoping to have emailed you much ealier to get some of your comments into the thesis, but yes, that is the drill!

    Yes I’ve been following your anthropologies project with interest. I’d love to contribute something down the road, especially when I get a little free time again (I’ll be unemployed again in six weeks!).

    Thanks again,


  9. Dear Sima,

    Thanks again for the comments, which I was just re-reading. Regarding public anthropology, I believe I made it pretty clear that making research accessible, was not in itself “public anthropology”. This was why I tried to build on the idea of “anthropology in public” and “public anthropology”.

    Thanks again for the feedback!


  10. It has been a great thesis, with so much to be learned from it. I tried my best to understand the criticisms made by others, and why they were made, and I won’t be thrashing that out here.

    For me, it was an honour to be associated with this work, and Owen deserves applause for having done such unique work, at the master’s level, in an area that should have been packed with voices. That it isn’t, tells us something both about the real “state of the discipline,” and the value of Owen’s contribution.


  11. Thanks Max. It was a blast and I must say I am enjoying my new found freedom – even with the anxiety job searching brings. For now, I’m back to IT stuff, fixing computers and building websites. I am looking forward to tackling a new research direction however, and will probably use this blog to do it.

    I look forward to your blogs return!


  12. Hello, How is the new blog progressing …post-MA thesis?


  13. Hi Sima! I almost missed this comment. That is how often I check back here. I’ve pulled back from the personal blogging for a while, but professionally I’m writing politically engaged social media pieces and loving it!

    I will be coming back to this site soon, just as soon as I get work under control.


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