Anthropology: Arguments for Change

Wordle: A Changing Anthropology

2. A Changing Anthropology.




Anthropology is of interest to a number of different audiences. Anthropologists have written as experts on behalf of science, as advocates on behalf of various communities, and as intellectuals on behalf of a greater society. Each of these approaches caters to a different audience. Throughout its history anthropologists have found success in all of these approaches, but the most successful approach in the university setting has been that of publishing in academic journals. People, however, have questioned the effectiveness of academic research as social activism and/or of public engagement. Does anthropology work today as a public interlocutor? (Tsing 2004:264)

The tale of entry.

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 criticized rhetorical 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 the anthropologists cultural transformation. I appreciate Crapanzano’s argument and in the past I enjoyed a righteous and pretentious 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.

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. 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 a Canadian doing anthropological research online and at home. Is it really anthropology if you are discussing the online practices of those around you? As the brief tale of entry introduced, anthropology is a broadly defined discipline that often requires a lot of careful contextualizing. The following section 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. At Concordia University anthropology is taught alongside sociology with numerous courses being listed under both, but it is often taught alongside archeology, biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology, in the “four fields approach”, popular in the United States. 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 vary, sometimes substantially, with time and place and depending on who you ask. Within anthropology there are a number of approaches that push anthropology in different directions. And yes this is an admission of ineptitude in that 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, given the general nature of the research. It requires that researchers adapt methods and approaches to new research settings. But what defines the discipline of anthropology 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. Yet many argue that the boundary dividing “us” and “others” is 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 their niche, 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)

Anthropology is now about ‘here’ and ‘there’. Not only are “… the differences between Western and Non-Western societies” quite blurry, but so too is the sameness. Such realities have brought into question taken for granted assumptions of what anthropology is, and how it should be practiced.

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 highlights changing research contexts, goals and audiences – alongside which will be introduced the story of a relatively unchanged publishing strategy that doesn’t always fit. In doing this we will attempt to locate this research within its disciplinary history, to establish how a research project done online is an anthropology project at all.

How then, did we get from the “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, that 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 [hu]mankind”, defined appropriately by Wikipedia (adjusted for gender bias by a blog reader)? 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 many anthropologists saw the Internet as an archive of static texts, 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, online 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 their 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.

Simpler, quicker, and cheaper publishing options provide the ability to experiment with different writing styles and to foster different standards of presentation and consumption. The creation and dissemination of online texts created by researchers bypasses peer review. It means that anthropologists working online end up representing themselves in “public” instead of leaving the job up to journalists and others. 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 later to explore how the Internet has provided fuel and opportunity for these particular pressures.

2.2 Ethnocentrism and anthropology.

The academic discipline of 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. 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 has changed so too has the discipline of anthropology and the interests of anthropologists. Many seek to reformulate and even decolonize the discipline by incorporating a more diverse membership and more flexible research directions. They argue that Anthropology today needs to shed its ethnocentric structure, so that anthropologists can “distance themselves from the power asymmetries” (1988:134) that have challenged the ethics of their research.

But motivation for a decolonized anthropology first required vocal critique from outside and inside the discipline and long before that would happen anthropologists were 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 and discipline expand – more students, more researchers, more being written

Anthropology spread into a number of sub-fields 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. 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)

Wallerstein et al. (1996) call on academics to “Open The Social Sciences”, not as a way for disciplines to be abolished, but rather to breakdown unnecessary and unproductive divisions. They point out that 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 have consequences for the ways academic journals are distributed. It makes sense for researchers to be able to access the work of other researchers, not simply those in the same specialization as themselves. There is pressure then, within the social sciences, to break down unnecessary disciplinary 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. It is about making anthropology useful to some group of non-anthropologists, like management, advertising, market research, military intelligence, and the like. It is also about anthropologists seeking 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, not to anthropologists, but to others involved in the research, as a way of recognizing and dealing with political realities like colonialism, imperialism, and war. Deciding which questions and whose approaches anthropologists are to be put in use, has ended up, as debates often do, splintering the discipline.

2.3 Who is to be the anthropologist, and who is anthropology 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 anthropology to be done for? Scientific journals propagate disciplinary knowledge among interested experts. In the majority of academic journals, only those educated have the means to engage in the discussions of anthropology. The voice of the subjects of anthropological research have been 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. There have been attempts to change this relationship, yet as Trouillot argues, anthropology remains to a large extent, a discursive practice of the West. (Trouillot 2003:8)

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. The welcome anthropologists generally received by communities to conduct participant-observation was not reciprocated such that communities could guide anthropology.

But why? Anthropology, commonly defined as “the study of humankind”, excludes no person. An interest in people around you cannot be linked specifically to the West. In this way Anthropology is not just “the study of humankind” 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. The system works to control who’s ideas get spread. Who however, is to be given a voice in anthropology journals now that so much research is applied, collaborative and/or interdisciplinary?

Calling for collaboration.

As academics, anthropologists write to each other in academic journals that control what is published and go some extent who is given access to the material. 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, the “Other”, defined ethnocentric Anthropology. Information flowed from “out there” back to the academic home through anthropologists who sought corroboration and review from their like-minded peers. 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)

As research contexts have changed, anthropology has been pushed to engage itself in different ways. For one, there is a need to develop dialogue around academic research, and second, communities other than just the anthropologists have interests in this dialogue.

Changing research relationships. The other strikes back.

Anthropology, through changes in the world and through external critiques that could no longer be ignored, came to be seen by some (anthropologist and other), as being biased and narrow minded. Some subjects of anthropological research came to criticize anthropology, helping to attack and at the same time reveal an ethnocentric bias in 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)

Meanwhile the voice of the anthropological subject established its own authority both outside and inside the discipline. Trouillot writes,

“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)

The responses to anthropologists from the communities in which they study need to be better incorporated into anthropological practices. Fahim and Helmer discuss the way anthropologists, sociologists, and other social science researchers have done little to incorporate feedback into their research,

“Petersen stated that development measures and scientific research have been psychologically very damaging to the Inuit. Recurrently the objects of scientific research, they have not been asked to participate in the selection of research topics, and there has not even been a subsequent communication of findings. “In some cases,” he said, “you may hear people say: ‘No more sociologists!’ or the like.” (Fahim and Helmer 1982:xxv)

Another 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 than 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.” (Deloria 1969:78) 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.” and he took interest in what anthropologists were writing.

A Definition of Anthropology from the Outside.

Defining anthropology is quite tricky given the ways it has changed since first being institutionalized. The goals and interests of anthropologists vary. 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. Vine Deloria 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)

Vine Deloria Jr. defines 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. Attacking the costs involved in conducting all this research, he argues that it is wasteful and that funds could be better spent on research relevant to the communities involved. 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 academic research. Working with these and other criticisms, many anthropologists have changed, accepting the need to work with communities on research questions relevant to them.

There are attempts among anthropologists, not just to make research useful to others but in particular to recognize, work with, and balance power relationships. As Lassiter argues, collaboration is not about collusion but rather about negotiating power (Lassiter 2006:20). On one hand 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. On one side we can collaborate with communities to develop and guide research, but on the other side the community involved might just be a military, and collusion with such a community has horrible consequences for other communities. Again, in whose interests should anthropological research serve? And how are these changing interests reflected in academic publishing today? 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?


Anthropology departments have spread around the world. Beyond the need to collaborate with communities in order to develop and guide research, anthropologists today also work within different funding networks. The institutions supporting anthropology abroad target research funding into issues relevant to them. This means that anthropologists will encounter the ‘other’ anthropologist. This brings us to the reality of national anthropology, indigenous anthropology, Native anthropology, and “non-Western anthropology”. The ‘other’ that anthropologists study, now studies anthropology. As Fahim and Helmer argue, the change in “.. the actor (i.e., local in lieu of foreign) implies a change in the anthropologist’s role and perspective” (Fahim and Helmer 1982:xxiv), and, commenting on a presentation by Cohen, they write,

“Anthropologists in different cultures under other social imperatives must devise their own means in pursuit of new goals. Thus, a qualitative difference in the source and direction of change in developing countries and different roles for anthropologists should prompt the creation of a new type of anthropology.” (Fahim and Helmer 1982: xxiv)

A result of this is that anthropology consists of a number of “anthropologies”, each with its own values, perspectives, languages, and journals that motivate and influence it. Discussing anthropology programs in Africa, Ntarangwi, Babiker and Mills write,

“What unites a Ugandan social scientist working for the Population Council in Nairobi, an academic from Lesotho teaching at the University of Zimbabwe and a Khartoum-based academic doing a short-term consultancy for Oxfan in Southern Sudan? All share an anthropological identity and a commitment to shaping an African discipline that critically contributes to both social knowledge and social reform. Whilst aware of colonialism’s influence on the development of African anthropology, its practitioners are forging new intellectual agendas, working practices and international collaborations. The expansion of anthropology worldwide and its willingness to tackle a broadening set of intellectual challenges presented by globalization – religious revival, ethnic conflict and genocide, street children, child soldiers, human trafficking, grinding rural and urban poverty, pandemic diseases, good governance, brain drain, to name but a few – are revitalizing anthropological practice. In Africa, the new face of the discipline is developing through ever-closer association between academic anthropologists and those working in multidisciplinary research teams, between consultants and teachers.” (Ntaranwi, Babiker and Mills 2000:389)

National anthropologies challenge the identity of anthropology as a single academic discipline, and they reveal the changing audiences of academic research. Where anthropologists wrote for anthropologists, with numerous “anthropologies” addressing topics not specific to a particular audience, anthropologists are writing about issues relevant to a broader group of people – multidisciplinary research teams, consultants, teachers, NGO’s etc. There is some debate then as to how “anthropologies” should relate to each other. Are they all part of a single discipline? Syed Farid Alatas writes,

“It should, therefore, be obvious that the indigenization of knowledge projects around the world for the most part seek to contribute to the universalization of the social sciences by not just acknowledging but insisting that all cultures, civilizations and historical experiences must be regarded as sources of ideas. Local scholars should contribute on an equal basis with their Western colleagues to international scholarship (Fahim 1970: 397).” (Alatas 2005:232)

Local scholars are contributing international scholarship, while operating within different funding environments. They do not all have access to the same research. As anthropologists are engaging with multidisciplinary research teams, consultants, NGO’s, while also contributing to ‘international’ scholarship, attention needs to be paid to disseminating work outside disciplinary boundaries.

To summarize, within anthropology there are numerous competing positions and a range of specializations, and areas of interest. 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 a story about scientists getting things wrong, colonialism, western expansion, and the objectification of “others”, which has developed into internal and external pressures for change. And 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 values, approaches and methods have grown in such a way that the publishing system surrounding them doesn’t always fit.

2.4 Anthropology and public engagement.

A consequence of publishing mostly within academia as opposed to targeting those outside, is that much of the distribution of anthropological knowledge outside the academy is handled indirectly through journalists. So as close as we are to engaging in our intended subject, the internet and anthropology, let us step back one last time, to incorporate the final piece of our history puzzle – the story of public engagement in anthropology. Thomas Hylland 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. It wasn’t always like this, he argues, stating that anthropologists were originally actively involved in public debates. Anthropology was made famous by published works that were of interest to European society. They captured the imagination of a large public audience. Malinowski, Mead and others appealed to public audiences, but as 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 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’? Why would new researchers today be given the following advice regarding publishing and their careers:

“… 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 2008:8)

Part of the answer is that public engagement is not a virtue in itself. The retreat into ‘the ivory tower’ has been a phenomenon that came with institutionalization, scientific and professional goals, and as a backlash against unpopular political engagement of the past. Lots of anthropological work is intentionally left under the rug, like the work of Dr. James Hunt, who applied science in pursuit of his own, now controversial and racist, agenda.

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 universities and governments? Dr. James Hunt upheld scientific goals yet today his work is racist and bigoted. He established the Anthropological Society of London with the intention of mixing politics and science. He also encouraged researchers to engage with relevant public issues, regardless of the possibility of ridicule. Yet his views were tied to a particular agenda that worked to subjugate and maintain power relationships. In this way public engagement has also been a thorn in academia.

Reactions against anthropology like Hunt’s contributed to Anthropology’s safe withdrawal into the ivory tower. Journals, with peer review and limited distribution, served to shelter the image of anthropology from its controversial faces. But with the need for collaboration with communities, and with the need to bridge disciplinary boundaries, anthropology is being pushed back outside. The tug of war between the academy and its disciplines, and between the academic and “others” have put pressure on anthropologists to disseminate their work to new audiences.


Both the participants and the audiences of anthropological research have been changing. Specialists writing to specialists led to disciplinary pigeon holing at the expense of accessibility. Disciplines frequently overlap in interests and research is often interdisciplinary. There is pressure then to increase dialogue between disciplines. Anthropology departments have also spread around the world. These anthropology departments focus on varying issues and they disseminate their work in different places. Again, there is pressure to bridge anthropology, this time internationally, to link “anthropologies” into some form of international scholarship. It is questionable how well scholarly journals do this. Further, there is a need to invite others to participate in and to guide the research. In this way the questions anthropologists address are necessarily broad, yet the audience of scholarly journals remains narrow. Given that anthropologists have focused on writing for other anthropologists, the dissemination of academic work outside the university is often handled by journalists, if at all. Once a popular discipline in the public imagination, anthropology has become less popular and less understood – even demanding an explanation when the word is used in friendly conversation. There is a desire among some anthropologists, for anthropology to re-establish itself as a public interlocutor, while admitting and accepting that anthropologists are people who impose their own motivations and directions, and understanding 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’.


5 responses to this post.

  1. not quite finished, but updated.


  2. Nothing quite like pasting from Open Office into WordPress… Tried ‘pasting from word’ and ended up with this – random paragraphs in bold! woot.

    (and various paragraphs justified, when my entire doc is justified in open Office…)


    • Aren’t there other ways to make the import your content? I frequently convert to HTML and past that directly…

      At any rate, this is now in my Instapaper reading list.


      • I’ll try that this time, I just *HATE* the HTML produced… But maybe thats a left-over concern from 1995.

        The other trick I used was to paste it into “Windows Live Writer” which creates better html. And/or Google “view as html”(i think it does it best?).

        THANKS for reading it!

  3. Getting good HTML can be a bit difficult, but it’s also fairly easy to tweak the code, once it’s produced. (As long as it doesn’t included s for font instruction. But, even then, it’s fairly easy to cleanup.)
    I liked WLW when I was on Windows.
    At any rate, the important thing is the content, not the format.


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