Category Archives: anthropology

argybargy du jour

All those years ago I was drawn to Anthropology because I thought it was a comprehensive and comprehensible way to MAKE SENSE of the world around me; and in my years as a prof I approached teaching Anthro in the same spirit, looking at the great variety of solutions to the practical problems of living that people had developed over the vastnesses of time and space (well, 10,000 years or so; and terrestrial space, but still…), returning again and again to the observed Fact that the Emperor was Naked. And now I find myself looking to one particular/peculiar strain of the discipline to, once again, [try to] make sense of the contemporary world.

Lately I’ve been reading a number of things that have fundamentally the same message. Much seems to emanate from David Graeber, and is concerned with bamboozlement in many forms:

…a kind of strategic pivot of the upper echelons of US corporate bureaucracy — away from the workers, and towards shareholders, and eventually, towards the financial structure as a whole… corporate management became more financialized, but at the same time, the financial sector became corporatized with investment banks, hedge funds, and the like largely replacing individual investors. As a result the investor class and the executive class became almost indistinguishable… (19)

…the last two centuries have seen an explosion of bureaucracy, and the last 30 or 40 years in particular have seen bureaucratic principles extended to every aspect of our existence… (27)

What was being talked about in terms of “free trade” and the “free market” really entailed the self-conscious completion of the world’s first effective planetary-scale administrative bureaucratic system. (30)

…public and private bureaucracies finally merged together in a mass of paperwork designed to facilitate the direct extraction of wealth. (35)

If one gives sufficient social power to a class of people holding even the most outlandish ideas, they will, consciously or not, eventually contrive to produce a world organized in such a way that living in it will, in a thousand subtle ways, reinforce the impression that those ideas are self-evidently true. (37)

…what we call “the public” is created, produced through specific institutions that allow specific forms of action — taking polls, watching television, voting, signing petitions or writing letters to elected officials or attending public hearings — and not others. (98)

(The above from The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. There’s much more I’d transcribe from Graeber’s writings, including Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and of course Debt.

A similarly resonant voice: Tariq Ali in the latest London Review of Books:
The New World Disorder (Vol. 37 No. 7 · 9 April 2015)

But social democratic reforms have become intolerable for the neoliberal economic system imposed by global capital. If you argue, as those in power do (if not explicitly, implicitly), that it’s necessary to have a political structure in which no challenge to the system is permitted, then we’re living in dangerous times. Elevating terrorism into a threat that is held to be the equivalent of the communist threat of old is bizarre. The use of the very word ‘terrorism’, the bills pushed through Parliament and Congress to stop people speaking up, the vetting of people invited to give talks at universities, the idea that outside speakers have to be asked what they are going to say before they are allowed into the country: all these seem minor things, but they are emblematic of the age in which we live. And the ease with which it’s all accepted is frightening. If what we’re being told is that change isn’t possible, that the only conceivable system is the present one, we’re going to be in trouble. Ultimately, it won’t be accepted. And if you prevent people from speaking or thinking or developing political alternatives, it won’t just be Marx’s work that is relegated to the graveyard. Karl Polanyi, the most gifted of the social democratic theorists, has suffered the same fate.

and this announcement by William Arkin, via Gizmodo, of a Twitter feed covering a lot of the same dolorous but important ground:

o here’s what I plan to do: Expose. Explain. Secrecy and euphemisms are carpet-bombing us into submission. I’m sick of the parameters of the sanctioned debate. So instead I will try to treat the secret world like a sports league: There are coaches, players, commentators, bookies, and marketing geniuses. We’ll have something to say about all of them, something to reveal every week. The teams are the NSA, the CIA, FBI, Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Department of Homeland Security, TSA, ICE; and that’s just Division I. There’s a Division II playing somewhere else, far more obscure but nevertheless influential and odious, populated by billion-dollar institutions like the Counter-Narcoterrorism Program Office or the Defense Threat Reduction Agency or U.S. Army North, real parasites on the American spirit, survivors because what they do festers in the dark. Each has a history and personality, a lineup, a budget cap, a general manager, a narrative to sell.
(much more and very worth reading)

Rembetika again

Anthropologists are prone to connoisseurship of subcultures, appreciating niceties of identity and keeping weather eyes peeled for boundary-defining shibboleths. Lowlifes and marginal folk seem especially attractive, perhaps because they offer exciting alternatives to the bourgeois stolidity of the Buena Gente. In this realm I have more than 30 years of fascination with the Greek underworld of the re[m]betes and the musical genres grouped under the ‘re[m]betika/o’ rubric. Basic source materials include Gail Holst’s Road to Rembetika: Music of a Greek sub-culture songs love, sorrow & hashish (1975) and Elias Petropoulos’ Songs of the Greek Underworld: The Rebetika Tradition (2000).

To assist your exploration if this is unfamiliar territory, there’s a BBC documentary:

and Music of the Outsiders

and Kostas Feris’ feature film Rembetiko (1983)
and literally hundreds of CD reissues of classic music from the 1920s and 1930s, such as Rembetika: Greek Music From the Underworld … or search ‘rembetika’ and ‘rebetika’ and ‘rebetiko’ and ‘rembetiko’ in Spotify or other streaming services.

Today I came across a really delicious vein of text in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, replete with the trademarked style for which he is celebrated. He’s describing two dance forms, hasapikos and zembekiko:

They are, in fact, the quintessence of fatalism and morose solitude, a consolation and an anodyne in individual calamity, and with the songs that accompany them create a hard metrical and choreographic counterspell. They have another black mark against them: they are linked with low life in refugee quarters, with drunken cellars and hashish-smoking dens and waterfront bars, with idle hours spent over the nargileh, and with a dandified trick of flicking those tasseled and time-killing amber beads. Traditionally they are accompanied by a sartorial style, now largely obsolete: pointed shoes, peg-top trousers held up by a red sash, the jacket worn loose on the shoulders with sleeves hanging ‚ and by twisted moustaches, a quiff falling over the forehead, and the cap aslant on the back of the head. With this goes a relaxed gait, a languid syncopated flick of the beads round the index finger held in the small of the back, a cigarette in the corner of the mouth, a faintly derisive smile, a poker face, an unflurriable deliberation of gesture and a dangerous ironic light in the veiled eyes. (pp 244-245)

Downright ethnographic, isn’t it? You really should just get the book and read it…

Gnawing on the bones of the past

I’ve been working over various episodes of my checkered past (see sketches of aspects of graduate school years), which need retreading and elaboration). Recently I happened upon a folder from October 1972, when I’d been in Nova Scotia less than six months and was at the beginning of my dissertation fieldwork. My friend Shel Anderson was teaching a course in Anthropology at Acadia, and asked me to do a guest lecture on what I was doing. At that point in my life, it was easiest for me to write out a sketch of what I wanted to say, and then to use it as a springboard from which to talk (rather than reading the words from the page). I was quite surprised to reread the text more than 40 years later and find that I recognize the person who wrote it, and that much of my approach to teaching during the years I was a prof at Acadia (1973-1990) is pretty clearly sketched in the text. It seems worthwhile to transcribe what I wrote, and perhaps that will inspire me to further dealings with that phase of my life.

I’m going to try to lay a whole lot of different stuff on you, some of which will be repetitive and some of which you may not immediately be able to understand because I can’t express it very clearly, or because I’ve made a lot of assumptions about the way things are that you don’t share, or haven’t gotten around to developing yet. So ask if you don’t immediately understand, and disagree if you think I’m wrong about something –some of you (know it or not) know a lot more about the [Annapolis] Valley than I do anyway.

And also I’m still at the stage where I’ve got a lot of basic questions that have to be answered before I can begin to understand better (like 3 weeks ago I didn’t know what silage was. And I still don’t know what [political] Party affiliation means here in the Valley. And I still don’t know what people’s own maps of things in the Valley look like or how they vary. And I don’t know much more than a few anecdotes about social stratification in the Valley –these are all things that some of you could work on if you felt like it –it would be an enormous help to me, and I’d be delighted to help you figure out how to go about looking into these and other things about the Valley… One thing I do have is access to a lot of different ways to look at the Valley, although I haven’t used them all yet…).

Have to know a little bit about what anthropologists do, when they’re not teaching courses. There’s this thing called “fieldwork” where you’re supposed to go to some remote corner of the world and endure incredible privations and have Adventures and Do Research. OK. So what does “doing research” involve? Well, you’re supposed to gather data with respect to some Problem you’ve defined (by reference to theoretical and ethnographic Literature which you absorb in graduate school). Now what anthropologists usually do is rather different from what I’m doing, but I’ll sketch it out anyway –with the proviso that the way I’m telling it is too generalized, i.e., not all anthropologists are wasteful scoundrels…

There are a lot of Traditional Anthropological Problems which necessarily form a part of what Anthropologists Do. Once you decide where you want to go (and reasons are usually pretty ad hoc) and somehow get yourself there, you have to somehow establish yourself, which means get to be known by the people you’re going to rely upon to Provide You With Data. So you choose an area, e.g. a village or group of villages or a bunch of people. And you have to do some very basic information-gathering, like mapping the physical setting (with maps, and with analysis of such things as productive activities) and mapping the population (e.g., doing a survey to see who’s where and who they’re related to). Once these preliminary tasks are begun, you start looking for evidence relating to the particular Thing you’ve claimed you were going to study. And eventually you return [to the university whence you came] and write a report of what you’ve done, which gets called an Ethnography…

But basically what you DO (and remember this is still a very general picture of what anthropologists are “supposed” to do and be doing) is live with, more or less closely, the people you are studying. Now this sounds a bit romantic –the young Sahib, dressed in A-line shorts and solar topi, asking questions and getting answers and writing them down, returning to his tent or grass hut in the evening to Write Up his notes on the typewriter.

Now, anthropologists really do a lot of things which don’t fit with this picture. Like they get interested in bigger things than little villages, and in other human groups than Natives with Bones In Their Noses. In fact, one of the nice things about anthropology is that you can, theoretically, do it anywhere (unlike Sociology, which is usually thought of as the study of your own society), including your own society (although there’s no unanimity on this point –there are those who say you need “Cross-Cultural Perspective” in order to understand anything you see, and therefore must go to a Cross Culture) And an anthropologist (he who has paid his dues in grad school) can call just about anything he does Anthropology.

OK now me: I’m working on some problems that anthropologists generally haven’t paid much attention to –I’m doing research in Canada (but not on Indians), I’m concerned with an unusual (for anthropologists) social unit (the Region) and with some unusual substantive problems (modern agriculture, economic organization of a highly-developed type), and I’m using some unusual tools (quantitative/statistical geography, maps, enterprise analysis using formal economics, and stuff like that).

In a sense I’m ‘only’ doing ethnography, but in a different way, with a different unit of analysis, a different organizational level, and in a different temporal framework than it has been done usually. I’m trying to produce an exemplar of an empirical approach that has not been attempted by anthropologists, and thus to produce a new way to look at human organization.

The fundamental empirical question I am asking is: how are things distributed, in both space and time?

And then (and this aspect requires investigative tools not common in anthropology): how does distribution change? What can be said of processes (economic, demographic, political, social…) in this population? The whole point is to develop a new way of looking at the organization of human populations –or perhaps to develop ways of seeing the interrelations of organizational variables.

So what GOOD is this? Personally, it’s gratifying to know more about the place one lives and the times one lives in. And that’s something that people have to do more (rather than less) of. And ‘professionally’ I’m looking at some things that sociologists, anthropologists, etc. haven’t studied very often: a transformation which is found repeated over the North American landscape, a chunk of time rather than a moment (the only way to study change), a physical and territorial unit of a higher level of integration than those usually studied.

In short, I’m looking at how this region has changed since World War II. Since it’s a farming region, and since farming has changed tremendously since 1946, the main questions I’m concerned with relate to the processes of change in farming. Now there are a lot of processes you can look at –start with just the numbers of farms (and NB that the Census provides my main starting point for data –it provides a statistical sketch of the outlines of change), then look at different types of farms, at different sizes of farms. This generates new questions as one proceeds, but the basic way questions get generated is that you look at the distribution (statistical and/or spatial) to try to account for why it looks the way it looks –how it got that way, what forces have acted upon it and are acting upon it… Anyway, there are a million things you can do. The problem is to string them together into a coherent whole that gives you some ideas about how to answer (or at least deal with) the original problems that got you interested in the thing in the first place. A really good way to think about all of this is in terms of the systems in realspace, with real people in them.

Now since I’m interested in the Region and its organization, I have to consider much more than just farming, even to answer the questions I have about farming. So I look for ways to deal with the population system (and again the Census comes in handy) and with the web of organizations that hold the population together –, that is, in the Integration of the region. Now, Integration is a process, and not just a state. You have to keep working at it to hold things together, and it doesn’t just happen naturally. Thus, you have to expend energy (which you have to get somehow from the environment, and store up somehow for later use) to maintain order. You’re fighting entropy… So because we’re dealing with Processes, we need to see events as structured in time. And it is no less reasonable to be directly concerned with events as structured in space as well.

Now, we can say as a general rule for starting that the Territorial System is spatially structured by centrality, and temporally structured by periodicity. So look at these analytical notions (centrality and periodicity) in relation to any subsystem you define –like political, economic, etc. etc…

So there are Regional Systems, and Regions are real things, and they change and evolve –or rather the populations within them change and evolve. There’s a basic rhythm to this, almost: there’s a population system, with people being born and dying and getting married and having kids… and the individuals in those systems grow up and age and form groups and maybe migrate and maybe make it through school and maybe get a job somehow and maybe change the job and maybe get married… i.e., they’re real people.

And they play a lot of elaborate formal games in order to eat: they trade stuff around, using tokens (and access to and supply of tokens is not uniform, for a lot of reasons) which they get in a variety of legitimate, quasi-legitimate and illegitimate ways.

One can look at those games, how they are played and how the players (and the rules) change –that’s the essence of looking at marketing systems: what flows where and in what quantities.

And one can look at the formal, quasi-formal and informal rules for moving stuff around. And moving the privilege of access to stuff around. That’s what Lenski means by a stratification system –control of access to resources.

And you can look at all the stuffing and frills, the odd bits of behavior that the players have a strange way of repeating –the Culture, Social Organization, the Society…

The thing is, the Regional Systems notion gives you a framework to hang your knowledge of an area on, and thus allows you to broaden your knowledge and understanding of the ways in which your Environment is operating.

There are a number of reason why this is not just an idle game played by people who stayed on the Academic Bandwagon to the end of the line –one of them is purely selfish– if you know something about what’s likely to come from where in your (hostile) environment, that’s better than knowing what hit you afterwards, or rather, better than knowing nothing…

But in order to have any Understanding in any deeper sense, you have to integrate a lot of different kinds (and sources) of Information.

Now, we all DO this, mostly unconsciously and to a much less developed degree than we would if we really thought about it. Like, when you first arrive in a new place, like Wolfville if you’re not already from there, you don’t have any information, you don’t know your way around. You learn, both consciously (like when you ask someone, or set out to find something) and unconsciously. So you’re already structuring your own egocentric map of the region. Over time, the map elaborates, is corrected, becomes a resource…

OK, now imagine trying systematically (and consciously) to develop some part of your map –to get more information about something and construct a more elaborate map. So you identify some domain that you’re interested in (for whatever reason)

Event: like school amalgamation, looking at differential response of localities

Institution: like Kentville town government –look at factions, crises, everyday business over 25 years… or Service Clubs: who’s in them and what do they do? How are they stratified? Who’s NOT in them?

As I remember, the class went very well, was augmented with various show-and-tell exhibits like maps and datasets and photographs, and led to a lot of student questions and improvised answers.

On the supermarket frontier

Lately I’ve been taking my 87-year-old neighbor Don Miller shopping in Rockland. He’s a garrulous and interesting dude, long-time mechanic and lifelong Midcoast Maine resident, pretty fiercely independent (“they wanted to put me in a nursin’ home, but I wouldn’t have none of it…”) but no longer able to drive himself. I’ll hope to do him more justice another time, but here he is in his usual plumage:


He likes to shop at Shaw’s, a grocery store I don’t usually frequent (Midcoast folks tend to be fiercely loyal to one or another of the chain supermarkets), and I had time to wander in parts of the store that I don’t usually visit (I tend to shop the peripheries, not venturing into the land of High Fructose Corn Syrup that makes up the core of most supermarkets) and gather up bits of intelligence on what’s on offer these days.

Midcoast Maine is pretty far from the Big Time of American food crazes, but I was interested to see the variety that demands shoppers’ attention these days. Take couscous, scarcely a staple of the traditional diet of this region:

Couscous1 Couscous2
(below: Herbed Chicken, Original Plain, Mediterranean Curry, Roasted Garlic and Olive Oil, Parmesan, Toasted Pine Nut, and Basil and Herb –but see Near East for mooooore…)
And who knew that farro had made it into quick-fix packaging?
and as for Moroccan cuisine, packaged for American tastes:
The old reliable Boyardee appears in many guises, and here exemplifies the American genius for BIG:
Now I wish that I’d thought to track the evolution of these innovations in American foodways, which I’m sure has been both rapid and punctuated. I mean, cranberries are a long-time New England staple, but what is one to make of infused dried cranberries? And just think what other flavors may show up on next year’s shelves…
There’s a world of Anthropology of Food out there, begging to be studied and deconstructed.

Start anywhere. It all connects.

I find myself projected backwards to the mind of an earlier self by two obits for Ward Hunt Goodenough, whom I met once at his father’s house in Cambridge in 1963, and whose Cooperation in Change: an anthropological approach to community development was influential for the mid-late 1960s me (the period when Development was the central concept I wrestled with)… and I (re)discover that he was also central to the realms of ethnoscience and componential analysis with which I flirted as an undergraduate (a course with BN Colby) and then again with Chuck Frake at Stanford. A bit more investigation ties WHG to my long-running fascination with the ethnonym Yankee, which I often claim as my own Identity and Tribe. His 1965 article “Yankee Kinship Terminology: a problem in componential analysis” (American Anthropologist vol 67) I’ve just retrieved from JSTOR and put onto the read-on-a-rainy-day pile.

I confess that I was never a very clueful student of anthropology –I gravitated to stuff that interested me and pretty much ignored the rest, and looking back what I mostly see is a succession of boats missed and gratuitous oversimplifications of subtle complexities and, well, intellectual laziness. Of course nobody manages to grok everything, and some things (ethnoscience/cognitive anthropology being a case in point) turned out to be disciplinary dead ends, but I regret the arrogance of my inattention to the things and people from which/whom I might have learned.

Turns out (via Hortense Powdermaker’s Stranger and Friend: the way of an anthropologist) that BN Colby worked with the General Inquirer project, in the basement of Emerson Hall at Harvard (where both Betsy and I spent many hours), and co-wrote articles with George Collier (with whom I studied at Stanford, not gloriously) and Mark Menchik, whom I knew as an undergraduate. Colby went on to work in cognitive science, and a Google search for him led me to Margaret Bowden’s Mind As Machine: A History of Cognitive Science, Volume 1, which offers a whole section on “Anthropology and Cognitive Science” (pp 516-589, via Google Books). And that juicy chunk of text turns up another significant-to-me name: Roy D’Andrade. He was a professor at Stanford just at the point when I wanted to leap from International Development Education to Anthropology, and said “well of course you can” when I asked him about the possibility of the transition. His Sad Story of Anthropology 1950-1999 (download the RTF file) looks like another rainy-day read. From the abstract:

Within the social sciences, anthropology appears to have been more strongly affected by external political trends than its sister disciplines. The trends affecting anthropology appear to reflect primarily ideas and attitudes of the intellectual left in American universities and colleges. As the intellectual left moved from the anti-government activism of the early sixties to Marxism and expectations the death of capitalism in the seventies, through the disenchantment with socialist communism and alienation from Western culture expressed by post-modernism in the eighties and nineties, the centrality of these attitudes in the anthropology professorate of the elite universities resulted in profound changes in the research organization of anthropology and its choice of methods…

Somewhere in these materials I expect to find answers to the questions I’ve barely formulated, bearing upon my own alienation from the discipline of anthropology. It seems to me that the bottom fell out in the 1980s, and D’Andrade seems to nail it:

Within anthropology, while little explicit theoretical discussion took place in the journals, a great shift in agenda took place. The new goal of ethnography and research was no longer theoretically relevant description, but moral critique. The critique was directed against power, domination, and oppression. However, the classical Marxist emphasis on material factors was greatly attenuated. Capitalism was still an enemy, but primarily because it, like the State, Science, the Media, and Western bourgeois culture, was powerful.

The major critique in anthropology was directed against pernicious ideas. The Marxist notions of ideology and false consciousness were reworked into a critique of culture itself, now seen as the most powerful source of oppression…

By the mid eighties critical anthropology had become mainstream. The goal of mainline cultural anthropology was to critique both hidden and open oppressions of Western bourgeois culture; its racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, and scientism. The Enlightenment – the historical center of liberal ideas – came to be seen as a well of poison. According to this agenda, the task of the ethnographer is to examine the resistance of non-western and peripherialized peoples to the Western modernizing forces that oppress them. The World Bank and the IMF are enemies, science is an enemy, and rationality is a destructive force. Bureaucratic planning is one of the major generators of oppression. Conformity on the part of ordinary people is treated as evidence of their complicity in their own oppression…

If one looks at the current field of cultural anthropology, it is not just statistics and quantitative methods which have been forced out. Linguistic anthropology is almost gone. Folklore is gone. Psychological anthropology is holding on but with a dwindling base. Economic anthropology is almost gone. Medical anthropology has shifted primarily to cultural critique. The study of kinship is in eclipse. Cross-cultural studies by anthropologists are in decline. The scholarly study of religion in anthropology has decreased almost to the vanishing point…

…try to elicit from your favorite anthropology informant the important findings of mainline cultural anthropology over the past twenty years. You will probably be told that now we know that culture is discourse, that power is omnipresent, that knowledge is central to power, that Western culture is hegemonic, that oppression is diffuse and general, and that we are now in a post-modern world of late capitalism and a global diaspora without fixed communities or cultures.

So as usual I begin with something and follow the webwork to serendipitous discoveries. The blog seems the ideal place to cache such ramblings, to which I may return eventually. Or not.

Sarah Kendzior interview

Back in the day when I was a graduate student (Stanford 1967-1972) the world was oh so different in so many ways. The discipline of Anthropology seemed alive, vital, relevant; there was money (NIMH, NIH, foundations) for study and for research; the ‘Developing World’ seemed to welcome the attentions of young American scholars; and there were jobs for those who survived the process of doing research and writing a dissertation… Of course all was not so rosy as it seemed to us, and big changes were just over the horizon. The 80s and 90s were a bonfire, a train wreck, and departments wrangled and split and tenure-track jobs dried up and money and foreign welcome evaporated. I was safe in a tenured position, but increasingly restive in academia… so I made a successful leap into library school (Simmons 1991-1992) and thence to a job I loved as a Reference Librarian and then Science Librarian. My vantage point on academic Anthropology has been pretty distant for more than two decades –I don’t follow the literature, and many of the current hot topics and controversies are far from my interests anyway. Still, I claim the identity ‘Anthropologist’ and enjoy the ambiguities it affords (few people have any clear idea of what an anthropologist is or does), and I continue to learn about human variety and follow my own paths of inquiry. I do follow the Savage Minds blog, and often find provocative material therein. Case in point: today’s interview with Sarah Kendzior, a writer for Al Jazeera English and (of course) a blogger. Here’s a chunk from the interview that strikes me as beautifully observed and expressed:

Graduate students live in constant fear. Some of this fear is justified, like the fear of not finding a job. But the fear of unemployment leads to a host of other fears, and you end up with a climate of conformity, timidity, and sycophantic emulation. Intellectual inquiry is suppressed as “unmarketable”, interdisciplinary research is marked as disloyal, public engagement is decried as “unserious”, and critical views are written anonymously lest a search committee find them. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by the Academic Jobs Wiki.

The cult mentality of academia not only curtails intellectual freedom, but hurts graduate students in a personal way. They internalize systemic failure as individual failure, in part because they have sacrificed their own beliefs and ideas to placate market values. The irony is that an academic market this corrupt and over-saturated has no values. Do not sacrifice your integrity to a lottery — even if you are among the few who can afford to buy tickets until you win.

Anthropology PhDs tend to wind up as contingent workers because they believe they have no other options. This is not true – anthropologists have many skills and could do many things – but there are two main reasons they think so. First, they are conditioned to see working outside of academia as failure. Second, their graduate training is not oriented not toward intellectual exploration, but to shoring up a dying discipline.

Gillian Tett famously said that anthropology has committed intellectual suicide. Graduate students are taught to worship at its grave. The aversion to interdisciplinary work, to public engagement, to new subjects, to innovation in general, is wrapped up in the desire to affirm anthropology’s special relevance. Ironically, this is exactly what makes anthropology irrelevant to the larger world. No one outside the discipline cares about your jargon, your endless parenthetical citations, your paywalled portfolio, your quiet compliance. They care whether you have ideas and can communicate them. Anthropologists have so much to offer, but they hide it away.

links for 2011-09-25

On tribespersons

I’ve been slowly working my way through James C. Scott’s excellent The Art of Not Being Governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia, enjoying the challenges it poses on pretty much every page to Received Wisdoms. As a teacher of anthropology I was especially allergic to the witless collective term ‘natives’ and to its flabby cousin ‘tribesmen’ and finally I have a clearer understanding of just why. Scott puts it beautifully:

The entities represented as “tribes” seldom exist with anything like the substantiality of state imaginings. This misrepresentation is due not only to the official identities cooked up by the state but also to the need of ethnographers and historians for social identities that can serve as a coherent object of description and analysis. It is hard to produce an account of, let alone govern, a social organization that is continually going in and out of focus. (pg. 209)

Starting from this short passage, one could rewrite (or anyhow reimagine) a lot of the ethnography of the golden age, which was mostly written from (and in service to) the state/official perspective. If only I’d seen this more clearly back in the day…

Rice positivism

Nice one over at Language Log: “Rice positivists” vs. “contextualized popular epistemologies”, commenting on the latest teapot tempest among anthropologists of different stripes. It’s nicely written (Mark Liberman’s postings always are), and this bit makes me especially glad to NOT be in the game any longer:

What does remain troublesome is the normative quality of the positivistic ethos that dominates the major agencies funding anthropological inquiry. Since researchers need funding, they are driven to adopt the rhetoric and mindset of the dispensers. (In missionary discourse, they become “rice positivists.”) “Applicants” (supplicants) are confronted with schedules whose headings conjure a fictive future of positivistic research: background (theories), problem, hypotheses, methods, measurements, data analysis, conclusions—in sum, the ideological rhetoric of natural science research within the positivistic mode. For natural scientists, the rhetoric is a convenient game its veterans can work retrospectively, offering to study the problems they have already resolved. But for anthropological fieldworkers, the application schedule can become an exercise in fantasy and falsification.
(Murray Wax 1997)

…which reminds me of one of my stable of quotations:

Oh, how he hated grant proposals. The hollow promises; the vaunting celebration of past success; the self-advertising emphasis on importance and significance; the absence of understatement; the omnipresence of exaggeration; the servile allegiance to tradition, formula, and established procedure; the utter predictability of every other sentence; the implicit greed of the genre…
(David Carkeet Double Negative, pg. 31)