Posts Tagged 'ivory tower'

Am I For Real? Academic authenticity and the future of anthropology

Last week an anonymous person using a fake email address left a comment on one of my posts declaring that an undergraduate degree does not make me an anthropologist. In fact, I agree. A degree (bachelor’s or graduate) doesn’t necessarily mean a person will adopt and utilize anthropological perspectives. Rather, it is my ability to employ critical thinking about culture, socialization, power, and human relationships in my life and work that makes me an anthropologist.

Nevertheless, the comment did bother me. I am open to discussion and debate but not with people who leave derogatory comments anonymously. (Leaving a fake email means that the person wouldn’t receive notifications of any follow-up comments.) I find that to be as petty, offensive, and unproductive as the jerks who shout out truck or car windows at bicyclists just for the thrill of scaring them.

But rather than dwell on that negativity and waste my time defending my authenticity to an audience who likely agrees that education is about what you actually learn not the letters after your name, I decided to have a more positive conversation with my dear friend/anthropology life partner, Emily Channell, about the relevance of anthropology as well as its future. Emily is a PhD candidate at City University of New York, where she also teaches undergraduate anthropology courses.

KN: In our initial discussion about the comment on my blog, you noted that anthropology is seen as a dying discipline and said, “If we reject all the various forms of anthropologists, then we condemn anthropology to death.”

Why is anthropology considered a dying field, and what non-academic forms of anthropology do you find exciting?

EC: The question of whether or not anthropology is a dying field has been through a lot of debate. If we think of anthropology as the study of “culture,” then I think we can see both how it might stagnate and also the potential for non-academic forms of anthropology. If it remains exclusively for academia, then eventually anthropologists will run out of places to go, people to study, and things to say. But it also has an incredible ability to change over time.

I think kinship is a great way to look at the way anthropology can change. People studied kinship since the 19th century, then in the second part of the 20th century people considered it dead until David Schneider studied American kinship in 1968 (somehow no one had really thought of doing that before) and then critiqued the whole idea of kinship in 1984. And now kinship has been revisited over and over again to make it still relevant.

So anthropology has this amazing ability to reinvent itself. But, most of the time that reinvention remains in the ivory tower. This means that the image the public typically has of anthropologists is still that of Margaret Mead or Bronislaw Malinowski, even though our ideas are significantly different than theirs. I think anthropology is a dying field because it insists on being so bounded and remaining within academia—as if people on the streets can’t understand culture!

Continue reading ‘Am I For Real? Academic authenticity and the future of anthropology’

What I’ve Learned Since College

My ability to criticize neo-liberal policies and ideologies is definitely a result of studying anthropology (strengthened through participation in clubs like AU Trade Justice and friendships with people like Andrew). I left college with some serious skepticism about anything that focuses on individuals as the source of large-scale social change—especially when the primary directive for the individuals wanting to make a difference is through shopping (i.e. fair trade or green consumerism). Why the skepticism? Because these idealistic outlooks usually obscure the ways that government policies and global economic practices need to be changed to achieve the large-scale goals they are talking about.

The problem with this anthropological perspective is that idealistic people tend to take it as a personal condemnation and a belief that individuals can’t do anything useful to address the enormous injustices of the world. (In my mind this response is kind of similar to the way that some individuals react to discussions about injustice in the first place—getting defensive and angry because they feel that you are blaming them. See “Systems Not People” for a critique of this type of defensiveness against feminism).

To be honest, I consider the “but if you’re saying this solution isn’t good enough then you’re saying we can’t make a difference” response un-nuanced, unimaginative, and annoying. However, I’m willing to admit that in my undergraduate years I didn’t have very good suggestions for individuals who asked “what can I do?” after actually recognizing structural causes of injustice. It’s a question I’m still asking myself daily, because I do believe that we each have a role to play in creating a better world. As I’ve taken this anthropology show on the road I’ve seen many people wanting political change and a fair amount fighting for it, which has taught me a few lessons that I’m slowly sorting and processing. The major one, which I sort of knew in college but hadn’t understood fully or first-hand (especially since I lived in a city where there’s no end to non-profits telling you about the individual difference you can make in the world’s problems): whatever I can do to address injustice won’t be done alone. Real change requires collective action and power.

As I said, I’m still processing what I know about that last statement, and why I know it, so for now I’ll write a bit about what implications this lesson has for anthropology. To me it suggests that people who want to be public anthropologists need to do more than “give back” to the communities where they work. It means that these anthropologists need to commit themselves to social movements (large or small) that are fighting for positive change in those communities. Yes, this conclusion is not very specific as it’s totally dependent on your locality and research topics and there’s lots of nuance to social movements, etc. etc. Nevertheless, I think it gives more direction to public anthropology than the basic tenets of “helping your research participants” or “making anthropological viewpoints more widespread.”

Of course there are some anthropologists who will argue that involving oneself with activism is beyond the duties of researchers, or perhaps even against scholarly principles. What would I say to those anthropologists? Keep your ivory tower! Keep your scientific distance! I don’t want it. Because I don’t think just “doing no harm” is a strong enough directive for anthropologists—or human beings in general.


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