Friday, July 10, 2009

So what is anthropology?

- chemist I met at the bar last night. Followed up by "So.. what's the application of that?"

At the Society for Applied Anthropology Conference last March, I was happy to meet a few grad and senior undergrads like myself questioning the entire idea of anthropology. One girl had done an undergrad project in West Africa, had the time of her life, but began wondering about the cultural distances that will always separate her from the people she studied, and that if this alienation would be mutual between the "anthropologist" and the "subject," then what gives us the right to be the ones to speak for them? Another girl was researching tattooing trends in her hometown, for what seemed to be quite that reason. Why go talk about someone else's culture when there is so much to learn about your own? And finally, the most memorable, the guy who, for his conference talk, read aloud a semi-fictional story he wrote which condemned anthropologists as a class of people who profit from the stories of the less fortunate.

When I asked him what he wanted to do for his graduate work, he said probably auto-ethnography, which made perfect sense when he said that he was half (or fully? I can't remember) Latino, like myself. Anthropology has historically demanded that you isolate yourself from your subjects in order to get the most "objective" observations. This illusion might have been easier to maintain when practices and expressions of every day life were radically different between the observer's personal history and the observed's, but it's almost impossible when these alternative practices and expressions are already familiar to the anthropologist through heritage or other personal history.* Now that anthropology has become accessible to that historical "other," and global exchanges and modern communications have led more people to think more reflexively about "cultures," the historical "self/other" dynamic consciously dissolves. It is almost impossible to ignore the fact that the context of the observer is just as complex, fluid and transient as the observed, and auto-ethnography is one way for the anthropologist to reconcile with this realization.

For a while anthropologists could get away with just talking to other anthropologists, consumers of "exotic" cultures, some lofty grant societies and government officials. They could get away with only being one-way translators, but that is sure to change with new media and more "halfies" joining the study. The discipline itself has resisted bursting wide open, I think partly for fears of complete obliteration at worst and the identity crisis that would ensue at best, but more perhaps because the anthro's livelihood typically depends on writing to other anthros more than service, communication, and activism in the communities in which they live and/or study. To me, the only thing that will save it from the circus it would (or has) become is to do just so. Burst wide open.

It's time to start sharing. It's time to stop claiming "multilingual" and "progressive" and "culturally literate" if we can't bring it outside the intellectual class, who tend to be privileged if we have the kind of time to write and publish about the problems of the economically peripheral (though demographically dominant) world. Isn't it ironic that we claim to be so good, we can get in with some other exotic culture on the other side of the world, but we don't know how engage with those in our hometown communities? Back to Anthro 101, everyone. Get on the radio, on the TV, in the magazines, in the libraries and high schools. Talk about the villainization of the Arabs and Muslims in the media, talk about the medicalization of illness, talk about what it takes for someone to leave their home country for any reason. Treat patients, teach literacy, and get on environmental justice projects. We're not talking rocket science, or physics or cosmology, even though Einstein, Sagan, and Hawking all did it.

Although SfAA members are a biased sample, it was encouraging to find people sharing these sentiments at the Conference, who I believe are part of a growing trend. Aside from talk of auto-ethnography, studying up or studying home, doing something different altogether, and most appealing to me, collaborative research, we need to turn ethnography inward, I mean, really inward, not to our own society, but our own culture of anthropology. Is there a way to resist the publish or perish standard? Can we switch out doing a paper or two on, say, a review of Amazonian hunting practices for presenting a lecture at a town library? Can we find stipends for work at immigrant service centers, or teaching cultural literacy at a local high school? Can we propose a collaborative master's, or even doctoral, project?

Will we ever stop finding ourselves in family gatherings, parties, and bars trying to explain what it is that we do?

* Lila Abu-Lughod, an Egyptian anthropologist who studied Bedouin tribes in her native country, termed such people "halfies."