Reviewing my recent contributions to Savage Minds and OAC, I see myself writing about anthropology in an increasingly severe and critical tone. As I reflect on where that tone is coming from a phrase pops into my head: disciplinary involution. The words are a twist on Clifford Geertz's  "Agricultural Involution," the title of a book in which he describes the economic plight of Javanese peasants who, as part of a growing population, cultivate smaller and smaller fields with increasing intensity. They work harder for smaller rewards. Is this not, I ask myself, the plight of anthropology today? We talk about our need for better public outreach, but spend most of our time talking to ourselves. Is there any way out of this predicament? What if we spent more time talking to our disciplinary neighbors?

At least in its classic four-field American version, anthropology was the original multi-discipline. Anthropological training included human biology, linguistics and archeology as well social/cultural anthropology. Our knowledge might be shallow compared to our professional peers. We didn't know as much biology as biologists, as much about language as linguists, as much about archeology as other archeologists, as much about quantitative methods and social theory as sociologists, as much economics as economists, as much about politics as historians and political scientists, as much about literature as our colleagues in English or comp lit. But we could talk to everybody and, like bees fertilizing flowers, carry ideas across disciplinary boundaries. As gatekeepers and bridge builders we achieved the prominence that network analysis predicts. Clifford Geertz is exemplary here. To read The Interpretation of Cultures from cover to cover is to find yourself in the presence of a scholar who talks to everybody, in philosophy, science, the arts, politics and offers such interesting conversation that his influence spilled far outside of anthropology itself. He even wound up writing for the New York Review of Books. Put aside whatever it is that you like or don't about his ideas. Look at what he accomplished. 
It is far too late for me, but I say to my younger colleagues. That is what you can do, too.
[Cross-posted from Savage Minds]

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Comment by John McCreery on March 20, 2013 at 11:51am

M, just a few thoughts in response to your list.

1) Won't happen. That cat is out of the bag. Too many others, including qualitative sociologists and market researchers do ethnography. We can complain that it isn't proper ethnography, but that won't get us very far.

2) Anthropology should contribute to solving problems. That is a reasonable expectation. To imagine that we could solve them all by ourselves isn't. (It isn't accidental that the anthropologist is only one of the ten faces in Tom Kelley's Ten Faces of Innovation).

3) Anthropologists are employable, only rarely as anthropologists. Departments may need to be more honest and supportive of those who expect to pursue non-academic careers.

4) I agree with the emphasis, but theory can sometimes be useful, at least as a root metaphor from which to begin to explore a problem.

5) I wholeheartedly agree.

Comment by M Izabel on March 20, 2013 at 9:15am

I need to explain what I wrote, John, before Abraham puts down my seemingly childish ideas in this play.  I think to save Anthropology from its demise, five steps should be considered by anthropology departments.

1)  Anthropology should take back ethnography from other disciplines and make it uniquely for anthropologists.  

2)  Anthropology should solve socio-cultural problems to be relevant and important.

3)  Anthropology should make anthropologists employable so departments won't be empty.

4)  Anthropology should focus on methods and ethnographic cases not on theories and non-anthropological texts.

5)  Anthropology should have a unique identity that is both humanistic (advocacy and ethics) and scientific (objectivity and empiricism).

Comment by M Izabel on March 17, 2013 at 7:55pm

Anthropological/ethnographic writings that are prescriptive (Sobo and Loustaunau's The Cultural Context of Health, Illness, and Medicine) or investigative (Karen Ho's liquidated) would be their reading materials besides introductory and advance anthropology textbooks and laboratory manuals.  

And yes, a lot of case studies--problem-and-solution-based works of applied anthropologists and other anthropologists consulting or working in another field.  Reading materials and case studies, mostly, would be about research methods, problem solving, comparative ethnography, and investigative ethnography.     

Minor revision since it would be tough for students to be jacks of all trades.  There would be three tracks students could choose from:


Biosocial Anthropology (no primatology)

Medical Anthropology

Psychological Anthropology

Forensic Anthropology


Historical Anthropology (historical study of culture)

Social Anthropology

Political Anthropology

Environmental Anthropology


Economic Anthropology

Business Anthropology

Development Anthropology

Computational Anthropology (anthropological software programming and data management) 

The degree would be: BS in Applied Anthropology

* When I say big theories, I mean those that are not written by anthropologists and for anthropologists.  For real, I find Geertz more useful in looking at culture as a whole than Marx or Bourdieu or Kristeva.   

Comment by John McCreery on March 17, 2013 at 2:12pm

M, it is good to play. Can you spell out a bit more clearly what people would read and how methods would be integrated into the courses?

Comment by M Izabel on March 17, 2013 at 10:33am

Allow me to play here, John. 

If I were to create a program for anthropology, I would focus on these ten sub-disciplines:

Psychological Anthropology

Biological Anthropology (no primatology) 

Medical Anthropology

Historical Anthropology (the historical study of culture)

Social Anthropology

Political Anthropology

Economic Anthropology

Environmental Anthropology

Development Anthropology

Business Anthropology

No big theories.  Mostly methods that would include econometrics, statistics, epidemiology, demography, genealogy, laboratory methods, genetic testing, forensic science, marketing research, and of course, ethnographic methods.  I would add ethno-psychological counseling, community education, culture-based consulting, investigative writing, and policy-making as internship or field courses.       

The aim of the program would be to train students to become ethnographers who would study social and cultural problems and prescribe solutions.  Doctors heal the sick; anthropologists solve socio-cultural problems. That would be the identity of the anthropologists the program would produce.

For example, if the Tanzanian government hires one of the graduates from the program to study why albinos are being killed and to stop the killing, he can do ethnography using all or most of the sub-disciplines, conduct forensic investigation, do some investigative writing, counsel the survivors, educate the perpetrators and the community, and write policies for the government.

That's the kind of anthropology or anthropologist I have in mind.

Comment by John McCreery on March 12, 2013 at 1:38pm

P.S. I mention Kelty because he covers much of the same ground as Biella Coleman but looking at a wider and more diverse set of people than the Debian developers on whom Biella focuses.

Comment by John McCreery on March 12, 2013 at 1:36pm

Keith, have you read Chris Kelty's book Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software? Kelty's description of the "recursive public"of free software programmers is one of the most interesting bits of political anthropology that I have seen recently.

From the Amazon description:

In Two Bits, Christopher M. Kelty investigates the history and cultural significance of Free Software, revealing the people and practices that have transformed not only software but also music, film, science, and education. Free Software is a set of practices devoted to the collaborative creation of software source code that is made openly and freely available through an unconventional use of copyright law. Kelty explains how these specific practices have reoriented the relations of power around the creation, dissemination, and authorization of all kinds of knowledge. He also makes an important contribution to discussions of public spheres and social imaginaries by demonstrating how Free Software is a “recursive public”—a public organized around the ability to build, modify, and maintain the very infrastructure that gives it life in the first place.

Drawing on ethnographic research that took him from an Internet healthcare start-up company in Boston to media labs in Berlin to young entrepreneurs in Bangalore, Kelty describes the technologies and the moral vision that bind together hackers, geeks, lawyers, and other Free Software advocates. In each case, he shows how their practices and way of life include not only the sharing of software source code but also ways of conceptualizing openness, writing copyright licenses, coordinating collaboration, and proselytizing. By exploring in detail how these practices came together as the Free Software movement from the 1970s to the 1990s, Kelty also considers how it is possible to understand the new movements emerging from Free Software: projects such as Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that creates copyright licenses, and Connexions, a project to create an online scholarly textbook commons.

Comment by Larry Stout on March 12, 2013 at 12:46pm

"What a wonderful thing is the conversation of specialists!  One understands absolutely nothing and it's charming."  -- Edgar Degas

"Specialists are people who always repeat the same mistakes." -- Walter Gropius


Comment by Keith Hart on March 12, 2013 at 12:33pm

Thanks to you, John, I have been reading Biella's book while on holiday in the Swiss mountains (the season is almost over). It is true that she plowed a lonely furrow for a good while and has moved out of anthropology institutionally for now. I was delighted to find a discussion of free software as part of the history of liberalism and romanticism and her detailed analysis of the intellectual property wars is invaluable. I was struck however by how closely she stuck to the model of a cultural ethnography, being careful to demarcate "her people" from the rest. It is not always obvious how inclusive or exclusive the movement is intended to be. The emphasis on humour makes it hard to gain full entry, since jokes don't travel across social boundaries very well. She exposes early on the contradiction between public freedom and private property that was built into the bourgeois revolution. I would have liked to see more about constructions of the public and private spheres, for example about the preoccupation with privacy that often comes with anti-authoritarianism (encryption, dismantling encryption and all that). Again, I don't know if such an individual achievement offers a model for others. But this is one to cherish and read over and over again.

Comment by John McCreery on March 10, 2013 at 3:51am

Another is “the people”, whom contemporary ethnographers have studied assiduously in all their differences, but without much sense of what makes them the same.... Contemporary anthropologists have justly celebrated cultural variety in the here and now; but they have neglected longer term perspectives on human history and have privileged collective norms over the personal experience of individuals.

Keith, these are profoundly important thoughts. How might we elaborate them and still offer some glimmer of hope to " young footsoldiers forced to conform to an involuted academy if they want a job at all"?
I am, at the moment, reading two works by anthropologists who have taken bold steps in promising directions. The first is Gabriella Coleman's Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, which was recommended by Rex (Alex Golub) on Savage Minds. Her online bio reads as follows:
Gabriella (Biella) Coleman is the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy in the Art History and Communication Studies Department at McGill University. Trained as an anthropologist, she researches, writes, and teaches on hackers and digital activism.

The Amazon reviews of the book are as follows,

Coding Freedom is insightful and fascinating, a superbly observed picture of the motives, divisions and history of the free software and software freedom world. (Cory Doctorow BoingBoing )

Anyone who thinks about programmers, open source, online communities, or the politics of intellectual property should have a copy of Coding Freedom on the shelf. It is an invaluable portrait of how free-software coders work, individually and collectively. (James Grimmelmann Jotwell )

The hacker ethic may be peculiar to outsiders. But it stems from a deep commitment to justice, fairness, and freedom. Anthropologist Gabriella Coleman describes in her phenomenal book Coding Freedom how hacker ethic gets encoded into both technical and political practice. (Danah Boyd Wired )

Though occasionally she uses academic jargon, her book is an intriguing read and connects the dots. . . . Reading this book will help you to understand the conflict, as well as hacker culture. (David Hutchinson )

[S]triking and important. . . . Coleman has captured a great deal of the essential spirit of the free- and open-software movement. . . . I strongly suggest that you buy a copy of the book. (John Gilbey Times Higher Education )

The second book is by Michael B. Griffiths and titled Consumers and Individuals in China: Standing Out, Fitting In. Griffiths is currently Director of Ethnographic Research at Ogilvy Greater China. The blurb for the book reads

Breaking new ground in the study of Chinese urban society, this book applies critical discourse analysis to ethnographic data gathered in Anshan, a third-tier city and market in northeast China. The book confronts the – still widespread – notion that Chinese consumers are not "real" individuals, and in doing so represents an ambitious attempt to give a new twist to the structure versus agency debates in social theory. To this end, Michael B. Griffiths shows how claims to virtues such as authenticity, knowledge, civility, sociable character, moral proprietary and self-cultivation emerge from and give shape to social interaction. Data material for this path-breaking analysis is drawn from informants as diverse as consumerist youths, dissident intellectuals, enterprising farmers, retired Party cadres, the rural migrant staff of an inner-city restaurant, the urban families dependent on a machine-repair workshop, and a range of white-collar professionals.

Consumers and Individuals in China: Standing out, fitting in, will appeal to sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural studies scholars, China Studies generalists, and professionals working at the intersection of culture and business in China. The vivid descriptions of living and doing fieldwork in China also mean that those travelling there will find the book stimulating and useful

Anyone who reads it expecting to find the rule-bound marching morons of Confucian or Maoist stereotypes or the soulless search for niche markets wrapped in positivist scientism is in for a big surprise. The book begins with a profound critique of both and goes on to develop an argument rooted in post-structuralist social theory that is ethnographically focused on culture as a fluid and changing resource within which individuals must struggle to position themselves. The one Amazon review to date (the book is brand new) says,

"What is most pleasing is the sense that Griffiths really knows what he’s talking about. Living in Anshan for several years conducting field research, he evidently engaged in local life in a real grassroots manner. Too often talk of “Chinese consumers” has referred to the high-end, high net-worth end of the market, omitting the lives and cultures of the 99%. Griffiths’ book however sets itself squarely within the migrant workers, low-scale entrepreneurs, farmers and former factory workers of Anshan." -Michael Cormack, managing editor of Agenda magazine; Agenda February 2013.

I would strongly suggest to younger colleagues who find themselves force to conform to the rules of an involuted academy in pursuit of ever scarcer tenured positions that they not only read these works for content but consider the authors as models—models worth our attention because of how they have rejected the traps set by academic discipline and achieved the public recognition (and livelihoods) of which so many of us now only dream.


OAC Press



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