Saturday, September 5, 2015

Disciplining Our Discipline

In an effort to increase the frequency of my blog posts, I have asked my students to send me questions or discussion topics that I can address in a few short paragraphs. My summer course ended about three weeks ago, but I want to answer a question from that class before I appeal to my current semester students for more topics. I believe this question emerged in response to our brief discussion of how the anthropologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries were closely connected to colonial oppression and notions of racial and cultural superiority.

"How do anthropologists feel about the past history of their profession?"

My immediate response to this was, "Not as optimistic as we feel about the future history of our profession." Pedantic, I know, but I am determined to help all of my students become better writers.

As I have given this some thought, I have decided that I should first address how I feel about anthropology's past, before attempting to address how "anthropologists" see it. While I have enjoyed learning about cultures around the world for a long time, I am relatively new to the field, so my perspective may not jive with that of other anthropologists. In my understanding, there are several charges commonly brought against our discipline, including:

  • the role that social evolutionism played in classifying societies along a spectrum between "primitive" and "civilized" (e.g., James George Frazer and Lewis Henry Morgan). 
  • attempts to rank the intellectual capacity of so-called "races" by measuring cranial structure and capacity (e.g., Pieter Camper and Samuel George Morton).
  • the role of anthropologists in Nazi Germany and its genocidal policies based in eugenics and misunderstandings of evolutionary theory.
  • common associations (however unfounded some may be) of anthropology with colonialism, Orientalism, and objectification of "Others" all around the world.
Illustration from Indigenous Races of the Earth (Josiah Clark Nott and George Robins Gliddon, 1857)

I make it no secret to my students that I consider Franz Boas' introduction of cultural relativism into the American anthropological vocabulary a triumph for our discipline. We are not championing a perfect social science, if there could ever be such a thing, but we are increasingly conscious of our biases, our taken-for-granteds, and our ethical responsibilities in the field. One might enter into an anthropological career, as I have, in the present state of the discipline, and completely disown those embarrassing predecessors from over a century ago. As for me and my anthropology, I cannot neglect my share in the responsibility for what this academic tradition has stood for, both good and bad. This is not a share of the guilt, although I have no problem apologizing to those communities anthropology has harmed in the past (just as I would have no problem apologizing if my family had been inhospitable to a stranger, just as I had no problem when Obama offered so-called apologies for America's past behavior, and just as I had no problem when Pope Francis apologized for the sins of Christian colonizers). Rather than guilt, I believe my share in the responsibility for anthropology's past is to be humbly aware of the ability to abuse my power in research situations and to make conscious efforts to empower communities to represent themselves in the ethnographic record.

That is how I presently feel about the history of our profession. But what about the feelings of those who have been marginalized, injured, misrepresented, exploited, objectified, or nearly wiped out because of anthropologists? Surely, their feelings on the subject are more important than mine, no?

I have written about the skepticism many people have regarding the true motives of anthropologists who study and document their culture. One of my interviewees in Jamaica convicted me by pointing out that, while I may not earn any money from my research, it would earn me recognition among the institutions that profit from knowledge about people who remain in poverty. I could go on about the importance of collaboration and mutual trust (and I will in an upcoming post on cultural sustainability), but I think that the question of how our Others perceive anthropology is more perfectly articulated by Floyd Red Crow Westerman in his song, "Here Come the Anthros":

"And the Anthros still keep comin' like death and taxes to our land
To study their feathered freaks with funded money in their hand.
Like a Sunday at the zoo, the cameras click away,
Taking notes and tape recordings of all the animals at play."

My student's question seeks an explanation of how anthropologists feel about all of this, not how I feel, and not how our "disappearing feathered friends" like Red Crow feel (perhaps this is all too obvious). The problem with this question is that I cannot begin to speak for "anthropologists" as such; even if I were a more seasoned anthropologist, I would still be unable to deliver an account of the feelings of individual scholars who authoritatively speak for the world of anthropology, as no such scholar exists.

What we can do, however, is look at what many anthropologists are doing now: upholding standards of informed consent and ethical documentation; developing partnerships with marginalized communities; applying their research toward solutions for improved quality of life and sustainable economies and environments; and seeking ways to collaborate with ethnographic subjects in order to gain recognition and representation for communities on their own terms. If it is true that what we do is what we believe, then it is fair to examine the current work of anthropologists to deduce a general idea of how we feel about our past. Fortunately, anthropologists do just this, holding each other accountable by scrutinizing our methods and approaches in the field.

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