Occupy Scholarship! Thinking from the Peripheries of World Anthropologies

Susana Narotzky

Universitat de Barcelona

 

Interaction among anthropologists from all over the world is becoming a reality facilitated by information and communication technologies and also by increasing conference cosmopolitanism (with a negative consequence for the carbon imprint of anthropology!). This, however, has expanded our community of thought and our transnational conversations. Institutions such as the WCAA, the IUAES, EASA or the Committee for World Anthropologies in the AAA have been key to this transformation.

Institutions are facilitators. They enable certain things to happen. But they also have drawbacks. The sheer energy needed to make them work and sustain their structure often detracts from the energy needed to pursue their original goals. The World Anthropologies Network–Red de Antropologías Mundiales was originally a very simple thing: Various anthropologists from different parts of Latin America, some of them based in the United States, initiated an informal conversation. They knew each other well and shared the experience of border-thinking with other foreign colleagues. Their aim was to supersede Anglo-American hegemony in the production of anthropological knowledge and to create an epistemic pluriverse. This group of friends started networking and interacting at various venues, in workshops, informal meetings, virtually and physically. Thanks to an institution, the Wenner Gren Foundation, Arturo Escobar and Gustavo Lins Ribeiro were able to organize an International Symposium on “World Anthropologies–disciplinary transformations within systems of power” and set the project rolling onto a new scale. The project was to foreground non-hegemonic anthropological traditions and make them aware of each other in order to give them value in the field of anthropological knowledge. There was an additional objective: to become aware of other knowledge communities (non-academic, local, vernacular) that may speak to anthropological issues and theory. The project was mostly a political one, seeking equal voice among the various communities that were de facto involved in producing the knowledge anthropology thrives on.

Ten years after this Symposium, we can draw a balance of its achievements and think about the long way we still have to go. We now have the WCAA, an institution that connects the different anthropological associations in the world. This institution has produced a journal, Déjà Lu, that highlights articles published in the different journals of the associations in different languages. The International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Societies (IUAES) has a new vitality. So we are better connected institutionally and individually. But beyond connectivity, have the power centers of knowledge production changed? I doubt it and I think this has to do with the language issue.

English is undoubtedly the language of international communication, and we experience every day the value of having such a common instrument to share and debate our theories. But this common language acts also as a gatekeeper. For many anthropologists for whom English is not their native language (even if they are fluent speakers of it), it is an obstacle for publication in the major journals of reference. Language is a framework for thought, and writing in a language which is not our main instrument of thought conditions its expression. Most journals do not accept submissions for review in the original language of the non-Anglophone author. For many scholars, often young, unfunded anthropologists from the global South (including many places in Europe), the costs of translating and editing a manuscript are prohibitive and become a hugely differentiating factor in the field of anthropological knowledge production.

But language is also about a particular genre of scholarly writing which is not universally shared. The actual way in which a paper (or a research project proposal) is structured and written varies widely across academic traditions. The Anglo-American style has been adopted as the hegemonic genre by most funding agencies and international journals, and workshops on “how to write a research proposal” or “how to write an article for publication” propose only one model, producing a conflation between a “good” proposal or article, and a particular genre of academic presentation. These workshops are well-meaning and undoubtedly useful inasmuch as we do need to operate within that hegemonic model at present. But this is not devoid of political and knowledge-producing consequences: Homogenization reinforces gate keeping and this hinders creativity in the field.

Different histories and modes of knowledge are the basis of innovative thinking and fruitful debate. Eliminating difference (or at least some sources of it) seems to me dangerous because it impoverishes the field. It reinforces established or trendy ideas at the center while excluding different practices and ideas that thrive at the margins. This is often justified on the grounds of “quality” and it so happens that “peripheral” knowledge is generally considered of poor quality by knowledge powers (further justified by deficient training institutions, lack of access to “key” theoretical debates, etc.). But to me this is not mainly a matter of quality but of power: a matter of cultural scholarly hegemony. Breaking down that hegemony was the aim of the original Red de Antropologías Mundiales–World Anthropologies Network. We are on the right track but we still have a long way to go.

Add comment November 2, 2013

Some Possible Anthropological Futures: WCAA vs. SSCI

By Gordon Mathews

 

It’s become increasingly recognized that the world has multiple anthropologies—that anthropology is not only a Euro-American endeavor but a global endeavor.

 

One reason why this is happening is technological.  When I left graduate school twenty years ago, moving from the United States to Hong Kong, I was warned by well-meaning American anthropology professors that being overseas could drastically curtail my career.  But shortly thereafter, the internet and e-mail emerged.  Problems of access remain; but it seems clear that scholarly knowledge in anthropology has become far more globally accessible, with libraries increasingly being replaced by lone terminals’ internet connections.

 

A second reason why this is taking place is economic.  Anthropology in a given country follows, at a certain distance, that country’s GDP and per capita income.  Rich countries can afford anthropology, particularly anthropology beyond one’s own country’s borders; poor countries can’t. Throughout much of the twentieth century, American, Western European, and Japanese anthropologists traveled the globe to do their fieldwork, while most countries practiced anthropology within their own borders, lacking the financial backing to go elsewhere. But today, an increasing number of countries throughout the world are beginning to practice anthropology beyond their borders.  Beyond this, academic positions in anthropology are diminishing at American and Western European Universities, with newly minted Ph.Ds increasingly unable to find jobs; the situation is better elsewhere in the world, particularly in East Asia.  Current trends point to an increasing diminishment of Anglo-American anthropology, with a shift of gravity towards Asia.

 

These factors point to a global anthropological future.  Technology levels the playing field of world anthropologies; economics shifts the balance of the playing field. But in a different sense, globalization has rigidified the playing field, preserving the status quo.

 

A major factor shaping universities has been their increasing awareness of global competition.  World university rankings, such as that of the Times Education Supplement, have become increasingly influential, and university administrators in many societies base their professional lives on enabling their institutions to rise a few places in these rankings.  One key factor in these rankings is the publication output of an institution’s professors.

 

This output is typically measured by the quality of the journals that professors publish in, a quality measured by such markers as the Social Science Citation Index.  Only journals are cited in the SSCI; the fact that anthropologists often publish books and chapters in edited books is beside the point in administrators’ arguments—since book impacts cannot be so easily measured, journals become all-important, distorting anthropology.  As an editor of a journal, Asian Anthropology, I am constantly asked by potential contributors in China, Japan, and India and elsewhere whether it is in the Social Science Citation Index.  If it is, it counts; if it is not, then it does not.  To anthropologists in these and many other societies, the SSCI is a major indicator of worth.  With SSCI publication, a scholar may obtain financial rewards; without it, you may lose your job.

 

The SSCI is heavily tilted towards Anglo-American publications.  Of 81 journals listed by SSCI under anthropology, 36 have publishers based in the United States and 19 have publishers based in the United Kingdom. Another 10 are based in France, Germany, and the Netherlands, and 3 are from Australia, all countries heavily influenced by Anglo-American anthropology. 76 of 81 total publications, 94% of the total come from the United States, the United Kingdom, Western or Central Europe, or Australia/New Zealand.

 

Anthropology is not singular: there are multiple anthropologies across the globe. Nonetheless, as the above statistics imply, anthropologists from societies around the globe may have little choice but to publish in Anglo-American journals that have little or no interest in the anthropology of their home societies; they are, in effect, forced to become Anglo-American in their anthropological concerns. Anthropology has long since transcended Morgan and Tylor intellectually; but institutionally Morgan and Tylor and their world are being recreated: “The West is Best!”

 

There are thus two opposing currents shaping contemporary anthropology, one current moving towards the globalization of anthropology, and the other towards its Anglo-Americanization.  Which of these will win out?  I see it as inevitable that intellectually anthropology will move towards greater globalization.  But universities everywhere are becoming managerialized, and this means that anthropology will be forced to become more Western-centric, and Anglo-American-centric

 

But we can do something to solve this problem.  Journals’ inclusion and ranking within the Social Science Citation Index is determined in part by impact factor—how much are articles in a given journal cited?  The SSCI is thus not an unchanging wall, but is something that we ourselves create through our collective citations.  Now that we are entering an era of the increasing influence of multiple global anthropologies, the strategy to be followed seems clear: cite your own anthropological authors; don’t rely on Western theorists as the basis of your writing.  At present, there remains to some extent a herd mentality among peripheral anthropologies, very often quoting Western dominant intellectual figures as a legitimating device.  This needs to be transcended

 

Initially, anthropologists who buck this trend may suffer from rejection, but eventually the tide will turn if non-Western anthropologists are willing to take up the challenge.  This challenge can’t simply involve non-Anglo-American anthropologies turning their back on Anglo-American anthropologies.  But it can more fully engage Anglo-American anthropologies with the intellectual resources of other anthropologies, in such a way that Anglo-American anthropologies will have to accept a broader basis for what anthropology consists of.  And if this can happen, the winner will be not simply one faction of anthropology, but all the world’s anthropologies.

 

In this way, the conflict between the globalization of anthropology and the Anglo-Americanization of anthropology—the conflict of symbolic acronyms between WCAA and SSCI—will be resolved.  This may be a long, slow process, but if anthropology is to survive as a discipline rather than as an historical relic, it is necessary and inevitable.

 

Add comment September 14, 2013

What anthropologists have been talking about for the last four decades?

Find out the answer in one graph:

http://backupminds.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/anthropology-co-citation-graph/

Enjoy!

Add comment September 11, 2013

The first issue of Déjà Lu has come out!

Saiu! It’s out! Take a look and tell your friends!
DÉJÀ LU. THE WCAA GLOBAL JOURNAL.

Déjà Lu (“Already read”) is an initiative of the World Council of Anthropological Associations that aims at pluralizing the dissemination of anthropological knowledge on a global level. It is a journal that respects the academic decisions made by the reviewers of the author’s community of origin to avoid the imposition of hegemonic international styles or canons.

Please check out the first issue of Déjà Lu here:

http://www.wcaanet.org/dejalu/index.html

Add comment May 28, 2013

Research Assessment Exercises and What They Do To Us

I published a piece last week in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, reprinted below, that has created a bit of a stir in Hong Kong; I suspect that the issue I describe applies to WCAA members at large. How much are anthropologists in different countries in thrall to Research Assessment Exercises? How much do these Exercises constrain what anthropologists do and publish? How much do these Exercises serve to make anthropologists irrelevant to larger concerns in the different societies belonging to WCAA, since anthropologists are forced to publish in distant Anglo-American journals?

Does your society have Research Assessment Exercises, and do they shape anthropology? How? Please speak up! Let us hear from you!

Gordon Mathews
cmgordon@cuhk.edu.hk

———————————————————————————————————
Academics denied their place in debate on Hong Kong

Hong Kong universities are now gearing up for the Research Assessment Exercise, imported from Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Academics are required to choose their four “best” publications over the past six years; these will be evaluated by committees of experts, who will then rank different academic departments as to their research productivity. Highly ranked departments will get more money; poorly ranked departments will get less money, with implications for individuals’ jobs and futures.

At first glance, this may seem entirely reasonable. Academics in Hong Kong are well paid compared to many of their overseas counterparts. Why shouldn’t their performance be measured? Why shouldn’t the ivory tower be subject to the same kinds of performance reviews as any other profession?

It indeed should, but there are significant problems here. Because the committees of experts judging these exercises are more than half foreign, publications in Chinese don’t count. (This is denied in the guidance notes for the exercise, but is indeed the case, as many academics here can attest.)

In the sciences, academic writing is typically in English; in the arts and social sciences, it often is not. Thus, a historian or sociologist who writes a book about Hong Kong had better not write it in Chinese. Most people in Hong Kong read Chinese, not English. But for the assessment, this doesn’t matter.

Beyond this, if this historian or sociologist writes an article about Hong Kong, it had better not be published locally, but only by a prestigious Anglo-American journal, most of whose readers will care little about Hong Kong. Typically, the experts judge “best” publications on the basis of the publisher, since they haven’t time to actually read the massive amount of submitted work. Prestigious Anglo-American publishers count for much; Asian publishers, particularly Hong Kong ones, count for little.

Unlike the hard sciences, which are more or less universal, in the arts and social sciences Anglo-American publishers publish work of interest to Anglo-American audiences, and Asian publishers publish work of interest to Asian audiences. Thus, academics in the arts and social sciences here, needing to publish overseas, are pushed into writing articles dealing with Anglo-American theories rather than articles that are useful for understanding local issues.
This directly affects the role that academics can have in contributing to Hong Kong. The Research Assessment Exercise makes local research, local publication and local impact irrelevant. The learned men and women who comprise its expert committees do not have this intent, but the effect of their efforts is to render academics no more than mute technocrats instead of public intellectuals.

If I were a Chinese official in Beijing, I would be very happy that the exercise keeps Hong Kong academics publishing books and articles in distant places that few people read, rather than engaging in public debate through their research and publications on Hong Kong.

The solution to this problem is to take local research and publication much more seriously, and to have a far broader mode of making judgments as to research excellence. But this won’t happen, because Hong Kong higher education is so obsessed with international rankings.

This makes Hong Kong humanists and social scientists into technocrats and bureaucrats, and makes Hong Kong universities increasingly resemble those of Singapore and mainland China.

Given the increasing thrall of the Research Assessment Exercise, I despair at what the future may hold for my junior colleagues, for Hong Kong universities, and indeed for Hong Kong at large.

Gordon Mathews teaches anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and wrote Ghetto at the Centre of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong
———————————————–
This piece was printed on the Op-Ed page of the South China Morning Post, April 22, 2013
———————————————–

1 comment May 9, 2013

Who Do We Write For?

As anthropologists, who do we write for? Scholarly articles are typically written for one’s fellow academics. But what about books? Book-length ethnographies are the cornerstone of anthropology. These include books whose ethnography is theory-driven, books whose primary purpose is to make a contribution to anthropological theorizing. These also include books whose primary purpose is to ethnographically depict a slice of the world; these books too use theory, but the theory is servant to rather than master of the ethnography. Of course many books are in the middle between these two poles, but it is fair to say that anthropology today is defined by these two poles, and underlying that, by the question of who we write for. Theory-driven books are generally written for one’s fellow anthropologists and their graduate students. Ethnography-driven books are generally not just for anthropologists, but also for undergraduates, and the lay public. These are vast generalizations, but if one thinks of prominent ethnographies written over the past two decades, it is not hard to see this divide. Think, in an American context, of Bourgois’s In Search of Respect (ethnography-driven) as opposed to Ong’s Flexible Citizenship (theory-driven), to mention just two of a large number of ethnographies that could be mentioned.

I suspect that this division is true beyond the American anthropological world to an extent. But because the world of academic anthropology in most other societies, and particularly in most non-native-English-speaking societies, is smaller, there may be less possibility of publishing books written for an academic audience alone, simply because the market for them is small. It is the Anglo-American anthropological world that most privileges theoretically-driven books, because the English-speaking market is so big. To put it bluntly, in this large market, anthropologists can afford to talk to themselves alone, whereas in other large markets, they cannot, because anthropological solipsism can’t sell books.

Prominent anthropologists of generations past in the English-speaking world very often spoke to a large audience. Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa and Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword certainly had their theoretical underpinnings, but were written so that any intelligent layperson could understand them. This is no longer the case with many of the ethnographies of recent decades, some of which cannot be understood by non-specialists because they are primarily theory-driven. There are certainly a number of exceptions to this, but it is fair to say that in general book-length ethnographies have become more difficult to understand in recent decades for those who aren’t trained anthropologists.

This situation is largely a product, I believe, of the tenure system in American anthropology, whereby each new generation of anthropologists must be seen to be doing something very different from its recent forebears in order to gain lifetime employment as professors. Ethnography-driven books are of less value in this pursuit than theory-driven books, since the latter can demonstrate an apparent advance over anthropological forebears, however fictitious this advance may be upon closer examination. This is also why, in a broader arena, music and art have also become progressively less comprehensible to the layperson: they have been increasingly confined to the academy, to departments of music and art in universities, where specialists produce work comprehensible only to fellow specialists. The Anglo-American academic world in the arts and soft social sciences seems, in its emphasis on specialists, to privilege incommunicability with the world beyond the academy.

There is nothing wrong with having anthropological theory in ethnography—its presence is essential. But if ethnography is primarily theory-driven, then its appeal beyond the small world of academic anthropology becomes greatly diminished. In a world that is today plagued all the more by cultural conflict, anthropology needs to have a public presence, as it largely does not in American anthropology. If a computer scientist or heart surgeon writes academic works, their findings will nonetheless help the layperson—I need not understand their academic writings to benefit from their expertise in operations on my computer or on my heart. But if an anthropologist writes academic works incomprehensible to the layperson, these anthropological findings may not be helpful, for they may have no lay use.

This, I sense, is a major problem today with much American anthropology—this is why it is in danger of becoming irrelevant beyond any world larger than itself. But I sense this is far less of a danger outside the Anglo-American world. In Japan, to take just one example, well-known anthropologists regularly write books for popular presses, read by laypeople; and this, I am told, is true in a number of other societies as well. Might world anthropology lead American anthropology back to public relevance? Perhaps, but given ongoing American hegemony, I fear the opposite. As goes America, so follows many other societies—in terms of anthropology, into public oblivion.

Gordon Mathews
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

3 comments February 10, 2013

American Anthropological Imperialism? An Overdue Dialogue– Papers Now Available

Anthropologists are proud of their ethos of social justice, egalitarianism and reciprocity. Nevertheless, for historical, geopolitical and economic reasons, the discipline of anthropology is divided into privileged and underprivileged regions. Cross-cutting and overlapping disparities find expression in such academic concepts as center and periphery, Global South and North, and East and West, reifying these metaphorical relationships. They are reflected in material inequalities in knowledge production, academic employment, and access to resources. And it is anthropology in the United States that is commonly perceived as the most powerful and influential force within this landscape. Existing structures of wealth and power (publications, fieldwork opportunities, English language dominance) produce a hierarchical system of anthropological knowledge and rewards.

But simultaneously, working in various regions of the world, U.S. researchers encounter local scholars with their own national and regionally centered forms of knowledge production and circulation. Thus, the local situation generates intricate relations between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ as well as ‘expatriates’ and ‘hybrid actors.’ What kinds of relationships emerge from these encounters? Do U.S. anthropologists working in another cultural and geographic region take into consideration local insights and scholarship and collaborate with their colleagues? Or are these entirely asymmetric and hegemonic relationships? Are there elements of the relationships that transform them into something closer to our normative ideals? Questions of imperialism and hegemony in anthropological practices have been discussed previously in universities and at academic conferences. Nonetheless, the trend is toward greater imperialism within the discipline because of language and journal dominance and research funding, such that the World Council of Anthropological Associations decided that the conversation should be more public and receive greater attention. Without an ongoing dialogue, the emerging global anthropology will not be able to support the multiple world anthropologies that are our greatest resource. These issues were discussed by both American and non-American anthropologists working respectively in post-socialist (Romania), postcolonial (India) and hegemonic (Latin America) contexts at the AAA session on American Anthropological Imperialism: An Overdue Dialogue. The session was intend to raise questions through a frank discussion and now we would like to open up the discussion to you. On the WCAA website you will find three of the papers from the session. The first by Katherine Verdery, the second by Liviu Chelceathe third by Akhil Gupta, and the fourth by Chandana Mathur. Each raises intriguing points and different issues that a commitment to anti hegemonic anthropology requires that we address. But the examinations of hegemony and imperialism are complicated by local national concerns and distinct histories of thought as well as politics. Let us know what you think.

Michal Buchowski and Setha Low

Attached papers (by author): Liviu ChelceaAkhil Gupta, Chandana MathurKatherine Verdery

 

 

1 comment December 12, 2012

Déjà Lu

In the coming months, WCAA will launch the on-line journal Déjà Lu (“Already read”). This will be an on-line multilingual e-journal that can represent the diversity of today’s anthropological communities. In Déjà Lu we will republish articles selected by the journals of the associations members of the WCAA and give them global visibility by means of our international networks.

Here how it works: Editors of different journals will select one article they have already published and send a pdf copy with the title and one abstract in English (mandatory) and in any other language (optional), and indicate that we have permission to republish it on the WCAA website. The article can be on any anthropological topic, and can be in English or any other language. If they wish, journals or authors may translate their texts into English (they must do this instead of us), and we will publish the translation. The editors of Déjà Lu are Gustavo Lins Ribeiro gustavor@unb.br (Universidade de Brasília), Gordon Mathews cmgordon@cuhk.edu.hk (The Chinese University of Hong Kong), and David Shankland dshankland1@yahoo.co.uk (The Royal Anthropological Institute). For the first issue, the call for papers has been sent to the journals of all the member associations of the WCAA, asking for an article published in their journal in the year 2011. For later issues, we’ll send the call for papers out to all journals of anthropology in the world—all journals listed on the WCAA website.

This is an important initiative because each of us who edit journals around the world tend to be read only by audiences within our own regions; how can we break out, and get a larger, global anthropological audience? Of course, having a journal on-line helps a great deal, but still, it is easy to vanish on-line, to have a webpage for an on-line journal that few ever visit, a lonely side road on the massive information highway. A journal of reprints like Déjà Lu can perhaps overcome this—readers who like a certain article can then follow the link back to the journal it first appeared in, and we hope that this will happen for many journals. And this can help the longstanding aim of WCAA, to help create a truly global anthropology, beyond the hegemony of any nation or group of nations. This, anyway, is our hope.

So let’s go! The first issue will appear on the WCAA website in early spring—we’ll let you know as soon as it’s out.

Gordon Mathews
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Add comment November 13, 2012

World Anthropology and the State of Employment: Should We Stop Giving Ph.D.s?

When students come and talk to me these days about getting a Ph.D. from my Department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and making a future career in anthropology, I generally tell them not to—“Do something sensible with your life instead!” This is because the academic job market for anthropologists worldwide seems so dismal. It seems unconscionable to tell someone to get a Ph.D. in anthropology when the chances that they will become an adjunct making less than enough to live on seem extremely high. Of course there are the few exceptions, who through being at the right place at the right time manage to find tenure-track jobs, but these are few and far between. By and large, a Ph.D. in anthropology makes people unemployable in career-track anthropology teaching jobs, so don’t do it! That’s what I tell my students.

This situation seems worse in the United States, with its educational contractions of late, and jobs apparently are somewhat more available for recent Ph.Ds in societies such as China and Brazil. But by and large, this bleak situation seems true worldwide—there are too many Ph.D.s in anthropology and not enough jobs. Universities worldwide produce these Ph.D.s because having a Ph.D. program provides status, as well as, in many universities, low-paid tutors and other labor; but given the fact that there are so few jobs to be had, this is irresponsible.

This situation has been widely trumpeted throughout the humanities and social sciences, and the difficulties of finding anthropological jobs and the prevalence of adjuncts are discussed in anthropological websites across the internet. Savage Minds has offered a particularly apt post: http://savageminds.org/2012/09/08/adjuncts-anthropology-what-now/ But these discussions are primarily American in focus. The situation is not just American—again, it is worldwide.

In all the handwringing I’ve seen over this issue, one call not often made is this: anthropology departments worldwide should perhaps practice voluntary abstinence. Perhaps we should ask every degree-granting anthropology department to stop granting Ph.D. degrees for five years, or at least to diminish their total number of Ph.D. students in anthropology by 80 percent. Think of how much personal misery would be prevented if the thousands of future potential anthropology Ph.D.s, who in the future would only languish bitterly on the margins of academe, might instead follow a different path in life, one in which they could find employment.

Of course, this option might cause anthropology to enter a downward spiral. With fewer Ph.D. students to be taught, fewer professors would be deemed necessary; departments might shrink, and the discipline might eventually vanish. What might be a highly responsible policy vis-a-vis jobless future students might be a highly irresponsible policy vis-a-vis the future of anthropology as a discipline. So what it is the solution? For the sake of our own disciplinary survival should we simply keep churning out Ph.D students who will probably never find academic jobs? Shall we continue wasting, professionally, if not intellectually, what may be the best years of their lives?

A solution is clear, if only it could work. Those with Ph.D.s in anthropology may have much to offer NGOs, secondary schools, and all those corporations trying to shape the world cross-culturally, from Apple to Google to Microsoft to Nokia. Perhaps we need to focus our training much more on practicality: on making a living through anthropology in the world beyond the academy. But if anthropological institutions worldwide were to do this, would the jobs come? I suspect they will—and I suspect that this move might help to create a discipline not apart from the world, but in the very thick of the world, for better or for worse.

Gordon Mathews
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

2 comments September 14, 2012

Cultural Differences in Organizing Anthropology Meetings: East Asia as an Example

I helped organize a meeting earlier this month of the East Asian Anthropological Association here in Hong Kong, a group consisting of anthropologists from China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. We had long discussions about how we want to proceed with this organization in its future meetings, and some fascinating differences emerged. I don’t want to get into the specifics of who from what society argued what—this is not the place for that, and privacy should be protected—but I do want to discuss basic differences in organizational principles that may seem, at first glance, to be commonsensical but that in fact are culture-bound.

If you seek to organize an anthropological meeting on a broad topic with 60-80 or so slots open for paper-givers, is it better to have an open registration process, whereby every interested anthropologist in these five societies can submit an abstract to be evaluated by referees, and then be accepted or rejected? This is the American and European pattern for all but very small meetings, and ensures that even those whom the organizers have never heard of can attend the meeting if they can write a good abstract that passes the referees’ gaze.

But given the different anthropological traditions in these five societies, can the organizers serve as referees? Could a Taiwanese fairly judge Chinese abstracts, or Chinese fairly judge Japanese abstracts? For that matter, can American referees at AAA fairly judge abstracts from any of these different anthropological traditions?

Perhaps they can be, but if there is any doubt, then this may not be the best approach. Would it better to invite only the anthropologists who are known to the organizers in various of these national circles, and invite them to participate? This would severely limit the influx of fresh participants, but would also prevent what might potentially be the widespread rejection of papers in an open conference, and the ensuing bad feelings that would then result. This is a style that is often practiced in China and Japan and Korea.

After all, refereeing can only work if you have a more or less large and anonymous pool of referees—but what if your pool is small, and everyone knows, or knows of, everyone else? And what if you are also from a hierarchical society, where seniors are to be respected? And what, on top of this, you are from a society where English continues to be a troubling foreign language, fully mastered only by those junior scholars who went to graduate school overseas? The complexities seem to make objective refereeing not merely daunting, but all but impossible, a fantasy.

On top of all this, what if you have limited financial aid for these participants—perhaps only 20 can have their accommodations paid for. Is it better to provide it for younger scholars, or even more, for graduate students, who may truly need it, or for their elders, who have proven, unlike their juniors, that they are worthy anthropologists, and who as eminent scholars should be rewarded—despite the fact that they are no doubt financially better off than their juniors? How does Confucianism, the dominant conviction of East Asia, play out against egalitarianism, or what some might consider basic fairness? There are no right answers here.

I had assumed that open registration is best, and that financial aid based on need is best, focusing particularly on graduate students. But I also realize, after this meeting in Hong Kong, that my own assumptions have been shaped by my American experiences at AAA, and other such meetings. There are multiple ways to organize meetings, and it may be cultural imperialism to insist on one way over another. I feel that particularly as a white person in an East Asian context—“our token Caucasian” as I was once jokingly referred to—and as the only native English speaker in a group for whom English is for many, a distinctly second or third language.

In fact, the East Asian Anthropological Association is indeed dedicated to eventually having full open registration processes and refereeing—its members have agreed to that—but the issue is how, and how quickly, to get there, given the necessary progression towards growth of the association versus the unfortunate necessity of English-language usage and, perhaps, American organizational-style hegemony. I have asserted my own opinion in all this, but am increasingly learning so sit back and watch and listen. As a cultural anthropologist for two decades, I am ceaselessly amazed at how hard it is for me to do this. I also realize, though, that culture can sometimes be used as a rationale for other motivations, whether on my part or others’ part. I would have thought that as an anthropologist, I would be better than I am at understanding these complexities, but although I can do this intellectually, in day-to-day life, I am, to my ongoing chagrin, as stupid as anyone else I’ve ever met.

Gordon Mathews
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

1 comment July 30, 2012

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