An Anthropology of the “Here” and “Now”

May 12, 2011

As someone from Germany who did his undergraduate and MA postgraduate degrees in the UK, I was hardly aware of Anglo-American hegemony within the field of anthropology before moving to Hong Kong to pursue further studies. Of course, when studying in the UK one is to some degree a constituent part of this hegemony and thus less likely to be aware of it. Also, since the British school of social anthropology has carved out a relatively strong identity for itself, there seems to be much less need to question its academic individuality vis-à-vis American cultural anthropology, although boundaries have admittedly become increasingly indistinct. In a place like Hong Kong, however, the situation appears to be different. Anglo-American dominance may come much more to the forefront and the issue of defining anthropology’s overall outlook seems to be much more prominent in a place like Hong Kong.

 

I would like to take up one of Gordon Mathew’s points in the previous blog entry, in which he writes that “only if anthropology becomes truly global can it ever hope to fully overcome its colonial legacy of the rich studying the poor, the North studying the South.” To someone who is relatively new to the study of anthropology, this is indeed an intriguing issue. When I think back to my time as a (non-anthropology) undergraduate student in the UK, and to what I saw of and heard about anthropology, what comes to my mind is a bunch of interesting people who all had stories to tell; stories of far-away places; places that were fascinating and electrifying, pure and untouched, romantic and maybe sometimes brutal, in short, places that were everything that the “here” and “now” was not. I have to admit that I was also charmed by these stories. Yet, did I ever consider what these “far-away” places and their people thought, felt, experienced? Did I ever consider the fact that these distant places in all their fascination were in reality perhaps nothing but the anthropologist’s own projections?

 

Why is only the “far-away” so fascinating, why do we not focus our attention on the “here” and “now”? And why do we pay so little attention to what the “far-away” have to say about themselves, about others or even about us in the “here” and “now”? By fixing the “far away” in space and time, we not only exercise hegemony over those places, we also place the anthropological discipline into a straightjacket and disallow anyone else to actively engage and participate in it.

 

To me, a global anthropology should not only be about inclusion, it should also be about de-stigmatising so-called native anthropology. I sometimes wonder why notions such as ethnicity or the nation-state, which the anthropologist has long identified as non-static, fluid, changeable, not to say imagined, suddenly become such prominent and determining factors when the discipline’s own identity is at stake. We should actually use the theories we have developed and apply them to our own discipline. To give way to a truly global anthropology, we should thus let go of the anthropology of the “far away” and focus on an anthropology of the “here” and “now”.

 

Philipp Demgenski

The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Entry filed under: Contributions. Tags: .

Some treasures from the WCAA Publications list On Language in Anthropology

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. YodCh  |  May 13, 2011 at 1:53 am

    Insightful. I agree that the anthropological world has yet to adopt its own theories and apply them to itself. However, I question how much of it has anything to do with the nation/non-native debate, as that is more a methodological concern. One can be a foreigner to a land, and simply more culturally relativistic, and portray themselves being “here” and “now” in their writing.

    Reply
  • 2. Goldfish  |  May 13, 2011 at 3:44 am

    Someone said: when people study the “others”, “the eccentric”and “far away”, they called it anthropology, when they study their own society and cutlure, they call it sociology. I think this criticism makes some sense.

    However, anthropology is changing, and anthropologists in China are trying to use it to understand their own nation.

    It is a promising task.

    Reply
  • 3. dw  |  May 16, 2011 at 1:56 am

    Be careful. In a globalized world, it is already hard to tell the difference between “there” and “here” — what happened far way may have more power to shape our current daily life if you think about finance and the future market. Meanwhile, when anthropologists try to understand “now”, it is becoming critical to understand what happened “then”. Everyday, in the MBA programs around the world, future businessmen and women are trained with formulars of how to calculate the currency value based on the assumptions of a whole sets of index rates that may or may not happen in the future. Time and space are compressed in their brains and people’s hard working are becoming trivial or at least less important to consider.

    Reply
  • 4. LP  |  October 13, 2011 at 6:28 am

    I agree with DW. Someone once told me that Anthropology is a history of the presence. Mind you the here and now is fleeting, at the blink of an eye the here and now becomes the past. Thus, the past should not be neglected either.

    Reply
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