On Language in Anthropology

June 1, 2011

In the guidelines of the graduate school of the University of Haifa, Israel it says: “As a rule, a thesis will be written in Hebrew.” In some point of my MA research, I decided to write my thesis in English and had to submit a letter explaining my reasons for doing so. Not only this, my two advisors had to agree and sign the letter. Only after the graduate school approved my request I could begin writing my thesis in English. I remember thinking that it is absurd: Why wouldn’t they want EVERY student to write in English??? Don’t they want people to read it? How many people will have access to my thesis if it is written in Hebrew?! I guess what I am trying to ask is: Is it worth writing in any language other than English? Is it worth having publications in other languages? I guess my thoughts echo Gordon Mathews’ previous post about not being able to read most non-English publications.


I have studied anthropology in Israel, and had amazing anthropological debates with my teachers and classmates in Hebrew. In the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where I pursue PhD studies, I sometimes discuss  in Chinese with my classmates and teachers contemporary anthropological issues. There is a world of anthropology beyond “anthropology in English.” And today I think that the University of Haifa was right. In my letter to the graduate school I wrote that there are certain terms that are so difficult to translate (like “embodiment”) so I had rather use English, but shouldn’t we strive harder to think about the correct terms in other languages? As anthropologists we advocate “multi-culturalism” and we fight against “Westernization” but do we really?


Phillip Demgenski writes that in order 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.'”  On this note I must say that I do not believe that this is the “problem” of contemporary anthropology. Perhaps it was a problem decades ago, but today most anthropologists do research the “here” and “now.” Education, reproduction, wine, food, soap, shampoo, childhood, youth culture, stoke brokers are only few examples of the “here” and “now” topics that contemporary anthropology deals with. In our anthropology department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong we have a mainland Chinese student studying NGO’s in China, a German student studying the city of Qingdao, a Hong Kong student studying undocumented south Asian migrants in Hong Kong. I believe that many other students and anthropologists around the world study the “here” and “now.” Moreover, I do not think that we should abandon the “poor” and the “south:” Migration of rural people, asylum seekers, street children are some of the most important contemporary social issues that anthropology should try to understand and bring to the public knowledge.


I am not sure what the “problem” is but I do not think that it lies in studying  the “here” and “now.” We can go further and ask where “here” is?


I guess the problem lies in the fact that most not-written-in-English anthropology is not read, but it does not mean that it does not exist. Should we write in English? If we do want to reach a bigger audience I believe we should. But it does not mean there is no room for other languages as well. Great philosophy was written in Chinese, French and Germen. I believe that there is a place for both. So if we want people to read what we write about “here” and “now” we should keep in mind that we have a choice; at least we should have.


Avital Binah-Pollak

The Chinese University of Hong Kong

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Anon  |  June 2, 2011 at 11:33 am

    It is hard to argue especially you ended by talking about choices. To me, it is important to write ethnography in Chinese. China needs more critical thinking and different perspectives, not different languages. If the readers in China can absorb knowledge faster in Chinese, why not?! It is kind of silly to let them learn ABC first and spend years on the difference of “this is a chair.” and “is this a chair?” if they can just read a different perspective presented in Chinese. What do you think?

    • 2. YodCh  |  June 2, 2011 at 11:46 am

      I have to agree with you — people should always have the choice of writing and acquiring knowledge in the language they prefer; some concepts as it has been proven time and again simply cannot be explained in English despite its flexibility. In the ideal world, we would have perfect translations of everything in the lingua franca of the time, as well as the native language so that both “native” and “foreign” people can all discuss the content of the writing. However, until technology brings itself up to this challenge, this simply is not possible, and perhaps not even necessary. I have to agree with the author here, where she says that both can exist. I would go as far as to say that both should exist.


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