November 2, 2013
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.
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