On Language in Anthropology

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

2 comments June 1, 2011

An Anthropology of the “Here” and “Now”

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

4 comments May 12, 2011

Some treasures from the WCAA Publications list

I have been having a lot of fun exploring the WCAA’s website’s feast of journals—although I, like every other reader, would like more on-line offerings (disclaimer: I edit a journal that is not available on-line except for a fee. I can’t easily fight that, unfortunately…).


One article I found interesting was Alba Zaluar’s “Youth, drug traffic, and hypermasculinity in Rio de Janeiro,” in the Brazilian on-line journal Vibrant: http://www.vibrant.org.br/downloads/v7n2_zaluar.pdf Zaluar, drawing on extended interviews, offers a well-reasoned explication of why there is such violence in the favelas of Rio, one that resonates with, for example, Philippe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect on New York City crack dens, but that also offers substantial contrasts. Unlike New York, many of Zaluar’s informants rely on “private security” for their safety; Rio’s suburbs, as compared to North American suburbs, are poorer than cities are. Anyway, have a look!


I also read “The rise to prominence of Artemisia annua L. – the transformation of a Chinese plant to a global pharmaceutical” by Caroline Meier zu Biesen, in the on-line journal African Sociological Review:

Biesen finds that the plant kills as well as cures some of those who ingest it for the treatment of malaria, and discusses how medicines may achieve “a life of their own” regardless of effectiveness, due to global pursuits of profit. This is common knowledge in a broad sense, but Biesen’s particular ethnographic explication is quite convincing, and devastating.
I also had a look at Popular Anthropology Magazine, a free journal based in the midwest of the United States: http://www.popanthro.com/index.php/en/home
At this point I await the beginning of my free subscription: I look forward to reading this journal.


Generally speaking, if a journal is in English, it is less likely to be open access, whereas if a journal is not in English, it is more likely to be open. Might this signify something larger: the eventual eclipse of proprietary English-language publications before a vast array of non-proprietary journals in an array of world languages? I wish I knew twenty or thirty different languages. Since I know how to read only a scant few, the flood of world output of anthropological journals remains closed: I remain at the mercy of Google translations… In any case, we are emerging into a new anthropological world, when anyone anywhere with a laptop and an internet connection can partake of the global accumulation of anthropological knowledge.
It’s exciting to be alive now!


Gordon Mathews

Send me your blog and I’ll put it on–

Add comment April 28, 2011

A Listing of World Anthropology Journals

Hi, everyone,


The WCAA webpage now provides the websites of some 400 anthropological journals from around the world, some of which offer limited access to readers, and others full access. This, we think, is the only site in the world that provides, with a few mouseclicks, a glimpse of all the world’s anthropology. We think we have on this website every anthropological publication in the world that has a presence on the internet; if we have missed any, please let me know, at cmgordon@cuhk.edu.hk.


Surveying the state of anthropology in the world today, what we see is an unwitting domination by the Anglo-American core of anthropology; anthropologists throughout much of the world pay attention to the Anglo-American core, but it pays little attention to anthropologies beyond its bounds, and those other anthropologies pay little attention to one another. A website like this can, we hope, eventually enable anthropologists the world over to read anthropologies the world over. This is its aim: to take a step, however small, towards the creation of a global anthropology. 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. Maybe this site can help do that in a small way.


This site puts all the world’s anthropologies on a common platform, although of course language barriers remain. From this array of different journals, if we can gather an array of anthropological readers, perhaps discussions can start. Typically, Chinese anthropologists never discuss with sub-Saharan African anthropologists and Eastern European anthropologists and Indonesian anthropologists and Brazilian anthropologists and American anthropologists about the nature of culture and globalization, or anthropological ethics, or cultural and ethnic identity, or the nature of heritage, and so on, because there has been no place for such a debate. Maybe this site and this blog can serve as such a place. That’s why we begin this blog.


I will be adding commentary every week: my views are not those of WCAA, but simply my own, as an individual anthropologist. The more we can hear from all of you, the better: I don’t own this! Please send me your own commentary, at the address I’ve provided above, of no more than 500 words, on any topic relating to global anthropology, and I will put it on. Let’s get a conversation started!


Best regards,

Gordon Mathews,
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

4 comments April 6, 2011

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