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Another point brought up at the American Anthropological Association meeting of worldwide journal publishers concerned writing, with several journal editors advocating “international English.” This sounds wonderful in principle. If every anthropological writer were to write in easy-to-understand English, then the anthropological playing field would be largely leveled, with native speakers and non-native speakers on a more even standing.
However, in all honesty, how many native speakers of English would be willing to write in international English, curtailing their jargon, limiting their circumlocutions, and simplifying their sentence structures? American academics, not least anthropologists, have a mortal fear of sounding stupid. One reason why anthropological writing is so often convoluted is to avoid revealing the relatively simple ideas one may be expressing—to avoid sounding stupid. In some English-language anthropological writing, linguistic complexity is necessary, given the subtlety of the ideas being expressed. In much more anthropological writing, the complexity seems unnecessary. Complexity may reflect the fact that the authors are bad writers. Or it may reflect an “emperor’s new clothes” syndrome, whereby authors cloak ideas in impenetrable prose because those ideas themselves are unclear, or else all too clear.
If anthropology journals were to mandate that writers write in a standard international English—something that has happened to a degree in medicine and in the hard sciences—the problem of anthropology’s lack of true globality would largely be solved. However, it is hard to imagine this happening. Instead, it seems more likely that a two-tiered class structure would emerge, of Americans and other native speakers writing in complex English, and foreign scholars writing in “international English.”
Ideally, international English might liberate American anthropology from its rhetorical excesses (a tendency I date from Geertz: earlier writers like Benedict and Boas, read retrospectively, are marvels of clarity). More likely, it would simply serve as a form of academic distinction. Those who can write in a complicated way will, and those who can’t won’t—but with only the latter being fully comprehended by many of their readers.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
1 comment December 14, 2011
At the American Anthropological Association meeting in Montrealin November, I was heartened to see how much major American journals are internationalizing. The Editorial Boards of American Anthropologist and Current Anthropology, to name just two journals, increasingly bear the names of anthropologists from across the world. Of course this is a very good thing. But at the same time, that’s the easy part. The hard part of internationalizing anthropology is to make the content of these journals international.
This is problematic because of one simple fact. Anthropology is not the same in different places. What constitutes a good anthropology article for Americans is not necessarily the same as what constitutes a good anthropology article for Japanese, or for Indians, or for Brazilians, or for Eastern Europeans. This can be seen by reading the different flagship journals in different societies: this is one thing that our publication list on the WCAA website reveals. The topics, the approach, and the writing style of these different anthropologies significantly differ.
So, if American Anthropologist and Current Anthropology and other top American journals seek to internationalize, will they publish foreign anthropologists only to the extent that their articles are couched in American discursive terms, reading like American anthropology articles? This will in effect render these different anthropologists American. Or will they publish these articles even if they are not discursively American—not addressing American anthropological concerns, and not following the norms of American argumentation? This runs the risk of alienating these journals’ largely American audiences. Because anthropology is not the same the world over, there seems to be no way beyond this dilemma.
Some journals in the United States will probably remain unaware of this dilemma, implicitly assuming that American standards of anthropology are universal standards of anthropology, and publishing accordingly. Other journals will indeed understand; but there’s no obvious way out. These journals may attempt to take a middle line, both preserving standards and encouraging diversity. But where and how, exactly, is that line to be drawn?
In short, the era of internationalizing anthropology is only beginning. It will be a lot more difficult than most anthropology journal editors, and most anthropologists, now may realize. To repeat a refrain I’ve often stated, anthropology must leave the era of Morgan and Tylor, with anthropologists from rich countries studying cultures from poor countries, and dominating the discipline, to become instead a truly global discipline. That day will come, eventually; but it certainly won’t be easy.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Add comment November 27, 2011