Posts tagged ‘academia’

Who Do We Write For?

As anthropologists, who do we write for? Scholarly articles are typically written for one’s fellow academics. But what about books? Book-length ethnographies are the cornerstone of anthropology. These include books whose ethnography is theory-driven, books whose primary purpose is to make a contribution to anthropological theorizing. These also include books whose primary purpose is to ethnographically depict a slice of the world; these books too use theory, but the theory is servant to rather than master of the ethnography. Of course many books are in the middle between these two poles, but it is fair to say that anthropology today is defined by these two poles, and underlying that, by the question of who we write for. Theory-driven books are generally written for one’s fellow anthropologists and their graduate students. Ethnography-driven books are generally not just for anthropologists, but also for undergraduates, and the lay public. These are vast generalizations, but if one thinks of prominent ethnographies written over the past two decades, it is not hard to see this divide. Think, in an American context, of Bourgois’s In Search of Respect (ethnography-driven) as opposed to Ong’s Flexible Citizenship (theory-driven), to mention just two of a large number of ethnographies that could be mentioned.

I suspect that this division is true beyond the American anthropological world to an extent. But because the world of academic anthropology in most other societies, and particularly in most non-native-English-speaking societies, is smaller, there may be less possibility of publishing books written for an academic audience alone, simply because the market for them is small. It is the Anglo-American anthropological world that most privileges theoretically-driven books, because the English-speaking market is so big. To put it bluntly, in this large market, anthropologists can afford to talk to themselves alone, whereas in other large markets, they cannot, because anthropological solipsism can’t sell books.

Prominent anthropologists of generations past in the English-speaking world very often spoke to a large audience. Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa and Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword certainly had their theoretical underpinnings, but were written so that any intelligent layperson could understand them. This is no longer the case with many of the ethnographies of recent decades, some of which cannot be understood by non-specialists because they are primarily theory-driven. There are certainly a number of exceptions to this, but it is fair to say that in general book-length ethnographies have become more difficult to understand in recent decades for those who aren’t trained anthropologists.

This situation is largely a product, I believe, of the tenure system in American anthropology, whereby each new generation of anthropologists must be seen to be doing something very different from its recent forebears in order to gain lifetime employment as professors. Ethnography-driven books are of less value in this pursuit than theory-driven books, since the latter can demonstrate an apparent advance over anthropological forebears, however fictitious this advance may be upon closer examination. This is also why, in a broader arena, music and art have also become progressively less comprehensible to the layperson: they have been increasingly confined to the academy, to departments of music and art in universities, where specialists produce work comprehensible only to fellow specialists. The Anglo-American academic world in the arts and soft social sciences seems, in its emphasis on specialists, to privilege incommunicability with the world beyond the academy.

There is nothing wrong with having anthropological theory in ethnography—its presence is essential. But if ethnography is primarily theory-driven, then its appeal beyond the small world of academic anthropology becomes greatly diminished. In a world that is today plagued all the more by cultural conflict, anthropology needs to have a public presence, as it largely does not in American anthropology. If a computer scientist or heart surgeon writes academic works, their findings will nonetheless help the layperson—I need not understand their academic writings to benefit from their expertise in operations on my computer or on my heart. But if an anthropologist writes academic works incomprehensible to the layperson, these anthropological findings may not be helpful, for they may have no lay use.

This, I sense, is a major problem today with much American anthropology—this is why it is in danger of becoming irrelevant beyond any world larger than itself. But I sense this is far less of a danger outside the Anglo-American world. In Japan, to take just one example, well-known anthropologists regularly write books for popular presses, read by laypeople; and this, I am told, is true in a number of other societies as well. Might world anthropology lead American anthropology back to public relevance? Perhaps, but given ongoing American hegemony, I fear the opposite. As goes America, so follows many other societies—in terms of anthropology, into public oblivion.

Gordon Mathews
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

5 comments February 10, 2013

Local Arguments for a Global Debate | Argumentos locais para um debate global

Local Arguments for a Global Debate

Guilherme Gitahy de Figueiredo

State University of Amazonas- Brazil

 

The WCAA initiative in creating this blog is laudable. It is very important that efforts be made to lay the groundwork for global debate in anthropology. However, it is important to know that to achieve this, it is not enough that anthropologists around the world publish in blogs or international journals.

 

In Brazil the biggest barrier to a global debate is not the language, but an international division of intellectual labor that makes the British, French, and American anthropologies more consumed than discussed. The role of central anthropologies unfortunately still seems to be to establish the premises of Brazilian anthropological work and debate. When these assumptions enter into controversy, these usually occur between followers of different Westerns orientations. Paradoxically, the debate seems more fruitful and creative when the topics are ethnographies of Brazilian themes.

 

Even when authors decide to counter Western premises with new theories, they are not read or taken seriously among their peers. Of course there are Brazilian theorists who are much celebrated. Numerous efforts have been made to build new schools of thought, consistent with national needs and interests. But a look at the references of Brazilian articles in the best journals would be enough to distinguish a strong tendency to quote Brazilian authors in relation to empirical matters and Western authors for theoretical guidance.

 

The organization of Brazilian anthropology according to external authors, currents and schools is a practice rooted in the intellectual life of colonial Brazil, when universities and publishers were banned and the new generations had to go and study in European universities. This indeed is not something specific of Brazil but is shared by most countries that were subjected to colonial actions, being accepted and even encouraged by the academies of hegemonic countries. Changing these habits is not easy, because they involve not only scientists. Paradoxically, the colonial customs are part of national history and identity. How can we build a “national” science if our own traditions are colonial? Below is an example taken from contemporary Brazilian research.

 

According to João Pacheco de Oliveira, concepts formulated by the colonial society and administration — for example the idea of “Indian” — in the conquest of lands and enslavement of black and indigenous peoples have become part of national history and identity by intellectuals and artists from the 19th century. Widely disseminated in schools and media, these ideas became unconscious assumptions that organize new intellectual productions. The proposal of Oliveira is the deconstruction of these ideas through genealogical research and historical anthropology, in collaboration with the peoples whose views are eclipsed by these colonial assumptions.

 

Perhaps a similar deconstruction should take place globally. The challenges are great and global ethnographic investigations into anthropological practices would be welcome in order to find out their underlying colonial assumptions and mechanisms, and thus begin to explore ways to shape more balanced modes of power in world anthropology.
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Argumentos locais para um debate global

Guilherme Gitahy de Figueiredo
Universidade do Estado do Amazonas – Brasil

 

É louvável a iniciativa da WCAA em criar este blog. É muito importante que iniciativas sejam feitas para se abrir espaços para debates globais na antropologia. Porém, é importante sabermos que para se alcançar isto não basta os antropólogos do mundo postarem em blogs ou publicarem seus artigos em revistas internacionais.

 

No Brasil a maior barreira para um debate global não é a língua, mas a divisão internacional do trabalho intelectual que faz com que as antropologias francesa, americana e inglesa sejam mais consumidas do que debatidas. O papel das antropologias centrais infelizmente ainda parece ser o de estabelecer as premissas do trabalho e do debate antropológico brasileiro do que o de contribuir com argumentos num diálogo entre iguais. Quando essas premissas são polemizadas, é por conflitos entre os seguidores de diferentes orientações ocidentais. Paradoxalmente o debate parece mais fecundo e criativo quando os tópicos são etnografias de temas brasileiros.

 

Mesmo quando algum autor decide contrapor novas teorias às premissas ocidentais, dificilmente é lido ou levado a sério entre os seus pares. É claro que existem intelectuais brasileiros, teóricos, muito celebrados. Inúmeros esforços já foram feitos para se construir novas escolas de pensamento, condizentes com as necessidades e interesses nacionais. Mas uma consulta às referências bibliográficas de artigos brasileiros nas melhores revistas seria suficiente para distinguir ali uma forte tendência à citação de autores brasileiros em relação aos referentes empíricos e autores ocidentais para as orientações teóricas.

 

A organização da antropologia brasileira segundo autores, correntes e escolas externas é um costume enraizado na vida intelectual do Brasil colonial, quando universidades e editoras eram proibidas e as novas gerações tinham que ir estudar nas universidades européias. Isto, aliás, não é algo específico do Brasil, mas compartilhado pela grande maioria dos países que foram objeto de ações coloniais, sendo aceito e até estimulado pelas academias dos países hegemônicos. Mudar esses costumes não é fácil, pois eles não envolvem apenas os cientistas. Paradoxalmente, os costumes coloniais são parte da visão histórica e da identidade nacional. Como construir a ciência “nacional” se nossas tradições próprias são coloniais? Segue abaixo um exemplo retirado de pesquisas brasileiras contemporâneas.

 

Segundo João Pacheco de Oliveira, conceitos formulados pela sociedade e administração coloniais – por exemplo a idéia de “índio” – em sua conquista de terras e escravização de negro e indígenas se tornaram parte da história e da identidade nacional por obra dos intelectuais e artistas a partir do séc. XIX. Difundidas amplamente em escolas e meios de comunicação, essas idéias tornaram-se premissas inconscientes que organizam novas produções intelectuais. A proposta de Oliveira é a desconstrução dessas idéias através de pesquisas genealógicas e em antropologia histórica, em colaboração com os povos cujos pontos de vista são eclipsados por estas premissas coloniais.

 

Talvez uma desconstrução similar possa ser feita globalmente. Os desafios são grandes e investigações etnográficas globais sobre as práticas da antropologia seriam bem vindas para se descobrir as suas premissas e mecanismos coloniais subjacentes e, assim, começar a explorar caminhos para formas mais equilibradas de poder na antropologia mundial.

1 comment February 16, 2012

Global Arguments

It has long surprised me how anthropologists from different societies don’t argue much. American, or Japanese, or Indian, or Mexican, or Brazilian anthropologists might argue vociferously with one another over anthropological issues because they share a common reference group.  But we don’t see, as much as might be expected, arguments between a Japanese, a Mexican, and a Bulgarian anthropologist over the changing meanings of “culture,” the different global impacts of neoliberalism, the different cultural effects of global tourism, nationalisms and how they play out in different societies, and so on.  We don’t see many genuinely global arguments.

 

Why?  One major factor is language.  English has become the de facto international language, but many anthropologists around the world are far more comfortable writing in their own language.  Computer translations may be improving, but have a long way to go before they can enable a truly global anthropological communication.  A second reason is the history of the discipline: anthropology over its history has long been largely a matter of those from richer societies investigating those of poorer societies across the globe (or richer members of a given society investigating its poorer, often indigenous members), and so the idea of a global anthropology has taken a long time to fully emerge.  Today there remains a power difference in world anthropologies, with an Anglo-American core, and semi-peripheries and peripheries. This power imbalance works against the emergence of a genuinely global anthropology.

 

But it’s time to overcome this.  This blog and forum can maybe serve, in a small way, as a means of  overcoming the barriers to global anthropology.  Let’s discuss things! Let’s argue!  Wherever you are from, write down your opinions on any aspect of anthropology in the world today and send them on, to the e-mail address listed below.  We’d love to hear from you and throw your work out there to a global audience!  Send us a blog!  Register on this WCAA website and give us your comments!

 

Best,

Gordon Mathews

Blog Moderator

World Council of Anthropological Associations

e-mail: cmgordon@cuhk.edu.hk

3 comments January 13, 2012


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