Posts tagged ‘culture’

Cultural Differences in Organizing Anthropology Meetings: East Asia as an Example

I helped organize a meeting earlier this month of the East Asian Anthropological Association here in Hong Kong, a group consisting of anthropologists from China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. We had long discussions about how we want to proceed with this organization in its future meetings, and some fascinating differences emerged. I don’t want to get into the specifics of who from what society argued what—this is not the place for that, and privacy should be protected—but I do want to discuss basic differences in organizational principles that may seem, at first glance, to be commonsensical but that in fact are culture-bound.

If you seek to organize an anthropological meeting on a broad topic with 60-80 or so slots open for paper-givers, is it better to have an open registration process, whereby every interested anthropologist in these five societies can submit an abstract to be evaluated by referees, and then be accepted or rejected? This is the American and European pattern for all but very small meetings, and ensures that even those whom the organizers have never heard of can attend the meeting if they can write a good abstract that passes the referees’ gaze.

But given the different anthropological traditions in these five societies, can the organizers serve as referees? Could a Taiwanese fairly judge Chinese abstracts, or Chinese fairly judge Japanese abstracts? For that matter, can American referees at AAA fairly judge abstracts from any of these different anthropological traditions?

Perhaps they can be, but if there is any doubt, then this may not be the best approach. Would it better to invite only the anthropologists who are known to the organizers in various of these national circles, and invite them to participate? This would severely limit the influx of fresh participants, but would also prevent what might potentially be the widespread rejection of papers in an open conference, and the ensuing bad feelings that would then result. This is a style that is often practiced in China and Japan and Korea.

After all, refereeing can only work if you have a more or less large and anonymous pool of referees—but what if your pool is small, and everyone knows, or knows of, everyone else? And what if you are also from a hierarchical society, where seniors are to be respected? And what, on top of this, you are from a society where English continues to be a troubling foreign language, fully mastered only by those junior scholars who went to graduate school overseas? The complexities seem to make objective refereeing not merely daunting, but all but impossible, a fantasy.

On top of all this, what if you have limited financial aid for these participants—perhaps only 20 can have their accommodations paid for. Is it better to provide it for younger scholars, or even more, for graduate students, who may truly need it, or for their elders, who have proven, unlike their juniors, that they are worthy anthropologists, and who as eminent scholars should be rewarded—despite the fact that they are no doubt financially better off than their juniors? How does Confucianism, the dominant conviction of East Asia, play out against egalitarianism, or what some might consider basic fairness? There are no right answers here.

I had assumed that open registration is best, and that financial aid based on need is best, focusing particularly on graduate students. But I also realize, after this meeting in Hong Kong, that my own assumptions have been shaped by my American experiences at AAA, and other such meetings. There are multiple ways to organize meetings, and it may be cultural imperialism to insist on one way over another. I feel that particularly as a white person in an East Asian context—“our token Caucasian” as I was once jokingly referred to—and as the only native English speaker in a group for whom English is for many, a distinctly second or third language.

In fact, the East Asian Anthropological Association is indeed dedicated to eventually having full open registration processes and refereeing—its members have agreed to that—but the issue is how, and how quickly, to get there, given the necessary progression towards growth of the association versus the unfortunate necessity of English-language usage and, perhaps, American organizational-style hegemony. I have asserted my own opinion in all this, but am increasingly learning so sit back and watch and listen. As a cultural anthropologist for two decades, I am ceaselessly amazed at how hard it is for me to do this. I also realize, though, that culture can sometimes be used as a rationale for other motivations, whether on my part or others’ part. I would have thought that as an anthropologist, I would be better than I am at understanding these complexities, but although I can do this intellectually, in day-to-day life, I am, to my ongoing chagrin, as stupid as anyone else I’ve ever met.

Gordon Mathews
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

2 comments July 30, 2012

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.

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

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