Posts tagged ‘Language’

American Anthropological Imperialism? An Overdue Dialogue– Papers Now Available

Anthropologists are proud of their ethos of social justice, egalitarianism and reciprocity. Nevertheless, for historical, geopolitical and economic reasons, the discipline of anthropology is divided into privileged and underprivileged regions. Cross-cutting and overlapping disparities find expression in such academic concepts as center and periphery, Global South and North, and East and West, reifying these metaphorical relationships. They are reflected in material inequalities in knowledge production, academic employment, and access to resources. And it is anthropology in the United States that is commonly perceived as the most powerful and influential force within this landscape. Existing structures of wealth and power (publications, fieldwork opportunities, English language dominance) produce a hierarchical system of anthropological knowledge and rewards.

But simultaneously, working in various regions of the world, U.S. researchers encounter local scholars with their own national and regionally centered forms of knowledge production and circulation. Thus, the local situation generates intricate relations between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ as well as ‘expatriates’ and ‘hybrid actors.’ What kinds of relationships emerge from these encounters? Do U.S. anthropologists working in another cultural and geographic region take into consideration local insights and scholarship and collaborate with their colleagues? Or are these entirely asymmetric and hegemonic relationships? Are there elements of the relationships that transform them into something closer to our normative ideals? Questions of imperialism and hegemony in anthropological practices have been discussed previously in universities and at academic conferences. Nonetheless, the trend is toward greater imperialism within the discipline because of language and journal dominance and research funding, such that the World Council of Anthropological Associations decided that the conversation should be more public and receive greater attention. Without an ongoing dialogue, the emerging global anthropology will not be able to support the multiple world anthropologies that are our greatest resource. These issues were discussed by both American and non-American anthropologists working respectively in post-socialist (Romania), postcolonial (India) and hegemonic (Latin America) contexts at the AAA session on American Anthropological Imperialism: An Overdue Dialogue. The session was intend to raise questions through a frank discussion and now we would like to open up the discussion to you. On the WCAA website you will find three of the papers from the session. The first by Katherine Verdery, the second by Liviu Chelceathe third by Akhil Gupta, and the fourth by Chandana Mathur. Each raises intriguing points and different issues that a commitment to anti hegemonic anthropology requires that we address. But the examinations of hegemony and imperialism are complicated by local national concerns and distinct histories of thought as well as politics. Let us know what you think.

Michal Buchowski and Setha Low

Attached papers (by author): Liviu ChelceaAkhil Gupta, Chandana MathurKatherine Verdery



1 comment December 12, 2012

Déjà Lu

In the coming months, WCAA will launch the on-line journal Déjà Lu (“Already read”). This will be an on-line multilingual e-journal that can represent the diversity of today’s anthropological communities. In Déjà Lu we will republish articles selected by the journals of the associations members of the WCAA and give them global visibility by means of our international networks.

Here how it works: Editors of different journals will select one article they have already published and send a pdf copy with the title and one abstract in English (mandatory) and in any other language (optional), and indicate that we have permission to republish it on the WCAA website. The article can be on any anthropological topic, and can be in English or any other language. If they wish, journals or authors may translate their texts into English (they must do this instead of us), and we will publish the translation. The editors of Déjà Lu are Gustavo Lins Ribeiro (Universidade de Brasília), Gordon Mathews (The Chinese University of Hong Kong), and David Shankland (The Royal Anthropological Institute). For the first issue, the call for papers has been sent to the journals of all the member associations of the WCAA, asking for an article published in their journal in the year 2011. For later issues, we’ll send the call for papers out to all journals of anthropology in the world—all journals listed on the WCAA website.

This is an important initiative because each of us who edit journals around the world tend to be read only by audiences within our own regions; how can we break out, and get a larger, global anthropological audience? Of course, having a journal on-line helps a great deal, but still, it is easy to vanish on-line, to have a webpage for an on-line journal that few ever visit, a lonely side road on the massive information highway. A journal of reprints like Déjà Lu can perhaps overcome this—readers who like a certain article can then follow the link back to the journal it first appeared in, and we hope that this will happen for many journals. And this can help the longstanding aim of WCAA, to help create a truly global anthropology, beyond the hegemony of any nation or group of nations. This, anyway, is our hope.

So let’s go! The first issue will appear on the WCAA website in early spring—we’ll let you know as soon as it’s out.

Gordon Mathews
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Add comment November 13, 2012

How Can Anthropologists Break Free of Citation Indexes?

All over the world today, we see anthropologists struggling to publish in journals that are ranked highly on global citation indexes. Not every anthropologist in the world has to do this yet, but increasingly anthropologists from East Asia to Eastern Europe to Australia to Latin America are pressured in this way. One problem with this pressure is that the overwhelming majority of journals ranked highly on the global citation indexes are Anglo-American. These are often excellent journals. Still, global anthropologists are thereby in effect sucked back into the realm of Morgan and Tylor: “The West is Best! Conform to its standards or lose your job!”

Is there any way to escape this tyranny of citation indexes? In an immediate sense, no: if your job is on the line, then by all means do your best to publish in these journals, since the alternative may be driving a taxi or starving. From a longer view, though, there are indeed alternatives.

One alternative, if your native language is not English, is to have parallel writing tracks: write the stuff you need for your career in English, for the international journals, and write the stuff that is closest to your heart in your native language. As a Hong Kong ethnographer once told me, “I write articles in English that help my scholarly career but that no one reads; I write books in Chinese that many people read, but that have no relation to my scholarly career….At the end of the day, if I don’t have any journal publications with high impact factors, so what? If people in Hong Kong still read and learn from my writings, I’ll happily close my eyes and go to heaven.”

A second alternative is to write books rather than articles. Books are refereed in a different way than articles: if you can write only 8000 words, then you’ve generally got to conform to Western standards if you seek to publish in the Anglo-American core, but if you write books of 80,000 words, you’ll probably be given more leeway by referees to develop your own arguments and present your own ethnography in full. In our citation-index-driven anthropological world of today, books don’t count as much as articles, but they are read, and may allow you the freedom to be yourself. This is apparent in the books of Scandinavian anthropologists such as Ulf Hannerz and Thomas Hyland Eriksen, who have made their names largely through books published in the Anglo-American core.

A third alternative is more radical: forget about the pressures to write in top-ranked journals, and put yourself on line. Today there are some excellent websites where you can place your work to be read by other anthropologists, websites such as and, among others. Many anthropologists place their previously published work on these sites; but these sites can also be used to forego the publishing process altogether: put your work online instead of at the mercy of a journal. Perhaps the critiques you will receive from on-line readers will be more intellectually trenchant than those you might receive from referees! Don’t take this step if your career is on the line, for it may be suicidal. But if you can afford to, jump in.

Eventually, the world of anthropological publishing, as now driven by citation indexes, will collapse: we will all be on-line. That step will be the single most important step for the creation of a global anthropology. I suspect that won’t come for another twenty or thirty years, though. Meanwhile, let’s all do as much as we can to help erode the power of global citation indexes, which are in effect Morgan and Tylor risen from the dead.


Gordon Mathews
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

6 comments April 12, 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!



Gordon Mathews

Blog Moderator

World Council of Anthropological Associations


3 comments January 13, 2012

International English

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.


Gordon Mathews

The Chinese University of Hong Kong

1 comment December 14, 2011

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