How Anthropological Curiosity Consumers Its Own Places of Origin

Essay Excerpt

Indeed, our strategy in Anthropology as Cultural Critique (Marcus and Fischer 1986) was to accent and emphasize this embedded and underplayed potentiality in anthropology in order to set new, but also somewhat already familiar, terms for the discipline in responding to the intellectual currents of that time. What was, and is still, required is a rethinking of the disciplinary project of anthropology and its modes of practice for incorporating its own societies of origin within the range of what it studies. The question is whether the West (in the form of the contemporary United States, or France, or Britain) can be merely added on to the Rest, leaving the discipline andits traditional self-esteem otherwise intact, or whether the consumption by anthropological curiosity and inquiry of its own home societies along with its originary interests in other places changes the historic disciplinary game fundamentally, requiring a more bracing rethinking of the whole anthropological enterprise. Of course, that was the larger question posed by the critiques of the 1980s, placing the project of anthropology squarely within that of Euro-American modernity and its complicated historic relationships of colonialism to the rest of the peoples and cultures of the globe. And one could say that everything that has occurred in U.S. social and cultural anthropology since has represented its engagement with the implications of that critique. What does it mean, then, at the end of the 1990s to encourage and call belatedly for an anthropology of the contemporary United States or of France, as articulated in the two essays by Marc Ab6les and Christine Langlois (this issue)?  (Marcus, 417)

About the Author

Marcus served as the Joseph D. Jamail Professor at Rice University,[1] where he chaired the anthropology department for 25 years. He currently holds the position of Chancellor's Professor at theUniversity of California, Irvine, where he established a Center for Ethnography, devoted to experiments and innovations in this form of inquiry. He is married to the historian Patricia Seed.

Marcus has studied "elites" — people with a great amount of social power. He has researched and written about nobility in Tonga, an upper-class group with family fortunes in Galveston, Texas, and aPortuguese nobleman. In two books, Writing Culture and Anthropology as Cultural Critique, he argues that anthropologists typically frame their thoughts according to their own social, political and literary history, and are inclined to study people with less power and status than themselves.

Marcus pushed anthropology to pay greater attention to the modern world’s influence on communities once regarded as isolated. He advocated new research methods to reflect this contemporary focus, including how a community changes and disperses around the world. In the 1980s, most anthropologists studied people who had lived in the same location for hundreds of years, with a narrow focus on local, long-standing traditions. Today, an anthropologist interested in the people of Samoa, for example, would likely not only study life in the Samoan Islands, but also Samoan communities in New Zealand, Hawaii and California.

Marcus’ current focus involves looking at key institutions of great power, and their connections and consequences for ordinary people. With anthropologist Douglas R. Holmes, he is applying an anthropological research approach to people’s thought and decision-making processes in the operation of central banks in the U.S. and Europe.

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