Still Naughty after All These Years?

In the past six years I have had the enormous privilege of welcoming 250 undergraduate students to anthropology. Central to the first lecture that I give are three interrelated points about how to become a good anthropologist: seek to be curious rather than clever; question everything; and pursue the art of reflective insolence. One side effect of these guidelines is an inclination to step on toes. I try to live as I teach, so when I give my view on what is the best path forward for anthropology as a discipline and for future practitioners of anthropology, it will be with tough love. Some might even see it as turf-guarding, as I am the middle-aged, white, European, cisgender male who stands in for the run-of-the-mill academic. A few sentences from now, some will add privilege-blind to that roster. And that might be justified. Still, after having spent most of my meandering career as an entrepreneur, freelance anthropologist, and newspaper columnist and then gained a permanent academic position at the not-so-tender age of forty-six, I have learned a few lessons that might hold wider validity.

Two decades of accommodating both the reward structures of the academic world and the knowledge sought after by the world outside of academia have convinced me of one thing. The fate of anthropologists working within academia is not just closely related to that of those working outside of it; the two are one and the same (see Kolshus 2017). If the attitudes surrounding applied anthropology and non-academic jobs, as uncovered in one recent inquiry, are widely held, then the future of our discipline is bleak. I believe we are better off than that, because we have one particular skill that sets anthropology apart from all other disciplines. In order to ensure the effective passing on of this skill, which John Comaroff (201) calls anthropology’s “in/discipline,” three measures are required.

What We Do Best

The first move of any anthropological analysis is to search for underlying presumptions. If we ask what the future of anthropology is, the premise is that anthropology has a future. Consequently, the question must be: what would an anthropology-free world be missing? The answer is simple: exactly the type of question just asked. Our counterfactual urge is the reason for anthropology’s continued existence. It is not because all of us take pleasure in being contrarians; rather, it is because anthropologists are exposed to so many other ways of thinking about and living out the state of humanness that we are habitually probing the default settings of social systems of all kinds, levels, and sizes. This is the main transferable skill that I pass on to my students, and it makes them exceedingly hireable. This compulsion to challenge that which is taken for granted is a remarkably constructive device, one that allows for creativity and imagination that is free-ranging, not just a procedural box that has to be checked before moving on to the next. It is of little use to think outside the box as long as the box remains within a bubble. Anthropologists know that not only are other worlds possible, they are actual.

But surely, this emphasis on employability is far too instrumental? Absolutely! Anthropology’s value to society is of course different from its individual use-value. The discipline’s curiosity about the lives of others contributes to making the world safer for human diversity, to follow Ruth Benedict’s apocryphal mission statement for anthropology. Reminding people that there are thousands of alternative paths also fans political hope by radically expanding the options available to those engaged in this art of what is possible. In globally uncertain times for democracy and tolerance, fanning hope is an intellectual vocation.

What We Must Do Better

If every sound employer realizes a need for anthropologists (which, in turn, bolsters the demand for anthropology in academia) and our ethnography continues to provide examples of other lives worth living, what else needs to be done for anthropology to become the social science of the twenty-first century?

Secure a multicentric anthropology

Historically, a number of anthropology’s key contributions trace their origin beyond Anglo-America, but the growing hegemony of the English language has given anthropology an Anglo-American bias. This is not particular to anthropology, I should note. However, a number of anthropological theories belong to what Robert Merton labeled middle-range theory, conceived to address a particular empirical reality. This means that they are also cultural products and should be treated as such whenever transposed. Since the discipline’s most prestigious publishing channels are based in the United States, those of us who work in areas where (for instance) culture-specific American notions and consequent theorizations of race are not easily applicable are nonetheless expected to address them. The critique of Sherry Ortner for reading the “n-word” aloud as part of the empirical material she was examining is just as baffling to most Europeans as the French response to Trevor Noah’s comments after the 2018 World Cup was to many Americans. In practical terms, this analytical bias makes our work less relevant to funding authorities, prospective employers, and the general public, since our analyses do not resonate with local or national concerns.

Insist that ideas surpass identities

Where we stand is affected by where we sit, yet is not determined by it. If it were, anthropology’s audacious methods—which rest on the possibility of resonance between individuals and across worldviews—would be impossible. Reading scholarly contributions through a prism of identity markers is a form of essentialism that we rarely fail to point out when it surfaces in old ethnographies. Attributing scholarly perspectives to the author’s background rather than engaging it (challenge, refute, tear it apart!) is nothing but laziness. On a practical and political level, it unwittingly provides legitimacy to the anti-immigrant European identitarian movement and mystifies biological traits in ways that would receive nods of approval from white supremacists. Failure to appreciate such connections is a failure to spot the long-term consequences of shorter-term gains.

Release the power of comparisons 

Cross-cultural comparison is our most creative device and part and parcel of our counterfactual urge. Without it, there is little vigor in our attempts to identify and transform power structures, including the decolonization of academia. However, the range of what are considered valid comparisons has been drastically reduced over the past fifty years, after what Joel Robbins (2013) has called the anthropology of the “suffering subject” and Ortner (2016) refers to as “dark anthropology,” which projects a hierarchized dyad of oppressor/oppressed upon the world’s societies. This asymmetry negates the as-if equality that destabilizing comparisons require, thus leaving sociological megatropes like complexity and modernity unchallenged and taking the edge off anthropology’s radical message of shared humanity.

Conclusion

It all boils down to this: anthropology must be naughty or it will come to naught. Future anthropology should be recognizably unpredictable. It must be a safe space for seedling thoughts that colleagues might consider weeds. Everyone who engages with anthropology will, at times, find themselves offended. This is what destabilizing worldviews entails. The future of anthropology definitely does not have my face on it. My hope is that it does not have yours either.

References 

Comaroff, John. 2010. “The End of Anthropology, Again: On the Future of an In/Discipline.” American Anthropologist 112, no. 4: 524–38.

Kolshus, Thorgeir. 2017. “The Power of Ethnography in the Public Sphere.” HAU 7, no. 1: 61–69.

Ortner, Sherry. 2016. “Dark Anthropology and Its Others: Theory since the Eighties.” HAU 6, no. 1: 47–73.

Robbins, Joel. 2013. “Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19, no. 3: 447–62.