Whose Worlds? Whose Anthropologies?

In reflecting on the kind of anthropology that will be relevant for the future, I find it useful to look back to the world anthropologies proposals of the past decade. The principal motivation for these proposals was to problematize dominant anthropologies that are “made possible by a set of institutionalized practices and modalities of production and regulation of discourses” (Restrepo and Escobar 2005, 104). The proponents of world anthropologies are determined to foreground heterogeneity while recognizing that it is grounded in asymmetrical fields of knowledge production. Embracing diversity requires actively recognizing the tremendous value that colleagues on the so-called margins (geopolitical, indigenous, gendered, institutional) bring to the anthropological project in the twenty-first century.

In this vein, my particular view of anthropology is informed by multiple emplacements: my training in elite British institutions, my ethnographic commitments in Oceania and Tibet, my grounding in Mexican and Latin American scholarly contexts, and my involvement with a worldwide network of indigenous experts through UNESCO. Each of these emplacements has offered me a valuable set of relations out of which I can better appreciate the value of heterogeneity—and the challenges that come with it.

Here, I want to reflect for a moment on the issue that has motivated this series: the surprising irruption, chronologically concurrent but at cross purposes with world anthropologies, of so-called ethnographic theory, the ontological turn, and their presentation through a prestige network of scholars, institutions, and publications that have recently become the focus for a discussion of broader problems in our field. A major disclaimer is in order: I was and continue to be enthusiastic about the core premise of ethnographic theory, namely, the production of theoretical insights as radically informed by the conditions of existence of local worlds. I cannot conceive of a relevant form of anthropological knowledge production that is not inherently coproduced with the people who define our ethnographic horizons.

When the stakes of the ontological turn were put forward by a motivated and intelligent group of colleagues, several of whom had been my contemporaries as a doctoral student, I embraced and entered into dialogue with what they had to say. It soon became clear, however, that this was a conversation largely confined to elite circles, mostly in reference to classic European philosophical and anthropological preoccupations. A critical contradiction in relation to ethnographic theory has been the absence of indigenous and marginal voices, of internal tensions and counterarguments from the field, of the recognition of knowledge as process rather than mythical charter.

So where does this leave us, as we look to the future of anthropology?

The experiences that have shaped my development draw me toward the idea of practice, but also of ethics. It is in the way we behave within academia and beyond, in the field and toward our compatriots, that practice best comes into focus. Here, I return to the idea of heterogeneity, but as part of a call for a more sensitive, humanist—because deliberately ethical—approach to the worlds in which we emplace ourselves. This goes hand in hand with a sensitivity toward the broader forces and processes that shape our shared realities, often foregrounded in what we take to be the concerns of local knowledge.

I cannot, for instance, do anthropology in ignorance of the everyday forms of horrific, state-sponsored and criminal violence that have engulfed my country: violence that is disproportionately directed at women and the most marginalized communities in Mexico. I cannot do anthropology from Mexico, ignoring the fact that the dominant ideas behind key public institutions continue to function as a bizarre extension of the archaic, homogenizing, nation-building ideals of culture and identity that emerged in the aftermath of revolution in the 1920s and 30s. I cannot do anthropology while ignoring the expansion of resource extractivism and dispossession across large parts of Mexico and Latin America, again largely affecting the ancestral geographies and social fabric of the poorest peoples, of indigenous communities, and of unique ecologies.

It is deeply depressing to realize that dominant anthropological ideas about indigenous peoples in the Mexican social sciences either continue to treat them as victims of the state, as noble guardians of millenarian knowledge, or as figments of state-inspired identity discourses. It is no surprise that, with some exceptions, a large volume of what passes for ethnographic research on indigenous peoples in our milieu continues to be disquietingly superficial.

Fortunately, indigenous movements, scholars, and activists have moved far ahead of us in their determination to speak for themselves within academia and beyond. Nor is it surprising that indigenous and marginalized peoples have developed surprisingly effective ways of deflecting or co-opting state and scholarly interventions. In the same vein, we have seen the rise of a movement, #YoTambien, which reflects the motivations of #MeToo but out of a distinctively local set of concerns. These efforts are a source of inspiration and have offered me lessons in comparison when thinking of Oceanic and other contexts.

I cannot do anthropology while ignoring that my own background and economic stability, along with those of some close colleagues, owes much to our training in elite Euro-American institutions, dominant languages, and forms of authorization.

Consequently, I want to focus on ethics, engagement, and plurality as guiding principles for our disciplinary practice going forward. Ethics cuts across all forms of practice, directing us outward to the concerns and conditions of our fellow beings (human and nonhuman). It is about taking responsibility for who we are toward others at every juncture, and is relevant to the asymmetries of our own situations: one cannot claim to produce novel ideas while ignoring or contributing to the plight of vulnerable students and colleagues. If ethnographic theory is premised on taking others seriously, then ethical concerns lead us further to the issue of the coproduction of anthropological and expert knowledges.

This leads me to engagement, which is about developing deep, committed, and long-term ties to people. Again, I cannot conceive of ethnographic work without that kind of commitment. It cuts to the heart of why dispossession or the climate crisis matters: the political and environmental conditions of our field are not optional for our subjects of interest. The same must be said of the way we react to the conditions of our immediate scholarly context.

This leads me, finally, to plurality: the embrace of heterogeneity, both as analytical principle and guide for practice. Our shared concern for tolerance and inclusivity recently led me and my colleague Sandra Rozental, from Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, to develop an inclusive space for discussing of work in progress through an ethnography workshop that brings together graduate students, early-career scholars, and senior colleagues in an attempt to open up our our working practices, methods, and concerns. Our workshop has welcomed an increasing number of participants from every end of the theoretical, thematic, and area studies spectrum, and is intended to highlight new ethnographic research in our current context. This project and others like it have presented me with the challenge and privilege of engaging with a broad range of positions, theories, and persons, thereby embracing the plurality of anthropologies that, I predict, will become the norm and no longer the exception.

Reference

Restrepo, Eduardo, and Arturo Escobar. 2005. “‘Other Anthropologies and Anthropology Otherwise’: Steps to a World Anthropologies Framework.” Critique of Anthropology 25, no. 2: 99–129.