Theory Isn’t What It Used to Be

A friend in public health who works on topics that intersect with my areas of research (environment, sustainability, resources) recently asked me: “Why don’t anthropologists apply for grants from the National Institutes of Health?” I said that I am sure some anthropologists do, and that they are in the so-called applied wing of the discipline. But I granted that he was correct, that the agency was not a common or particularly legible source of funding to the anthropologists I know. One reason, I thought out loud, is that grants of this kind have formats that don’t always easily lend themselves to how anthropologists design their research, with an emphasis on inductive and iterative ways of learning. But, I acknowledged, there is an economy of prestige as well as one of material support around funding, which reflects hierarchies in the anthropological production of knowledge. Applied research is not valued in the same way as a project that promises a “high theory” contribution to the discipline—at least, not if your ambitions are to get tenure at a top-ten program that trains new generations of stars. NIH funding would not necessarily help someone to achieve that particular goal.

Every year I teach three sections of a course on anthropological theory. Consequently, I often have the opportunity to contemplate, both privately and pedagogically (in collaboration with students), what makes for theory qua theory and what distinguishes it from nontheory, who arbitrates that difference, and whether that difference is a bona fide epistemic one or one of something more like genre. I teach a wonderful article by Catherine Lutz (1995), “The Gender of Theory,” a powerful critique of the masculine bias of the canon arguing that while theory as a construct purports to be gender-neutral, it is actually a gendered format that reflects unmistakably masculine discursive markers.

One of the fascinating things about the HAU debacle is how retro the journal’s appeal was. The ethos of the intellectual community it tried to create struck me as being more about certain aesthetics than about an epistemological (re)turn of some kind. The project of a return to theory, grounded in European networks and naming itself with an indigenous word, was something akin to a (white male) American fantasy of the good old 1950s, before all of this political correctness. Of course, the anthropological fantasy was not about suburbs and hyperarticulated gender roles; rather, it was “to return anthropology to its original and distinctive conceptual wealth” (da Col and Graeber 2011, viii). This feat would be accomplished by “a defiant gamble: that it’s only by returning to the past, and drawing on our own hoariest traditions, that we can revive the radical promise of anthropology” (da Col and Graeber 2011, xxix).1 The implication in this foreword to the first issue of HAU was that the discipline had lost its way and veered off the course set for it by the likes of Lévi-Strauss and Mauss before the feminist turn, the reflexive turn, before the whole subfield of applied anthropology had established itself—but that there was a path back to a time when anthropology was about culture qua culture and the wonders of radical alterity. This was the time of anthropological canon-building. Other contributors to this series comment on the colonial implications of such a project, but I want to comment on gender.

We are still in an economy of value where theory a) remains gendered and b) carries more prestige than whatever does not make the cut, including ethnography and applied anthropology. My impression was that HAU, in its ethos, was a consummately masculine project. The fantasy for which it was reaching is not a fantasy that any group of female anthropologists (that I know of: a gendered qualifier, since I don’t want to universalize—does that compromise the strength of my argument for you, dear reader?) would find compelling, if only because the retro locus of longing at the heart of HAU was the time period when the theoretical canon was produced. This period yielded the textbooks that I am limited to using today if I want to use textbooks, the ones that consist of around 80 percent male writers. The idea of a return to a time when the discipline excluded women in ways that were much more explicit and unapologetic (compared to the more covert forms of exclusion that are alive and well today) and the idea of locating the ne plus ultra of anthropological value—Theory, with a capital t—in that moment of the discipline’s history reveals something about those who stood to benefit from it. Namely, this idea reveals that the positionality of those who bought into the fantasy mirrored the positionality and worldview of the epistemic elite of that nostalgized moment.

From where I am standing, everything Lutz described is still true. And at least part of the reason for this is that there is a space for the sort of fantasy HAU represented: for pure theory, decoupled from history. If aspirational forms of anthropological thought can be abstracted from the historical context of power relations in which they accrued their value, they can be an appealing fantasy (to some): a return to what (for some) were the glory days of the field. But theory remains a murky concept, and what gets recognized as theory is likely contingent on it announcing itself as theory—which, as Lutz notes, is a claim rooted in the entitlement and confidence that has historically been the provenance of men in academia.

As I tell my students at the beginning and end of my course, the class could just as well be called “The History of Anthropological Thought” or “The History of Anthropological Writing.” In fact, that would be a more accurate title for it, one that would create space to move away from the established consensus of what the theoretical canon is. It would explicitly historicize those writings coming out of decades when the production of knowledge and the assignment of value to it was done, by and large, by men. That, too, is my wish for the discipline at large: to dispense with or at least to rehistoricize the concept of theory, which too often functions as a slippery, shiny fetish object (in the Marxist sense of the word). Genres and paradigms that command value while positioning themselves as ahistorical or transhistorical create space for the kinds of fantasies on which HAU capitalized, and for value systems that inform our hierarchies of journals, granting agencies, and tenure and promotion criteria.


1. One of the scholars cited here, David Graeber, eventually broke with HAU and issued a public apology to those who had been hurt by their involvement with the journal, giving a platform to their grievances. The other, Giovanni da Col, did nothing of the sort.


da Col, Giovanni, and David Graeber. 2011. “Foreword: The Return of Ethnographic Theory.” HAU 1, no. 1: vi–xxxv.

Lutz, Catherine. 1995. “The Gender of Theory.” In Women Writing Culture, edited by Ruth Behar and Deborah A. Gordon, 249–66. Berkeley: University of California Press.