In considering the future of anthropology, I begin with a few assumptions. I assume that if you are reading this you care about other human beings in all of their complexity and diversity. I also assume that you are invested in imagining and manifesting a world that affirms and sustains life. I will save deconstructing human being and life for another time. Here, I assume that we can understand one another and approach our terms from an ethos of trust and care. I am addressing the question of the future of anthropology from my orientation as a social-cultural anthropologist who practices ethnography.
In the spring of 2018, I taught an upper-level undergraduate seminar called “Anthropology of the Young and the Dispossessed.” The specificity of the course’s title somewhat conceals my underlying intention for the course: to become reinspired by the potential anthropology holds for supporting the assumptions with which I open this essay. The dialogical nature of a seminar, combined with students who are curious and courageous, can establish an ideal climate for locating new orientations to theories and methodologies that have calcified in disciplinary norms. This course, I hoped, would act as a source of inspiration for thinking about anthropology from a sentiment of possibility instead of cynicism, before I headed off to a sabbatical during which assessing my purpose and place in the field would come to be my overwhelming preoccupation.
The conversations in this seminar and one field trip, in particular, represent for me a futurity for anthropology that references an unarticulated past while also speaking to practices occurring in the present that do not necessarily fall under the rubric of anthropology. This seminar also helped answer the question that is posed to me at least twice a year: “Why did you choose anthropology?” It is for these reasons that I find a commitment to teaching, not as service or professional obligation but as a site of trial and experimentation, essential to defining the future of anthropology.
Toward the end of the semester, I brought the ten students in the seminar to New York City on a field trip where we encountered real-life contexts similar to the ones navigated by the individuals we read about in our assigned ethnographies. Our first stop was a harm reduction clinic in East Harlem, which serves a marginalized low-income population of primarily middle-aged Black and Latina/o drug users and sex workers by providing on-site counseling and HIV and Hepatitis C testing, syringe exchange, educational programming, holistic alternative health workshops, and overdose prevention. A primary goal of this clinic is to fight the stigmas associated with drug use and sex work. Despite our well-drawn plans for the visit, after meeting over lunch with a small group of staff and program participants at the clinic, we ended up on a van ride from East Harlem to the Bronx, the duration of which was three times as long as expected. When we arrived at our destination to observe the process of street-side service delivery, we found a lone outreach worker in an idling van but no outreach site. We got to work setting up a table with educational materials and hygiene products at the most optimal spot on the block. As a moderate rain started to fall, Tony, the lead outreach worker, taught us how to tilt back the hard, rubbery head of the practice dummy to administer overdose prevention from an inhaler. This was not what we had anticipated.
By now, we were already late for our next stop: an advocacy organization for LGBTQ youth in lower Manhattan. We were welcomed by adult and youth program coordinators who explained the intricate familial, social, and economic dynamics of New York City ball culture.1 Over the course of this explanation, the facilitators self-consciously corrected themselves when they used terms like real woman or real man or even girl or boy to describe the performances in the ball battles and the performers themselves. One said: “I mean, we know there is no real or authentic and we have to complicate what we mean when we say girl or boy, but it makes sense in this setting and we all know what we really mean.” At another point, one of the program coordinators said to us: “You are from Yale, so I know you use terms like cisgender and understand that gender and identity are complicated, but there are other ways you can imply that complexity even if you are just saying girl.”
These truncated examples are just what happens when you are in the field, where a field trip and fieldwork share similar concerns. Things rarely go according to plan, and we are often challenged to find a language that corresponds to the terms we employ in our disciplinary conversations even when we assume we are theorizing with the terms that accurately explain what matters to folks we encounter in the field (life). Here, too, it was the interactions that occurred in between the intended purposes of our field trip that revealed the most about the contours of a place and the investments of the people there. The students said that it was on the drive from East Harlem to the Bronx that they really understood the price participants had to pay as they made difficult decisions in support of their self-recovery. The conversations in the van were not one-sided attempts by student ethnographers-in-training to practice developing rapport to extract information for their own benefit. The dialogue between the students, staff, and participants from the clinic spanned a number of topics and were reciprocal moments of information sharing and gathering. At the youth advocacy organization, the self-conscious deployment of gendered language and its messiness when assigned across contexts established the framework for self-reflection among the most vigilant pronoun-policing students in the class to question how what they defined as progressive gender politics may not be attuned with the ways people actually live through language to find meaning that expands the definitional potential of any one term.
These revelatory moments are what we hope to experience when we enter the field and why we embark on fieldwork in the first place. How, then, might they point to a future for anthropology that is different from what we have seen in the past?
As there is nothing really new under the sun, only new ways of perceiving what we hold to be true, I (and many of my undergraduate and graduate students) are working to reclaim a commitment to doing fieldwork that results in more than the data generated by ethnography. The conversations on the way to the Bronx and the terminology disclaimers in the youth advocacy presentation are examples of what I call unconditional relationality, where the relationships formed during research have a life outside of the research and are not solely beholden to the condition that these interactions service the anthropological project. These are ways of being with one another that center the process of learning people (not learning about them, but learning who they are) in context and in real-time. These are ways of being with one another that lead us to new realizations and help us cocraft innovative solutions to the project of living in this world that may or may not directly respond to our initial research preoccupations.
Unconditional relationality is rooted in the belief that we are responsible for and accountable to one another and, thus, that the knowledge we produce must be produced collectively in order to engender actions with any real transformative potential. The questions raised in the conversations on the too-long ride to the Bronx and during the discussion of gender and ball culture will ultimately alter the way my students and our field-trip facilitators approach issues from New York City politics and the limits of traditional organizing strategies to the dim prospects for job re-entry after incarceration and the impact of neighborhood displacement on the lives of economically marginalized young people. These conversations, over and above making us better informed students, professors, or community workers, will make us wiser people as we act within and outside of our institutional and organizational settings.
Listening to, learning from, and acting alongside other people has an impact that extends through and past our individual anthropological projects or scholarly engagements. I am seeking a way of thinking and acting with others that is richer than what has been called cotheorizing in many ethnographies, including my own. I am suggesting that we not only take interlocutors seriously as people who can help to sharpen the critical analysis in our texts, but as fellow travelers on this life journey with whom we are connected in processes of dynamic interaction as we mutually constitute one another and the landscapes we inhabit. Unconditional relationality necessarily changes us, so that we are equipped with tools such as courageous empathy that allow us to take generative action. I am committed to a future anthropology that values and invests in actions informed by this unconditional relationality, which stands to impact everyday people’s ability to establish lives for themselves. Approaching our work from a praxis of unconditional relationality would also make clear the ways that the disciplining of theory and method into the discrete field of anthropology has strangled the radical potential of our initial curiosities. This could mean that we gain a widened perspective that informs how we read graduate-student applications and job candidates and, by extension, how we go about dismantling the racist and neocolonial practices that continue to define the institutionalization of the field.
I understand that, in my centering of the complexity and unpredictability of human interaction, I may seem to be conflating anthropology and ethnography. I will admit that I am privileging relationships between people and what I believe to be the intrinsic value of our interdependency. Our interactions, of course, occur within complex geographies among other living beings and inanimate objects that act on us and that we act on in ways that we must continue to interrogate and understand. I am, however, paying close attention to how some of these interrogations can threaten to draw us further away from looking at and genuinely seeing other human beings and the often brutal, life-snatching challenges they face. Our inquiries as anthropologists make us differently vulnerable when the response to our questions may be that we are called out as liars, frauds, racists, or colonizers by people who are living alongside us as we do our work and have the capacity to not just answer but to talk back, critique, and demand that we be better people. Who is willing to take up space in these pockets of vulnerability in anthropology’s future?
For me, the answer to the question “why anthropology?” is Black feminism. The centering of narrative, learning in and from community, and the practice of theorizing through experience are aligned as methodologies in Black feminism as I have studied and lived it as praxis. Although an anthropologist may enter a community and participate and observe with unethical intentions, I refer to entering and interacting under the principle of unconditional relationality. In addition to its historical ties to colonization and imperialist xenophobia, anthropology has other historical legacies that could lead it and us into a different future.
What if, like Zora Neale Hurston, we loved the communities we live with and respected the knowledge formed there enough to reject the mandate to translate people’s lives for mainstream consumption or adhere to a theoretical register that would be legible and legitimized within anthropology departments? What if, like Katherine Dunham, we located our work wherever it was needed and in whatever form it could do the most benefit, which might include schools, the concert stage, streets in East St. Louis, and living rooms in Chicago? Hurston and Dunham’s work are part of anthropology’s history and represent a past that was already anticipating our future.
Anthropologists are generally uninterested in conclusive data points or finite answers. The fact that our questions lead us to more complicated and interesting questions, forcing us to interrogate the basis of our original inquiry, is what can potentially make our investigations as dynamic and vibrant as our world. So, when we ask ourselves about the future of anthropology, we have to also ask whose anthropology we are talking about, as there are as many orientations to the intellectual practice, methodological project, and disciplinary field as there are individuals who choose to identify themselves as anthropologists. And the question of the future is equally capacious. The presumption of a linear progression, ripe with possibilities and dangers up ahead, registers selective amnesia around the examples from our past and opportunities in our present that encourage us to refuse to be disciplined.
1. Ball culture, also known as house culture or the house community, is multifaceted and includes ball events where members of the LGBTQ community “walk” competitively in similar fashion to runway models. The categories that participants walk in generally represent gender norms of male and female aesthetic and physical presentation and performance, and are also often based on performances of social class or occupational status. Individuals compete as part of groups called houses, which can additionally function as families and support networks that provide economic stability, housing, safety, care, and protection.