A is for Anthropology, Affordances, Ambivalence, Aotearoa

From the Series: From Reciprocity to Relationality: Anthropological Possibilities

Photo by Mattias Givell.

The year 2018 marked a significant conjuncture for me as a teacher of anthropology. It is the year I resumed teaching Anthropology 101 after an interval of a decade, as well as the year my daughter took her first anthropology course at university. Both of these events converge as I reflect on what such an introductory course might offer students, and why it was important to me that my daughter include some anthropology in her undergraduate course of study. It is also an occasion to voice my ambivalence about the feasibility of envisaging a life within academia as an anthropologist as I did several decades ago, so very certain that I would find a hospitable environment there. Yet I have no doubt at all that anthropology must remain a vital component of any undergraduate curriculum; indeed, it is more necessary than ever at this juncture in the twenty-first century.

Digital technologies have exploded in the decade since I last taught introductory anthropology, enabling a distinctly collaborative mode of engagement in dialogue with other teachers of anthropology across the world. Whether through social media networks such as Anthropology Teaching Ideas and Teaching College Anthropology or Jason Antrosio’s Living Anthropologically project, which draws on his ongoing undergraduate teaching experiences to highlight the important attributes of anthropology, the generosity of other teacher-scholars abounds in this sphere. Offering resources, pedagogically informed teaching practices, and channels of communication with others locally and globally, these networks make developing a new course from scratch more possible now than ever before.

Such a spirit of collegiality is also discernible in the design, form, and content of the open-access volume Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, which I used in my Anthropology 101 course. Dispensing with an expensive, unwieldy, and in large part useless textbook, Perspectives offered instead a solution whereby different chapters could be downloaded, adapted, and used separately or in combination according to the teaching context. It allowed us, located as we were in the Antipodes, to jettison the imposition of an expensive, imported textbook on beginning students, yet to offer them a standby to which they could refer as and when needed at no cost. The absence of a textbook also freed up the three of us involved in this endeavor to assemble the content of a new course unencumbered. Delving deep into our own amalgamated experiences as student-researcher-teacher over the years, we ranged far and wide to identify what was important to highlight about sociocultural anthropology at the current conjuncture.

Informing our search for the conditions and potentials of human life in the twenty-first century was the timely advent of Tim Ingold’s (2017) new book, Anthropology and/as Education. Ingold’s generous and open-ended writing enabled us to articulate our own invitation to our students, which was complemented by Laura Nader’s chapter in Perspectives endorsing anthropology’s porous boundaries and intentional refusal to specialize. Ghassan Hage’s (2012, 301) insight that anthropology imparts an awareness that “we can be other than what we are” was the crowning element to the set of defining attributes we stitched together in the introductory lecture. The writings of all these eminent anthropologists enabled us to highlight not only the significance of the discipline but also the landscape of affordances that the study of anthropology makes possible in the here and now (see Keane 2014)—most significantly, the invitation it extends to envisage a human future that is at home living amid difference.

There is a discernible rift in the disciplinary ethos we strive to communicate in our teaching and its quotidian performances in the hallways of anthropology departments, where what we preach is clearly not practiced.

Why, then, the ambivalence to which I allude in my opening paragraph, even as I passionately invoke the spirit of anthropology to new students (including my daughter) and continue to invite them to take more anthropology courses? First, the prevailing audit culture across academic institutions to which academics worldwide hasten to respond (see Shore and Wright 2015) has rendered the academic environment increasingly uninhabitable and without recourse. Notwithstanding the impetus of the Aberdeen Manifesto to remind academia that it is possible to envisage human (and academic) flourishing, Zoe Todd’s searing indictment testifies to the plight of young scholars and their mounting precarity across anthropology departments worldwide. There is a discernible rift in the disciplinary ethos we strive to communicate in our teaching and its quotidian performances in the hallways of anthropology departments, where what we preach is clearly not practiced. My awareness of such a Janus face to the discipline is the basis for my own ambivalence and concern. Today I would hesitate to encourage my daughter or my students to plan a career in academia, as I did. As much as I want to believe that shaping anthropological sensibilities through disciplinary study also confers a moral horizon that carries over to other domains of life, I know that this is wishful thinking that crumbles in the face of evidence to the contrary.

But there is some promise yet in a place like Aotearoa/New Zealand, where the materiality of Te Tiriti as a living, binding set of agreements and expectations throws down a wero(challenge) that forces a different set of reflexive positions and reckonings, especially for anthropology and its associated practices. A place where enduring values of kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and manaakitanga (hospitality), embraced by Māori and non-Māori alike, inculcates vigilance and an ethics of care—even as academia continues to be wracked by neoliberal storms unleashed upon university after university. As critical scholars around the world grapple with issues of decolonization, many of us teaching anthropology in Aotearoa are afforded the mahi (work) to remain ever mindful of the unfinished decolonization at the heart of this settler nation. What that means for our continuing engagement with Māori colleagues and for the teaching of anthropology as a basis for human flourishing remains to be seen, as my home institution announces its mission as a “Tiriti-led university.” Perhaps, in time, an anthropology from the Antipodes can offer the gift of a different ethos and practice, as we walk forward with our eyes set firmly on the past.


Hage, Ghassan. 2012. “Critical Anthropological Thought and the Radical Political Imaginary Today.” Critique of Anthropology 32, no. 3: 285–308.

Ingold, Tim. 2017. Anthropology and/as Education. New York: Routledge.

Keane, Webb. 2014. “Affordances and Reflexivity in Ethical Life: An Ethnographic Stance.” Anthropological Theory 14, no. 1: 3–26.

Shore, Cris, and Susan Wright. 2015. “Audit Culture Revisited: Rankings, Ratings, and the Reassembling of Society.” Current Anthropology 56, no. 3: 421–44.