In her new book Plausible Prejudice: Everyday Experiences and Social Images of Nation, Culture and Race, Norwegian social anthropologist Marianne Gullestad identifies five major challenges for the discipline of anthropology. To understand the problems of the world today, we need to "decolonize anthropological knowledge", she writes.
Anthropological knowledge is needed more than ever as steoreotypes and lack of knowledge flourish about people from other countries. But on the other hand, Gullestad stresses, anthropology is still influenced by its colonial past.
Here are the five major challenges for the discipline of anthropology according to Marianne Gullestad (page 346-347):
1st CHALLENGE: To regard understanding and confronting racism as worthwhile academic and political concerns, and not as a conflict that was resolved long ago.
2nd CHALLENGE: To look historically and ethnographically at race thinking in relation to colonialism and imperialism, political decolonization, economic globalization, the end of the Cold War, and the new role of the United States as successor to the European empires that were defeated in the 20th century.
Traditional nationally oriented historiography and locally oriented anthropology overlook many processes across continents which represent a store of unexpected connections and complex interpretative resources that will no doubt contribute substantially to the understanding of how the imperial and colonial past continues to shape present-day social categories, boundaries and practices.
This framing or research will often involve carrying out multi-sited and transcontinental fieldwork.
3rd CHALLENGE: To examine not only the ideas and practices of self-professed racists (...), but also the conventional wisdom sourrounding racial thinking and its various forms of institutionalization. Racial categories and negative stereotypes are often both intensely familiar and also vigorously denied and forgotten as expressions of racism. They exist as pernicious symbolic resources which in given situations might potentially be employed more or less by anyone, regardless of gender, age, class, and skin color. (...)
4th CHALLENGE: To take seriously the complexity and variability of race thinking, and how it feeds into and is nourished by everyday life. (...) In this respect, my research has shown that ancestry and descent are particularly central. In fact, I argue that the racial coding of the new focus on 'culture' is based on ideas about descent as a form of imagined kinship.
5th CHALLENGE: To do more 'anthropology of anthropology' by locating themes, peoples and perspectives that have largely been ignored as anthropologically uninteresting, such as the social life-worlds of majority populations in Europe and the United States, the experiences of formerly colonized peoples with Europeans (as colonizers, administrators, settlers, missionaries, developmental experts, tourists etc.), and the ideas and strategies of political and economic elites, regardless of their location in the world and their physical features.
A very good comment by Bryan McKay (link updated). He writes, these five challenges should not be specific for anthropology:
"Substitute sexism, heterosexism, classism, et cetera for racism (and sex, sexuality/gender, class, et cetera for race) in the above challenges and you have a decent manifesto for any realm of critical cultural studies."
Kambiz Kamrani at anthropology.net writes that he agrees with Gullestad, but:
Anthropology will never succeed until it clearly defines culture. That's right, it hasn't. Anthropology has completely failed the public in not being able to define culture.
>> read the whole post on anthropology.net (link updated, original post no longer available)
Erkan Saka disagrees:
This emphasis on definition is against all I know about social sciences. Not that I am for an all relativistic social science with no substance. But what I know is that an act of defining is part of a power struggle.
>> read his whole post (link updated)
Her book is a kind of "best-of": It consists of a "remix" of ten previously published papers and three new texts, including the post-script that I've quoted from.
Some of these papers are available to download in full-text:
(I might come back with more posts on this book. I've just returned from the book launch)
Anthropologists seem to get more interested in academic culture. Not long ago we heard about anthropologists studying students. Now, anthropologist Rena Lederman is doing fieldwork among her her fellow academics. She is writing a book called “Anthropology Among the Disciplines,” which will examine the distinctions among several academic fields and explore how and when those borders become important, according to News at Princeton.
In an era when academia is emphasizing interdisciplinarity, Lederman sees significant differences in how anthropologists, sociologists, historians and social psychologists approach their fields, she says:
"My topic is not conventional perhaps, but my approach is classic participant observation: I attend closely to how disciplinary distinctions come up in everyday conversations. I pay attention to how scholars in one field talk about other fields or how they might defend their own if they feel it’s being challenged."
“She’s one of a handful of people who’s taking the opportunity to reflect ethnographically on the kinds of institutional lives that academics live,” said Don Brenneis, a professor of anthropology at the University of California-Santa Cruz. “It’s complicated for different reasons when you’re working with your own tribe.
Weaving is a tradition dear to the Rupshupa of Ladakh. But the craft is at the crossroads because many youngsters are leaving in search of a better lifestyle, says anthropologist Monisha Ahmed in The Hindu. "There are very few ethnic communities in the world where both men and women weave, and that's what makes the Rupshupa special," she says. She was so intrigued by their weaving tradition that in 1992 she decided to do her doctoral dissertation on the Rupshupa:
In the years since, Ahmed has spent a lot of time roaming and camping in their stark Changthang highlands with the Rupshupa, studying the fabric of their life. She has seen them moving 10 times a year, observed them herding and shearing their livestock, weaving their hair and fleece, playing traditional games, celebrating marriages, mourning the dead and offering worship at their monasteries in Thugje and Korzok, the tiny towns where they have their storehouses.
She has learned their songs and understood their prayers. Her first book, Living Fabric: Weaving among the Nomads of Ladakh, Himalaya, won the Textile Society of America's Shep Award in 2003 for best book in the field of ethnic textile studies.
The small groups of rural women in India fighting for change is something the rest of the world needs to take note of, says Mangala Subramaniam, an assistant professor of sociology and women's studies. Since the late 1990s, Subramaniam has studied social movements in India, particularly the women's movement in India and the dalit - poor, rural low-caste women in India - as they organized in their small villages.
Her book The Power of Women's Organizing: Gender, Caste and Class in India will be published this month.
In a press release she says:
"Unfortunately, many people in America and Europe are not aware of or know about the vibrancy of women's movements in Asian countries, such as India. And many people especially do not think about rural women in India organizing to fight for rights such as educational opportunities as well as to challenge discrimination based on social inequities of class, caste and gender. Studies of women's social movements outside of the west - America and Europe - are necessary in this increasingly globalizing world."
The World Social Forum is a place where social movements meet. Two years ago, it was held in Mumbai, India. I've written a summary: Inspiration from India: Hindus and Muslims eat breakfast together; Christian nuns join Tibetan monks in a chant. See also "Just like apartheid": The dalits are engaged in a fierce struggle to stop the ancient discrimination.
"The most important information, which we can get out of this study, is how and what kind of action one can take."
How much should anthropologists get involved in changing the lives of their informants? Johannes Wilm didn't limit his research to presenting his findings about the daily life in in Douglas, an US-mexican border town. In his conclusion of his book On the Margins: US Americans in a bordertown to Mexico, he considers several forms for action.
The challenge: More than half of the 14000 inhabitants in Douglas are unemployed, 53% of the under 18 years old are officially living under the poverty line. The main source of income for the town: Smuggling of people and drugs. He proposes among others:
Constantly high unemployment figures can tell us, that an organization of the lumpenproletariat is neccessary in the planning of a world revolution or some more localized struggle for a democratic and economically just society.
It becomes obvious that Wilm works within a Marxist framework. He is an peace and media activist and has been socialized through the globalisation from below movement.
People in bordertowns are especially skilled, he found:
Also, in a border town, knowledge is spread according to a much more heterogeneous pattern, and a group of people cooperating across the various barriers will therefore be likely to build up a great amount of knowledge of how to circumvent the power apparatus of either of the involved states. Just for this, in the planning of a cross-national or global change, towns like Douglas should not be ignored.
In bordertowns, we find more ethnic diversity than in other areas. This might be a hinder? Wilm denies:
While ethnic diversity often has been seen as a hinder to organisation, it seems that combined with unemployment, its force is not as negative. In cases where people are forced to live close together and each person only has access to a part of the things seen as desirable (...), it even integrates rather than segregates.
The inhabitants with Mexican background are often "the better Americans":
And while lots of Hispanics with strong personal ties to Mexico in Douglas seem to believe in the "American way of life", it is Anglos that are the first ones to actively break out of the hegemonic space once they have the chance. (...) It is Anglos that represent resistance and not Hispanics.
He quotes an Hispanic father who has returned from the war in Iraq:
"Seen to many dead children", he explains, while he almost seems to start to cry. However, he finds time commenting on the amount of Anglos in the military. "I guess white people don't like serving their country that much" as he puts it.
Generally, he found, that ethnicity / race or class don't play a role in the daily life in Douglas. That's due to the economic crisis in his view:
Even though Douglas has had a history of segregation based on ethnicity, the complete lack of any kind of job for vast proportions of the population, and consequently the prevalence of the lumpenproletariat, has also done away with the ethnic model of stratification. None of my Anglo informants are in any position of power due to their ethnic background.
Had I been in Douglas during the good days of American capitalism, while Phelps Dodge still was there, they would have been strictly segregated according to race in the earlier period, or according to income layer in the latter period. Keoki, Art and Tim, all with somewhat more of an intellectual background also find themselves in this classless society in which everyone is part of the lumpenproletariat.
While I agree that advocacy is one of anthropologists' jobs, we should, I think, be cautious about presenting final solutions as he does when he describes the problems connected with organizing people:
(...) A fourth problem (...), the amount of Marxist or anarchist literature read by the members of the lumpenproletariat seems quite low, and is often replaced by the Bible, Adam Smith or, in the case of the cultural elite, various critics who are looking at single issues. This means that agitation has to start from the very beginning.
(...) What has to be done, is to develop a generic psychologic strategy to win over people with background from "serving the nation".
1. Tell us your main points and findings before you start ("I will show that the Earth is flat" or so) and sum up your paper at the end.
2. Tell us why we should listen to you. Yes, it's interesting that you have studied childhood in India. But why can your research be interesting or relevant for us who are not specialists in your field? What new insights does your paper give regarding general theories in anthropology and being a human?
3. 20 minutes are 20 minutes. Stop talking when your time is over. Check the length of your presentation a few days before the conference, so that you avoid struggling with the introduction few minutes before your time is over.
4. Don't read from your paper. Talk to and with your audience! By reading from your paper you show disrespect to your audience. This is the most important point and can't be stressed enough. Many speakers at conferences and seminars don't bother presenting their papers in a way that is understandable for us who came to listen. We have discussed anthropological writing. Maybe we should also talk about anthropological talking. Anthropologists can't write. Maybe they can't talk either.
Steve Portigal, a customer research consultant using ethnography, has written a brilliant post about his experiences at academic conferences, among others about a conference with both anthropologists and designers.
Meanwhile, the theory presentations emerged. And here we saw the academic tradition, I believe, where instead of a presentation or a talk, a paper was delivered. Several people in a row stood in, some without any visual aids, and read. For forty-five minutes. They read. At least one person had the ability to jump in and out of his text, make eye contact, and spontaneously offer up a clarification or a hand gesture. But others simply read. It was horrifying. The density of prose was (as with the 7-minute DUX example above) way beyond my ability to parse and it was boring and not engaging.
But back to the reading. What the hell? Is this standard? How is this a way to convey information or start a dialog? I got a lot of grumbling from my colleagues about this; some would have rather read the paper on their own time, rather than coming a great distance to watch someone else read it. Others just stopped coming into the sessions.
A common experience: The speakers go over time. Five minutes before their offical time is over, they still struggle with their introduction. I always wondered why they haven't checked the length of their presentations before.
Steve Portigal writes:
a read paper could not be modified when time ran out, and so facilitators inched closer to presenters in the hopes of having them wrap things up, but no, darn it, I’ve written these 20000 words and I’m going to spit them at you regardless of what time it is. The emphasis was not on making connections between people and other people and ideas. It was really a drag.
Denise Carter comments:
Reading How To Present A Paper - or Can Anthropologists Talk? had me nodding along in agreement at the wishlist.
I’ve had some experience of conference presentations in various parts of the world with poor presentations that had left me bored and fidgety. Hence I have already decided NOT to write a paper, but instead, to write a presentation around my topic ‘Order and Disorder in the Virtual City’. My intention is that a fruitful and enlightening dialogue will emerge that will clarify some of my ideas – resulting in a more rounded and polished paper that will address some important issues.
How to study children? "You can't just interview children because most children will find interviews boring and walk away. So we need to facilitate a way for children to explain their own lives with you. We want children to be their own ethnographers, so children can reflect on their own lives and examine them", anthropologist Pamela Reynolds and Veena Das explain in The Johns Hopkins Newsletter.
Pamela Reynolds studied children in a shantytown in South Africa. Veena Das did fieldwork among young girls infected with HIV. Together in 2003, Reynolds and Das created the Child On The Wing Fellowship. The message of Child On The Wing is that children are far from only victims; they have agency and ability to create change in their worlds.
"In some ways, when you're a child in these situations, you've got to invent your roots, your manner of coping, and often that invention is very creative, surprising and successful, given the circumstances."
So how can we grasp the childrens' point of view?
She [Das] gave an example of a participant who wanted to study the experience of children growing up as dalit, the untouchable caste in India, but from a new angle that hadn't been examined. He chose to study their paintings, bringing in aspects of psychoanalysis in his work. It was a perfect melding of anthropology and the field of psychology, which rarely interrelate. In Das' words, it "bridged the humanities and social sciences gap."
I remember from a conference on children research that several anthropologists used digital cameras in their studies: They let the children document their own daily life and explain it to the researchers by talking about the photos.
UPDATE: Charu at Mindspace points to more relevant links, among others The Conflict in Darfur Through Children's Eyes, using drawings and The Kalleda photoblog project by kids at Kalleda Rural School in Andhra Pradesh, India - "glimpses that would otherwise never be available to the outsider". >> read Charus post: Children as ethnographers
Child on the Wings: Two anthropologists are taking a child-centered approach. (Arts and Science Magazine, John Hopkins University)
Pamela Reynolds: Where Wings Take Dream: On Children in the Work of War and the War of Work (The Journal of the International Institute, Univ of Michigan)
Seeing Children and Hearing Them, Too: Anthropologists now realize that transmitting values is a two-way street (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
My so-called anthropology newspaper is getting more and more crowded. The most recent addition is Cultural commentary", a blog by anthropologist Marcel J. Harmon. He is partner and founding member of the consultancy Human Inquiry, that "applies anthropological/ethnographic methods within an evolutionary framework" to among others "improve human applications of technology, increase profits, and maximize productivity by analyzing how people use technology - from laptop computers to architectural spaces - thus enhancing the enjoyment, comfort, efficiency, satisfaction, and safety of both customers and employees".
Also added: The life of PhD with the subtitle "Writing a PhD can be fun, but it can also be torture. This is my space for coming to terms with writing my thesis". Many thoughts about the writing and working process!