The Five Major Challenges for Anthropology

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.

>> more information on her book


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:

Marianne Gullestad: Blind Slaves of our Prejudices: Debating 'Culture' and 'Race' in Norway

Marianne Gullestad: Normalising racial boundaries. The Norwegian dispute about the term 'neger'

Marianne Gullestad: Mohammed Atta and I. Identification, discrimination and the formation of sleepers

Marianne Gullestad: Invisible Fences: Egalitarianism, nationalism and racism

Links updated 2016-06-06

(I might come back with more posts on this book. I've just returned from the book launch)


Comment from: Patricia [Visitor]

Thanks for the post. I think Marianne Gullestad’s 5 challenges are an excellent pointer towards anthropology’s biggest challenge: publicly defining the discipline’s relevance to the 21st century world, ie, the globalized one we live in now, with all its problems, technology, and economic polarities. Gullestad hints at this in her #5 challenge–the study of “themes, peoples and perspectives that have largely been ignored as anthropologically uninteresting.” Anthropology must get over its navel gazing and explain to the world why its useful, then apply its usefulness anywhere needed, not ignoring those it finds “uninteresting.” if it can’t prove relevancy, anthro will be absorbed by the other disciplines and shoved into a closet as a cute 20th century interest. don’t believe it? just look at what’s happening to anthropology in France.

2006-03-29 @ 22:26
Comment from: malluva kasavets [Visitor]
malluva kasavets

are anhtropological problems only greatly linked to racism or there is something more tou are not talking about

2011-11-16 @ 22:36
Comment from: [Member]

There is much that is not mentioned here, but racism is indeed a central issue

2011-11-20 @ 02:57
Comment from: shwany [Visitor]  

the anthropology is Called (colonialism science)
As well as the anthropological thinking is against religious thinking in many eastern communities , especially Islamic societies …so I think it is the biggest challenge of Anthropology in these communities

best regards

2016-01-05 @ 21:48
Comment from: ghazali sani [Visitor]  
ghazali sani

anthropology is not contrariwise or against any religion most especially Islam, because the sole aime of it is to excavate the ancuient history, and the biggest challenge is thinking

2016-02-07 @ 03:32
Comment from: Muhbat Ali Shah Quaid i azam university Islamabad [Visitor]
Muhbat Ali Shah Quaid i azam university Islamabad

Anthropology has many challenges such as human being evolution, Culture relativism,subjectivity and objectivity, racism, to conduct and publish the ethnography in native language, anthropologist needs to focus on south Asian rural culture , these all challenges are need to be addressed by the anthropology in 21st century?

2017-04-30 @ 13:13

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