Keith Hart and Thomas Hylland Eriksen: This is 21st century anthropology
What holds humanity together? What are the hidden or unacknowledged features of mainstream society? These are the issues that 21st century anthropology should address, Thomas Hylland Eriksen writes in his paper The perilous identity politics of anthropology, Keynote lecture at the conference “21st century Anthropology” at the University of Oxford 28–29 June 2007.
“Obsessed with everything that divides humanity for a hundred years, anthropology could now be ready to return to the commonalities, that which holds humanity together", the Norwegian anthropologist suggests.
And rather than studying down, we have to begin to study sideways and up. “The crowded field of minority studies", he writes, “in no way matched by an equal interest in majority studies":
A possible solution might consist in making a real effort to study the basic institutions of society – any society – essentially through ethnographic methods, in the same way as we should – again – begin to address the central intellectual questions of today, in the domains of development, democracy, rights, human nature and the environmental crisis. This is being done already, but in too modest a way to make an impact proper. (…) Anthropological studies of everyday life in a modern society, municipal politics, diplomacies, government corporations, schools, hospitals and even military academies exist, but most of them focus too much on culture and too little on the features of the social organisation, in its formal as well as informal aspects.
Anthropology should confidently locate its focus of enquiry to the centre of society, using ethnographic methods not so much to create wonderment and surprise, but to reveal hidden or unacknowledged features of mainstream society. In this way we would be able to generate knowledge which is not only truthful, but also relevant and – dare I say it – useful. (…) Just as our predecessors took on the central institutions in their small-scale societies, we should now do the same thing in large-scale societies.
Nearly at the same time, Keith Harth published his paper Toward a new human universal. Rethinking anthropology for the twenty-first century, a lecture he is going to hold at the Center for 21st century studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on the September 7th.
Keith Hart argues in a similar way. In his opinion, “the task of building a global civil society for the twenty-first century, even a world state, is an urgent one and anthropological visions should play their part in that":
The solution to anthropology’s problems cannot be found in increased specialization, in the discovery of new areas of social life to colonize with the aid of old professional paradigms or in a return to literary scholarship disguised as a new dialogical form. It requires new patterns of social engagement extending beyond the universities to the widest reaches of world society.
This in turn requires us first, to acknowledge how people everywhere are pushing back the boundaries of the old society and second, to be open to universality, most versions of which have been driven underground by national capitalism and would be buried forever if the present corporate privatization of intellectual life is allowed to succeed.
So, given the precariousness of contemporary anthropology as an academic institution, the issue of its future needs to be couched in broader terms than those defined by the profession itself. (…) Rather I have sought inspiration in Kant’s philosophy and in the critique of unequal society that originates with Rousseau. ‘Anthropology’ would then mean whatever we need to know about humanity as a whole if we want to build a more equal world fit for everyone.