Anthropologist are drawn to topics: peoples, places, things. It’s part of the idiographic focus of our discipline that Boas noticed over a century ago, a fascination with the particular which has also been denounced as exoticizing or orientalizing: we just really really care about Ecuador. It really matters to when the new Methodist church was build in the village square of the place where we did fieldwork. We are the discipline which Leslie White mocked for publishing articles with title likes “An Unusual Prayer Stick From Acoma Pueblo”. Maybe it is because anthropology has always welcomed people who are interested in exploring their own subject positions as women or of color or indigenous, or as indigenous women of color, the Bea Medecines and Katherine Dunhams and Zora Neal Hurstons of our discipline’s past. Maybe it is because the the white guys in our discipline got attracted to it after getting out of the Peace Corp, or being teachers abroad, or otherwise getting hooked up with one particular community. At any rate, we tend to think in topics.
What we are supposed to do is to think in terms of problems: what is the relationship between individual agency and cultural norms? How does the environment affect culture? In what situations does ethnic conflict become violent? We are supposed to think like this because many people whose opinions we care about believe that scientific inquiry should be carried out in this more nomothetic, or generalizing, mindset: lab scientists, for one, whose experiments on rat livers are more driven by the problem ‘how does the body make proteins’ than the topic of ‘rat livers: so fascinating’. Political scientists and sociologist, the members of disciplines adjacent to ours, are also often motivated by this generalizing urge: what similarities can we discern between the Russian, French, and Chinese (Communist) revolutions? What is the relationship between race and quality of treatment in the medical system?
Our tendency to end our topics with periods rather than question marks has more practical outcomes as well. As teachers, we struggle to get out students to understand why the details of Nuer kinship ought to interest them. AAlthough we yearn to be ‘public’ or ‘applied’ when asked ‘what role does religion play in development’ our answer is often ‘They build the Methodist church in the town square in 1952! I fond pictures in the archives!’. Most importantly, the people who fund our dissertation research are, for the most part, interested in its theoretical relevance (‘intellectual merit’ as the NSF puts it) than in the area we study.
How, then, can graduate students learn to turn their topics into problems? How can professors make their ethnography interesting to those uninterested in their topic?
The obvious answer is to make your work ‘theoretically relevant’. In anthropology, this means making the topic you study the perfect place to explore a Big Question in the literature. Topic: Samoa. Problem: how do people use gender roles? Topic: Eighteenth-century Hawai’i. Problem: what is the relationship between structure and agency? Like that.
The problem with this method, of course, is that when you are fascinated by topics rather than problems you 1) don’t know what the Big Questions are because you’ve been busy digging out old photos of churches in the archives instead of reading Cultural Anthropology and 2) you can’t ‘read theory’ because you find it totally boring and not about your topic.
Let me suggest a way out of this problem.
First generalize your topic. What is that thing that you find so fascinating about your topic, and can you find it in other topics? If what really amazes you that they could build this huge gold mine out in the middle of nowhere Amazonia, then perhaps your problem is ‘resource frontiers’. You might even get interested in copper mines in Mongolia because you’re all like ‘hey that’s JUST LIKE what’s happening in the Amazon’. When they built the Methodist church in your town becomes ‘Methodist missions to Latin America’ or perhaps ‘the worldwide spread of Methodism’ or perhaps even something as general as ‘missionization’ or ‘the anthropology of Christianity’.Do you see what’s happened? You now have a generalized and comparative topic rather than one tied to a particular time and place. You have found ethnographic analogies to your field site.
Second find the differences between the particular cases covered by your generalized, comparative topics. In Amazonia they fought the coming of the mine tooth and nail, while in Mongolia they had a large, primarily mutton, barbeque to welcome the mine executives. Hmmm. It looked similar on the surface but now you see some differences.
Third put a question mark on it. The simplest way to do this is what accounts for those differences: Why is mining welcomed in the Amazon but not in Mongolia? Maybe its because the mining operations were different — one had a large environmental impact and the other did not. Maybe it is because rural Mongolians are desperate for cash and people in Amazonia want to stick to subsistence farming (both of these examples are totally made up by the way — sorry all Mongolianists out there).
Fourth, remove proper nouns. Now that you have added the question mark, remove all proper nouns. Go from “Why is mining welcomed in Mongolia but not in the Amazon?” to “Why are resource extraction projects welcomed in some communities but not others?” Or even “what is the relationship between global capital and local communities in the post-9/11 world?”. A fifth optional step, which you can only use for the next 18 months or so, is to add the word ‘assemblage’ to your project title. Congratulations: you have a problem which is ‘intellectually meritorious’.
So: develop comparative scope, look for differences, put a question mark on noted differences, and remove proper nouns. This procedure doesn’t get you in touch with Big Topics (that’s the subject of another blog post) not does it help make one less cynical about ‘theory’, but hopefully it will help topicheads see that even the most abstract theoretical discussions articulate with their own interests if you just follow the intellectual thread that connects them for long enough.