Rex recently asked for “anthropology creeds” but for the life of me I can’t write one. So instead I’ll write about why I think the task is impossible. An anti-creed if you like.
In short, I think that anthropology, like Christmas, or the island on Lost, is whatever you want it to be. Every discipline in academia also exists as a mirror-self within anthropology: economics, semiotics, medicine, political-science, genetics, religion, history…etc., all have their counterparts in anthropology. And not just one counterpart either. Just looking at economic anthropology, one can take a myriad of different approaches to the subject all of which are called anthropology. Just about the only approach not called anthropology would be that used by economists… and even there I’m sure you can find some anthropologists whose work isn’t too different from what you would find in an economics journal.
Some scholars have tried to do an end-run around the question by defining anthropology in terms of its method rather than its subject matter. This is what the AAA tries to do in defining sociocultural anthropology. But that runs into two problems: First of all, anthropologists don’t own “ethnography.” Lots of other disciplines now use ethnography as a standard methodological tool. Secondly, not all anthropologists do ethnography. There are historical anthropologists and those in Foucauldian governmentality studies whose research might sometimes include ethnography but is often much more concerend with textual analysis. Then there are archaeologists, biological anthropologists, and linguists who also frequently do work which is not ethnographic (although, again, many do include ethnography). I would even add that a lot of traditional, supposedly ethnographic, cultural anthropology often uses ethnography in a very superficial way. All too often, journal articles invoke ethnography to confer legitimacy on a text which isn’t really ethnographic at all. I don’t say this as a criticism, I personally think anthropologists should be wary of fetishizing methodology. Ethnography is a big part of who we are, but I don’t think we should be defined by it.
Instead of trying to define the discipline as a whole, we are better off thinking of ourselves as social scientists, writ large. To the extent that we function within anthropology departments, publish in anthropology journals, and hang out with 6,000 anthropologists at the annual meetings, we are anthropologists. But within that there are multiple “anthropologies” which function more-or-less independently of the whole. We can (and often do) choose to wear multiple hats, defined by our training (“Temple Anthropologist”), specialty (“Linguistic Anthropologist”), politics (“Marxist Anthropologist”) etc. Sometimes all three (or more!) at the same time – including all the contradictions which come with that.
The real problem, I think, is the way institutions are increasingly forcing us to narrowly define our area of expertise. This is particularly bad in Taiwan where academic evaluations can be down-graded for lacking focus, even when the scholar in question has only two or three areas of interest. I recently read a talk by James Clifford which addressed this issue. He called for “creating a multiplex, adaptive, hyphenating/connecting knowledge space that is…fundamentally interpretive, realist, historical, and ethico-political.” I think this is what anthropology needs to be as well. We shouldn’t settle for anything less.
Addendum: If one were to seriously try to define anthropology, I would probably adopt a prototype semantics approach, defining key features which may or may not be present in the work of any individual anthropologist. Umberto Eco famously did this in his definition of Fascism [PDF]. Perhaps another time…
UPDATE: Proper link to James Clifford’s talk.