Paul Ryan, economics, and the voice of anthropology

I just read a post over on Daily Kos called “Paul Ryan’s Magical Economic Worldview: The Austrian School.”  First of all, it’s pretty funny.  Second, it brings up some important questions about how we talk about that whole “economics” thing.  Check it out, it’s an entertaining (and irreverent) read with some good points made along the way*.  But that post also left me wondering: Where on earth are the anthropologists in these kinds of debates about human behavior, economics, and policy?  There’s no shortage of conversation about economics among the “general public” around the world, so why is it that we don’t hear all that much from anthropologists?  And by “all that much” I mean basically never.  It’s not like we have a shortage of experience with this stuff.  I mean, Malinowski was talking about economics and human nature and all kinds of good stuff almost 100 years ago.   So what’s the deal here?  Where are the anthropologists?  In the US, for example, we hear a lot from the likes of Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, the folks at the Von Mises Institute, and a whole slew of other economists and “experts” who find their way into print, radio, TV, and internet discussions.  Many folks even listen to Glenn Beck, of all people, about economics.  No, really: people listen to Glenn Beck.

Where oh where have the anthropologists gone?

So, thinking in a strategic sense, how can anthropologists become a more engaged part of these kinds of discussions?  Seems to me that we have a lot to offer, and have for decades.  So why are the economists getting all the air time?  Is it because they try harder?  Are they better looking?  Do they have better ideas?  Are they paying people off at CNN, Fox, and the New York Times?  Or are we stuck in the proverbial bull pen of public debate because this sort of engagement with wider audiences isn’t really “our thing”?  Are we being shut out of the conversation? (I highly doubt it.)  Is this kind of thing “too political”?  Or are we too busy “counting yams” (a nod to this recent post at the OAC about the passing of Eric Hobsbawm) to participate in these kinds of larger conversations?  What gives?

I’m looking forward to the day when someone trots out the usual “humans are all self-interested rational actors” line and at least one anthropologist is called on as an expert to offer a slightly different take.  And when I say “slightly” I mean something like this.**  So how do we get there?  How, dare I say, shall we step outside the halls of academia to once again engage in public debate?  I’d say it’s about time we regain the public voice we once had in the long past days of Boas, Mead, and Benedict.

Or are we too busy for that sort of thing these days?

 

*You can also see my plug for anthropology in the comments of the post.

**David Graeber is one of the anthropologists who has done a great job of expanding the discussion beyond academia, closed conferences, and peer reviewed papers.  And he deserves a kudos for that.  I think we need more of that sort of thing.  But it doesn’t mean this is an either/or issue.  I think we can do solid academic work AND engage in these kinds of wider debates, issues, and discussions.  It might help if this sort of thing, along with teaching, “counted” a bit more in how we evaluate up and coming anthropologists.  Just sayin.

Ryan Anderson is a cultural anthropologist, writer, and photographer. His current research focuses on the politics of development and land in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is also an adamant advocate of Open Access publishing, challenging the current regime of student debt, and rethinking the state of Higher Ed. He is currently living out in the California desert, where he's working on his next move in the chess game that is life. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

36 thoughts on “Paul Ryan, economics, and the voice of anthropology

  1. I actually had this conversation last night. I feel that anthropologists spend too much time writing for other anthropologists. We can talk about identity in SEAsia or the nutrition of Inuits, but forget we can easily apply things in a broader sense and here at home. I feel that it is too easy to focus on the other while never bringing that information back home. I cannot even recall how many times I have talked to other anthro grad students about American affairs and they just do not ‘have time’ to care.

  2. That post at Daily Kos betrays an astounding lack of understanding of not just Hayek and Mises but social theory as a whole. Jesus, why would you repost such a thing in a positive light? 1) Why we would ever take seriously the claim of a young American pol to be the serious student of abstruse early 20th century Hapsburg economists? We shouldn’t. 2) The author doesn’t seem to understand at all what Hayek and Mises are saying in a single passage he quotes. But this isn’t exceptional — you speak of the amount of attention paid to economists, but there is precious little grasp of what economics as a form of knowledge production actually is.

    These complaints that anthropologists should play a public role akin to economists seem to willfully ignore both the differences between the sorts of knowledge that the two disciplines are able to produce and do in fact produce and they way they are articulated discursively and institutionally with different centers of power in our societies. With regard to the first, it might be questioned whether anthropology can produce the sorts of broadly scoped but narrowly posed questions and answers that politics and politicians need — we tend to do the opposite. And as to what we actually do produce additionally we have a whole set of disciplinary inclinations, inculcated through our pedagogy, that push us away from topics of broad interest or require the conclusions, if any are to be drawn, to be phrased narrowly scoped. (I completely leave out the false problem of jargon — pick up an economics journal and tell me if they’re any less full of jargon than ours are.) With regard to the second, we have no understanding of how economists and economic discourse are made socially efficacious — which would be a ripe topic for anthropological investigation!

  3. @Dustin:

    “I feel that anthropologists spend too much time writing for other anthropologists.”

    Agreed. We need to get out more.

    @Adam:

    “That post at Daily Kos betrays an astounding lack of understanding of not just Hayek and Mises but social theory as a whole. Jesus, why would you repost such a thing in a positive light?”

    Here’s what I wrote about this piece, Adam: “First of all, it’s pretty funny. Second, it brings up some important questions about how we talk about that whole ‘economics’ thing.” I also said that the author makes some good points along the way. Is it a masterpiece about Hayek or Mises? Of course not. It’s a polemic, written in an irreverent style. I think it’s funny that one of your main complaints is that it’s not up to snuff in terms of “social theory as a whole.” What does that even mean?

    “Why we would ever take seriously the claim of a young American pol to be the serious student of abstruse early 20th century Hapsburg economists? We shouldn’t.”

    Why not?

    “The author doesn’t seem to understand at all what Hayek and Mises are saying in a single passage he quotes…”

    Well, he doesn’t actually quote Hayek directly. He does quote Mises and then Rothbard. So what is he missing about what Mises and [Rothbard] are really saying in those two quotes?

    “These complaints that anthropologists should play a public role akin to economists seem to willfully ignore both the differences between the sorts of knowledge that the two disciplines are able to produce and do in fact produce and they way they are articulated discursively and institutionally with different centers of power in our societies.”

    Well, ok. So, the knowledge produced is different, and “articulated discursively and institutionally” in different centers of power…and that’s your reason why anthropologists can’t take part in these conversations? A lot of words, Adam, but I’m not buying. Maybe the difference between the two types of knowledge production is part of the point in speaking up, eh? Maybe that’s something the anthros can add here. Just a thought.

    “With regard to the first, it might be questioned whether anthropology can produce the sorts of broadly scoped but narrowly posed questions and answers that politics and politicians need — we tend to do the opposite.”

    Well, that’s part of the point. Anthropologists are doing something a bit different, and my argument is that this can and should be a part of these larger conversations. Why not? Because it’s all “too complex” for people to grasp? That’s a cop-out. We could also learn to get a little better at taking our ethnographic specifics and tying them to larger processes, but that’s another story. Also: the point is not necessarily to give politicians the answers they want, need, or expect. The point is to stop sticking our heads in the academic sand if we truly think anthropology has something to add. The point is to become a more active part of these conversations. Again: Why not?

    “I completely leave out the false problem of jargon — pick up an economics journal and tell me if they’re any less full of jargon than ours are.”

    Jargon is hardly a false problem…but it all depends on the audience you are trying to reach. It’s all fine and dandy in journals–and economists are just as jargon-y as the best of them. But here I am talking about communicating with different, wider audiences. We can’t write in the same style we use when trying to publish in anthro journals, which are only read by anthros. I’d argue that there are a lot more econs who write for general audiences than anthros, and maybe we could use a few more people who can make that crossover. Are you against that sort of thing?

    “With regard to the second, we have no understanding of how economists and economic discourse are made socially efficacious…”

    You’re saying we have no idea how economists and economic discourse are made socially “effective as a means, measure, or remedy”? What on earth do you mean by that? We don’t know how the ideas and discourses of economists are translated into public policy? No idea? Really? I agree with you that this would be a good subject for some sort of deeper ethnographic analysis, but I think it’s a complete overstatement to say we are completely clueless about how this works–and that for some reason this stops us from engaging in these debates/conversations. Strange argument. But thanks for the comment.

  4. This is all quite unfortunate. The article from Daily Kos was frankly a mess of ignorance.

    Anthropological engagement with Austrian Theory would be both interesting and fruitful for a number of reasons. For one, the Weberian critique of reductivist positivism, the critique of decontextualized quantification and the Mengerian subjective theory of value are intellectual products quite sympathetic to anthro theory. We all know that “rational” is used in a number of ways for a number of reasons. A cursory reading of Mises would reveal that his use is most closely aligned to the way in which Pritchard calls the Nuer logical. Mises is not claiming that human value is objective, and thus able to be measured as optimal or not. Rather, rational for Mises means that actions serve to pursue values and preferences, whatever those values might be (emotional, social, utilitarian, time, cognitive exertion, monetary, etc…) In particular, the Austrian notion of subjective value as critique of Marxian labor theory has been articulated by Menger and Mises long before Sahlins discovered it.

    Also, it is no stretch to trace Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology, a radical methodological individualism, through Schutz to Weber. In short, Austrian theory shares quite a lot with some non-Marxian anthro theory.

  5. @Michael:

    “This is all quite unfortunate. The article from Daily Kos was frankly a mess of ignorance.”

    Hmm. I’m not sure why all of this is so unfortunate. Keep in mind that I did not link the post because it was some end all be all exposition about Hayek or Mises, but instead to ask why anthropologists aren’t taking part in public debates and discussions about economics. That was the point. Just FYI.

    “Anthropological engagement with Austrian Theory would be both interesting and fruitful for a number of reasons.”

    Maybe. I think that some of the questions they raised (or at least agreed with) about value and the limits of statistics, for example, are interesting. I think they ask some good questions at times. But I am not sure if I agree with a lot of their premises, or where they took their arguments. But then I’d have to read a lot more of Mises I suppose in order to really evaluate what he was trying to say.

    “In particular, the Austrian notion of subjective value as critique of Marxian labor theory has been articulated by Menger and Mises long before Sahlins discovered it.”

    I am not sure what I think about their subjective value theories as of yet, but it’s on my list to read. More about that later. The good news is that many of the stuff is open access and freely available online. That helps.

  6. Ryan,

    I got your point, and it’s a good one – I didn’t think that you were endorsing it. I merely meant that it is unfortunate that some anthropologist’s, who may read this blog, introduction to Austrian Theory would be a hack job from Daily Kos.

    I do agree that anthropologists should be out there speaking economics – I also think it would be awesome if they engaged with some existing theory that they may find consonant. There are plenty labor theorists out there – Austrian econ could be an unique opportunity to get an interdisciplinary dialogue from a more agent centered – intersubjective approach. It won’t be to everyone’s taste of course, but the Austrians get Continental theory in a way that the neo-classicists never will – or at least haven’t yet.

  7. Thank you!

    Yes, it’s a great problem that anthropologists are normally left out of these debates, but I think it’s much because we don’t actively get out there AS anthropologists, but rather try to hide behind other more fancy.sounding titles, if we even do get out there. We tend to look on, and when other people “misunderstand” human nature, then we don’t speak up because we somehow think they won’t understand our arguments, or prove us wrong on scientific foundations, when we could, if we took it seriously as an endaveour, disprove the shaky foundations a lot of this “science” (read: economics) is founded upon.

    Question is, then, why don’t we do this? I don’t think it has to do with making it “count”; remember that other academics are not paid or recognized by their universities for doing “non-academic” things either, whether that be giving talks in schools or being part of public discourse. Partly it has to do with the history of the discipline and the fact that we are still recovering both from evolution-of-civilization-tropes and from the postmodern dissolution of meaning. Partly it’s lack of confidence that we will be understood. We won’t, because we’re outside the generalising behavioural models and rooted in the particular. Partly its the fact that we feel we need to have done 10 years of work before we can even begin to talk (whereas many other disciplines are more forgiving against youngsters). So maybe it’s about having confidence that as long as the underpinning work is academically sound, we can trust our ability to navigate in the unknown waters of public discourse and on-the-ground engagement, and let that practice be informed by our theoretical and practical grounding in fieldwork and anthropology.

    That’s just my stream-of-consciousness on it right now, at the very least.

  8. “we could, if we took it seriously as an endaveour, disprove the shaky foundations a lot of this “science” (read: economics) is founded upon. Question is, then, why don’t we do this?”

    The notion that one could go about ‘disproving’ a discipline is … I don’t even know what to say.

    At the very least, it is exemplary of the kind of ignorance of economics and economists amongst non-economists, and especially amongst anthros, that prevents us from understanding how they actually do function in this society and thus how might we. Time to exit the denunciatory mode and start trying to study.

  9. @ Ryan

    “You’re saying we have no idea how economists and economic discourse are made socially “effective as a means, measure, or remedy”? What on earth do you mean by that? We don’t know how the ideas and discourses of economists are translated into public policy? No idea? Really? I agree with you that this would be a good subject for some sort of deeper ethnographic analysis, but I think it’s a complete overstatement to say we are completely clueless about how this works–and that for some reason this stops us from engaging in these debates/conversations.”

    Name me a single anthropological study of economists in action, either in academia or in policy. You cannot for it doesn’t exist. There is Tara Shwegler’s unpublished dissertation and that’s it. There is some sociology of finance stuff that is kinda tangentially related. Then there are a handful of books by historians, most of which have a very unsophisticated understanding of science and of politics, and most of which are quite old, though there are some gems. Most of what we have is journalism. So, yes, I do maintain that we have almost no understanding of economists.

  10. @Michael,

    “I got your point, and it’s a good one – I didn’t think that you were endorsing it…”

    Well, I think it’s a very polemic bit of writing to say the least. It’s also kind of funny. I have read similar polemics about folks like Marx that gloss over a lot and go a bit overboard but still make a few good points here and there. But there’s surely more to the story. There’s always more to the story. Still, I think the post raised a couple of good questions about Austrian Theory, namely the reliance on deduction as a primary way of understanding human behavior, and the argument that economic laws can’t really be confirmed or refuted by empirical reality. I certainly have my doubts, but that’s for another post.

    “I merely meant that it is unfortunate that some anthropologist’s, who may read this blog, introduction to Austrian Theory would be a hack job from Daily Kos.”

    Ok, that’s a fair point. What would you recommend as a good primer for anthros who have not read much about Austrian Econ?

    “There are plenty labor theorists out there – Austrian econ could be an unique opportunity to get an interdisciplinary dialogue from a more agent centered – intersubjective approach.”

    Sounds interesting. Any specific books, articles you would recommend?

    @Ragnhild:

    “So maybe it’s about having confidence that as long as the underpinning work is academically sound, we can trust our ability to navigate in the unknown waters of public discourse and on-the-ground engagement, and let that practice be informed by our theoretical and practical grounding in fieldwork and anthropology.”

    You make some good points. I especially like your point about the fact that we think we need 10 years of research behind us before we *even think* about possibly considering putting a toe into the public sphere! Good point about confidence.

  11. @Ryan

    “Anthropologists are doing something a bit different, and my argument is that this can and should be a part of these larger conversations. Why not? Because it’s all “too complex” for people to grasp? That’s a cop-out. We could also learn to get a little better at taking our ethnographic specifics and tying them to larger processes, but that’s another story. Also: the point is not necessarily to give politicians the answers they want, need, or expect.”

    So when most people write about the visible face of economics they mean three things: 1) Economic ideologies as bearer of a political worldview, or ideology; 2) Economists in policy network; 3) Economists as public intellectuals.

    We don’t have #1 on offer. We don’t do #2 because of a combination of our mistrust of organized power and because the kind of knowledge we produce is a) not immediately actionable because yes complexity but also because it is not produced with a decision-making consumer in mind and b) not value-free in the sense economists mean it, not purely technical, leaving the political decisions to the politicians. Furthermore, economists and politicians have spent nearly a hundred years learning how to speak the same language and setting up institutions to routinize that dialogue; politicial discourse is thoroughly economicized. We are not in the same situation.

    As #3 public intellectuals yes we could do much better, so,

    ” I’d argue that there are a lot more econs who write for general audiences than anthros, and maybe we could use a few more people who can make that crossover. Are you against that sort of thing?”

    no, I am for that sort of thing.

  12. @Adam:

    “Name me a single anthropological study of economists in action, either in academia or in policy. You cannot for it doesn’t exist … So, yes, I do maintain that we have almost no understanding of economists.”

    Ok, let me get this straight. My basic argument is that anthropologists should engage in these questions/debates about economics in a more public way. Your argument is that we have to do a bunch of ethnographies about economists before we can think about doing this? Why? I don’t think your argument makes any sense.

  13. If we don’t actually understand what roles economics and economic knowledge play, how they have the sort of effectiveness we envy, how can we propose to play them to?

  14. @Adam

    “So when most people write about the visible face of economics they mean three things…”

    Ok. I think you are talking about something different than me–no wonder why I was a bit confused by your argument. I am not arguing that anthropologists should be talking more about how economists perceive the world…I am saying that anthropologists can and should take part in the discussion about human economic systems, since we have plenty of experience in that department. Questions of trade, commerce, money, exchange (ie economics) have been a part of anthropology from day one–and anthros have a bit of a different take on many of these issues than many economists (not all, of course). My point is that I think anthropologists have something to contribute to these conversations.

    “no, I am for that sort of thing.”

    So…you’re against public engagement? Why?

  15. Sorry, you misread me on my point #3: I am *for* public engagement.

    But I doubt we are equipped to enter into the same discussions that economists enter into today, into that sort of public engagement. Or, let me put it negatively. You think we have a lot to say about the topics about which economists speak, and you’re denying that there is anything important that we don’t know about the ways and means that they do so, so, why *aren’t* we consulted alongside them? You’re saying it’s just that we don’t want to? That we’re out of practice? That we’re too busy with other things? That we’re afraid? That we’re being purposely excluded? What?

  16. @Adam:

    “If we don’t actually understand what roles economics and economic knowledge play, how they have the sort of effectiveness we envy, how can we propose to play them to?”

    I don’t think we need to do some 25 year ethnographic project on the tactics of economists in order to get the courage to speak about anthropological understandings of human economies to the general public. Anthropologists have decades of experience studying human economies–why not start taking part in these public debates, and sharing our knowledge and ideas? I mean, it’s not a bad idea to study what economists do, how they engage with politics and disseminate their ideas…but to me that’s a somewhat different issue. I am talking about economic anthropologists, who have plenty of experience with “economics,” taking a more active/public role.

  17. @Adam:

    “Sorry, you misread me on my point #3: I am *for* public engagement.”

    Oops. Ok, that makes more sense. Sorry.

    “But I doubt we are equipped to enter into the same discussions that economists enter into today, into that sort of public engagement.”

    Actually, I kind of agree with you here. I think we have the ideas, research, and arguments to enter into these sorts of public debates, but I also don’t think we really train anthropologists to do this sort of thing anymore. Maybe we should rethink that a bit–that’s part of the reason why I am asking these questions about why we’re not present in these sorts of discussions.

    “You think we have a lot to say about the topics about which economists speak, and you’re denying that there is anything important that we don’t know about the ways and means that they do so…”

    No, I’m not denying that at all. I already said it would be interesting to look into how they do what they do. Sure. What I did say was that I don’t think we have to do some massive ethnographic study of the public and political practices of economists before we dare speak a work about economics to wider audiences. I don’t think we have to be quite so timid.

    “…why *aren’t* we consulted alongside them? You’re saying it’s just that we don’t want to? That we’re out of practice? That we’re too busy with other things? That we’re afraid? That we’re being purposely excluded? What?”

    Well, those are some of the same questions I ask above. I’d argue that part of the issue is that we no longer focus on public engagement as a primary objective. Anthropologists used to be quite a bit more engaged, at least to a certain extent. These days, not so much. But I definitely do not think we’re being purposefully excluded, and already hinted at that in the main post. We’re basically excluding ourselves in many ways. We have opted out in many ways. That’s what I think.

  18. I also don’t think we really train anthropologists to do this sort of thing anymore.

    Were anthropologists ever trained to do be public intellectuals? As opposed, for example, to a handful who became prominent outside of the discipline because of their concern with public policy, strong intuition about the central issues of their time, and talent as non-fiction writers?

    I wonder if the fault is in our stars or in ourselves. While they are now retiring, the discipline in the USA is dominated by Baby Boomers. Having just read Ted Polhemus’ BOOM!—A Baby Boomer Memoir and writing from the perspective of a late pre-Boomer born in 1944 (instead of between 1946 and 1964), I see academic Boomers in particular as a largely self-centered bunch for whom academic tenure and academic freedom appeared to offer a safe refuge in which to pursue personal hobbies.

    Looking a bit deeper, I see what was, for a brief historical moment, only a couple of decades, a combination of astonishing affluence and entrenched academic attitudes endemic in the structure of the university and by no means confined to the USA. I recall the shock of recognition with which I read the chapter in Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques in which he describes pre-WWII French undergraduates as divided into the pale, monkish lot whose greatest wish is to never leave school and the hearty athletes eager to get their degrees and get on with non-academic careers.

    In any case, if I am right (I am frequently wrong), the true cause of the lack of engagement by all sorts of academics of a humanistic bent (not just anthropologists) in public debate isn’t so much barriers to participation as deliberate, self-serving disengagement by those for whom a particular time and place provided the opportunity to escape “the system” we had learned to despise during the anti-Vietnam War, Civil Rights and Feminist movements.

    What, then, of the economists? Why do people listen to them? First, they talk about money, which is on everyone’s mind. Second, they have, for better or worse, taken on the mantle of science and learned a bit of math, which makes them seem more credible than the average astrologer, who also has charts and tables to play with. There are, among them, some who seem to have important and serious things to say—I, personally, for example, admire Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. But even they are largely ignored by those who prefer the simplistic ideas of market fundamentalist religion and monetarist ideology to considering the human consequences of the ideas they promote.

    So where does this leave us? Me? I am slipping comfortably into senility in Japan. Younger anthropologists like Ryan? The central question isn’t “Why aren’t anthropologists….” The central question is “Why am I not….” leading to reflection on what has to be done to make a difference as a citizen and a human being, who happens to be an anthropologist but who might, depending on luck, opportunity and talent wind, up like Jim Yong Kim, the medical anthropologist, who now runs the World Bank, or Gillian Tett, the social anthropologist who is now the U.S. managing editor of The Financial Times.

    That’s my two yen.

  19. Hey John,

    “I, personally, for example, admire Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz…”

    Ya, there are a lot of good economists out there. I agree. And you’re right that a lot of THEM are ignored by certain fundamentalists as well. Good point.

    “Younger anthropologists like Ryan? The central question isn’t “Why aren’t anthropologists….” The central question is “Why am I not….” leading to reflection on what has to be done to make a difference as a citizen and a human being…”

    John, that’s a pretty damn good answer to all my my complaining about why “we” anthropologists aren’t doing this or that. Thanks for the refocus and for making a very important point.

  20. Seems to me a lot of people commenting here could profit from reading Maron Fourcade’s “Economists and Societies” and Donald MacKenzie’s “An Engine, Not a Camera”…

  21. Oh, speaking of dialog between Austrian economists and anthropologists, here’s a link to an extended conversation between David Graeber and folks from the Von Mises Institute:

    http://mises.org/daily/5598/Have-Anthropologists-Overturned-Menger

    Here is one of Graeber’s later responses:

    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/09/david-graeber-on-the-invention-of-money-%E2%80%93-notes-on-sex-adventure-monomaniacal-sociopathy-and-the-true-function-of-economics.html

    …the debate was pretty colorful. Some folks were pretty open to listening to Graeber’s arguments, while others dismissed him as someone who doesn’t know a thing about economics.

    @John:

    “In any case, if I am right (I am frequently wrong), the true cause of the lack of engagement by all sorts of academics of a humanistic bent (not just anthropologists) in public debate isn’t so much barriers to participation as deliberate, self-serving disengagement…”

    Ya, I think there’s a good amount of deliberate disengagement going on, but not just among one generation of anthros…

    @Brad:

    Thanks for the book recommendations. They look good.

  22. The Fourcades book is the best thing we’ve got, even if it might be wrong in details (cf. Keith Tribe’s review).

  23. John: Apropos of your mention of current World Bank president Jim Kim, I suggest reading Janet Reitman’s Rolling Stone exposé on his involvement in covering up hazing, drug use, sexual assault and other hostile climate violations at Dartmouth: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ravital-segal/hazing-dartmouth_b_1411932.html.

    Kim’s behavior in this regard is worth thinking about relative to other comments that have been made in this post about where anthropologists as a group are situated in relation to maintaining and reproducing structural and institutional power/hierarchies/inequality. In this context it is worth thinking about the ways in which anthropologists as a group, and anthropology as a discipline, is/are *not* dissimilar to economists and economics. Much of the dichotomizing in this comment stream seems to forget the ways in which some ‘white public space’ issues are shared between anthropology/economics and anthropologists/aconomists, as well as some normative (race/class/gender) assumptions of who is and is not authorized to speak, who is and is not institutionally valuable within the academy, who is a ‘rational’ subject and who is ‘overly-emotional’, ‘not objective’, ‘hypersensitive’.

    I raise this issue of (shared) normative assumptions (and, of course, privilege) because I think it relates directly to your and Ryan’s comments about disengagement and how/why anthropologists are not being trained as ‘public intellectuals’. It also relates directly to the ways in which anthropologists have made themselves, and come to be seen as, irrelevant to ‘public’ (policy) debates and ‘politics’, in a way that this post observes economists have not. 

    Which anthropologists will be supported in being ‘public intellectuals’, and who will not? I have always had a ‘public intellectual’ orientation, given my work on race and gender in the US, and once past undergrad I have not been supported by anthropologists (i.e., graduate program, graduate advisers, many many other anthropologists–as displayed by repeated racist and sexist attacks on me on this site) in this pursuit of a ‘public anthropology’. So I think we really need to look harder into the proverbial mirror if we are going to address the issues of disengagement which you have accurately identified. 

    We are sitting here lamenting the symbolic capital of economics and certain high-profile economists, but are we really being sufficiently honest about how we as anthropologists (as a group) disengage and cede the public space which economists are comparatively dominating? Just reading this blog I have found it interesting how infrequently there is engagement with prominent news stories: news stories with which anthropologists should certainly be discussing publicly; news stories from which we could speak from and with authority–but don’t. Where are the posts on this blog on Trayvon Martin, or Fisher v. Texas, or how race is factoring into the current presidential election, for example? Of course, if anthropology is the ‘white public space’ that Brodkin et al. discuss in their 2011 AA article, then this non-engagement is unsurprising: and it is also a missed opportunity for establishing anthropological authority, especially via pushing against certain hegemonic constructions of ‘rational choice’ and the normative raced/classed/gendered/encultured/embodied subject such theories of (economic/economistic) rationality assume.

    In many ways, Jim Kim got to where he is now by betraying the ‘moral optimism’ of anthropology (to borrow a term from Jason Antrosio, whose blogs I highly recommend as an example of the promise of an engaged ‘public anthropology’) As Dartmouth president, Jim Kim was both a ‘good corporate tool’ and good neoliberal subject. So please beware the romanticization of Jim Kim, and the ‘us,anthropologists/them, economists’ dichotomy upon which it rests. Anthropologists can easily support neoliberal, patriarchal, homophobic, racist and white-supremacist logics–as well as dynastic (white) privilege (hello, legacy admission at schools like Dartmouth–a conversation which easily leads to the Fisher v. Texas case, and would be an easy opening for anthropological discussions of inequality and worth/value: http://colorlines.com/archives/2012/10/how_diversity_trumped_equity–and_may_kill_affirmative_action.html), and, sadly, anthropologists do so every day. And this (race/class) privilege and its reproduction is worth talking about, especially if people are serious about training anthropologists to be both ‘engaged’ and ‘public intellectuals’. 

  24. DWP:

    “So I think we really need to look harder into the proverbial mirror if we are going to address the issues of disengagement which you have accurately identified.”

    Yep, I agree.

    “Just reading this blog I have found it interesting how infrequently there is engagement with prominent news stories: news stories with which anthropologists should certainly be discussing publicly; news stories from which we could speak from and with authority–but don’t.”

    This is another good point, and one that I think about a lot. One interesting thing is that covering certain kinds of issues or subjects on a site like SM is sometimes read as being “too political” or something like that. There are times when I am not quite sure where anthropology begins and ends for many people–but I agree with you DWP that these kinds of news stories, political events, etc can and should be part of the purview of anthropology.

    “to borrow a term from Jason Antrosio, whose blogs I highly recommend as an example of the promise of an engaged ‘public anthropology’”

    I absolutely agree with you about Jason’s site. I think he is definitely doing some very promising work with his site, and I have a lot of respect for how he’s doing it.

  25. Thanks for the response, Ryan. I think the very fact that many anthros see discussing the kinds of news stories I raised as ‘too political’ speaks precisely to why anthropology is considered and has largely made itself irrelevant, or at least tangential, to the kinds of debates and discussions economists get to, can, and are often encouraged to dominate.

    How often do ‘public intellectual’ economists fret over being ‘too political’? So many anthropologists need to start here with the self-introspection (v. useless hand-wringing cum denial and self-congratulatory dichotomizing about how our discipline is de facto more ‘progressive’ and virtuous than, say, economics). What does it even mean to be ‘too political’ (on this blog), and why?

    Apropos of Fourcade’s book (as suggested by Brad DeLong), and the problematic construction of the ‘too political’, as an undergrad I always found it interesting that Yale had an Ethics, Politics, and Economics major. It said a lot about how students who clearly had certain kinds of ‘public’ orientations (and were being groomed to be policy, finance, academic, legal/judicial, and political elites) were being groomed and professionalized. So I guess this is much of where my interest in the ‘public intellectual’ potential of anthropology was incubated, and why I have been disheartened, for years, by the disengagement that makes anthropology both ‘white public space’ and seen as irrelevant to discussions of policy and politics. Something is very wrong with anthropology when people run away from and become enraged by what should be seen as discussions of privilege (and power) necessary to public intellectualism and policy relevance, and when engaging basic news stories is seen by many anthropologists as ‘too political’ because it would actually require acknowledging concepts like race and gender privilege.

    Too political? A deep sigh indeed…

  26. @DWP

    I agree with everything you say in your long comment re Jim Yong Kim. But I see its implications from a different—strategic—perspective. Were I a young anthropologist instead of an aging willing accomplice of corporate behavior, I would consider a number of options for what I should do in the predicament of the current moment. Do I care enough about pursuing an academic career to hustle with all my might in a shrinking marketplace? Do I love teaching so much that I am willing to work for poverty-level wages in an endless series of adjunct positions? Am I so committed to my politics that I would put myself in harm’s way to support the causes in which I believe? Do I do what McCreery has already done—find a way to make a comfortable living, do a little good in the world, and have the leisure and resources to pursue anthropology as an academic hobby?

    Also, I was once sufficiently involved in Democrats Abroad, which—unlike its Republican counterpart—is treated by the Democratic Party as a state delegation, that I was elected International Vice-Chair, a position that allowed me to spend my own money on several international trips a year to attend meetings of the Democratic National Committee and Association of State Democratic Chairs. I was in the belly of the beast of US electoral politics.

    It was in that capacity that I learned that there were two and only two ways to get the party’s attention— votes and money. If you could deliver a large number of votes or a large amount of money, then party leaders paid attention to you. It was shortly after this experience that I found myself engaged in a discussion on Anthro-L that began with the question, “Why didn’t Bill Clinton appoint any anthropologists to his presidential commission on race?”

    According to StudentScholarships.org , there are six thousand individuals employed as anthropologists or archeologists in the USA today. There were, I suspect, fewer when Clinton was president, but let’s take that six thousand as a ballpark figure. What is that compared to the 207,643,594 eligible voters in the U.S? My calculator says 0.0000289 or 0.00289%. Suppose that all six thousand employed anthropologists were Democrats and contributed on average $100 a piece to the party. 600K is not bad if you are running for office in South Dakota.

    Which leads me to the question, what, besides some form of professional insanity, leads anthropologists to believe that they will be politically influential?

    Yes, Margaret Mead did point out that every major political movement begins with a handful of people. And, yes, ideas can be powerful. But whether we are talking about Mao Tse-tung or Martin Luther King, Lenin or Gandhi, one thing we know for sure is that they didn’t spend all their time talking to each other about how they didn’t get respect or couldn’t find a job that would let them pursue their academic hobbies. That’s a no-win strategy if there ever was one.

  27. John: I agree with most of your last comment, and this is why I see going to graduate school in anthropology as a mistake given my interest in discussing race and gender in the ways I’m interest in and have been since college. I bought the AAA antiracism statements hook, line, and sinker, but it’s not truth in advertising, so to speak. Had I known the true extent to which anthropology is not committed to challenging institutional power, especially in relation to race/color/class hierarchies in the US, I would have chosen a different path after college. Anthropology, especially for someone like me, is not the path to public intellectualism or engagement. If nothing else, your comments and discussions like this are important, if only as a means for educating those who are as naive as I once was about what academic anthropology truly is, who and what it actually values,and ongoing levels of disengagement and investment(s) in hierarchy and inequality despite practitioners comments of being committed to speaking truth to power.

  28. @John:

    “Which leads me to the question, what, besides some form of professional insanity, leads anthropologists to believe that they will be politically influential?”

    Maybe the same kind of thinking that leads individual voters to think that *for some reason* their vote counts. But…I see the goal less as seeking to attain political influence as finding ways to speak up, get involved, etc–starting at the local/community level might not be a bad idea.

    “…one thing we know for sure is that they didn’t spend all their time talking to each other about how they didn’t get respect or couldn’t find a job that would let them pursue their academic hobbies. That’s a no-win strategy if there ever was one.”

    Zing! Another good point from you John along these lines. To be honest, I think I have overplayed the “we don’t get no respect card” around here on SM a bit too much. I think it’s time to move on from that approach. Thanks, though, for making this point.

    @DWP:

    ” If nothing else, your comments and discussions like this are important, if only as a means for educating those who are as naive as I once was about what academic anthropology truly is…”

    I think you are making a lot of good points. But I do want to say that I don’t really think “anthropology” is any one thing…it’s a collection of people, departments, agendas, ideas and narratives. I think you are making a good point, but I also think that “anthropology” can be various things, depending on what people do with it. I guess I’m saying that I still think there’s room to push in other directions, or to push against certain trends we’re seeing right now. As Jason Antrosio reminded me not too long ago, we need a certain pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will to keep going (he was quoting Gramsci). I like that.

  29. we need a certain pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will to keep going (he was quoting Gramsci). I like that.

    I like that, too.

    However, while starting at the local level is great—and practically speaking the only way to get started at all—we can’t forget that whatever locality we work in has a vanishingly small chance these days of being self-sufficient. All localities are embedded in a larger world and exposed to forces beyond local control. Again, I mention Tohoku, the Northeast of Japan, where residents of fishing towns scattered along the coast played little part if any in the collision of tectonic plates that produced the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 or the decisions by TEPCO and Japanese nuclear regulators, who assumed that events on that scale were so unlikely they could be ignored, resulting in the meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1.

    Candide’s dream of cultivating his own garden while ignoring catastrophes in other parts of the world can, however well-intentioned, become another form of escapism.

    Awfully tempting, though.

  30. Ya, I think it’s possible to start getting a little more engaged at the community level without losing sight of the larger stuff. Gotta start somewhere.

  31. Good discussion – I think some of Adam’s points above are quite to the point, particularly about the nature of anthropological knowledge in comparison to economics knowledge. Anthropologists tend to produce more complexity, economists tend to aim at reductive (this is *not* necessarily a bad thing!) explanations. The latter are more apt to be the basis of policy.

    However, I do think there is scope for anthropologists to apply some of the critical distance provided by comparative and ethnographic knowledge in order to comment on policy issues (perhaps largely in a negative/critical fashion). We’ll also need to get over our attachment to relativism, or at least moderate it.

    One anthropologists who does act successfully as a public intellectual is Thomas Hylland Eriksen — his ‘Engaging Anthropology’ is definitely worth a look on this topic:

    http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Engaging_Anthropology.html?id=RZTbpm-7p7EC&redir_esc=y

  32. PS – another issue, also related to Adam’s points about the nature of anthropology as a mode of knowledge production, is that much of the discussion that excites us as a discipline is really meta-anthropological — that’s not surprising given the fragmentation of the discipline in terms of subject matter. Anthropologists routinely produce data for NGOs, govts etc, but to be recognised as anthropology, ethnographic data in monographs is always filtered through the lens of some theoretical conundrum. Otherwise it is simply not regarded as anthropology. This was not always the case of course.

  33. I think a big reason that anthropologists do not play much of a role in the public discourse is that their conceptual tools typically do not play so well in the institutions that mediate the discourse, i.e. commercial media. Economists do better because there are some concepts (like supply and demand, free market, etc.) that the average joe on the street kind of gets. It’s easy to sell a narrative (which is important in commercial media) that includes those kinds of notions to the general public. So unfortunately, the rather more sophisticated ideas and models offered by anthropologists are more or less “filtered out” from the general discourse. I think we need to analyze and think a lot about the nature and incentives of media.

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