In the USA, the spectre of democracy looms. It is days away. November 6, when people all across the country will step into a small booth and exercise their right to participate in the democratic system by choosing between representatives from the two dominant political parties (oh, and a slew of others that the vast majority of people have not heard of). This is democracy at the highest political level. Democracy at its finest. The pinnacle. Right?
Maybe not. Maybe, as DJ pointed out in his comment, we need to pay attention to the various scales at which democracy operates–and what that means for our understanding(s) of what democratic practices are all about. In the US, I think it’s both interesting and telling that the presidential elections are often treated as a kind of democratic pinnacle or climax–as if it’s really the most important part of the massive iceberg of political and/or potential democratic action. What about all of the democracies–or lack thereof–taking place as we trickle on down the various levels of social structure? Things start to look different, maybe, when they move away from the media pomp and glitz that absolutely drench presidential election hoopla. And this has me wondering whether all of this focus on “the big event” serves a certain political purpose in its own right. If everyone is paying attention to the big event, what’s happening everywhere else?
And where does the anthropological project fit within all this? When I posted the first installment of this series, calling for a collective investigation of anthropology & democracy, Keith Hart wrote this as a reply on Facebook: “Seems like a good idea to me, especially since the origins of anthropology in the 18th century’s revolutionary democratic project has been forgotten by practitioners (honorable exceptions include L.H. Morgan) for over 200 years.”
Which leads me to this question: Is anthropology a democratic project these days? It is, after all, buried within not-so-democratic institutions (this very question was raised by regular commenter DWP in response to my second post). Do we strive for anthropology to be democratic, or is that just the kind of politicization that ought best be avoided? Should anthropologists stand aside and study the various “democracies” around the world in a detached, objective manner, or should anthropology be geared toward fostering democratic practices and institutions? When it comes to democracy, do we stand outside the fish bowl looking in, or do we jump in and try to manage the currents from within? Please take these questions and run with them. Or swim, as it may be…