Anthropology & Democracy III: The stand aside or do something edition

This is Part III of a series of posts on anthropology and democracy.  Part I is here, Part II, here.

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…

Ryan Anderson is an environmental and economic anthropologist. His current research focuses on the social dynamics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

6 thoughts on “Anthropology & Democracy III: The stand aside or do something edition

  1. Isn’t anthropology, or at least the AAA, already making a certain claim for democracy (and the de facto politicization of anthropology) by having an official race statement? Sincerely asked question.

  2. 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?

    An old-fashioned perspective but one I personally embrace: The anthropologist qua anthropologist should step back and study democracy at every level of social organization as objectively as is humanly possible. The anthropologist qua citizen should jump in and participate. Participation means more than voting. As Howard Dean once famously said, voting is just the first step. Donating is the second. Organizing is the third. Running for office is the fourth. From which it is easy to conclude that just standing around and bitching goes nowhere.

  3. Well, personally, I feel the whole “should” conversation is misplaced. I don’t think anthropologists have any kind of obligation to be activists. There’s something to be said for studying things just because knowledge is a value in itself. This is what I sometimes call “the utopian moment in scholarship”, the fact that one can just, learn everything there is to know about musical instruments in medieval Provencal or the 19th century Zambezi valley because it is good that there should be people in the world who spend their lives doing such things, and good that the resulting information exists. On the other hand, if one is dealing with a topic like democracy where one cannot claim one’s politics are not relevant, it’s good to be clear about what those politics are. Most anthropologists as far as I can make out are liberal or social democratic populists: they’re for the little guy, but don’t think it would be possible or desirable to entirely eliminate the state or capitalism, believe the current institutional order is largely worth preserving as a value in itself (though they think it should be reformed to help the little people more) and think that current republican forms of government are about as close to democracy (in the sense of popular self-rule) as we can realistically get under current conditions. That’s fine. It’s a common and respectable position. But almost never do anthropologists admit that, even when they are claiming to take a political position. In fact people with that position often position themselves as radicals (though fortunately, the trend common in the ’80s and ’90s, when such people claimed they were the true radicals because they cited Foucault and Deleuze and those with overtly revolutionary politics were not nearly so radical, seems to be largely over.)

    Also, I think that if anthropologists do make claims of radicalism and base any part of their prestige or authority on them, then they do have a certain responsibility to those social movements that share their values. That doesn’t mean if you’re a Marxist you have to support a Marxist party. Nor try to impose oneself as an intellectual vanguard – actually, in that case, I think it would be better not to do anything at all. But if there’s actually something people in those movements actually do want from you, you might at least consider coming through for them if you can. This was the real point I was making in Fragments, which people often misunderstood. If you say you’re a radical anthropologists, and there are anarchists out there saying “we’d really like help from anthropologists in understanding how stateless institutions might work” (for instance), you might consider trying to engage. Similarly if you do consider yourself a radical democrat, who see democracy as a project that’s largely unrealized, and there are people trying to further that project who want your help in some way, it might not be a bad idea to help out.

    The problem is that (as Weber was well aware) the questions we ask are not neutral. If we are applying for grants, publishing in peer-reviewed journals, etc, the questions we’ll end up asking will be largely those of interest to funding agencies who are not interested in furthering a radical democratic project but usually quite the opposite. So being a “neutral observer”, unless one steers clear of such things (and as a professional anthropologist this is very hard to do), ends up meaning asking questions that some powerful institutional groups want asked. If one agrees with basic principles of the world those institutions support, that’s fine. There’s no ethical problem. And I suspect many if not most anthropologists actually do. But if one opposes them, or especially, stakes one’s prestige and intellectual identity on opposing them, it’s a lot more complicated.

  4. @ David Graeber: “But if there’s actually something people in those movements actually do want from you, you might at least consider coming through for them if you can.”
    This is exactly why I asked if AAA/anthropology isn’t already making a kind of de facto democratic claim by having an official antiracism statement: a statement which is encouraging egalitarian v. hierarchical relations, and not ‘speaking for’ groups because they are seen as lesser-than humans (even if this is the opposite of what often happens in academic anthropology). And this is also why I continually foreground the question of race: if one is going to stake one’s disciplinary and institutional reputation (as well as one’s personal reputation) on being antiracist, shouldn’t one actually align oneself with antiracist practices and take the activities of antiracist activists seriously?

  5. Ryan,
    I wonder if you might find Malinowski’s last work, a rarely read book titled “Freedom and Civilization” that he wrote during WW2, a worthwhile read. The book is Malinowski’s impassioned response to an essay by Franz Boas (in Freedom: Its Meaning, 1941, edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen)–also worth reading (and a mere 8 pages in length). Malinowski asks: Should anthropologists study freedom?–and to what ends?

    Democracy, of course, is not freedom, but asking if anthropologists should study democracy today is not unrelated to asking if anthropologists should study freedom. Here, as in the early 1940s, we arrived quickly at debating just how applied anthropology should be . . .

  6. Sorry for taking a while to get back to this one. The last two weeks have been crazy here in fieldwork land.

    @DWP: Ya, I think you’re right that the AAA is making some sort of claim for democracy (or at least equality) with the statements about race.

    @John: I like the contrast between anthropologist as anthropologist and as citizen. Sometimes, though, I am not quite sure when one ends and the other begins.

    @David:

    “Well, personally, I feel the whole “should” conversation is misplaced. I don’t think anthropologists have any kind of obligation to be activists. There’s something to be said for studying things just because knowledge is a value in itself.”

    I think that’s a really important point, and I am glad you made it. I agree that there is indeed something to be said for studying things for the sake of knowledge.

    “On the other hand, if one is dealing with a topic like democracy where one cannot claim one’s politics are not relevant, it’s good to be clear about what those politics are.”

    I agree. But in this case a lot of the politics are often hidden in language about science, objectivity, etc. We are pretty reluctant to be forthcoming about this sort of thing, IMO.

    “The problem is that (as Weber was well aware) the questions we ask are not neutral. If we are applying for grants, publishing in peer-reviewed journals, etc, the questions we’ll end up asking will be largely those of interest to funding agencies who are not interested in furthering a radical democratic project but usually quite the opposite.”

    Ya, and this is the trap of grant writing and seeking funding. Especially since institutional prestige or value is often linked to obtaining these awards. Ironically, of course, part of the game of grant writing is that the politics of the situation is completely written out of the picture (in nice sounding methods sections, etc).

    So being “neutral”, as you say, actually means agree with the politics of some funding agency. Not an easy bind to escape.

    @Dawn:

    Thanks for the suggestions. I will definitely check out the essays by Malinowski and Boas. Interesting, too, how you point out that these discussions will always lead us back to the question of how “applied” anthropology should be. I agree–and it’s an important question.

    Thanks for the comments everyone. Apologies again for the delayed responses.

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