Unconventional Anthropology: Re-Reading Gerald Berreman

Is anthropology alive? Gerald Berreman asked this question in 1968. The Vietnam war was raging. Some anthropologists were collaborating with the U.S. government and military. Others were advocating for a value-free, politically-neutral social science. Berreman was not among either of these groups. Instead, he was participating in the UC-Berkeley Vietnam teach-in in 1965, was exposing CIA-academic schemes in the Himalayas, and was asking hard questions about social responsibility for anthropologists all the while conducting important research in India on caste, polyandry, race, religion, environment, and more. Long interested in experiences as well as structures of social inequality, he called social inequality “the most dangerous feature of contemporary society.” Anthropology, he believed, must speak to this danger and thus should not only announce its knowledge, but also act on its “implications and consequences.” We must see that “our knowledge is used for humane changes.” Anthropology must engage the world.

Reason, passion, and courage: these are the traits Gerry Berreman argued an anthropologist needed to address the problems of our times. These traits are as important now as they were when he wrote this forty-five years ago in Current Anthropology. He advised that anthropologists needed moral sensibilities and not just technical proficiencies to recognize the implications of our research. We needed to be involved with public policy. We needed to be responsible. We still need to be all of these things.

“Our professional obligation is to present what we know and the inferences we draw from our knowledge as clearly, thoughtfully, and responsibly as we can. This is a value position with practical and humane consequences and with scientific legitimacy.

Anthropological champion of social responsibility, of a clear, ethical stance, and of scientific as well as political accountability, Gerald Berreman passed away on 23 December 2013 at age 83. He received his PhD at Cornell University in 1959, and then spent his entire four-decade teaching career at the University of California at Berkeley; click here to read the department’s moving tribute to Professor Berreman, including remembrances from Lawrence Cohen and Nancy Scheper-Hughes.

The 21st century is not the era of Vietnam and yet many of the same issues remain with us. Berreman argued that the unconventional times of the late 1960s, of U.S. military and political events with world-wide consequences, called for an “unconventional anthropology,” including “unconventional responsibility for our acts, be they acts of commission or omission.”

In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, as well as in other sites of U.S. empire around the world, there are familiar examples of U.S. military and political acts with wide-reaching consequences. I like to think that in the last four decades much of anthropology has moved in the directions advocated by Gerry Berreman and so many other scholars in the time of Vietnam (and since). And yet, his hope that “those days of anthropologists collaborating with government and military are gone forever I think” has not quite come true. Questions of funding, ethical commitment, and social inequality, as well as of how to be involved responsibly, to critique empire, and to move beyond anthropology as simply the announcement of knowledge remain with us. Some of these issues are particularly linked to the U.S.A., but at core remain questions at the heart of the discipline everywhere.

So, is anthropology dead or alive? Gerald Berreman argued for vitality: “Anthropology isn’t dead; it is just that many of its more nostalgic practitioners do not want to get involved.”

Be vital. Be involved. RIP Gerald Berreman, 1930-2013.

[Want to keep reading? In writing this piece, I re-read two classic articles by Gerald Berreman and highly recommend both: (1) “Is Anthropology Alive? Social Responsibility in Social Anthropology,” Current Anthropology 9(5), December 1968, pp. 391-396, and (2) ““Bringing It All Back Home:” Malaise in Anthropology,” in Dell Hymes, ed., Reinventing Anthropology, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969.]

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

8 thoughts on “Unconventional Anthropology: Re-Reading Gerald Berreman

  1. One of the most striking impressions from reading Berreman’s work is that he consistently insists on an anthropology that is BOTH engaged AND scientific. Now, why would that be?

  2. Thanks Carole McGranahan, and John McCreery. To begin addressing McCreery’s question, there are probably to prongs. One, Berreman also advocated for a humanistic anthropology, one that put humans first. Two, an engaged anthropology that is vital would need to be scientific as well, that is it would require a scientific basis to be able to make claims about relevance to people’s lives, and to be truthful about those claims as well. An anthropology that is scientific does not need to be engaged, but one that is engaged would need to be scientific. That does not exclude it from being humanistic or human-centered as well.

  3. It seems to me that people like Hymes, Wolf, Berreman, Nader didn’t think that epistemology was that complicated — like, you could be accurate and, in being so, speak truth to power. I think the radical relativism of truth that complicated all of that (for better or worse?) happened a little bit later down the road.

  4. Rex, I agree, but might put the matter more strongly. The “radical relativism of truth” is (1) no surprise to any scientist—the scientist’s truth is always tentative and constrained by the limits of available theory, methodology and instrumentation and (2) became an excuse for the flight from science by those who found it easier to produce pompous drivel and call it thought than to learn the relevant mathematics or invest the time required for serious scholarship. The result is painfully obvious. Those who believe that they are “speaking truth to power” but whose cases are weakened by lack of evidence are mainly ignored. If it were only that they are ignored, it wouldn’t matter all that much. But by helping to discredit science, they have opened the way for creationists, climate-deniers, etc., to claim more credibility than they deserve. The “radical relativism of truth” is an ever-handy excuse for ignoring serious science, whether anthropological or otherwise.

  5. I let the ‘pompous drivel’ line pass since it was not directed at another commentor. But honestly, John, its not very nice (or precise) so please try to keep it civil. Thanks :)

    I think I didn’t provide a very good description of what it was that came after people like Berreman that was out of tune with his generation (of which I take you to be one). Maybe it was the ‘politics of representation’? I look at the late 70s and early 1980s as the point when you start seeing things that don’t look like Berreman’s style of critique (afaik). I think here of works like “Time and the Other” (1983). In fact I think of 1983 as the year that Gay Pirate Criticism turned into Queer Buccaneer Theory. What do you think?

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