The Anthropologist as Scholarly Hipster, Part IV: Authenticity and Privilege

In this guest blog series, Savage Minds has provided me with a space to unpack some of my thoughts on how looking at the cultural trope of the “hipster” might be helpful for thinking through the “anthropologist.” Part I focused on defining terms, Part II drew parallels between hipsters and anthropologists in terms of their marginal position, and Part III focused on image and brand. In this fourth post, I examine the endless search for authenticity.  For those of you who are patient and interested, a fifth post will wrap up the series.

In Search of Authentic Experience

As we have seen, hipsterism makes implicit critiques of the mainstream media. One of these is that it is infiltrated with shallow, meaningless, inauthentic representations based upon simplistic, white, suburban conventions. It is implied that corporations have largely ruined lived experience, and so living at the margins (see Part II) includes participating in (theoretically and preferably) non-corporate spaces, where unique styles, music, social conventions, and ways of being can be explored. Thrift stores, skinny jeans, inter-racial relationships, open or polyamorous relationships, free-trade pour-over coffee, androgynous stylings, etc., are set in contrast to conventional, White suburbia. Likewise, hipsters are looking for an authentic, non-corporate, lived experience in marginal urban spaces, where they live side by side with traditionally marginalized minorities and/or the working class. Some argue that doing so allows them to lay claim to a post-racial, post-class, post-gender worldview that is set in contrast to the mainstream.

This is where things get complicated. This hipster claim to authenticity as partly coming from living in working class neighborhoods and establishing relationships across ethnic and racial lines is seen by some as fictive justifications. As we saw in Part I, there are some who claim that white, affluent hipsters are themselves simply suburban transplants. Their relocation to working class or ethnic neighborhoods can cause a surge in gentrification that pushes more marginalized persons out. When some hipsters deploy racist, classist and sexist rhetoric, they assuage criticism by claiming to be post-racial, post-class and post-gender; irony is largely used to this effect. Positioning themselves outside of the existing social order implies that they are not bound by conventions of “political-correctness.” Unfortunately, the claim to a post-race, post-class and post-gender identity comes from a position of privilege: most marginalized or disadvantaged kids are too concerned with fashioning a secure future to worry about rejecting mainstream media representations. Thus, although they are in overlapping spaces, hipsters are often seen as interlopers in such communities.

The parallels to anthropologists are frightening in implication.

Boundaries of Representation and Lived Experience

Ethnographic research is partly an attempt to capture an authentic, lived experience through long-term, embedded social relations often across class, ethnic, racial or cultural lines. This ideal is held in contrast to the mainstream academy, and reflects claims of authenticity in spaces that are risky, marginal, silenced by others, and experienced first hand. Of course, anthropologists are somewhat cognizant of these matters in methodological terms and have elaborated methods of systematic reflection to mitigate them. This methodological journey has been a bumpy one.

Writing Culture1, in particular, challenged ethnographers to acknowledge their nuanced positions in the field and the extent to which any researcher is limited in her/his ability to authentically capture the experience of the Other. Anthropologists could no longer pretend that the third-person omniscient narrator was the neutral, disembodied voice for our interlocutors. We challenged our own authority, and (I think, on the whole) have come out the better for it. I appreciate the willingness of many anthropologists to transparently put themselves out there as rigorous researchers who also happen to be indisputably fallible human beings. This is critical both to humanizing research findings, and to thinking through how our own position shapes the data we collect. But despite this nuanced sensitivity, many are still driven by the desire to portray some sort of authentic, lived experience to a readership that will likely not encounter the community portrayed in the flesh.

However, like the hipster, although anthropologists often have empathy for and are dedicated to work with traditionally marginalized groups, we must acknowledge that we come from a place of privilege. Hipsters deploy irony to hide their privilege. Do anthropologists draw on ethnographic authority to the same ends?

Firstly, despite our intellectual interests in diverse ethnic and racial experiences across a variety of settings, anthropologists are also overwhelmingly White. Having rich theoretical traditions for thinking about race (for example) does not mean that as individuals we are all post-racial (or post-class or post-gender, etc.). Despite our ruminations on positionality, some have argued that anthropology remains largely a ‘white public space’2. In our scholarly work, we often focus on those who are marginalized, oppressed and peripheral – but we could still be more reflective and honest about our own social worlds.

Although we express interest, empathy and passion for the lives of the marginalized Other – most of us are clearly not one of them3. Anecdotally, most anthropologists I meet aspire to tenure in a research I university: a structural bastion of privilege for Whiteness and affluence. Even scholars who come from poverty, experience discrimination, or are from disadvantaged backgrounds have a degree of cultural capital invested in them through obtaining advanced credentials (among other things). There are degrees of privilege and access to resources, and the process of becoming an academic who publishes work clearly gives us more of both privilege and access to resources4.

I therefore argue that although we express empathy for the working class and for minorities, the reality is that many faculty members and scholars also aspire to traditional, affluent White privilege. Academic labor is being reorganized in deeply problematic ways, and there is a great deal of uncertainty for new scholars. There are marginal and poor anthropologists struggling to eat. Academic freedom and faculty governance are under assault. However, these are not the equivalent of solidarity with the working class. Our experiences are not equivalent to an indigenous peasant or migrant factory worker. Neither is my experience of academic marginalization as a white, hetero-male, non-tenure-track, anthropologist equivalent to that of a scholar of color or a woman scholar. Of course, I never heard anyone explicitly argue that it was. Maybe I am reading too much into the unspoken.

Our disciplinary, reflexive traditions may encourage us to consider our own privilege, but do we not often suffer from paradoxes of positionality that are similar to the hipster? Like hipsters we seem to reject and yet at the same time are complicit in the structures we critique. Just as the anti-mainstream hipster may actually exacerbate hyper-consumption and gentrification, does the equity-minded scholar actually run the risk of exacerbating the privilege of the university as a bastion of established, white affluence and domination? This can encourage either an uncomfortable blind-spot for our own immediate practices and surroundings, or a frustrated ennui about the ability to impact anything.

Is our search for authenticity primarily about publication? As privileged academics, how can we be more than just interlopers? How can we individually navigate academic structures without devolving into apathetic or nihilistic worldviews? And finally, how can we promote a better and more inclusive disciplinary culture in our own corners of academia? Comments welcome.

Other posts in the series:

  1. I am, of course, referring here to Clifford and Marcus (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkley, CA: University of California Press. 
  2. Brodkin, Morgen and Hutchinson (2011, “Anthropology as White Public Space?” AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, 113(4): 545–556) suggest that the recent AAA Commission on Race and Racism in Anthropology found that even anthropologists drew on ‘colorblind’ explanations to understand challenges of graduate students and faculty of color. Plenty of others have examined some of these tensions. For example, Maximillian Forte reflects on the ways that the discipline has alienated people of color, including the small numbers of faculty of color. Riché Daniel Barnes, assistant professor in the department of Afro-American Studies at Smith College, reflects on how to reach out to students of color interested in the discipline. 
  3. Of course, this is not meant to take away from the many and significant anthropologists of color who have made contributions to the field. 
  4. Privilege takes many forms, most often parsed out through race, class and gender. This is a blog post, not a research article, and so I am not going to attempt to elaborate on the huge body of literature about race, class, gender and the academy. I simply point here to the notion that anthropology is not above the fray. 

Alex Posecznick serves as manager of the Division of Education, Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education while also holding an academic appointment therein, where he teaches courses in Anthropology and Education, Qualitative Modes of Inquiry and Merit and America. His scholarly work focuses on the ethnographic examination of neoliberalism, public policy, and the culture of meritocracy vis-à-vis institutions of higher education. Follow @AlexPosecznick. More on Alex Posecznick.

2 thoughts on “The Anthropologist as Scholarly Hipster, Part IV: Authenticity and Privilege

  1. You emphasize an important facet of the hipster–something I might call “hipsterization.” This is the process by which individuals discursively construct a Hipster Other. This Hipster Other enjoys the fruits of privilege, while obscuring the mechanisms by which such privileges are reinforced and authorized. As Jane Hill points out in the Everyday Language of White Racism, the tendency to posit structural racism as a facet of certain “racist people” serves to shift blame and responsibility towards isolated examples, rather than grappling with the way all remain complicit in a system that reinforces various power asymmetries.

    However, I am skeptical that the Hipster ethos involves a higher degree of post-racial, post-gender, and post-class ideologies than that of the broader population (and you nicely bring anthropology into this mix). Rather, this exaggerated caricature of the Hipster is what makes hipsterization so compelling—it serves to diagnostically isolate certain facets of identity and social performance to illuminate their problematic ideologies. The Hipster is a foil by which one’s own privilege appears less extreme or less appropriative.

    But what of intertexuality and irony? Your many references to irony (and references from other commenters) could use a little more discussion. I think irony, in the Hipster context, refers to the circulation of goods without an emotional investment in their history or deeper cultural context. This is Frederic Jameson’s bemoaned “pastiche,” the circulation of signs that have become completely decontextualized from their original cultural functions. However, the idea of decontexualization, like irony, becomes extremely slippery to define and locate. For example, academia’s privileging of intertextuality, where “citational capital” reigns supreme, also functions in similar ways, removing ideas, ideologies, and names from other texts in order to reinsert them into a new continuity and knowledge construction project. This is not unlike the embodied knowledge of the Hipster, who amalgamates contrasting and unrelated consumables in ways that gesture towards a coherent identity. Both the hipster body and academic text serve to construct continuity out of intersecting signs and references, yet both remain somewhat unstable and open to multiple readings. In this sense, pastiche and irony become matter of perspective, where historical continuity and emotional investments are products of the interpretive act—not embedded in the intertexual signs themselves. Our willingness or unwillingness to lend the Hipster authenticity reveals just as much about us as it does about the Hipster.

    This leaves me with a few questions: Is irony a political term that places judgement on the function of certain semiotic juxtapositions? How does the notion of irony influence our reception of the two semiotic systems up for debate: academic language and hipster embodiment? Does it have to be that text always frees us of appropriation, while embodiment lacks the function of resistance and cultural critique?

  2. Hi Byrd (if I may). You have some wonderful points, which I have partly addressed in the final post. Hope you find these thoughts helpful and/or intriguing.

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