The Anthropologist as Scholarly Hipster, Part V: Why do they hate us?

This is the last (I promise) in a guest blog series that examines scholarly subjectivities in anthropology through comparison with the figure of the ‘hipster.’ Part I focused on defining terms, Part II was about offering critiques from the margins, Part III focused on image and brand, and Part IV was about authenticity and privilege. In this final post, I examine anthropology as the academy’s favorite punching bag.

Hating Hipsters

Nobody likes hipsters. Well, that’s an exaggeration. Wait, not really. Nobody likes hipsters. Even hipsters don’t like hipsters. They are decried, disavowed and debased as useless, smug, latte-drinking elites who contribute little substance to society at large. They mark themselves with obscure ways of dressing and acting, and profess solidarity with the marginal when they may be bringing gentrification to struggling, urban areas. So the rants go.

I am more interested in the cultural figure of the hipster and her/his place in the public imagination than I am in any particular instantiation. As an insightful commenter (Byrd McDaniels) from Part IV of this series noted, the “hipster” of popular culture is more a caricature than a living, breathing, nuanced person. And the act of heaping scorn upon the imaginary hipster Other who refuses to be a part of the mainstream can become a cathartic act of social solidarity 1; both the social conservative and progressive liberal have some harsh words for the hipster. The hipster, however, occupies a self-contradictory and paradoxical position as both a figure to be imitated for their ultra-hipness, and as one to be disavowed for their rejection of mainstream norms; in short, it is a figure that is subject to both mimesis and alterity. As Shumar 2 has suggested, it is a liminal and paradoxical position, in which one is positioned at the margins, but not outside, of the mainstream because late capitalism penetrates all aspects of social life in developed countries. All of the contradictions of earlier posts in this series point to this way of being as partly shaped by this unique position in the social space.

And what about anthropologists?

Hating Anthropology

Anthropologists have explicitly drawn on traditions of the researcher inhabiting liminal positions ‘betwixt and between’ social worlds. But occupying this space produces certain tensions, and I believe the ‘scholarly hipster’ figure represents one way of handling those tensions. We critique a mainstream world that, in the end, we are complicit with.

As a result, lots of people dislike anthropologists. That includes, by the way, other anthropologists. It is striking to me that critiques of the discipline (from both inside and outside of it), seemingly deploy some of the same rhetoric that is mobilized against the hipster Other. That is certainly the case for this recent blogger, who railed against anthropology in response to recent controversial works by Nicholas Wade: 3

…it’s hard to escape the conclusion that refusing to consider the implications of Wade’s argument has everything to do with protecting the academic turf anthropologists have carved out, and nothing to do with scientific inquiry or truth.

He gestures here to what I described in Part II as the propensity for intellectual fads in marginal spaces, which he further decries as obscure and meaningless debates that dominate the discipline and are completely removed from reality. These comments bring to the fore another critique laid at the door of the discipline: its uselessness.

“Uselessness” is probably the critique that I have found has most infiltrated the popular imagination, as anthropology can be found in the Forbes list of useless degrees, the Governor of Florida suggesting the state needs no more anthropologists, despite the revelation that his daughter was an anthropology major, the NYTimes editorial listing anthro as an example of useless college education and even this great Savage Minds infographic written in response to these critics. Like the hipster, we face a public who thinks that we contribute nothing substantial to society while spending most of our time just being cool. Immediate, measurable utility and market value have come to dominate the corporate university, and certain forms of knowledge are privileged in those spaces as a result4.

But is this why they hate us? For being useless and elitist? When I introduce myself as an anthropologist to other figures in/around the academy, I find most listeners to be very inquisitive and engaged. Perhaps it is just civility or common courtesy, but anecdotally, their eyes do not glaze over and drift off as I speak, and no one seems to think what I do is ‘useless.’ The same appears to be true for my colleagues who study anthropology and other ‘useless’ disciplines. This is anecdotal, of course, but this whole dang series is anecdotal.

More importantly, however, I am not entirely sure that they hate anthropology at all. In the public discourse, anthropology has become a convenient symbol of those elements of academia we like least. I’ve come to think that the scorn we receive is less about anything we in particular have done, and more about the contradictory tensions that are embedded in academic structures, in which intellectual hierarchy, intense competition, the industrialization of knowledge production, rampant credentialism, commoditization of self, and the privileging of different kinds of knowledge are endemic. Although this blog series has focused on anthropology, I do not believe that the ‘scholarly hipster’ is unique to this one discipline. In every discipline, there are those who occupy marginal spaces, police academic borders, endlessly seek out and embellish new fads, cultivate intellectual brands, perform smartness and exclusion and seek authenticity in research while distancing themselves from their own privilege. The ‘scholarly hipster’ is not an inherent class of person, but rather a theatrical costume each of us can slip into to achieve particular aims, such as managing our anxiety, resisting mainstream agendas, and establishing a presence in a field.5 The hipster embodies a coolness which requires standing at the margins and being less emotionally invested in mainstream ways of being. I would argue that the hipster thus deploys irony partly as a strategy to manage the vicissitudes and anxieties of subjectivity under late capitalism – it can further serve to emotionally distance the act from the agent. The inability to dance is hidden behind an ironic performance of ‘dancing’ that serves to protect a fragile ego. Behind the performance, however, is the fear of appearing genuinely foolish. And after all, isn’t that the academic’s worst nightmare?

It is, of course, very hip to criticize everything in an ironic way6 because to show a genuine affection for something is to be vulnerable; one must be willing to jump on the new intellectual fad partly to demonstrate that one is ‘too cool’ to be personally invested in something for too long7. From this point of view, all of the hipster-like activity described in this series can be seen as a very rational set of practices for protecting intellectual ego and sense of self. The figure of the scholar has reached such a high standing in our imagination that virtually everyone suffers from some form of imposter syndrome (although it is more prevalent among certain groups and configured differently across the academy). The enactment of scholarly hipster may be some attempt to deflect an internalized sense of not being good enough for accolades received. This may be particularly true for those who “make it” in recent years in the face of the swelling ranks of the chronically underemployed academics. However, it may even be so for those who have not obtained tenure track jobs or financial stability in this still terrible academic marketplace. Living in precarious times, we feel vulnerable, and can at least protect our egos with our hard-earned intellectual capital.

This particular iteration of the scholarly hipster thus emerges from the structure of the academy in late capitalism. It emerges in response to struggles with inadequacy, self-hate, fear, rejection of and resistance to the mainstream, aspiration, doubt, the ubiquitous imposter syndrome, pride, anxiety, huge levels of debt, a dearth of jobs, etc. We are not just “occupants of particular positions or holders of particular identities, but rather the result of complex structures of thought, feeling and reflection.” In short, it is a particular ensemble of responses to scholarly conditions: a subjectivity8.

Producing Scholarly Hipsters

Although we sometimes like to think otherwise, academics are not above the struggles of the human condition. Ortner’s 9 call to introduce a richer dialogue about subjectivities and power pointed to:

The ensemble of modes of perception, affect, thought, desire, fear and so forth that animate acting subjects . . . as well as the cultural and social formations that shape, organize, and provoke those modes of affect, thought and so on.

I argue here that scholars are likewise animated by such ensembles that emerge from our various positions in social structures. And although I think scholarly hipsters can be found outside of anthropology, I also believe that we find ourselves slipping into those roles too often. But our hipsterish position in academia broadly is not the result of “some natural or original will” but rather emerge from and within “a matrix of subjectivity – of (culturally constituted) feelings, thoughts and meanings.”10

Although there may be far reaching implications for other parts of our social worlds (publishing, professional organization, mentorship, departmental organization, to name a few), I am most interested here in the spaces from which we emerge. What are the implications for how we produce the next generation of anthropologists? Must the scholarly hipster be a figure of inadequacy and insecurity, or might it be healthy response to occupying marginal and critical spaces? Regardless, is it surprising that many doctoral students so easily slip into that role, as they struggle with feeling both insecurity and peripherality? What are the institutional rituals, policies and practices that foster and give rise to so many scholarly hipsters in anthropology? If the scholarly hipster is something that we don’t like about ourselves, what alternative subjectivities are there that we could better cultivate? 11

Other posts in the series:


  1. One anecdote: My toddler enjoys the PBS Kids cartoon show the Wild Kratts who are a bunch of scientist adventurers who learn about animals and build exciting devices modelled off of them. The cartoon characters are apparently designed from real people, as the real “wild” Kratts brothers introduce the audience to exotic animals in the intro and breaks between cartoons. The good guys are earthy, white, suburban-male-looking dads who love to play with tools. The bad guy looks like a hipster. He is pale, skinny, wears black turtlenecks, has a tiny goatee and is completely disconnected from the world. He builds robots, but lacks the earthy connection to animals and nature. Even PBS is getting in the act of hating on hipsters. 
  2. Personal communications. 
  3. You can find the blogger’s rant here. In particular, he is responding to Jonathon Mark’s Review in In These Times. Savage Minds was pulled into the fray as having “declared war” on Wade’s new book (based on Alex Golub’s brief review on Savage Minds ).   Of course, this blogger ignores the fact that both Marks’ and Golub’s reviews were controversial and generated a flurry of comments; also ignored is the diversity of voices that can all be considered anthropological. Ironically, he also mentions this ‘unbelievably stupid’ blog on hipsters as an example of anthropology’s irrelevance, not realizing that he was himself providing an example of precisely the sorts of tensions that I am pointing to in this series. This further delights my inner hipster. The blogger in question also seems to build off of another rant against anthropology that has circulated the Internet found here. 
  4. In my opinion, the piece that best captures the tension of knowledge, the university and the marketplace can be found in Urcioli (American Ethnologist, Volume 35, Issue 2, 2008, Pages: 211-228). 
  5. Nick Mizer over at The Geek Anthropologist has begun toying with the notion of the “Scholarly Geek” which may be yet another theatrical costume of the academy, based on something other than aloof coolness 
  6. I very much enjoyed this editorial piece by Wesleyan president Mathew Roth in the NYTimes, on the politics of learning and the sophisticated cultivation of critical thinking in elite college students. He highlights the ways that the performance of smartness includes a blasé critique of everything and a deep cynicism about the world. I would characterize this as resonating with the sorts of hipster culture that I see among anthropologists, but which are likely prevalent across other disciplines in the university. 
  7. There are things that anthropologists show genuine and enduring passion for. These include dedication to particular communities, ontologies, epistemologies, certain areas of inquiry, and ethical principles that carry well beyond the latest intellectual fad. These are quite refreshing. 
  8. I imagine there were earlier iterations of the scholarly hipster throughout history, reflecting different historical moments and conditions. For example, ‘staking out academic turf’ had different consequences as new academic departments and disciplines were taking shape in early 20th century universities. 
  9. These, and other thoughts can be found elaborated by Ortner (Anthropological Theory, Volume 5, March 2005, Pages: 31-52). 
  10. Ibid. 
  11. Maybe the anthropologist as geek is a good start. Or perhaps the suggestions here

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.

14 thoughts on “The Anthropologist as Scholarly Hipster, Part V: Why do they hate us?

  1. This series has elaborated on a paper presented at the annual meeting of the 2013 AAA at a session titled Producing Anthropologists. I want to thank the participants in the session: Ida Fadzillah Leggett, Elaine Christian, Cathy Bushnell Amanti, Carol Brandt and David Long for providing a rich intellectual setting to discuss the hipster. I also want to thank Kathy Schultz for her thoughts and support as discussant. Since then, Wes Shumar and Robert Moore have been fantastic in helping me to more closely think through and articulate the most important points I wanted to make for this series, for which I am grateful. Thanks also to the readers and commenters, who have been very insightful, including folks over at the Geek Anthropologist (http://thegeekanthropologist.com/) for picking up a strand of this conversation to continue over there.

    Although I know the hipster analogy may be a bit odd, once the parallels were laid out they seemed to jump out at me at every turn. I could not ignore them. I find it ironic that the inspiration for this piece was partly my own feeling peripheral to hipster-like coolness, and yet writing about those reflections has seemed to position me as some sort of expert on the subject. To be clear, I am not. I want to thank both Savage Minds and its readership for patience with this series. For a short time, I am sure it seemed that hipsters took over the front page, and as we know from this piece, nobody likes a hipster. I hope that this series was helpful for thinking through the discipline and its challenges, and we now return you to your non-hipster programming, already in progress.

  2. Thanks for the link!

    But your elliptical treatment of my comments says a lot, I’m afraid. And that you call Al West’s blog from a while back a “rant against anthropology.” It’s nothing of the sort, and he says so in the post. That you can try to defend the “diversity of voices” within anthropology and then claim that West is somehow not part of it because of his objections is, well, rather typical.

    If you could kindly point me to some of the objections to Marks’ review from within the field, I would love to read them. But I think the point stands that he’s a major leader, yet that review is just bizarre and childish. The tone is quite defensive, is it not?

    Now, combine the fact that Marks has expounded upon the notion that genetics is a political ideology — in other words, hatethink — with his penchant for purging, and a rather ugly picture emerges. Not to mention he’s the one who coined the phrase “Human Biodiversity,” which is referenced in some of the reviews of Wade’s book as the sole preserve of racists and other evil people. That’s mighty strange, isn’t it?

    I’ll ask you as clearly as I can; do you think anthropology suffers from epistemic closure driven by egalitarian political ideology?

    Anyway, my main objection to the hipster hermeneutic is that I’ve had to read or edit way too many essays focusing on it. Nobody seems to know what the word means and it becomes an excuse for all sorts of pseudointellectual wankery.

  3. Dear Arthur,

    Thank you very much for your comment. I am afraid, however, that you seemingly miss the central points that I was hoping to engage with this series. These seem to mainly center on two misunderstandings about why I called on your blog post about anthropology (http://mitrailleuse.net/2014/05/13/nicholas-wade-vs-the-anthropologists/), and why I called on Mr. Alan West’s critique as well (http://alwestmeditates.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/i-regret-studying-social-anthropology.html).

    First, you seem to think the focus of the post is Wade’s book. It is not. Although I have had some exposure to the field, I am not a biological anthropologist and I do not pretend to be one. Genetics and biodiversity are not my area of expertise, and so I would not feel justified in voicing my opinion on the controversial work – particularly as I have not read, nor do I plan to read Wade’s book. Although I wish that I had the time, I am a cultural anthropologist, and I have reams of articles and books to catch up on that take precedence over this particular debate. For these reasons, I cannot be sure if Marks’ review is warranted or not. I was not posting for or against either the book or the review. So I do hope that other commenters do not take up this strand, not because it is unimportant, but rather because it is not the focus of this series – and there are plenty of other spaces to do that.

    Second, however, you do seem to broadly misunderstand that this series is mostly written as a critique, not defense of anthropology. Or rather, I am pointing at certain elements of the academy – who I identify as ‘scholarly hipsters’ who I feel engage in activities that further marginalize the discipline as a whole. Well, to be more accurate I think that (A) many of us can be hipsters at different moments in our careers – not just particular scholars, and (B) that there are some positive and some negative implications for taking on that role. Anyway, I use this rather light and sometimes-tongue-in-cheek approach to try to dig into some big challenges in the field. My point is that some of the same critiques that people make of hipsters broadly are also made of anthropologists. My reference to your post was not about the particular review or your response to it, but rather about the kinds of critiques that people make of ‘anthropology’ as a discipline.

    Mr. West (another blog post referenced in part V) also levels some critiques of the field that largely align with what I was saying in my series (i.e. the focus on being marginal and following academic fads). My reference therefore to these works was intended to show how anthropology gets disparaged in the public discourse. Personally, I see many of these challenges to the field as being rooted in our strengths, and so I am hoping to generate a meaningful conversation about how we can respond to them. I am attempting to defend the diversity of voices, and am NOT suggesting that Mr. West’s comments should not be part of that debate (although there are elements of his argument that I also disagree with). You thus seem to be accusing me of doing the things that I am myself criticizing in this series.

    By the way, I do not think a ‘rant’ is necessarily a bad thing. I called his post a rant because on your own blog post you called it an ‘epic rant.’ I was only following your lead.

    So, in the end, the hipster is not really the point of the series, but is rather a foil against which we can think about the field of anthropology and what we can do differently. Although I like your term ‘pseudo-intellectual wankery,’ this is not an academic journal, but a blog – a good place to put up light-hearted anecdotes and professional reflections on the field. The right venue, I think, for my hipster series.

    Anyway, the only element of your comment that seems pertinent to this discussion is “do you think anthropology suffers from epistemic closure driven by egalitarian political ideology?” I would say, yes, to the extent that all academic disciplines represent ways of being socialized into different ways of seeing that align with traditions of theory and literature. I don’t think any academic discipline is completely open in either epistemology or ontology, as the volume of human knowledge is so vast that we each learn different ways to realistically manage, process and integrate knowledge into our world views. Physics has a different tradition of epistemology/ontology, as does economics, as does chemistry, as does history, etc. To be human is to be limited and subjective. And on the whole, I think anthropologists do have certain egalitarian tendencies, although we have some very non-egalitarian, historical roots, and this series argues that we also still need to ‘check our privilege’ on occasion.

    However, I also welcome debate from other readers on the subject.

  4. Marks’ point of view represents something rather more deeply ingrained than a hipsterish fad, which is one reason why this critique, insofar as I agree with it, doesn’t go nearly far enough.

    I quoted Solzhenitsyn on Sakharov at you privately but I’ll do it again, because this essay really is too good of a proxy for our disagreement to ignore:

    “Powerful and daring minds are now beginning to struggle upright, to fight their way out from under heaps of antiquated rubbish. But even they still bear all the cruel marks of the branding iron, they are still cramped by the shackles into which they were forced half-grown.”

    Good for you for speaking out, but we need to have a closer look at this beast, and anthropology’s relationship with it.

    You’ve conceded that anthropology has an egalitarian bias. It is clear that the discipline’s egalitarian values — and within the humanities generally — are not benign, they are thoroughly weaponized. The NSA hosted a panel at the MLA’s annual convention; anthropologists went with the troops on our democratic crusade in Iraq; and I’m sure we’re only a year or two from a fusillade of dissertations on Occupy. This is the privilege that needs checking, such as it is, certainly more so than the discipline’s inegalitarian past, which is less harmful today. Democracy is inherently totalizing and imperialistic, because it is universalistic and egalitarian. This should concern anthropologists, who above all are interested in different ways of living, because it is usually the way they are edged out.

    I suspect we are all sympathetic to the struggle for self-determination among indigenous people around the world, but what do we make of the Hawai’ian independence movement, and the USG’s attempt last week to co-opt it with a sort of ethnic suzerainty proposal? On the one hand, democracy would appear to have opened a space for more pluralistic forms of government, even ethnically-derived ones. On the other, the OHA pushing for tribal recognition is more about spoils for the registrants on the list they’ve put together, and the big danger is that they sell out their bigger aspirations for independence and a restoration of the Kingdom of Hawai’i for a pass on the federal gravy train.

    As a Virginian, I do not wish to see my tax dollars spent on ethnic spoils for Hawai’ians, even as I wish them well in their aspirations for self-government. Here we see democracy’s tendency to co-opt pluralism by concentrating benefits and diffusing costs in the name of egalitarian and identity-based claims, which is the process by which this beast grows.

  5. J. Arthur Bloom, many scholars have questioned the extent to which ‘anthropology’ is a meaningful signifier (see Fabian 2012); certainly, it does not seem worthwhile to imagine that there is an anthropology unified by a set of theoretical points – you will find mission statements (issued by anthropological organizations) and you will find widespread fantasies about pseudo-epistemic platforms like the ‘standard social science model’, but these are not grounded in anthropological praxis. Moreover, it is not just that anthropology will never acquire anything close to a Kuhnian paradigm, the fact is that the current state of epistemological multiplicity is facilitated by the influence of antagonistic schools (see Strathern 1985).

    In other words, perspectives based on feminist or Foucaultian scholarship have the capacity to more or less continuously ‘upset the applecart’. I don’t mean to imply that this is an automatic or guaranteed outcome (and this ‘story about anthropology’ is arguably a conventional narrative these days), but if you examine the scholarship of theorists like Lila Abu-Lughod and Saba Mahmood, you will find powerful examples.

    It is not possible to engage in knowledge production without a bias – this goes for anthropologists and physicists. I understand that you’re insinuating that there is a degree of political conformity (Kuhnian conformity, if you will) that renders (all?) anthropologists blind to ideas that challenge the confines of whatever you’re proposing is a fixed anthropological imaginary. However, this proposition does not seem to me to be a relevant way of thinking about the current state of the discipline.

    Of course, you do not require a fixed definition of ‘anthropology’ (we know how to use it, after all), and you do not need every anthropologist to have a purportedly ‘egalitarian’ bias – you only need to be able to show that there are dominant or even hegemonic anthropological discourses that function as vehicles that proliferate this ‘egalitarian’ project. How are you going to make this case? If ‘anthropology’ is distinguished from ‘not anthropology’ principally by inclusion and exclusion by the field of force relations that produce and maintain researchers, university departments, and journals, then what you’re left with is a degree of epistemological heterogeneity that is too immense. It is not intellectually honest, nor academically plausible.

    Many anthropologists are going to praise the Human Terrain System, many others are going to resign in protest, and given the breadth of the discipline today, I doubt whether any story about the field will ever conquer the mountain of exclusions you would have to make to construct a compelling narrative – this mode of thinking that permits Marks to serve as a discursive center for the entire field is only applicable in thoroughly non-academic discussions; most anthropologists have an ambiguous relationship with the concept of representation, and I doubt you’d find very many that would be willing to let news articles serve as testaments of their respective epistemological commitments. It just isn’t that simple.

    Fabian, Johannes. 2012. Cultural Anthropology and the Question of Knowledge. In Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, no. 18, pgs. 439-453.

    Strathern, Marilyn. 1985. Dislodging a World View: Challenge and Counter-Challenge in the Relationship Between Feminism and Anthropology. In Australian Feminist Studies, no. 1, vol. 1, pgs. 1-25.

  6. “It is not possible to engage in knowledge production without a bias” So a scholar prefers one political ideology over another. The issue isn’t so much about bias as it is about whether it is possible to produce factual descriptions of a given phenomenon. And this is not only possible, but also common place. I might be a libertarian and my neighbor a fascist, buy we both concede that many Mesoamerican groups practice post marital virilocal residence. So we might have our “biases,” but these need not automatically impede or intrude into accounting for the facts of the world.

  7. @TNT, thanks for your thoughts.

    Unfortunately, debates on climate change and evolution demonstrate that even research in the ‘hard sciences’ can be read and interpreted in very different ways, and that our understandings of the world seriously impacts our interpretation of “facts.” I hear you though – researchers should be above that. Wishful thinking, I would argue. Social sciences attempt to offer more than a simple descriptive statement or a “factual description of a process” (as in let’s call this phenomenon X), but also provide an analysis that attempts to make sense of that phenomenon given its history, context, economic conditions, causes, implications, etc. It strikes me that as researchers and as consumers of research, our own usually unspoken assumptions about the world deeply shape how we understand and interpret the world around us. In anthropology we’ve elaborated a tradition of sharing these assumptions with our readers, rather than pretending to be perfect, objective authorities.

    For example, your libertarian worldview may (in subtle ways) lead you to focus on the ways that independently minded individuals challenged collectivist norms, and interpret those persons as driving positive change in that group. Your fascist neighbor then looks at the same data and “facts” but instead interprets those individuals as “aberrant” persons who are disruptive of collective efforts to create positive change in that group. For most scholars, such worldviews are there – in-between the lines – but not openly articulated or discussed: they just color the presentation of data. First, note that this is not particular to qualitative research. A regression analysis must be interpreted and explained. Second, note that political ideology is only one dimension of this kind of subjectivity that infiltrates our work.

    Now, one approach is to simply write the most “neutral” account possible. Person X did Y. Person Z said this. However, one finds that in attempting to remain absolutely neutral you end up saying virtually nothing at all, as it becomes difficult to do any bigger thinking about how that social phenomenon is related to other things in the world. It becomes like reading a legal contract. Party A and Party B indicate . . . intended to be neurotically, complexly neutral.

    A more anthropological approach would be to share your biases up front, and let the reader decide for him/herself. I.e., you would start by saying that you are a libertarian and acknowledge how it shapes the way you think about this social phenomenon, and let the readers see what you do with the data given your position. I find that preferable to holding those positions and refusing to believe that they actually have any impact whatsoever on interpretation of data. Hope this helps.

  8. Alex Posecznick, you worded that a lot better than I could have. I feel like the more I read, the less I can talk about these ideas in a straightforward language. Still an undergraduate though, so hopefully it’ll get easier!

  9. @John

    Since you are an undergraduate, you have the opportunity to study all sorts of things. You might find it interesting to spend some time looking into the history of science. Consider, for example, the Royal Society. Wikipedia describes it as follows:

    “The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, commonly known as the Royal Society, is a learned society for science, and is possibly the oldest such society still in existence.[a] Founded in November 1660, it was granted a Royal Charter by King Charles II as the ‘Royal Society of London’.”

    The Royal Society played a major role in shaping the way we now think about science and scientific method. Note, however, when it was founded, in 1660, with a charter from Charles II. Its members were men who had fought on both sides of a bitter civil war that had resulted in the beheading of Charles I, Cromwell’s Commonwealth, and then the Restoration that made Charles II king of England. Like the libertarian and the facist in your example, these men had very good reasons to avoid political, moral and religious debate and focus attention on “objective” facts, i.e., directly observable realities on which they could all agree. What they achieved, however, by narrowing their focus in this way was rapid progress in solving relatively easy problems, which led over time to the formation of science and technology as we know them today. The price of that progress was the bifurcation of the world into the stuff that current science can deal with and the stuff that current science cannot described by Alfred North Whitehead in Science and the Modern World.

    Here’ a speculation to chew on. Could it be that, having run out of the simple problems, cherry picked because they were noncontroversial, we are all now facing wicked problems, making it increasingly difficult to avoid the politics, morality and aesthetics entangled with what we are trying to do? That could be your generation’s biggest intellectual challenge.

  10. Hi Alex, I appreciate your response. However, in the sciences it is a given that facts can be interpreted differently, and I will add that you can have a few different theoretical accounts of the same thing. So your point about evolution is a given. In fact on this very site I had a discussion with another fellow about human biological variation in which the facts concerning genetics where not in dispute, but rather how to interpret these facts with respect to evolutionary theory. Just like you, I am also grad student in anthropology, so I know all about how things work in the social sciences. Often the self-reflexivity you described in the libertarian example seems more like a move to justify shadey fieldwork, and subpar scholarship, than to “sharing bias.” Here I must ask what is bias? A sound research design, lets say for studying residence patterns and the domestic cycle, should make all efforts to thwart bias.That is, bias, as in some action that manipulates research, its results, and interpretation so that inaccuracies occur. If a researcher was a liberterian who allowed his personal ideology to “shape” how s/he carried out the study or interpret the results then we’d have a problem wouldn’t we?

  11. @John McCreery

    Thanks for raising the idea that the most difficult and socially embedded problems might be the most important ones for our field. And these are certainly not things you can approach as a disengaged ‘scholarly hipster.’

    I think about this a lot as an anthropologist. My grad-school pilot-study of missionary movements and ethics was one of my better pieces of work, yet continual resistance and bias on the part of funding committees, senior scholars, and the job market led me to turn away from it. I’m now in a more technical career. I’d like to engage with these difficult topics, yet not necessarily to return to the financial and social cauldron of academia — so I can definitely see what you’re saying in proposing that this is one of the major issues for young anthropologists.

  12. John McCreery, thank you for sharing this. I have added Whitehead’s book to my list. I only have two years of undergraduate training so far, but I fell in love with the discipline early on. I’ve been looking forward to covering a great deal of theoretical works throughout the summer. I read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions this semester (it was not assigned, though), and it had a profound impact on me; a kind of first gestalt switch, and now I understand the natural sciences very differently. Writing Culture provided a second gestalt switch – if I could once see “groups” (the “Mesoamericans”, for instance), the concept is now very problematic (my concerns extend beyond the politics of representation and the issue of the inclusion/exclusion of “voices”).

    I recently read George E. Marcus’ 2006 interview The End(s) of Ethnography and it helped me situate myself more readily; having not experienced the experimental moment or the crisis myself, I’ve been interested in how to understand it more comprehensively – I read Writing Culture before I’d read a lot of other literature from the 1980s, but it struck me as highly impressive and as perhaps one of the most important works I’d read up until then. I wasn’t really able to critically reflect on what I’d read until I went on to read most of Lila Abu-Lughod’s work, and I am greatly inspired by her.

    I don’t want to get too far off topic, though. I’m writing a scholarship application this summer and I’ve been interested in building something of a minor literature review covering “the production of anthropological truth candidates/knowledge claims”. George E. Marcus (same interview, see above) observed that certain practices are borderline clichés today; he was referring to reflexive practices, but I am thinking more broadly of the trinity of positioned/situated knowledge production, reflexive practices, and a distantiation from a realist mode of description (and/or a self-critical mode of writing). My (limited) experience has been that this trinity (and likely, other essential components) forms a kind of contemporary regime of justification for anthropological knowledge claims today, and in some cases, I’ve been missing a way to tackle these practices critically (moving beyond simply understanding and applying them). At this point, I want to try to include works by a diverse range of scholars, including Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, Evelyn Fox Keller, Johannes Fabian, John Comaroff, Richard Rorty, Roy Bhaskar, Bruno Latour, Karina Knorr-Cetina, and a number of others – this list is limited and preliminary.

    I apologize for not clarifying my previous argument; when I said that knowledge production is always biased, I was not referring principally to the purportedly ‘egalitarian project’ imagined to be at the core of anthropology today. The point I was trying to make is one perhaps most recently reiterated by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro; the epistemological is political – it’s about being open to the possibility that certain phenomena might not be explicable by recourse to “holistic” research regimes that attempt to craft an analysis as relevant and realistic as possible – Viveiros de Castro’s point being that we can fruitfully illuminate phenomena using different (even contrasting) epistemologies to open up for the possibility that social realities are (or can be) too complex for just one theoretical framework. Above all, it’s about being cognizant of the fact that adopting a specific theoretical lens will have a considerable impact on what we encounter in the field (I’m also thinking, here, of the effects of Kuhnian paradigms, and how they are analogous to modes of perception – the difference here being that the researcher is aware of the pros and cons of a given paradigm, and obviously the researcher is not strictly speaking tied to a paradigm – it is not even a ‘paradigm’).

  13. @John

    Since you are into this kind of thing, allow me another recommendation not likely to be found on current must-read lists in anthropology: Gerald M. Weinberg (2001) Introduction to General Systems Thinking: Silver Anniversary Edition. You may find it useful in framing the anthropological debates in a broader context.

  14. @TNT, thanks for the clarification. I appreciate that, in some cases, the embrace of researcher subjectivity may lead one to casually dismiss any attempt at objectivity. One implication is that in the end, if our views are all colored by our own personal preferences, positions, and beliefs, than why bother attempting to even think about objectivity? I think this is where you are heading, and I agree would be problematic. Some scholars do tend toward this position, but I personally subscribe to a life-style that aims at balance and moderation, or at least struggle with Emerson’s call on “Moderation in all things, especially moderation.” As such, I would not consciously draw on my personal ideology as a cloak for disguising poorly elaborated research designs or deeply biased collection/analysis of data – and I think few scholars would.

    However, I would hold that objectivity is akin to living a moral life, or attaining enlightenment: not only do we likely hold different opinions of precisely what constitutes them, but I also do not think I will ever fully attain even my own version. I hold an intellectual goal to approach persons, data and ideas with as open a mind as possible – and my thoughts on how to do so practically and in ways consistent with my disciplinary training have matured as I moved into, through and now out of graduate study. My doctoral studies radically changed my way of seeing the world, but I also realize that it was only a point of entry to life in academia, which has continued to challenge my views. As such, I believe that personal ideology (among other things, like the big three: race, class, gender, or endless little things, like my being a father or native New Yorker) do shape my work in subtle ways that I am likely unaware of. I do not think that my “owning” these diminishes my ability to contribute to scholarship in a significant way. I hope not anyway. I guess future generations (if they are even interested) will have to make that call.

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