What we’re teaching this semester: Political Anthropology

Almost all academics, and a lot of semi- or non-academics, end up teaching in the course of their careers, but we rarely spend much time talking with others about how we think about course design and broader issues about how courses fit into our lives and the lives of our students. With the semester beginning for several Minds, we thought it would be interesting to talk about the courses we teach and the thought that goes into teaching them.

This semester I’m teaching Political Anthropology, or ANTH 417 here at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. This is an upper level course designed for juniors and seniors, and there’s a special track in the class (bonus readings!) for honors students and graduate students who want to take the class.

I’ve always tried to keep this class relevant for students while still staying within my areas of competence. In 2008 I shifted it towards the financial crisis and the anthropology of finance. In 2010 I shifted it to address the Gulf Oil Spill. This time around I’m keeping the focus on petroleum disasters but incorporating new readings from the mining industry since that’s what I’m increasingly focused on.

“Political anthropology” is a difficult subfield to teach. Like all subfields, it got institutionalized as a Thing in the decades after World War II. A few subdisciplines like Medical and Ecological anthropology managed to firmly entrench themselves while others, like economic anthropology, continue to exist in some form but lack coherence today (it turns out there aren’t obviously things called ‘the economy’ and ‘politics’ to study). Political anthropology in particular suffered because in the mid-seventies anthropologists decided everything was political and ‘actual’ political conflict — like, who was going to be the next chief or mayor — moved out of the spotlight.

In my class I do still teach some classics of political anthropology, like selections from F.G. Bailey’s Stratagems and Spoils, but my focus in the class is really on ethnography: Reading and discussing whole books in a discussion-based class. This year, we’re reading three books. In order, they are Antonia Juhasz’s Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill, Stuart Kirsch’s Mining Capitalism: The Relationship Between Corporations and Their Critics, and Michael Cepek’s A Future for Amazonia: Randy Borman and Cofán Environmental Politics. 

My class has what’s known as an ‘E’ focus here at Mānoa — all students at Mānoa must take one class with an ‘ethical’ focus and my class fulfills that requirement. This means that in between the monographs we do readings on the concept of ‘responsibility’. The goal of the course is to see how a social-scientific account of the causal mechanisms surrounding disasters in the mining and petroleum industry articulates with moral and ethical approaches to responsibility and blame. In the class I ask questions such as: Who is responsible for industrial disasters? How do bureaucratic organizations diffuse blame and prevent it from sticking to individuals? What sort of responsibility do consumers have for the actions of companies whose products consumers purchase?

As a result I put a series of reading in between the monographs: a philosophy textbook on free will and compatibilism to raise to get students to think about the implications of the fact that we are all caused by external forces, political-philosophical approaches to responsibility (this semester, Iris Young), and other works. The ‘interstitial readings’ also include ‘where are they now pieces’ to keep up with, for instance, current litigation against BP. I also try, whenever possible, to have authors Skype in to talk with students.

Because there is an advanced track to the course there are a series of bonus readings that I assign to ambitious students. Much of the basic course readings come from non-anthropologists (Young, Appiah) or journalists like Juhasz, who write better ethnography than anthropologists do. The advanced reading tends to take students more into specialist readings, such as reading Jackall’s Moral Mazes on bureaucracy at the same time that we read about the Gulf Oil Spill. Mostly, these readings are my time to play a bit and assign more recent articles, or else read some of the theoretical work that informs the thought of Juhasz, Kirsch, or Cepek.

A good class has to be a learning experience for both the teacher and students. It has to show students the problem that professors are passionate about — and haven’t solved yet. At the same time, it has to convey what we do know and what our answers are so far. We have an obligation to teach subjects that are in the public interest, and to show students that focusing on them is interesting. I don’t think that I’ll ever be satisfied with my political anthropology syllabus, but I am happy every time I get a chance to teach the course.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

One thought on “What we’re teaching this semester: Political Anthropology

  1. Rex, could you say a bit more about the three books you assign, “Antonia Juhasz’s Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill, Stuart Kirsch’s Mining Capitalism: The Relationship Between Corporations and Their Critics, and Michael Cepek’s A Future for Amazonia: Randy Borman and Cofán Environmental Politics”? How, in particular, does the “I was there” micro science of ethnography enter into what are clearly very large issues affecting numerous and different local communities?

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