(This guest post comes from Ståle Wig. Ståle has recently completed a research based MA in Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo, with a thesis on development workers in Lesotho. He is affiliated at the Center for Development and the Environment, and teaches a class in Science Outreach and Journalism at the University of Oslo.)
Paul Farmer was never an orthodox anthropologist. As an undergraduate I remember reading his article, An Anthropology of Structural Violence. It took me by surprise.
Not because I was unaccustomed to scholars arguing that we need to link the ethnographically visible to history and political economy – or, in Farmer’s words, “the interpretive project of modern anthropology to a historical understanding of the large scale social and economic structures in which affliction is embedded”. No, my class had already read Sidney Mintz. It was somewhat fascinating to read an anthropologist who at the same time was a doctor committed to heal the sick in his ethnographic surroundings. But that’s not really what got me, either. Continue reading
I didn’t make it to the AAA 2013 meetings. I heard the news though: ontology is the next big thing. I’m not sure what to make of this. I am all for getting your theory on, but so far I haven’t heard anything from this latest ontological craze that’s really hit home. Maybe I’m not paying enough attention. Maybe I’m not reading the right stuff. Or, perhaps after several years of being subjected to high doses of academic theory-talk, I have overdosed and now have some sort of weird allergy to anything that remotely resembles jargon. In that case I just need some Benadryl and everything should be in order shortly.
I did read a post over on Allegra by Isaac Morrison about this whole “ontological turn” thing that makes some good points. Here’s how it starts: Continue reading
I thought I would kick off the last morning of the year by chiming in on the comments to Dr.LibertyBell’s very generative second post on empathy here at SM. But I seemed to have found the post and comments so generative, that I now find myself rounding off the last afternoon of the year by posting this companionate redux instead.
On the Particularity of the Empathetic Subject
Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL
In my first post, I proposed that anthropology might be particularly well suited to thinking through the concept of empathy. In North America, “empathy” has come to be a prominent term across the caring arts. In areas ranging from self-help to health care, empathy seems to be something that can and should be cultivated. In 2006, President Obama declared that an “empathy deficit” was more pressing than a federal budgetary deficit. The scale of this claim reflects an increasingly popular view of empathy as producer of solutions to large, complex issues. In his 2010 bestseller Empathic Civilization, American social theorist Jeremy Rifkin argued that “global empathic consciousness” could restore a global economy and solve climate change.
Last weeks’ commentators aptly pointed out that “empathy” has become a gloss for broader concerns. Its implementation from the perspective of those of you working with social workers, health care professionals and so on made it clear that institutionalized empathy is a downloading of problems onto already thinly stretched personnel. As a former pubic schoolteacher, I can agree that it is tempting to dismiss empathy as a smoke screen for troubles of our times. Yet, I keep coming back to anthropology’s shared principles with empathy—specifically perspective taking, withholding judgment, and dwelling with the people we work with. I am not arguing ‘for’ or ‘against’ empathy. Frankly, I am curious. What meanings has this term come to hold in the context of North America, and what very real kinds of ways of relating to Others has empathy been trying to capture but somehow can’t? Puzzled by the empathy boom, I went to a good friend for insights. As an analytic philosopher specializing in emotions and emotion history, she had a lot to teach me about the crooked conceptual path of the term. She was so generous in sharing what she knows, I thought I’d share what I’d learned here. Continue reading
I usually try to avoid ranting about my pet-peeves, but I just gotta get this one off my chest: what’s up with leftist academics criticizing a theory for being “disempowering”? I don’t even know where to begin with such criticism. It is as if someone, upon learning of such a theory, would be so overwhelmed by the inevitability of domination that they simply give up trying to make the world a better place. Has this ever happened to someone? Really?!
Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL
In the last few weeks, social work scholar turned pop-psychology web superstar Brené Brown came out with a short animated video summarizing much of her writing on empathy. It opens by drawing a distinction between empathy and sympathy. According to Brown, empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection. For those of you who are expert in the area of the anthropology of emotions, I am guessing it would be fairly easy to come up with cross-cultural scenarios that put this pop-psych in its place (and please do!). That sympathy has become the bad guy in US self-help genres isn’t all that surprising. In psychology and analytic philosophy, empathy and sympathy are part of a larger cohort referred to as “other regarding emotions”. Debating the appropriateness of the other regarding emotions—from pity to compassion to sympathy to empathy—lends itself to prescriptive ways of being the world. This short video presumes that we can know what will feel good to others. In this case empathy feels good, and sympathy feels bad.
Most attendees of the annual meetings in Chicago are, as one wag put it, exhAAAusted from all our conference going, and the dust is only now settling. As we look back on the conference, however, it is worth asking what actually happened there. Different people will have different answers to this question, but for me and the people in my scholarly network, the big answer is: ontology.
The term was not everywhere at the AAAs, but it was used consistently, ambitiously, audaciously, and almost totally unironically to offer anthropology something that it (supposedly) hasn’t had in a long time: A massive infusion of theory that will alter our paradigm, create a shift in the field that everyone will feel and which will orient future work, and that will allow us, once again, to ask big questions. To be honest, as someone who had been following ‘ontological anthropology’ for the past couple of years, I was sort of expecting it to not get much traction in the US. But the successful branding of the term and the cultural capital attached to it may prove me wrong yet.
In fact, there were just two major events with the world ontology in the title: the “Politics of Ontology” roundtable and the blowout “The Ontological Turn in French Philosophical Anthropology”. But these events were full of ‘stars’ and attracted plenty of attention.
Will this amount to anything? What is ontology anyway? Were there other themes that were more dominant in the conference? I don’t have any answers to these questions yet, but I hope to soon and will let you figure it out when I do. If you get there before me, then fire away in the comments section and we’ll see what people think.
What might an anthropology of the covert look like? I think of the covert as a particular type of secret, one grounded in deception and shadows, and populated by individuals pretending—in part—to be someone other than who they actually are. My current research project is about the CIA as agents of US empire during the Cold War. It is about being invisible, being undercover, and being a legitimate ethnographic subject rather than just a historical or political one. Yet, what sort of ethnography can be written about covert, undercover subjects? How does one humanize the CIA?
I’ve been turning this question over since October 2009 when I found myself at CIA Headquarters. Two weeks before, a mysterious envelope arrived in my on-campus mailbox in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. The return address read “CIA Fine Arts Commission.” I remember looking around the office to see if this was a joke. The CIA Fine Arts Commission? For real? The CIA had an art department? It didn’t help matters that the envelope looked sort of homemade, as if someone had printed the mailing and return addresses on a home laser printer. Perhaps they had. At any rate, I opened the envelope up in the main anthropology office, thinking it was somehow safer to open it there rather than alone back in my own office.
There was no explosion. Phew. Continue reading
This week’s SMOPS is an edited version of Kroeber’s “A History of the Personality of Anthropology,” a piece which Kroeber wrote very late in his life. In it, Kroeber lays down his vision of anthropology’s unique outlook. In one striking passage, he describes anthropology as a ‘changeling’ discipline. Changelings are, in European folklore, elf or fairy children who are brought up by human parents who are unaware of their child’s true nature. The child of natural science on the one hand and the humanities on the other, Kroeber sees anthropology as ill at ease in its adopted home of the social science.
This paper is worthwhile because it conveys in a few short pages some of the fundamental instincts of American cultural anthropology. It will be useful for teachers who need a text to use as the basis for a lecture on anthropology’s outlook. Of course, the piece itself could also simply be assigned. Anthropologists from other national traditions will benefit from this thumbnail sketch of the American outlook, as will non-anthropologists looking for a nontechnical explanation of how anthropologists look at the world.
Savage Minds Occasional Paper #3: The History of the Personality of Anthropology by Alfred Kroeber, edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub
Recently Kieran Healy posted a link on Twitter to a co-citation graph he’d made to try to understand what philosophers “have been talking about for the last two decades?” He also posted a nice poster he made from this data [PDF]. I reposted these and mentioned that it would be great to have something similar for anthropology. The internet being the wonderful place that it is, I shortly had my wish, courtesy of Jonathan Goodwin.
This chart isn’t as clean as Kieran’s – and probably has too much data (four journals going back to 1973), but Jonathan has helpfully provided instructions for how he did it in case anyone is interested in pursuing it further. I’d love to be able to create separate charts for each of the various sub-disciplines in anthropology, but that might be harder to do since they often appear in the same journals. Still, hopefully some interesting insights can be gleaned from this kind of data. If you are able to do anything with this, let us know in the comments!
UPDATE: Jonathan made a new, lower-density, chart for just 1998-to-the-present.
UPDATE: And a new one, with a chronological slider.
Gramsci was born January 22nd, 1891. I wanted to use the opportunity to correct three common misperceptions about Gramsci.
1. Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony” is important because it allows Marxists to talk about “culture.”
The truth is the other way around. Gramsci did not so much provide a way for Marxists to think about culture as he sought to ground the study of culture in Marxism. That is to say, his work was a critique of idealist philosophy which viewed language and culture as having their own internal logic separate from that of political economy. His work was an attempt to ground the study of these subjects in a Marxist history of the Italian state.
Recently I’ve been rethinking my attitude towards popular trends in anthropological theory. You know what I’m talking about… that sudden realization that a whole bunch of anthropologists seem to be engaged with a theoretical framework, scholar, or empirical subject matter that seems to have come out of the blue while you weren’t paying attention. Lacan, Agamben, affect, transnational flows… whatnot. In the past I used to share Marshall Sahlins sense that these were but passing fads and that long-established anthropological traditions had already said many of the same things if we just knew where to look for it. Now I’m not so sure.
Lately I’ve been thinking that there is something productive about playing with the latest lingo. The important word is “play.” Just like internet memes, trying to fit your research or ideas into a new meme gives one a chance to see the material afresh. Hell, it can simply make it fun again, like remixing Gangnam Style with Star Trek the Next Generation, or removing all the music and adding sound effects, or perhaps even just singing it as an acoustic set.
The twitter verse lit up yesterday over Nancy Scola’s Atlantic piece entitled “What The Big 1960s Debate in Anthropology Can Tell Us About Mitt Romney“. I’m sympathetic to Scola’s point, but I think the Internet deserves to know the truth about anthropology — which is something you don’t get from Scola’s article.
Metahistory (1973) is a remarkably prescient text. One of my projects this summer was getting to know Hayden White and I thought I might share some of the notes I took on the introductory chapter to his best known book. What brought me to the work initially was my interest in history and memory studies. Although the author’s intent is to address historians, Metahistory can be read as a comprehensive framework for thinking about how anthropologists construct representations through ethnography or how a community comes to relate to its past through the composition of historical narratives.
With the author’s focus on poetics it’s easy to see the connections to Writing Culture (1986). It’s kind of amazing really, to read this early seventies work that references all the same theorists anthropology starts talking about fifteen years down the road. White’s work contrasts with Writing Culture by virtue of being anchored to old school structuralism (my pet theory). White seems to have anticipated a lot of the later theory, only Metahistory is a much clearer read.
White is offering us a theory of theory that teaches us how to read for rhetoric in social science. Metahistory is about the problem of historical knowledge and White sees himself as working towards a theory of the structure of historical thought. This is a uniquely modern/ post-modern problem. In antiquity the question of what it means to think historically was debated by philosophers under the assumption that “unambiguous answers could be provided for them.” But, of course, theory since the ‘60s has concluded that “definitive answers may not be possible.” Continue reading
I am still obsessed with the concept of value. What is value? What does it mean to say something has value? How do we decide what something is “worth”? How are different ideas about value connected to meaning–and action? How do our ideas about value, worth, and meaning relate to our actions? How is value connected to money (in its various forms)? How are different forms of valorization (economic, cultural, moral, political) connected? Where and when are they disconnected?
When I started on this exploration of the idea of value, one of my friends told me that if I’m really serious about looking deeper, then I should start with David Graeber’s book on the subject. I did, and have subsequently read that book–and his book about Debt–and taken tons of notes. My friend also said that my search for the meaning of value is going to head back to Marx one way or another. And it did. But it also led to Adam Smith, Clyde Kluckhohn, David Harvey, Noel Castree, Julia Elyachar, and many others. This search for value has led me down many different side streets and avenues, and there’s still a lot of ground to cover. The most recent book that I am reading is James Buchan’s book Frozen Desire. The money/value question, especially as it relates to land, real estate speculation, and development, is what has been keeping me occupied for some time now. The more I look into value, the more I want to keep looking. It’s a bit like an endless economic rabbit hole.
Now, I am definitely fascinated with the idea of value, but I am also willing to admit that it’s a massive, if not vague, concept. Graeber said pretty much the same thing in the beginning of his book. The word “value” can refer to a range of things: from prices and money values all the way to moral values. So there’s a bit of fuzziness and abstraction going on, simply because of the wide array of ways in which people use the term. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when one usage ends and another begins. There’s a lot of contradiction and overlap going on. I hate to say it, but the whole idea of value gets complicated–and really, really abstract at times. Maybe too abstract? Continue reading