On a local radio show (6/8/05), Bo Bernhard, a sociologist involved with a problem gambling recovery center, described the way that conceptions of gambling had changed over the past couple hundred years. What used to be regarded as a sin, he said, is now regarded as a sickness – what he called the “medicalization” of the discourse around gambling. Much of anthropology, it seems to me, can be regarded in a similar fashion – as the “scientization” of cultural difference. What used to be regarded as a failure of morality (or of mental ability, or of education) is regarded by anthropologists in scientific terms, as adaptation to particular environments or resistance to colonial oppression or the outcome of historically contingent practices or the result of cultural contact.
This process reflects, ultimately, a moral position – if, for example, the Shakers’ rejection of procreation is not, as some would and have believed, a moral failure, then in explaining such practices and the worldview that informs them, we are making a moral stand against misrepresentation, intolerance, and ethnocentrism. While our work certainly deals with the actuality of cultural practice, it also makes a claim about how cultural practices should be understood and evaluated. That “scientization” should be construed as an ethics-driven process might seem odd and even uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise after a moment’s reflection. Anthropology, along with the other social sciences, entered the academy as a reformer’s science, and it is as a reformer’s science that it has had and continues to have its greatest impact. If you pay a visit to my own graduate department at the New School for Social Research – or, I suspect, just about any other anthropology graduate department – you will meet dozens of feminists, postcolonialists, Marxists, postmodernists, queer theorists, anarchists, and others convinced that the representation and treatment of some group of people or other – women, homosexuals, 3rd world peoples, workers – is not only scientifically indefensible but morally reprehensible.
It is not a part of our discipline we are very explicit about, this moral core. But that’s not to say we do not talk about it, implicitly at least – usually under the cover of discussions of “the political” and “power”. We have developed an understanding of power in our discipline, equal parts Marx’s “control over the means of production” (and, I would add, distribution and consumption) and Foucault’s panopticon – the ability to categorize, hierarchize, and discipline difference – that offers cover for our moralizing, perhaps because we feel that a declaration of immorality is a weak argument (which anyone with half an eye on the last election should see is hardly the case) or because it would somehow betray our commitment to relativism (which did not seem to bother uber-relativist Boas and his students all that much…). This is not to say that an understanding of the workings of power in society is not important, but by obscuring the moral positions that inform our practice and theorization, this language minimizes the potential effectiveness of anthropological work. There is a stupid party game where you add the words “in bed!” to fortune cookie fortunes (“you will soon experience a great transformation… in bed!”); I propose a similar act might make clear the underlying import of our work on power, politics, oppression, and so on: add “and it’s wrong!” to each statement about power. For instance, in the first line of Avram Bornstein’s review of Jeffrey A. Sluka’s Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror, he writes: “Since 1945, more people have been killed by their own state than by international, colonial, and civil wars combined, and since the 1970s, governmental respect for human rights has been in a tragic downward spiral” (Bornstein: 260). And it’s wrong!
My goal here is not to “out” anthropologists as moralists or to accuse them (us) of hypocrisy or of a double-standard when it comes to the right to make moral evaluations (what I call “relativism for thee but not for me”). Rather, I am trying to address those accusations by dragging into the light the moral principles which are – and are necessarily – anthropology’s core. Science’s moral core. Like all scientists, the practice of our discipline is premised on the belief that the knowledge we produce will somehow make the world a better place – a moral statement if there ever was one! As one of my professors once put it, every ethnography is, in some way, a reflection of its authors conception of the ideal society. That we have been so reticent about dealing with the moral underpinnings of our discipline in moral terms is a sign not so much of duplicity, I think, as of fear. For all our willingness over the past several decades to call into questions the practices by which ethnographic authority is constructed and deployed, it has been largely an internal exercise. Grounding our work firmly in the shifting sands of morality removes this process from the bounds of our discipline (and from disciplinary control) and places it in the wider context of public morality – contested, charged, uncertain public morality. In short, it makes our work vulnerable to attack from the very people and institutions we judge so harshly. But, in the end, isn’t that exactly where our work belongs?
I’m not talking about activism here. There have been many activist anthropologists, pretty much since the beginning of our discipline, but they have struggled under the burden of a forced distinction between activism and research – between applied and theoretical anthropology, theory and praxis, anthropologist as scientist and anthropologist as “private citizen”. This is exactly what the David Horowitzes of the world want – for us to feel that we somehow cease to be anthropologists the moment we bring the knowledge and experience gained in the field, the archive, and the library to bear on the political (read: moral) world around us. It is the stuff of the “gentlemen’s agreement” I wrote about earlier. Our place, we are told, is as consultants, advisors, expert witnesses – let the politicians, the military, the bureaucrats, and the party functionaries resolve our knowledge into action. Thus we are asked to give up our autonomy and our expertise in the service of others’ interests and goals – a sacrifice, I cannot help but note, that nobody expects of our fellow social scientists, the economists!
This false distinction has meant that our activism has been relegated to the status of “extracurricular activity”, as something outside the bounds of our “real work”. And this status is maintained at least in part, I propose, by our refusal – despite all the other navel-gazing we have indulged in – to address the essentially moral nature of our discipline head-on. In fact, it seems that the more we reflect on the politics of representation and positionality, the more we undermine our potential for action. It strikes me as significant somehow that Boas – who famously avoided making general statements about culture on the grounds of insufficient data – felt no such qualms about throwing himself into the greatest public debates of his day. While we congratulate ourselves for our more sensitive research methodologies and representative strategies, it might be worth reflecting on the near-total invisibility of anthropology on the public radar screen.
Bornstein, Avram. 2001. Review of Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror. American Anthropologist 103(1). Pp. 260-261. [URL: http://www.anthrosource.net/doi/abs/10.1525/aa.2001.103.1.260;jsessionid=n8x9kMX0xRS6?cookieSet=1&journalCode=aa. Last accessed 6/9/05.]