Is Anthropology Global?

A wonderful thing about cyberspace is that it allows for greater exchange of ideas across national borders. And I know SM gets visitors from around the world.

Yet as Joi Ito notes on a post about international Internet protocols, there are some linguistic barriers so formidable that, as he puts it, makes George Bush’s confused phrase “the internets” make sense.

What about in the academic world of anthropology? We’ve all heard of the linguistic imperialism of the English language, and this term might aptly describe the academic world of anthropologists. I have noticed that scholars in non-anglophone settings are well-read in U.S. anthropology but U.S. anthropologists (myself included) aren’t as conversant in the traditions of other national anthropologies (except for the British and the French ones), sometimes even in the scholarship of their own fieldsite.

So do you think that there are anthropologies, not one single discpline of anthropology? Is the Internet is bringing these separate “worlds” of anthropologists closer? Or further driving them apart? And what’s the role of Savage Minds in all this?

These questions occurred to me when I came across a few writings in Japan Studies (and East Asian Studies in general) that look at the Japan field in the global academic scene.

The Japan-centered duo Masao Miyoshi (literature) and Harry Harootunian (history) have edited a volume titled Learning Places: The Afterlives of Area Studies, which includes some articles that discuss the hegemony of the English language on the production of academic knowledge (see for example articles by James Fujii and Rey Chow).

Takami Kuwayama, in his recent book Native Anthropology: The Japanese Challenge to Western Academic Hegemony, promises to bring the insular world of Japanese anthropology into the international marketplace of ideas. On his website he writes:

Anthropology originated in the West, and it has mainly developed as a field that studies other cultures, many of which are radically different from the West. Among these cultures is Japan, a country that has fascinated generations of Western scholars for its exotic beauty. At least, this is how Japan has been regarded by many foreign visitors, both lay and professional. Japan, however, is not simply a tourist site or a field for scholarly investigations. It has, in fact, a long tradition of anthropology. With the second largest anthropological association in the world, Japan has produced, since the beginning of the 20th century, a large number of reputable scholars specializing in the study of foreign cultures. This situation, both inside and outside Japan, has brought about a curious result — the scarcity of Japanese anthropologists studying their own culture, which contrasts with the ever increasing volume of the anthropological literature on Japan produced by foreign, especially Anglophone, scholars who are not familiar enough with Japan’s academic culture.

This last sentence feels to me a bit incendiary and I don’t fully agree with his take on the history of anthropology, but he does point to the basic problem of the way national anthropologies are set apart by linguistic barriers. He hopes that his book will spark a dialogue between Japanese anthrologists and non-Japanese anthropologists.

I appreciate his effort to build a bridge across this linguistic divide, but isn’t this ultimately self-defeating in that by the sheer act of translation Japan’s “long tradition of anthropology” will be placed in a universal discourse and hence lose its singularity (that is, if it already posssessed it)? What does it exactly mean for there being different national traditions of anthrology?

Or are my concerns quite silly, and can be brushed off as silly self-reflexive musings of a blogger?

10 thoughts on “Is Anthropology Global?

  1. “Are my concerns quite silly, and can be brushed off as silly self-reflexive musings of a blogger?”

    No, not at all.

    “What does it exactly mean for there being different national traditions of anthrology?”

    I think the national focus is misleading in this case, but the focus on peculiarities of language is a fruitful one not only in regards of differences in representation by terms, but also in regards of broader content intermediated, as the language bound reception of academic publications indeed indicates.

    “So do you think that there are anthropologies, not one single discpline of anthropology?

    Sure. 🙂

    “Is the Internet bringing these separate “worlds” of anthropologists closer?”

    It helps making them explicit, perhaps.

  2. I appreciate his effort to build a bridge across this linguistic divide, but isn’t this ultimately self-defeating in that by the sheer act of translation Japan’s “long tradition of anthropology” will be placed in a universal discourse and hence lose its singularity (that is, if it already posssessed it)?

    You say that like it’s a bad thing. What is it about Japanese anthropology’s singularity that you find admirable, and what is it about international dialogue that you think might lessen Japanese anthropology? If it were up to me, anthropologists would be in telepathic contact with colleagues in other countries, thus perfectly communicating ideas and thoroughly incorporating multiple viewpoints into the discipline.

  3. This has become a big issue in Taiwan, where the government recently decided that only journal articles in publications listed in the Social Science Citation Index (SSCI) would count towards tenure and promotion. This was widely protested because there are no Chinese language publications listed in SSCI. After some negotiation, the govt. agreed to list the Taiwanese and Chinese versions of the SSCI, but they will count for less than SSCI publications. Of course, it isn’t impossible for Chinese langauge publications to get listed in SSCI, and some may eventually get listed, but scholars rightly objected that the SSCI requirement meant that (especially in the social sciences) they must publish about topics of interest to Western audiences, and not Taiwanese ones.

  4. As a kid I remember seriously wondering if it was *all* one did, all day long, not counting eating and sleeping, if one could across the course of a lifetime read All The Books In the World. Now, as a grown-up anthropologist I know I can’t even hope to make a decent dent in the literature in my own discipline. I think regional and disciplinary specialities and “uniquenesses” are in part safe just because of the basic biological limitations of scholars: linguistic imperialism may crumble and fall (not likely, I know); the internet may eventually hook telepathically into our brains, but still… we are always going to make particularly-located choices about what we read just because we’ve also got to eat, sleep, socialize, have hobbies and mosey through the occasional novel.

    The fascinating news of the SSCI debate in Taiwan brings home the reality of global academics — whose numbers are proliferating wondrously everywhere — furiously attempting to get their works into a relatively shrinky-dinked number of Internationally Important Journals. It’s exciting in a way, but also points up that something has gotta give. Is it any wonder that so many bright young things turn to blogging? 😉

  5. I’m not convinced that Japan counts as an individuated national tradition in the way that it would need to for the term “anthropologies” to be acceptable. Indeed the paragraph you cite sounds like many I’ve read in recent soc anth in the last few years:
    “X has been undervalued in anthropology, and studied from the wrong direction in a way we won’t bother to define, probably something to do with imperialism. (You know the drill, people). But look! X has a long history and has contributed much that is interesting to the discipline. It is time to reassess the contribution of X.”

  6. Kerim, the Taiwan situation is indeed fascinating, if only because it’s the government regulating academic tenure! I guess that is probably more the norm than not.

    Jesse and tigerbear, you two have hit the issue on the nail: what actually constitutes as “Japanese anthropology”? Describing what that might be is probably as difficult as defining what “U.S. anthropology” is (assuming you two are, like me, trained in the U.S….I apologize if I’m being presumptuous).

    Two issues that I think bear on this question of separate “anthropological” traditions: 1. the difficulty of categorizing certain non-Western scholarly traditions as “anthropology,” and 2. some “anthropological” traditions as a rejection of the academic imperialism of the “Western” anthropological sciences.

    Here is an example from Japan, although I’m sure there are similar cases from other areas.

    There is a tradition of scholarship called Kokugaku (and often translated as Nativist Studies or National Studies), which grew out of a reaction to neo-Confuciansim during the 18th century. Kokugaku’s entire philosophical enterprise was to define “Japan” against “mainland” (Qing) and “Christian” (European) influences.

    In order to argue for Japan’s cultural difference vis-a-vis the rest of the world, scholars devised methods that we might today describe as ethnological and perhaps even ethnographic. But basically their language was taken from neo-Confucianism.

    Come late 19th century, and another tradition of scholarship developed, called Minzokugaku (often translated as Folklore Studies or Native Ethnology), which infused this Kokugaku tradition of revolt against foreign influences with the works of Spencer and Frazer, and later on, Mauss and Boas. (Go figure!)

    Despite these “Western” influences, Native Ethnology was very explicit in its aim: to forge a truly Japanese academic discipline that refused to rely on concepts derived from Western scholarly traditions. These scholars argued that no European concept could ever describe the spiritual dimension of non-Western peoples. So they devised their own set of concepts — ideas they claimed to be untranslateable into languages other than Japanese.

    Native Ethnology had a tremendous impact across all disciplines in Japan. One contemporary scholar has even argued that it alone has set the tone for all the humanistic and social scientific disciplines, including the kind of anthropology that Kuwayama practices. It is also important to note that Native Ethnology and anthropology played a key role in Japan’s colonization of Asia.

    So is Native Ethnology part of “Anthropology” when its raison d’etre was to resist Western anthropology? I don’t think there is an easy answer to this, and I’d be foolish to think that there is.

    By the way, I wonder if there are other examples similar to the Japanese case I just described? Immediately Zora Neale Hurston and her role in the Harlem Renaissance come to mind.

  7. Tak, I think that’s fascinating, and if Native Ethnology has had a major intellectual impact on the development of the discipline, then it really would show an individuated national tradition (comparable intellectual lineage in Europe would have to trace a line back to Rousseau, really, which I always thought was stretching things a bit).
    The point I was trying to make was that the framework used to present Japanese anthropology as “different” and “interesting” is the same that I’ve seen used to present all sorts of things as “different” and “interesting” in anthropology, suggesting that it isn’t really either, or at the very least, Japanese anthropology is now advertising itself in a way which could probably be considered anthropologically normative.
    Personally, I’m trained in the British tradition (so slight differences to the American tradition, slightly broader brush field of study, and a more clear connection to British political imperialism). Possibly Native Ethnology could be integrated with the application of some judicious Victor Turner-style theory. I dunno….

  8. (Sorry, first line of the above should read National Studies, rather than Native Ethnology).

  9. Well, it’s all about Canadian anthropology for me, which I have to grudgingly admit is close enough to American anthropology for horseshoes and hand grenades.

    Tak, I’m curious, how does Native Ethnology deal with non-Japanese, non-Western peoples today, in and out of Japan? I can guess how it dealt with them c. Greater East Asia Economic Coprosperity Sphere, but does it have the tinge of embarrassment “Western” anthropology has in regards to its colonialist and racist past? Or are there even still scholars who consciously situate themselves within the tradition of Native Ethnology? And how does (or did) Native Ethnology situate itself with regards to Japanese anthropology?

    I would have to say, though, that if it looks like anthro and talks like anthro, and yet claims it’s not anthro, then it’s not anthro. It is Native Ethnology. Otherwise, we’d just be ignoring what the natives say.

    As for “Western” anthropology, I personally think that much of its mission today consists of redeeming itself, and more grandly, the West, from its own colonialist and racist past. Which is interesting to see for this 1.5 generation Filipino, especially since I’m part of the Other that Western anthropology keeps trying to grasp.

  10. That’s a great question Jesse. In the 70s some Japanese scholars did indeed try to translate Native Ethnology theories into more generalizable “anthropological” arguments thay may be applicable outside Japan, but that effort has died down as of late. Instead in the last decade or two some Japanese scholars have critiqued Native Ethnology from a “postcolonial” perspective.

    As for Native Ethnology as practiced today, no one would dare talk about it beyond what they consider to be Japanese culture.

    One of fascinating modus operandi of Native Ethnology was its aim to give local people (perhaps “subalterns” might even be a better term) the tools to express their own cultural identity against what was seen as an ever-encroaching modern culture (whether it was Japanese or Western). In another words the disciplinary founders wanted local folks to write ethnographies about themselves before their culture disappeared into the bland same-ness of modern cultural hegenomy.

    This has succeeded to an extent: in most rural cities in Japan you will find a few local “intellectuals” (amateur historians, monks and priests, school teachers) who conduct what can be termed “Native Ethnology”: collect folktales, write about the history of local festivals, and the like.

    So the knife here cuts both ways.

    On the one hand, the racist elements of Native Ethnology have abetted in Japan’s imperialist policies past and present. Okinawa, Taiwan, and Korea are great examples of how the discilplines managed to “orientalize” these disparate cultures within a Japan-centric paradigm.

    Yet on the other hand Native Ethnology has helped rural Japanese societies preserve their distinctiveness. To give one example from my fieldwork, Native Ethnology was invoked as an argument to stage a violent local folk festival without any state interference when the police sought to limit it so as to curb the number of deaths each year. So the ethical questions aside, the discipline does give these local communities the capacity to resist dominant state power.

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