Or, Anthropology for Old People.
So, with the AAAs in the air and most young anthropologists’ thoughts turning to interviews and how to sum up their thesis research in a boffo mini-paragraph, this might not be the most apropos time to discuss What Lies Beyond. But we here at SM shrink from no grim task.
A question likely to echo down the hotel hallways next week, and certain to rustle among the leaves of the groves of academe during next spring’s campus interviews, is what today’s tesista (this word should exist in English but unfortunately “thesist” sounds religious, “thesiser” sounds like a made-up title for a minor nobleman in a fantasy fiction novel, and “writer-upper” is plainly hopeless) plans to do as her Next Project.
One option that comes up often enough to perhaps warrant being considered a pattern is the young anthro — returned from a doctoral project carried out at a field site accessible only by ice ax, dugout canoe, or 20 mule team equipped with propeller hats — who suddenly evinces a serious interest in the same themes as those of the original research — say, exchange rituals — but in a rather more comfortable setting — say, upscale organic grocery stores located in periurban North America. Sometimes in a tone of mild moral umbrage about giving exoticism a poke in the eye.
I for one always felt certain I’d have none of that. No, I’d stay in the South American heartland, polishing my hard-won though still pretty pathetic Guarani language skills and ultimately dying, slowly, of Chagas’ disease as befits any Chaco dweller worth his salt. Neither bug bites nor saddle sores nor sulfurous ground water would stand in my way.
But that was me talking the talk. This fall, walking the Next Project walk (with a visit to my old field site along the way), I’ve discovered the Paraguayan Chaco (my previous work was in the Bolivian Chaco). A good portion of the Paraguayan Chaco has been settled by Mennonites and is, astonishingly, a Chaco with grocery stores, a Chaco with air conditioning, a Chaco with swimming pools (well, one anyway). My anti-colonialist spirit tells me it is wrong wrong wrong for me to want to take a swimsuit next time, while my sensualist flesh says it is oh so RIGHT.
So, I’m wondering (in a self-exculpatory sort of way) — am I just succumbing to the inevitable? Apart from all the condemnations of exoticist exploitation that are heaped upon old-fashioned, out-in-the-impoverished-Otherish-boonies fieldwork, how much of a role does the fact that anthropology is no longer a young upstart discipline, but one with lots of comfy established practitioners, play in the shift of what kind of ethnography “counts” for our collective purposes?