A drop of complexity

Having this opportunity to contribute to “Savage Minds” gives me great pleasure. Not only is it an unusually lively and vibrant anthropology site which takes on many questions that interest me; but the blog may indeed be the only truly new literary form to have emerged from the Internet. Just as email is intermediate between the letter and the chat on the phone, the blog is neither-nor, but with a residue of both-and. It contains elements of the diary, the seminar discussion, the tearoom chat, the written review or commentary, and the speech.

I should point out that although I have been running my own website for ten years now (nearly to a day), this is in fact not only my first posting on this site, but it is indeed my first attempt to write a blog ever. Perhaps I remain, in my heart of hearts, an unreformed child of Gutenberg; truth to tell, I have largely used my website to disseminate texts which have previously been printed. No real innovation there, in other words. I also write an occasional newsletter on my site, but the only interactivity involved amounts to email correspondence with readers. Oh yes, there is, finally, a section of the website called “Network”, which was initially conceived as an experimental area, but which – five years on – only contains a hypertext version of my 1999 novel.

I expect to submit a handful of blogs on a daily or bi-daily basis for a week or two, and my chosen topic is a staple on this site, namely the role of anthropologists and anthropology in a wider public sphere. It is strange and ironic that contemporary anthropology is an elusive and deeply academic discipline with few points of contact with a wider public sphere. The anthropological way of looking at the world is so crucial in this day and age, not just for enriching the public understanding of the world, but also as a means to make it a slightly better place, that it is high time we began to take it seriously. Stepping out of our secluded spaces is risky, you get your hands dirty, you hardly earn any credit points for your institution, you end up being misunderstood and quoted out of context; and at the same time, we have a collective duty to participate in impure ways. In my experience, anthropologists are generally really good at talking amongst themselves, but less skilful when it comes to mixing well with non-anthropologists. The discussion on SM about Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”, to take a recent example, may not tell us a lot about Diamond, but it reveals quite a bit about the attitude taken by anthropologists confronted by people who seem to be invading their fields.

Rather than – or, better, in addition to – castigating Diamond for his oversimplifications (my first reaction to the book, which I quite enjoyed in spite of its irritating determinism, was that this smacks of Marvin Harris), we should be asking ourselves what it is that he does that we could learn from. Why is it that this influential, bestselling book was not written by a social or cultural anthropologist (in which case it would probably have been more nuanced)? Have we become too sophisticated to ask simple questions, like Diamond does, which engage a wide public? If that is the case, I fear that John Brockman, the popular science publisher and editor, might include anthropology when he laments (in the introduction to his “The Third Culture“) that the humanities have long ceased to raise questions which interest non-specialists; that humanities scholars are making themselves busy squaring the circle while others (he has natural scientists in mind) explore problems of political and existential significance.

The kind of anthropology I have in mind is transparent, open-ended and lucid; it is capable of producing pageturners in addition to more arcane monographs, and it has the confidence to produce fast, provocative comments on anything from transnational terrorism to neo-liberalism and cosmetic surgery without fearing that such frivolities undermine scholarly claims to substantial knowledge. We have the power to supply the world with a few drops of complexity now and then, and you know as well as I do that they are needed. I recently published a book on these and related issues, called “Engaging Anthropology“. Instead of repeating myself, I’ll make a new proposal for productive public engagement in each posting on this site. Tomorrow, I’ll give you the story of a sport club in Drammen (a town near Oslo, where I live) and its struggles to incorporate minority children in its activities, and suggest how anthropologists might intervene. It goes without saying that I’m keen to receive your views, objections and suggestions as we go along.

5 thoughts on “A drop of complexity

  1. Stepping out of our secluded spaces is risky, you get your hands dirty, you hardly earn any credit points for your institution, you end up being misunderstood and quoted out of context; and at the same time, we have a collective duty to participate in impure ways.

    Speaking from personal experience, becoming an anthropologist was a highly effective way of distancing myself from parents and peers whose ways of life I was determined not to share. Grounding that determination was not so much a desire for purity (though that was certainly part of it) as a desire to escape restrictions, to retain forever what I learned from Victor Turner to call a liminal relation to everyday social structures and concerns. Fortunately, I now feel, I was thrust out of academia, stumbled into a career in advertising and, then, along the way, became a political activist, an active member of the Democratic Party in the USA. That “collective duty to participate in impure ways” resonates deeply. My instant reaction was, “Bravo! Bravo! Bravissimo!”

  2. I’m looking forward to reading your posts, Thomas. I am a graduate student in applied anthropology/archaeology at the University of South Florida (apparently “the” school in the US for applied work). I am presently learning about the very short history of applied anthropology and am only beginning to understand how we must go about establishing ourselves as a legitimate and useful branch of anthropology. I haven’t read your book yet (it’s on my never-ending list) but I hope to get your thoughts on the future of applied work in the United States and elsewhere and how this integrates with your ideas about engaging the public.

  3. I am a graduate student of social anthropology at the University of Oslo and I can totally follow you here. However, for me the question started on the other end: I had first rejected the culturalist explanations that had been the standard in the community I grew up in by turning to political leftwing activism. When I then started studying at university two years later on, I had a hard time quite understanding the purpose of totally academizised studies without any relevance to the world (or at least with no real strategy of how to do anything about some situation/fact that one had concluded as being a problem).
    But I wonder: It seems to me that to a large extend this is exactly the purpose of the current social anthropological academic staff (much of which must have been employed during the cold war) to pacify any student who may be trying to conduct research not only for the sole purpose of studying in itself, but rather in order to be better able to change things. Now if that is at leats in part so, how can one then as a student try to break this lock?

  4. Johannes, I have a great deal of sympathy with your views, which are shared by many of the others who contribute to this site. In fact, I can recognize your sentiments as my own a couple of years into my undergraduate studies, having begun my studies in philosophy and social sciences to “understand the world in order to change it”. Something happens to most of us as we are socialised into the rarefied and slightly self-contained world of academia; at a certain point, the agendas of the discipline may begin to seem more urgent and more relevant than the agendas of the world. There is no simple, universal solution to this dilemma. As for myself, I have always had non-academic activities on the side, trying not to forget that the whole point is to force the different realms, or language-games, to speak to one another.

  5. Thomas- I look forward to reading your entries. Like Will, I am interested in Applied Anthropology, specifically since it utilizes anthropological tools to engage real-world problems and issues. Like Johannes, I’ve also wondered about the pacification of students when it comes to applying anthropology. My master’s research study/treatise dealt with the interaction of public alcohol advertising, alcohol addiction, and drinking behaviors among two minority populations in communities local to my university [Newark and Montclair, New Jersey, respectively]. My interest in alcohol addiction and culture includes suggestions for changes in public policy and research methods from an anthropological perspective–which until now has not been included in addiction research. My topic was innovative in its grasp of current local community problems, yet, most academics in the department I studied in weren’t interested in the least. I felt in some way they were expecting my project and topic to not be engaged with current local issues, and their support of my research was minimal. Yet I know that anthropology has an enormous amount of knowledge and perspective to offer in public discourse and have been frustrated as I’ve watched issue after issue pass through the media without any publicly published comment from an anthropological mind.

    Your book was a refreshing departure from the norm and I agree that its time for the discipline to shed its shell and engage in public discourse on the important issues facing humanity in the 21st century.

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