Will anthropology disappear in France?

(This email from “Laurence Dousset”:http://www.pacific-credo.net/staff_pages/index.php?id=1 has been making the rounds. The idea of there being no anthropology at CNRS is shocking to me. The petition is “here”:/wp-content/image-upload/saveanthropologyatCNRSpetition.rtf (in both French and English — my English translation is abysmal but there you go) and you can mail it anthropologie@mmsh.univ-aix.fr )

Dear All,
I thought you might be interested to know that Anthropology currently has a hard lif in France. Indeed, since end of last year, the CNRS [National Center For Scientific Research], our major research institution employing nation-wide about 150 anthropologists (about 50% of all institutionally employed anthropologists in France) is considering eliminating the discipline from its research topics. The strategy is to incorporate anthropologists within the history section in a first step, where they will become a minority, and where, in a second step, they will progressively disappear from the scene.

Pushed by stereotypical views of anthropology as being only “contemporary history”, neglecting our theoretical apparatus and what makes us particularly different – long term fieldwork – anthropology is seen as having no proper object of research anymore (everything is globalised, they tend to say, forgetting local persisting or emergent identities), and as being too much divided among its own “troops”.

As you can imagine, there is strong resistance to this movement in France, and many institutions, such as the EHESS where I am employed, have not yet taken up these points of view (and will hopefully not in the near future). But in the long run, if the CNRS simply deletes an entire discipline from its scope, other institutions will follow.

We are asking social scientists to participate as widely as possible in our protest movement. I have therefore enclosed a petition that circulates in France and now internationally. We would greatly appreciate if you would consider filling the petition and sending it back as quickly as possible.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

16 thoughts on “Will anthropology disappear in France?

  1. ‘S funny, cos I have lately been claiming that history is just a form of anthropology of dead persons. Although I stop short of recommending participant observation.

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  3. This sort of thing is why the discipline needs to rethink its public image and PR to reinvent how the public perceives it. Although this took place in France, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen elsewhere. Its time to inform the public about what anthropology offers towards real-world, current problems and issues.

  4. Of course whenever someone suggest bringing anthropology to the public, a bunch of anthropoligists always respond that knowledge in of itself is a good thing and as a result anthropology should continue doing what it’s doing (or in its more nasty form anthropologists respond by saying a statement similar to “I’ll do what I damn well please and I don’t have to justify my actions to anyone.” Look at the responses to some of the posts talking about a publically engaged anthropology, you’ll see what I’m talking about.) I don’t understand why anthropologists are so resistent to publically market themselves and/or the value of anthropology in of itself.

  5. to AnthroGrad Student: I agree. Its ironic that scientists studying people don’t know how to share it with people. Other scientific disciplines have mastered the art of PR w/o a loss of prestige. Physics has Einstein, Sagan, and Hawkings–all top in their field, but approachable. Sagan and Hawkings improved the everyman’s understanding of their studies by publishing top-notch but accessible books. Some would argue that anthropology has Leaky, Mead, and Goodall–maybe Goodall is a household word, but her major public exposure is 40 yrs old. “Gorillas in the Mist” was great, but also going on 20 yrs, and these only fall within the realm of primatology. Mead has been discredited by some, and her relativistic theories are out of fashion. When I tell someone I study anthro Harrison Ford’s “Indiana Jones” is usually the first impression coming to mind. Where’s anthro’s Hawking or Einstein in culture studies? A Carl Sagan who writes about globalization and its impact would be a good fit. But I don’t see that coming. What I see is a prolonged period of questioning within the discipline…and after that who knows?

  6. AGS wrote:

    “Of course whenever someone suggest bringing anthropology to the public, a bunch of anthropoligists always respond that knowledge in of itself is a good thing and as a result anthropology should continue doing what it’s doing (or in its more nasty form anthropologists respond by saying a statement similar to “I’ll do what I damn well please and I don’t have to justify my actions to anyone.””

    That’s the feeling I get too. I would add that those of us who support making anthropology relevant and useful are accused of self-righteousness, self-glorification and political bias.

  7. There’s a difference between making anthropology “relevant” and making it “interesting.” In many cases, those who advocate making anthropology “relevant” seem to have, shall we say… instrumental goals in mind, not related to actual anthropology qua anthropology.

    It would be nice to see someone try to popularize anthropology on its own merits as something people might enjoy knowing, not as an attempt to combat racism/colonialism/sexism/whatever.

    If that effect occurs anyways, great, but if you go into it trying to write a political screed masked as anthropology, most of us can figure it out, and will discount you.

  8. I don’t making anthropology “relevant” is necessarily part of instrumental goals but can often times be a way to improve anthropology as a discipline and/or prevent anthropology from being seen as a useless (and in turn lose funding and university support.) Anthropology is particularly vulnerable to outside attempts to cut its funding because of its perceived uselessness (related to ideas about progress and modernization), supposed multiculturalism (some people think that noting cultural diference in of itself automatically means that one is supporting multicultural politics) and its lack of visibility. Many of these problems are due to stereotypical ideas about what anthropology is and what anthropology does. This isn’t helped when the majority of “popular” ethnographic media that is produced reinforces stereotypes of anthropology (see for example National Geographic or the PBS/Discovery Channel type documentaries that occasionally pop up.)

    I think a “relevent” anthropology would include the following features. (Note: When I say anthropology, I mean cultural anthropology. Biological anthropology has become “relevant” to the public through forensics. Arch)

    1. Public Visability in the Media
    Most social sciences have a much higher profile in the media than anthropology. Political scientists are always tapped during election campaigns and as pundits on political shows. Sociological studies about “relevant” topics such as alcohol abuse or school violence routinely appear on the front pages of newspapers. Economists are involved in all sorts of business publications. Anthropologists need to figure out a way to get more media exposure. When certain “relevant” issues come up, anthropologists need to position themselves as people that the media would call to get this information. I’m not sure how one would go about doing this but something has to be done.

    2. Focus on programs that bring anthropology to elementary schools and high schools.
    A number of departments are involved in programs that bring anthropology to high schools but often times it’s the graduate students who are heavily involved in these programs. A couple of years with lazy (or too busy) grad students and these types of programs fall apart. Professors (especially Senior ones who are doing less research)need to push for more involvement in high schools. (E.G. Why not have anthropologists push for an A.P. anthropology exam. This would increase visibility and allow for the spread of anthropological knowledge.)

    3. Popularizers.
    I think this was covered by some of the people above.

    4. Some more emphasis on applied anthropology and an acknowledgement that not all anthropology grad students can (or should) become professors.
    I am using applied anthropology to include all anthropology outside the academics that has a goal other than increasing knowledge for its own sake.
    Academic anthropologists need to stop treating applied anthropologists as the “darkside” of anthropologists. Applied anthropologists are not ammoral people who have “sold out to the man.” While the majority of anthropology jobs may be academic, their are far more people with anthropology degrees than actual jobs. Of course many of these people are going to go into applied fields since they need to make money to live.
    More applied anthropology means more visability for anthropology and in turn may lead to the breakdown of stereotypes. By involving themselves in projects that provide a concrete form of service, applied anthropology can allow anthropoligists to sell the “usefulness” of anthropology.

    Publishing a few articles and books that will only be read by a narrow subsection of anthropology professors does nothing to promote the “usefullness” of anthropology. It may increase the knowledge base or enrich anthropological theory but as long as many anthropological ideas become “trapped” in acadamia among grad students and professors, these ideas do not provide something relevant to the public. Yes, some anthropological knowledge is disseminated through anthropology undergrad classes but how many students actually apply this knowledge later in life (or actually remember it.) (Other disciplines are at least able to apply make their knowledge appear usefull enough to have it used by politicians to justify certain political policies or to encourage certain forms of economic or political activity.)

    Basically, I think that anthropology can be both an academic discipline and a discipline that is seen as “usefull” in the public. Thus, for me “relevance” is really an acknowledgement by the public that anthropology is “usefull” and anthropology providing something to the public which they fell is useful.

    I don’t think that “interesting” anthropology is the answer. Because interesting in of itself does not imply relevance (and this is definitely the criteria by which academic disciplines are judged those who provide funding.) I could see an “interesting” statue in a park but that doesn’t mean that I believe that that statue should stay or that I would oppose getting rid of the park for some other purpose. While being “interesting” might justify the existence of certain things (like television programs) for the general public, it does not imply that the public (or in this case funding sources) will necessarily see “interesting” as a needed category for existence.

    (Wow, I didn’t realize that I wrote so much. I apologize for any spelling or grammar errors in advance.)

  9. Random Comments:

    I read “relevance” as “politically relevant.” No offense to anthropology in general, but politics does not seem to be its strong suit.

    I think number 4 is highly connected to number 1.

    I don’t think that the specials that come out in national geographic and so forth hurt anthropology. Last I checked, while the anthropologists here seem to hate them, they’re very publically popular.

  10. I agree with my mysterious double who wrote in above-by all means, bring substantial anthropological material into high-school teaching, recognize applied anthropology as a necessary career path out of graduate school, and get some people on TV whom other anthropologists respect, instead of treating all of these things as vaguely obscene liasons with The Man. I don’t think that’s a controversial position.

    But why has that been so hard to do in practice? It’s been said three million times, but the deck is stacked against work that runs contrary to popular assumptions, and it’s really stacked against people who have to challenge multiple commonsense assumptions simply to get their main point across. Stephen Levitt may be challenging X standard of common decency by claiming that legalizing abortion lowered the American crime rate. But he doesn’t need to challenge anybody’s understanding of what legality, America, crime, or even abortion are in order to make that claim, because he is already speaking a language of laissez-faire public policy and utility maximization that every businessman in the country already knows. He has his audience, already.

    But the problem with the stripped-out jargon of relevance, usefulness, and visibility is that it asks anthropologists to participate in a value-free, politically ahistorical public forum that has no audience and does not exist outside of public policy social science: it seems a singularly apposite language for anthropologists to use about themselves. Let’s be obscene for a second:

    The educational bureaucracy is fucked: we are not social modeling software.

    Telling anthropologists ‘you all should participate in public welfare’ is a confusion of levels of abstraction, a la ‘you should go perform selfhood for about 15 minutes or so.’ We are in politics, folks.

    So-anthropologists need to say, that if they are going to perform in the public welfare, that they demand the capacity to do it in accordance with the ideas they have developed and that the ‘political’ relevance of their content depends on their right to form: to elaborate what they are saying in the manner they damn well please.

    Before we ask if we are entitled to our own political existence, shouldn’t we question why the notion that anthropological knowledge is not useful to humanity has become so powerful?

    Please note this is not a declaration of indifference to the public good-I am saying they can only work for the public good precisely when they are being (potentially) annoying or superfluous to public opinion. (Levitt, of all people, should illustrate that point.) This statement only appears as individual self-interest because actual direct discussion of their subjective interests as anthropologists (that is, of being obtrusively yet non-obviously political, and being so collectively) has become so pathologized that they have been goaded into referring to themselves in the third person.

    But anyway, I’m not going to read any more posts on this thread that don’t end with an exhortation to SIGN THE DAMNED PETITION ALREADY!

  11. Patrick wrote: “In many cases, those who advocate making anthropology “relevant” seem to have, shall we say… instrumental goals in mind, not related to actual anthropology qua anthropology.”

    First: I hear this a lot and this is the kind of argument I was referring to. “In many cases . . . ” Can you give an example? Are there specific cases that have led you to assume that *most* anthropologists who want to use their discipline for some kind of benefit have “ulterior motives”?

    There is of course the question of “who has the power to decide what is good for people?” but one could also ask “who has the power to decide what is, as you say, anthropology qua anthropology?” Are those who do anthropology *for anthropology’s sake* the only ones who have a say in what the goals of anthropology should be?

  12. my comments were aimed more at making anthro “accessible” since i already consider it ‘relevant’ for various obvious reasons. Carl Sagan, for example, made high-end astrophysics ‘accessible’ to the lay-person. astrophysics is already ‘relevant’ because its studies are useful in many applications, but Sagan somehow made the information ‘approachable’, not off-putting or ultra-high-brow so the average person wouldn’t be intimidated. Sagan wrote many good accessible books–“Comets” and “Cosmos” two among them. sound science in a language easily understandable. Sagan also came across as friendly, warm, and nerdy without seeming a “know-it-all”; he rejected sitting atop pedestals and put a human face on a science known for its obtuseness. Sagan, like Einstein, projected something that allowed the curious among the average person to ACCESS THE INFORMATION, and thru that access, public opinion was formed, which certainly helped education funding, departmental programs, and grants.

    pictures transmit more information than words ever can. all one has to do is visit the American Sociological Association website: http://www.asanet.org/index.ww
    and then the AAA’s website: http://www.aaanet.org/
    to see the difference. what nonverbal communication is being presented via these two websites’ design and organization? here’s what i perceive:

    ASA site: Modern, accessible, organized. Mission statement right there “serving the PUBLIC GOOD”. Plus, a stock photo of actual smiling modern PEOPLE-which are what sociologists study. overall, progressive, accessible bunch of scientists.

    AAA site: website design from 1995. marble background = cold. colors: unattractive. mission statement hidden on sub-page, and when found, resembles wordy legal jargon. goals stated at bottom are a nice try, but difficult to discern if study in this discipline translates to anything but more study. No artwork of anything anywhere on the site–no people, and perhaps the omission of such a photo is a good indicator of lack of focus. overall, old fashioned, distant, fractured association of scholars.

    i’m not saying that anthros have to become sociologists. but for some reason the ASA’s PR dept gets the word out. and yes, there’s lots of sociology at the grade and H.S. levels, but it didn’t arrive by the tooth fairy. someone made sure it became part of the curriculum. i was luck, the HS i attended offered a senior’s cultural anthro class, and after taking it, i fell in love with the discipline. i agree the AAA should think about expanding their influence to the grade and HS levels.

    as for politics, anthro should stay away. science shouldn’t be political. Einstein’s research lead to the H-bomb, but you never hear Einstein linked to it. he managed to steer around most politics of his day, while getting people interested in WHY his theory of relativity was and is important. there are ways to make anthro accessible and understandable to a larger audience w/o the politics, but again, first i think the discipline needs some self examination before tackling such a large endeavor otherwise it’ll just end up as more bad PR or indiana jones movies.

  13. Just thought I would post a link to the BA Media Fellowships which provide placements for academics with press/media/journos over the summer in the UK. The idea is that academics get a bit of experience writing stories about ‘science’ and gain an understanding of the conditions and constraints of the media – thus allowing them to communicate via the media better in the future. The catch is that you have to be a UK citizen or work in an academic context the UK.

  14. I know I am kind of talking to myself in this old thread but, also and plus there’s Fame Lab. A competition for young media-savvy scientists. This is why the hard sciences are better at ‘science communication’ than social sciences – they actually bother to fund this stuff.

  15. I find this information really surprising, especially because I am a grad student at the EHESS in anthropology (an institution where, I think, anthro will always be important)and had not heard anything about it. This could be terrible for several of my professors, who come from the CNRS (some of my best professors, in fact).

    Also, anthropology exists in the realm of public consciousness here much more so than it does in the US. At least, people tend to know what anthropology IS. If this happens, it is really tragic, certainly at this moment of movement towards the right in France. Whatever your arguments for whether anthropology should be “relevant” (and how you define anthropology qua anthropology is a good question) or not, France really needs the perspectives of anthropologists right now or they will soon be dominated by the clash of cultures argument that prevails in America.

  16. This is particularly saddening given the diversity of research that comes out of anthropology–particularly in a four-field approach. I agree it is a sign of the failure of much anthropology to be effectively communicated to the greater public, but it also reflects a complete misunderstanding of globalisation(s), which, as some commenters have noted, is striking given the diversity of worldwide public responses to various globalizing forces.

  17. Has anyone considered the possibility that we~re afraid of making anthropology “accessible” because when you take away all the jargon, the ideas are perhaps not different/difficult enough to perhaps justify in the eyes of some having a separate discipline?

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