Tales of the Academy

I returned from London with two things, a bad cold and a copy of the Borofsky book on Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy. It was a good combination, because having the cold gave me the opportunity to stay home and read it. And I read it pretty much in one go. I get the sense from the general aheadness of Minds Readers that many of you have already read it, so I won’t go into the details of what the book is about. In any case, the main positions set out in the book were in the public domain long before it was published.

Aside from the controversy with which it explicitly deals, the book offers fascinating insights into the organisation of anthropology today, indeed it could be taken as a contribution to something one of its own contributors calls for, an anthropology of anthropology. The book is structured around three successive `roundtables’ in which individuals with expertise in Yanomami politics and anthropology give their perspectives via written submissions on the main issues in the controversy. This format serves the book’s purpose effectively, providing clearly contrasting positions which enable the reader to weigh different sides of the debate. But it also sheds light on the individualistic culture of professional anthropology.

Contributors to the round tables write not so much as against one position or another implicated in the Darkness book, but , certainly by round table three, as against each other. Some of this doubtless stems from the way in which the round table format was set up. However, I think it provides an interesting snapshot of anthropology as a discipline concerned with the primacy of individual interpretations over the possibilities for collaborative working or consensus. This normative position is so strong that even in a book which highlights the limitations of single researcher perspectives and fieldwork, the possibilities of collaborative research or teamwork are not considered, although revisits to the same field site by successive generations of individual researchers are proposed.

What anthropologies of anthropology can others recommend? Laboratory Life is a good starting point for academia in general, part ethnography, part career manual for grant attracting scientists. Have we yet subjected ourselves to what we advocate for other sciences?


Maia Green works on issues of social transformation in East Africa and the anthropology of international development. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. She teaches at the University of Manchester. manchester.academia.edu/MaiaGreen

13 thoughts on “Tales of the Academy

  1. What’s so great about collaboration and consensus? As a lowland south Americanist, I think the Yanomami mess doesn’t work at all as an argument for “why anthropologists should all try and get along”; I think it’s a *great* example of when a knock-down drag-out fight was utterly necessary.

  2. *ahem* but don’t you see EVERYTHING as an example of why a knock-down drag-out fight is necessary, Ozma? 😛

    I’ve already written about my own Yanomami Fatigue and won’t deal with it again here. I do think that “Schneider on Schneider” has a wonderfully provocative discussion of the nature of the discipline which is (typical for Schneider) outrageously inflammatory and yet has enough of a nugget of truth to it that you can’t just ignore it.

  3. As I have written elsewhere, the two greatest ironies in USAnian culture are professional military people who imagine themselves as macho individualists while inhabiting the most thoroughly socialist institutional niche in America and academics who preach community and equality while going at each other like junkyard dogs.

  4. My favorite line in the book comes early on when Schneider writes a fake ‘interview’ between himself and Richard Handler (the book is based on real interviews between the two of them):

    RH: So tell me what you think of the so-called postmodernists or poststructuralists.
    DS: Who do you have in mind?
    RH: Oh you know, James Clifford, George Marcus and Michael Fischer, Stephen Tylor, Vincent Crapanzano, Paul Rabinow, Bernard Cohn — that crowd.
    DS: Well, that’s an easy question. They are all, to a man, idiots.
    RH: Why do you say that?
    DS: Because they are idiots. They are all in an irreversible vegetative state.
    RH: Perhaps you have some more precise criticism you could share with us?
    DS: They are idiots. What more can you say?

  5. Bernard Cohn? That list reads like: Ringo Starr, Peter Noone and Derek Leckenby, Eric Burdon, Ringo Starr, Brian Jones…. and Frank Sinatra. to me, anyway.

  6. Hmm, so Clifford and Crapanzano are both Ringo Starr? I think Clifford is more of a bald Leonard Cohen, and Crapanzano is, I dunno, Chas Chandler with glasses or something.

  7. oops — the Ringo Starr double appearance was a mistake — though a motivated one; I must admit the pool of knowledge from which I was drawing to set up that comparison is pretty shallow.

  8. It’s a bit long in the tooth now and it may be hard to find a copy but

    An academic village: The ethnography of an anthropology department 1959-1979
    by Melvin D Williams

    is a fascinating work, especially when you realize that the department in question was Pittsburgh in the heyday of George Peter Murdoch, et. al. and Williams was (well may be was…my memory is dicey) a black anthropologist in an otherwise all white department.

  9. I don’t mean collaboration in general is the be all and end all, and admit that in my own anthropological life I am as individualist as any other junkyard dog, but in conducting an inquiry or a round table a bit of collaboration or even a joint approach to investigating the problem might have helped. Imagine if detectives conducted their investigations like anthropologists.Perhaps they do?

  10. A few more anthropologies of anthropology I found:

    Valerie Fend-Boehm, Enculturation in Context: An Ethnography of Anthropology Graduate Students

    This project describes a compressed ethnography of NAU graduate anthropology majors. The culture of the group was discovered by exploring topics related to the four main components of a culture: 1) culture is complex and integrated; 2) culture is composed of sub-elements; 3) culture is learned; and 4) culture is a group phenomenon. The understanding of this culture will allow anthropology staff to consider many angles of their students’ lives and be more informed when re-evaluating their departmental curriculum.

    Adam Kuper, The Chosen Primate: Human Nature and Cultural Diversity

    From Library Journal: as eugenics, sociobiology, cultural relativism, and gender studies, Kuper (social anthropology, Brunel Univ., England) has written an ethnography of anthropology that reflects the discipline’s struggle to determine the relative influences of culture and biology on human evolution and behavior. During his tenure as editor of Current Anthropology (1985-1993), the debate intensified and seemingly threatened to divide anthropologists into opposing camps. Kuper attempts to show that the question remains central to all anthropological inquiry by delving into the history of the arguments, highlighting the common elements, probing the weaknesses, and providing a synthetic foundation for further discussion. In this he largely succeeds. Kuper covers the subject in enough depth to serve the academic reader but in language easily understood by the public. For academic collections and informed lay readers.
    – Joyce L. Ogburn, Yale Univ. Lib.
    Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

    Keoni Schullerts, Collective Research and Ancient Hawaiian Settlement

    This research project is unique in that half of it is an ethnography on Anthropology and anthropologists and half an assessment of a large body of diverse and conflicting literature. Assuming that every sub-discipline contains intelligent experts and specialists, I seek to explain why these scholars insist on compartmentalization and isolated research, rather than synthesizing concrete evidence from sub-fields with their analysis. This ethnography will search for the causes of distinct interdisciplinary boundaries that have formed and prevented collaboration. Does the hegemony of contemporary Anthropological culture leave many anthropologists in a state of false consciousness? Could they be caught up in political agendas, in a rat race for recognition, or in a battle for departmental funding? Has Capitalism corrupted our discipline? Furthermore this ethnography will suggest methods to deconstruct field boundaries and stimulate collective research.

    Gregory V. Loewen, A Socio-Ethnographic Study of the Academic Professionalization of Anthropologists

    This book is a study in the sociology of knowledge. Specifically, a study of how anthropologists over the previous forty years have constructed anthropological knowledge. Interpretation of this material takes place within the discourses of the anthropology of knowledge and education.

  11. Another book on the anthropology of anthropology:

    “Autoethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices”
    by Anne Meneley (Editor) and Donna J. Young (Editor)
    2005. Peterborough: Broadview Press

    Book Description
    How has the “business” of higher education affected the environment in which academics work? Who should be able to hold anthropologists ethically responsible—the research institution that sponsors the fieldwork or the community of people being studied? What happens when academics step out of the ivory tower and into the public realm? Why and how, do some anthropologists come undone by the challenges of the academy?

    These are some of the questions posed in this innovative collection of essays. Accessibly written, ethnographically grounded, and theoretically informed, this volume faces contentious issues with honesty, integrity, and the occasional bout of humour. It touches on issues of ethics, teaching, the politics of peer review, and the ironies involved in attempting to make anthropology relevant in wider circles. It offers rare insight into the challenges and dilemmas that mark contemporary scholarship.

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