Ivory Tower vs. Real World

In our discussions about anthropologists in the military the term “ivory tower” has come up again and again, as has its antipode, “the real world.” These terms work rhetorically to oppose academic elitism and detachment against the difficult moral choices one must make in everyday life. A couple of things really bother me about the way these words are used:

First, it seems that “the real world” is always invoked when someone feels the need to justify decisions made which will help the elite. The “real world” requires us to support military dictators, cut jobs, pollute the environment, etc. You almost never hear someone talk about how in the “real world” we must build up the institutions of democracy, support unions, or protect our natural resources. Why are these choices less “real”?

Second, the labeling of anthropologists as ivory tower intellectuals is just odd. Most anthropologists I know are very much engaged in the real-world problems of their informants, love nothing more than to be in the field, and many, many, anthropologists are politically active both at home and abroad. It is true that anthropologists tend to shun the role of “public intellectual” and engagement with mainstream US politics, but they are very active in a large variety of other ways.

Third, it is odd that academics are accused of being “ivory tower intellectuals” precisely at the moment that are engaging politically in the US public sphere. To be passive subjects of military policy would be less “ivory tower” than to speak out against it?

Fourth, I always hated the term “the real world.” Of all the jobs I’ve had in my life – and I’ve done a little of everything, from selling ice cream, to bar-tending, etc. – my experience in corporate america was the least “real” of them all. People in management positions were all white and played solitaire on their computer half the day, when they weren’t gossiping, while minority employees worked their asses off answering phones and sweeping the floor. These privileged yuppies had no idea about the world outside their protected suburban enclaves, and yet they are considered as having jobs in the “real world” because they earn more money?

The fact that the real world involves difficult moral judgments should be a reason for serious academic debate about the basis for those judgments, not a reason for silencing that debate.

11 thoughts on “Ivory Tower vs. Real World

  1. I totally agree. What else has this entire discussion of the war taught us, if not the fact that anthropologists are very much in the ‘real world’?

  2. I also agree with Kerim and Rex here. But I would like to note two things.

    First, anthropology is not being singled out; the popular media resorts to the tired ivory tower cliche almost any time it talks about academics and academia (apart from the applied sciences, of course…). It is a feature of US discourse, not to mention anti-intellectualism, which we must work to change, and not just because it drives us up the wall.

    Most of use recognize that anthropologists are quite willing to get their hands dirty in the “real” world to effect positive change… as long as those things won’t draw the attention of anthropology’s vigilant (and vindictive) ethics police. And in the current climate, the US military is POLLUTION, and all such collaborators are marked, “Leper! Outcast! Unclean!”

  3. Faculty across the academy help perpetrate myths of the Ivory Tower vs. Real World every time they soak up the pleasant status of “profession” or “anthropologist” at cocktail parties. Next time someone squeals approval upon learning you are a professor, set them straight by referring to you workplace as an intellectual factory with the same demands and relations of production found in any workplace, with more than the usual suck-ups to the boss that are found on most jobs–but in our case, the boss is sucking on Uncle Sam’s tit, and reaching into the corporate larder.

  4. Good lord — when exactly was the last time I went to a ‘cocktail party’? Or that someone ‘squealed with approval’ upon learning I am a professor?

    One aspect of this ‘real world’ vs ‘ivory tower’ dichotomy that always boggles me is the hallucinatory quality of people’s imagination of what I and my colleagues do all day. Today I did the laundry. Tonight I will grade some papers, and all with little to no squealing on anyone’s part.

    Yet somehow — I think it has to do with people’s histories as undergraduates — we academics are held responsible for other people’s fantasies of our lifestyle. Someone may be responsible for perpetuating these stereotypes, but it certainly isn’t me. That said, I’m pretty sure I’m atypical for a professor in many ways.

  5. See, this is why Taiwan is so cool:

    “Dwelling in the Pagoda of the Elephants Tooth” has Indiana Jones street cred je ne sais quoi like a muthafucka.

  6. I too feel so uncomfortable with any connection with the army, US, UK or where ever. However, the ironic thing is that anthropology has always had a strong history of working with the military and nations who want to gain. In fact the development of fieldwork would have been much slower if it were not for the partnership between colonial bodies and individual anthropologists. Both wanted something and got what they needed.

    This has led to anthropology rolling around in its own guilt for many years which has led to it seeing itself more as a moral guardian of something than an academic discipline. If anything it is this sense of moral ownership that gives the image of the Ivory Tower, not the fact that it is a academic discipline. If you compare other social sciences they seem to have a greater influence is other areas of life, for example sociology and psychology (this does not mean that they offer more than anthropology).

    I attended a conference in London at SOAS on the future of medical anthropology. I asked the question why medical anthropology does not do more work along side commercial medical companies – such as looking at diabetes and the use of insulin pens for example. A Professor on the panel replied by saying that the the US army were recruting anthropologists. The fact that he confused my question with the threat of anthropologists working for the military illustrates the point that anything outside the self made moral boundary of the academy threatens to expose the guilt amongst many anthropologists who perch on the tower. Constructive discussion about anthropology, diabetes and the commercial world is one thing, linking diabetes to the US Army is abstract to say the least.

  7. I have been thinking about the “ivory tower” too. If the academia is an ivory tower, maybe we have to ask: From where did the ivories come from? Under what conditions was the tower crafted? Who designed it? For whom and what purpose?
    Academia has always been full of politics and all about politics no matter we are aware or not. And it is always a market, a tea house, a vanity fair too…a real world.

    Yeah, the anthropologist associated with HTS are indeed very eager to be down to earth, which in this case unfortunately is an occupied land. I even worry that people here will miss the point by asking too much if these folks care about ethical issues. They have taken a political stand and given their informed consent of cooperation to the military. So even if they tell their full names, do not wear uniforms and get meaningful informed consent from the locals, they are still there to help occupation, just a smoother one, a more successful one. Who need anthropologists to go native if military operations can do all the job? And of course the government and army don’t hire anthropologists to challenge their interest, beliefs and policies. They have heard enough challenges.

    Don’t want to blame these anthropologists too much either. Think about how many U.S. citizens actually still support the invasion. It should not be a surprise.

  8. “f the academia is an ivory tower, maybe we have to ask: From where did the ivories come from? Under what conditions was the tower crafted? Who designed it? For whom and what purpose?”

    These are good questions, and a place to start pursuing them might be


    I wonder, however, if it mightn’t be more pertinent to ask, What have universities become?

    Lest that question seem too cryptic, what I have in mind are the implications of the huge, post-WWII expansion of tertiary education that transformed higher education from the prerogative of a small elite into a mass-produced commodity.

  9. As I’ve said over and over, the single most important question should be this: will the HTS program improve, degrade, or have no effect at all on the situation of the Iraqis and Afghanis?

    If you think it could possibly improve their situation, then you will believe that the program is justified. If you believe that it will make the situation worse then you will oppose HTS. And if you think that HTS will have no effect at all (the Ecclesiastes argument) then other factors will decide your position, such as whether or not you believe participation will negatively effect how other anthropologists are received in the field, or even your politics.

    We need to prioritize our concerns.

  10. TotT, your writing here has been so prescient and thoughtful and you are so so right. If only everyone just listened to _you_ we could skip all this silly discussion.

  11. Grizz, I am equally impressed with your writing- your insight, your wit, and above all else your sense of humor.

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