I was recently interviewed by a journalist working on a piece on The Daniel Wemp affair for an article in Science that will appear in the next couple of weeks, apparently, and that interview got me thinking about the ‘Is Jared Diamond An Anthropologist’ issue. This topic has come up on the blog from time to time, and after some reflection it seems to me that there are more and less interesting ways to answer this question.
One uninteresting question to me is the issue of institutional license. There is clearly a sliding scale of institutional license from paradigmatic anthropologists (Ph.D.s in anthropology in tenured positions of anthropology training more Ph.D.s in anthropology, conducting anthropological work and publishing in scholarly anthropological journals) to people who ‘think anthropologically’ but might not have a degree in anthropology. I suppose some people would take issue with Diamond’s representation of himself (or more accurately, the press’s representation of him) as an anthropologist because he lack the appropriate institutional licensing.
But what truly bothers me about the fact that Diamond’s ‘vengeance’ piece ran under the banner ‘annals of anthropology’ is not that Diamond doesn’t have Official Certification in our field. Rather, what bothers me is that this piece and the affair it provoked sends an off-brand message to our audience.
I think of anthropology as a discipline in the broadest sense of the word — a way of thinking about the world, a disposition about how to study it, a certain set of texts which provide a genealogy and another which provide a taken-for-granted reservoir of examples about how different societies have organized themselves. This discipline is clearly connected to academic anthropology, but at the same time it also attaches to a variety of other institutional sites that include, yes, even the History Channel.
I don’t mind when people without degrees do anthropology — the more the merrier, in fact. But I do mind when our consumers get the wrong message about our brand.
For instance, I think consumers learn from Diamond’s work that anthropologists study ancient/primitive people. As a result, I have had people ask me if I, as an anthropologist, get upset when non-anthropologists study Papua New Guinea (presumably because it is ‘primitive’). What’s more, I have had other anthropologists chastise me, a Melanesianist, for perpetuating this message. It puts me in a double bind.
In contrast, I want to send non-anthropologists the message that anthropologists study culture and the power if has in shaping human social life. Saying that anthropologists are only allowed to study ‘primitives’ is like saying linguists are only allowed to study French, biologists are only allowed to study mammals, and chemists are only allowed to study tungsten. It is to mistake the topic for an approach. The fact that Diamond prefers biological and geographical explanations almost to the exclusion of cultural explanations doesn’t help.
Consumers learn from the Wemp affair that anthropologists are unethical and lousy at getting the facts right. In contrast, I want to send them the message that anthropologists are responsible stewards of the information that people share with us, and that we get the facts right.
Consumers learn from the Wemp affair that anthropologists like Diamond can be unethical and inaccurate because they are powerful white people who study powerless brown people. This imagination of the anthropological field situation leads to the assumption that anthropologists either help powerless brown people or harm them, and each of these options can be negatively or positively morally charged: help them (positive: collaboration and empowerment, negative: colonial paternalism), hurt them (positive: exterminate/educate the brutes in the name of civilization, negative: colonial predation).
In contrast, I want people to recognize that there is no necessary connection between race and power in anthropological fieldwork: powerful brown people could be studying helpless white people, powerless brown people could be studying powerful white people, etc. (you can make a chart to get all the permutations if you want and I bet I can find examples of every combination in the ethnographic record, even if some are much rarer than others). Just as anthropologist study all sorts of people, the dynamics of that study in the field are also varied.
Of course, not everyone may agree with me in my sense of what the discipline of anthropology is and some may have thicker or thinner senses of how exhaustive our disciplinary commitments will be. There may be different standards for different sorts of scholarly and nonscholarly genres, and of course I’m sure there are some anthropologists who behave so badly that they have done a much more effective job of trashing our brand than Diamond. But this is just to say that good work is good work, bad work is bad work, and people will always quibble about the details.
Beyond issue of institutional licensing or theological disputes about what what, theoretically, counts as ‘anthropology’ what worries me about coverage of the Daniel Wemp affair is what our audience will think of us. When I got off the plane in Papua New Guinea later this month, will people be unwilling to talk to me because they’ve heard about the Jared Diamond affair? Will they spend their time explaining to me that they are not ‘primitive’? While scholarly and legal issues will be raised in the course of the Wemp affair, I think it also behooves anthropologists to think about the fallout this event will have for how we are perceived, and the sort of messages we want to send about ourselves to our audience. Using the idiom of brand, as I have somewhat jokingly used it here, helps us realize that an important part of this debate is associations and experiences that people have of us.