Some Foundations for Anthropological Praxis

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Mary Alice Scott

In attempting to find inspiration for my summer writing projects, I recently picked up The Vulnerable Observer, a collection of essays by Ruth Behar. Another of Behar’s books, Translated Woman, was the first ethnography I ever read, and I was feeling like going back to the roots of my anthropological journey.

Her first essay, aptly titled “The Vulnerable Observer,” begins with Isabel Allende’s telling of the story of Omaira Sánchez, a thirteen-year-old girl who became trapped in the mud during an avalanche in Colombia in 1985. Although photographers and journalists could do nothing to save her, they did not hesitate to watch her and document the tragedy in front of them. Is this witnessing or exploitation? And do we as anthropologists do anything different? Behar (and many others) argues that too often, we do not.

Lay down in the mud in Colombia. Put your arms around Omaira Sánchez. But when the grant money runs out, or the summer vacation is over, please stand up, dust yourself off, go to your desk, and write down what you saw or heard. Relate it to something you’ve read by Marx, Weber, Gramsci or Geertz and you’re on your way to doing anthropology (p. 5).

Behar’s division between the “field” – where Omaira Sánchez lies drowning in the mud – and the “academy” – where anthropologists write grants, reports, dissertations, articles and other projects that are largely disconnected from the humanity of the fieldwork moment – is perhaps more stark than many of us understand our own work to be. In my discussions with colleagues, it is clear that we understand the social and political implications of the work that we do and the urgency of making connections outside of academia as well as within it.

But recognizing Behar’s division calls attention to the violence structuring the anthropological dilemma. As I teeter on the edges of witnessing and exploitation, I think I have (at least) two choices. I can more or less resign myself to the inherent contradictions of my work doing my best to mitigate the more extreme moments of violence when they arise, or I can bring more attention to my daily practice of anthropology.

I’m leaning towards the latter. Since I returned from fieldwork and wrote my dissertation two years ago, I’ve been trying to reconcile “doing anthropology” with “being an anthropologist,” a process that seems to me to be common among us new professionals and is perhaps a career-long challenge. What’s been most helpful to me lately in my reconciliation with anthropology and my recovery from that first rather violent stripping away of my naïve notion that anthropology in its current form is somehow inherently liberatory and just, is work on critical epistemologies and pedagogies rooted in the work of Paolo Freire, who argued that understanding oppression, while a complex and essential first step, is not enough for those who seek to create a more just world. We need both critical reflection on oppression and justice and action.

So I’ve been thinking about the act of teaching, not just revealing to students the exciting world of anthropology but also working alongside students to develop our capacities, imaginations, and wisdom. I’ve also been thinking about the act of researching, not just documenting and analyzing health issues but also engaging locally to facilitate research-based and locally-informed changes that promote community health. And since I am for the first time in a long time living in a place I think I will be for a while, I’m thinking about what it means to be an active and long-term member of a community.

I know I am far from alone in my struggle to reconcile “academic” anthropology with my visions of a more just world. And I am far from alone in my often only partial attempts to envision what that world might look like. But I’ve mainly stayed in my own head musing on the wisdom of my teachers. So in this series of guest posts, I want to engage with some voices outside my head to think about anthropological praxis through the lenses of critical epistemologies and pedagogies. At this moment, with an entire summer stretching before me, I’m feeling really positive about the possibilities.

Next up in this series, a Freirian framing of knowledge production and collective imagination.

Mary Alice Scott is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at New Mexico State University. She credits her thinking on anthropological praxis to the collective imagination she is developing with her students and colleagues at Elon University, the University of Kentucky and NMSU.

 

maryalice

Mary Alice Scott is assistant professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University. Her research focuses on health disparities in the U.S.-Mexico border region.

5 thoughts on “Some Foundations for Anthropological Praxis

  1. “What’s been most helpful to me lately in my reconciliation with anthropology and my recovery from that first rather violent stripping away of my naïve notion that anthropology in its current form is somehow inherently liberatory and just…”

    I know EXACTLY what you mean by this. Maybe we all learn about this early on in anthropology…and then have this ripped away the more we learn or move through the discipline. What does this mean? Do we need to rethink the ways in which we present and teach anthropology? Do we need to rethink the stories we tell about anthropology from the start? Just some ideas.

    “…who argued that understanding oppression, while a complex and essential first step, is not enough for those who seek to create a more just world. We need both critical reflection on oppression and justice and action.”

    This is one of the most complex dilemmas about “doing anthropology”…are we here to document and analyze the world, or to actually take part in it? I’m not really interested in sparking some big debate about “objective research” on the one hand versus activist anthropology on the other…but I think you bring up a good point about the limits of anthropology (that describing the world may not be enough). However, when some folks hear the word “action” they tend to react pretty strongly–or head for the door. Sometimes the problem is that these kinds of questions get lost in gut reactions and polemics. Maybe there’s a need to rethink what exactly “action” means? Or what it can mean in certain contexts.

    Anyway, I am looking forward to the rest of your posts, Mary Alice. Welcome to SM, by the way!!!

  2. Thanks, Prof. Scott.

    “Although photographers and journalists could do nothing to save her, they did not hesitate to watch her and document the tragedy in front of them. Is this witnessing or exploitation?”

    The death of Omaira, in my reading, is a good metaphor for a dying culture. Since her death was inevitable, the journalists used their lenses for her last words. I see no exploitation but a different kind of witnessing where the viewed was also a viewer. Since she saw nobody could save her, she said her adios while still alive.

    I wonder if this metaphor is a good representation of a different kind of anthropological advocacy where anthropologists do not really take sides or save lives but give the communities or the peoples they study the chance to speak for themselves. In that process, the same anthropologists make their informants authors of their own culture before the inevitable death of the said culture.

    The endangered Jarawa people of Andaman Islands came to mind after reading your post. Documenting them visually is not really enough. Photographs and videos only show that they are a vanishing group. Maybe anthropologists should teach them anthropology, so they can document and record themselves and their culture before they vanish.

  3. Thanks for the comments. You’re both pushing me to think a little further about a couple of things that I’ll try to address in more depth in future posts.

    First, one of things I have asked my students in the past as a sort of formative assessment of class is “What’s the muddiest point from today?” They spend five minutes or so writing about that at the end of class. When I read their responses, they sometimes confirm what I already thought. But sometimes they surprise me. Sometimes something that I thought was really clear ends up not to be. Often its because I’m using language that obscures rather than clarifies. Their “muddiest points” are also mine. And I think that is where I am with the use of words like “action” and “social justice” (and probably also advocacy, a word I didn’t use, but certainly fits into that general framework). Those words are really loaded, and it’s worth some more thought.

    Then, there is this question about what anthropology should be. I had coffee with one of my mentors the other day and was talking with her about a course I’m teaching in the fall – Peoples of Mexico and Guatemala. I told her that I was worried that people would come out of the class depressed because the themes I’m choosing to cover are tough to deal with. I suggested that I might look at music and dance as a way to broaden the focus of the course. She said something like, “I’m so glad you said that, because people create beautiful things.” If my vision of anthropology is focused on some narrow form of “action,” am I actually advocating for an anthropology that leaves out “people creating beautiful things” (or fascinating things or any other kind of things)? And what kind of an anthropology would that be? I’m not sure I can take on constructing a cohesive vision of anthropology, but I do think it is important to think through more carefully what anthropologies might be excluded in any particular form of anthropological practice.

  4. As someone who started out cynical, I didn’t have to have anything ‘stripped away’….

    I think one thing you might want to think about more is the implicit framing of anthropological work. Why do you assume that _all_ anthropology is _always_ like watching children die in the mud? Or even that most of it is? Don’t anthropologists ‘study up’? And sometimes ‘sideways’? And ought we be so quick to dismiss the agency of our research respondents? I think examining the particularities of the power dynamics of our research situations is a better starting point than saying “all anthropologists always study this… since this always happen how ought we respond to it…”. I feel like the particular is being liquidated in this post — which is maybe not the best start for praxis _or_ understanding… and when did those two things become opposites anyway?

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