Opening Anthropology: An interview with Keith Hart (Part 3 of 3)

This interview is part of an ongoing series about open access (OA), publishing, communication, and anthropology.  The first interview in this series was with Jason Baird Jackson (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).  The second interview, with Tom Boellstorff, is here.  The third installment of this OA series is with Keith Hart.(See Part 1  here, Part 2 here)

Ryan Anderson: Let’s bring things back to the issue of OA and the academy.  You have said that many OA activists are inhibited from fighting against the privatization of the intellectual commons because they have already “bought into the premises of an academic career”.  Why do you mean by this?

Keith Hart: Intellectual life is intrinsically individualistic. We may like to think of ourselves as social creatures, but unfortunately they only hand out brains one at a time. Collaboration is particularly developed in the hard sciences and the academy has always depended on an informal cultural commons: teaching, seminars, conferences, free sharing of ideas, equal access to libraries and so on. Everyone wants personal recognition, but up to the 1950s, this aspect of academic life took a back seat to the university as a community of scholars, teachers and their students.

The Cold War and the drive to restore home food supplies after the Second World War boosted research on armaments and agriculture. The post-war boom saw lots of public money being directed to universities for research. Private companies also poured money into research on chemicals. Student enrolments took off in the 1960s, so that universities now became big business. We think of them as medieval institutions, but the late twentieth-century university was something unique, a mass production line for workers in bureaucracies and the main research arm of the state. The academics had always ruled their own institutions, but this expansion gave power to administrators. Research came to dominate other academic activities. The humanities and social sciences didn’t have much to offer, but they too jumped onto the research bandwagon.

I have discussed what happened next, at least for Britain, in “How my generation let down our students”. The watershed of the 1970s culminated in the neoliberal counter-revolution that saw Reagan and Thatcher come to power. Competitive pseudo-markets based academic assessment on so-called “objective” indicators, especially research publications. Bureaucracies became more interventionist along with the wholesale corporatization of university culture. What was left of academic community was destroyed by the growing gap between a few established professors who took leave often and a reserve army of precarious young teachers. The publishing oligopoly exhausted library budgets with their over-priced journals, while the academics competed for the status of getting published in them. Everyone agrees that the contents are worthless and are not read. Faced with the challenge of the internet, most academics did their utmost to maintain the system of feudal private property that has now overwhelmed the universities.

Yet we are living through a genuine revolution in the production and dissemination of knowledge; and the vast army of graduate students queuing up for admission is well aware of the freedom and opportunities afforded by a digital commons. The “bourgeois skeptic” accepts in principle the system of private property and competitive markets, but maintains a critical attitude. He complains about one isolated aspect of the system and then rests content when a minor concession is made. The AAA is an endless source for such skepticism, not least when it comes to OA. Yet most of its critics are tied to the labor market it serves. At least the AAA knows that it is 100% for the private property system.

Academics have been on the losing end of a class war for almost half a century. We are extremely unself-conscious about how we got into this situation and have no idea how to get out of it. This makes us easy pickings. Wedded to bourgeois ideology and ignorant of Mauss’s actual teaching, we failed to recognize the social conditions that preserved our individuality and sold our commons for the illusion of personal advancement. The mass of young researchers who are now desperate to gain a toehold in the academy did not bring about this situation. We did — those of us who got in while the going was good and then acquiesced in the destruction of what we had.

RA: So what’s stopping us from making changes, from going OA, and building a strong digital commons?

KH: Don’t underestimate the power of the academy to shape its inmates even when they are out of school. Most of us have been in school all our lives after all. But yes, one strategy must be to make the most of the social and technical possibilities afforded by the digital revolution. This requires some other means of economic support, of course. It doesn’t make sense these days to bank on an academic job for life. But I can say that every online initiative I have been in was compromised by attitudes and habits formed in the academy. The main clients for any forum concerned with anthropology are graduate students. These inevitably wish to conserve the status quo they hope to join, even as they like to think of themselves as critical.

Our experience with the Open Anthropology Cooperative has been that there are many complications when trying to build an open network. We were surprised by the flood of enrolments and found ourselves struggling to catch up without ever really solving tough problems of organization and navigation. We discovered that we had to moderate admissions in order to control spammers and trolls. Any member could open up a discussion group, but many that did so soon neglected it. The result was a proliferation of pages without a clearly recognizable shape. We allowed too many decisions to be debated openly and that sapped our spirits and energies. We opted for Ning as a platform which allowed newcomers to get started without any preparation. But it had a Facebook feel that put some people off; it was tackily commercial; and above all we conceded significant control of our data to them. People only turn to the OAC when they have dealt with their email, Facebook account and existing favorite sites.

In our drive to establish an egalitarian community, we didn’t pay enough attention to the leadership needed and fell back on a muted managerial style whose demands diverted us from developing the site’s potential. We mixed an academic network with social media and the resulting ambivalence inhibited our members’ participation. The administrative team consisted mostly of graduate students whose other priorities drained their energies. As we know, anthropologists already have a problem with making their public presence felt; and this reticence surely affected the quality of life on the network. The fact that anything you write there is stored forever by Google must be yet another source of inhibition. Most newcomers are at first astonished by the vitality and diversity of the site, only to discover that it is hard to find your way around and much of what is there appears to be dead.

There is an upside to all this, of course. The OAC has attracted a large and genuinely global membership. At one stage we hosted discussion groups in some ten languages. We have stayed true to our founding mission to keep participation as open as possible.  Professionals, students and outsiders interact with remarkable freedom and without central direction. Apart from the many blogs, groups and forum discussions, we have accumulated a remarkable archive of spontaneous commentary, visual and literary artifacts, plus thousands of personal pages. We initially aimed at accumulating a repository of materials that would be valuable in research and teaching, but lack the manpower to see this through. The OAC Press publishes working papers, classical texts and book reviews online and we hold interdisciplinary seminars lasting two weeks that have been a marked success. These succeed perhaps because they replicate what is already familiar within the academy. In sum, there is still plenty of potential for development here, but we face complications that strain our part-time energies and don’t diminish over time.

Our discipline seems to have little to offer when it comes to thinking through these problems theoretically and practically. Anthropologists, it seems, suffer from an inability to catch up with a changing world at the same time as we meticulously document it. It was never anthropology’s priority to change the world and that leaves us rather helpless to solve issues that we ought to be expert in. The fastest-growing sector of world trade is in cultural commodities – entertainment, education, media, information services – increasingly online. The universities are doing at best a flawed job of providing people with the education they want when they want it and at an affordable price. Everywhere sclerotic corporate hierarchies are outsourcing to smaller flexible units or being replaced by them. This is particularly true of research today. There are massive opportunities out there to address the demand for lifetime self-learning and anthropology should be admirably suited to that. With imagination and less dependence on the universities, anthropology could enter a new golden age. Yet discussion of OA by anthropologists today focuses on a minor liberalization of research publications conceived of in the traditional way. We are too tied to existing academic expectations (scholarship more than education) and don’t ask not enough what the people want and how to give it to them.

RA: That’s a good point–a lot of the OA discussions just focus on freeing up traditional academic research publications.  That’s a pretty limiting way of looking at the possibilities we have right in front of us.  So what would happen if we dropped the attachment to all of those academic expectations?  What do people want, and how can anthropologists, in particular, find ways to “give it to them”?

KH: I don’t disparage academic work. I have devoted my life to it. But anthropology was born as part of a democratic project and the academy has become enmeshed in a particularly coercive kind of bureaucracy. I have a pseudo-Maoist slogan: Walk on two legs (it’s better than standing on one foot and falling over). By all means keep one foot in the academy, if you can, but don’t settle for the status quo and keep the other foot out there, in the market, moving forward while shifting your balance as circumstances permit.

“What the people want” is the mainspring of a genuine democracy; it is not something we give to them, but rather what we have to find out in order to be socially useful. I have said already that anthropology was an Enlightenment project to discover what all humanity has in common as the basis for a democratic revolution against the arbitrary inequality of agrarian civilization. Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798) was the culmination of that project and yet modern anthropologists never refer to it in their histories of the discipline. It is my inspiration. He elsewhere summarized “philosophy in the cosmopolitan sense of the word” as four questions:

What can I know?

What should I do?

What may I hope for?

What is a human being?

The first question is answered in metaphysics, the second in morals, the third in religion and the fourth in anthropology.

But the first three questions “relate to anthropology”, he said, and might be subsumed under it. Kant conceived of anthropology as an empirical discipline, but also as a means of moral and cultural improvement. It was thus both an investigation into human nature and, more especially, into how to modify it, as a way of providing his students with practical guidance and knowledge of the world.

He intended his lectures to be “popular” and of value in later life. Above all, the Anthropology was to contribute to the progressive political task of uniting world citizens by identifying the source of their “cosmopolitan bonds”. The book thus moves between vivid anecdotes and Kant’s most sublime vision as a bridge from the everyday to horizon thinking. Anthropology is the practical arm of moral philosophy. It does not explain the metaphysics of morals which are categorical and transcendent; but it is indispensable to any interaction involving human agents. It is thus “pragmatic” in a number of senses: it is “everything that pertains to the practical”, popular (as opposed to academic) and moral in that it is concerned with what people should do, with their motives for action.

The Anthropology was a best seller for its day. It sold 2,000 copies in two years. The rapid development of global communications today contains within its movement a far-reaching transformation of world society. “Anthropology” in some form is one of the intellectual traditions best suited to make sense of it. The academic seclusion of the discipline, its passive acquiescence to bureaucracy, is the chief obstacle preventing us from grasping this historical opportunity. We cling to our revolutionary commitment to joining the people, but have forgotten what ethnography was for or what else is needed, if humanity is to succeed in building a universal society. The internet is a wonderful chance to open up the flow of knowledge and information. Rather than obsessing over how we can control access to what we write, which means cutting off the mass of humanity almost completely from our efforts, we need to figure out new interactive forms of engagement that span the globe and to make the results of our work available to everyone.

Ever since the internet went public and the World Wide Web was invented, I have made online self-publishing and interaction the core of my anthropological practice. It matters less that an academic guild should retain its monopoly of access to knowledge than that “anthropology” should be taken up by a broad intellectual coalition for whom the realization of a new human universal – a world society fit for humanity as a whole — is a matter of urgent personal concern.

RA: That’s a good thought to end on.  Thanks, Keith, for taking the time to do this.  If anyone has comments or questions, please feel free to share and join the conversation.


*Keith Hart lives in Paris with his family and co-directs the Human Economy research program at the University of Pretoria, South Africa ( He is Professor of Anthropology Emeritus at Goldsmiths, University of London and has taught in a dozen universities on both sides of the Atlantic, for the longest time at Cambridge where he was Director of the African Studies Centre. He has published widely in economic anthropology, especially about money. Website: Email: Facebook and Twitter: johnkeithhart.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

3 thoughts on “Opening Anthropology: An interview with Keith Hart (Part 3 of 3)

  1. From Fei Xiaotong, student of Shihrokogorov, Malinowski and Firth, author of seminal works on Chinese peasants and minority peoples, survivor of the Japanese invasion of China, the Chinese revolution, and the Cultural Revolution, who ended his long career as China’s most prominent and respected social scientist and a shaper of national policy.


    From China Urban Anthropology Association, Metropolitan Ethnic Cultures: Maintenance and Interaction, Academy Press, 2000. Papers presented at the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES), Beijing July 24-28, 2000.

    Fei Xiaotong, already in his 90s gave the keynote address.

    pp. 6-7

    In modern society, anthropological research lays more and more emphasis on the current issues that concern human life and society. Therefore, the function of anthropology should not only rest itself on “retrospect and prospect” or “interpretation”; it should also include “participation and prospect.” I remembered that in 1981 when receiving the Huxley Award in Britain I made a speech, in which I particularly stressed that “anthropology should serve the people’s interest.” This attitude of “applying what has been learned” has been deeply rooted in my academic research work. I consider that the property of an intellectual is knowledge. One should use one’s knowledge. Knowledge is created by society, not thought out by a particular individual. The knowledge one acres from the society must be turned to the society to help the progress of the society. That is what we mean by “apply what has been learned.” In the tradition of the Chinese culture, meaning what has been gained from the society should be paid back to the society….Sticking to this spirit I have always closely tied my research to the life of the people.

    pp. 11-12

    Now, the 21st century is making its footsteps heard; the human race is constructing a common belief to welcome the new century. We are faced with the issue of how people’s from different countries, races, religions and cultures co-exist peacefully, and create the future of the human beings.

    In Qufu, the hometown of Confucius in Shandong Province stands the Confucius Temple. On the Dacheng Hall of the temple are carved four Chinese characters “Zhong He Wei Yu,” meaning neutralization in harmony. That is the key of the Confucius doctrine, and the shared value of the Chinese people. This doctrine finds its expression in culture tolerance and culture sharing….Each culture displaying its best; each culture learning to enjoy the beauty of others; all cultures sharing a common beauty; and thus creating a world of harmony. What I mean is to encourage anthropologists to explore culture awareness of one’s own, seek mutual understanding and tolerance; and establish the concept of co-existence of multiple cultures in the world, so as to reach the goal of “harmony under Heaven.”

  2. I recently joined the Open Anthropology Cooperative and I am very impressed with the breadth of discussion and membership. Many thanks to those who put this together and made this happen!

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