Savage Minds Interview: Sarah Kendzior

Sarah Kendzior is a writer for Al Jazeera English. She has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Washington University and researches the political effects of digital media in the former USSR. You can find her work at, and on Twitter: @sarahkendzior

Ryan Anderson:  First of all, thanks for doing this interview.  Let’s start off with the basics:  Why anthropology?  How and why did you end up in this field?

Sarah Kendzior: I got interested in anthropology while working as a research assistant for an anthropologist, Nazif Shahrani, while getting my MA in Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. Before I was an anthropologist, I was a journalist, but I was frustrated with the superficiality of foreign coverage. Journalists often cover foreign conflicts without knowing foreign languages, talking to local people, or examining the history and culture of the place they visit. I wanted to do things differently.

In 2004, I used to joke that anthropology was journalism with more work and less money. Of course, now there is no money in journalism either, but my point still stands. Ethnography is journalism that takes too long. I mean that not pejoratively but as an affirmation of the discipline’s values –– long-term observation; scrutiny of methodological practice; respect for history; commitment to understanding local beliefs and traditions.

I got spoiled working for Dr. Shahrani. He is an outspoken intellectual who spares no criticism of systems that he finds corrupt – including academia. He saw anthropology not as an abstraction removed from public life, but as a source of insight from which the public could benefit. In 2004, at the height of the “war on terror” and political propaganda against Muslims, this seemed a worthy goal. Dr. Shahrani is also very funny and honest and therefore left me with an erroneous impression of what anthropology, as a disciplinary institution, is like.  I applied to PhD programs in the fall of 2005. In my application essay, I wrote: “I am not only interested in writing about the world, but for it as well.” This is still true. In retrospect, it is surprising I got in so many places.

RA: And how was your experience in graduate school?  What’s your overall assessment of grad student life in anthropology?

SK: I can’t separate my grad school experience from other things going on in my life at the time. During graduate school I wrote six peer-reviewed journal articles, one policy paper, one dissertation – and had two children. My daughter was born at the end of my first year, in 2007, and my son was born as I finished my dissertation in 2011.

I was not a typical graduate student, and I didn’t have a typical graduate student life, so I’m probably not the best person to assess it. But on a personal level, it was fine. Because I’ve written critically about academia, people tend to assume I had a bad time in graduate school. This is not the case. I entered academia from the working world — graduate school felt like a luxury. My department supports its students well, and I had free tuition, a decent stipend, research money, and travel money for conferences. I worked on my own time on projects of my own choosing. I love to research and write and I enjoyed writing the dissertation.

Graduate school was easy. It was the non-existent future that I was working toward that was the problem. Every grad school path is unique, but almost all lead to the same dead end: a contingency market in which you must have both personal wealth and a willingness to accept your own exploitation to stay in the game.

I would never tell anyone not to go to graduate school. It is a personal decision, and there are many reasons to go. But I would tell them not to go to graduate school believing that your performance in graduate school has anything to do with your ability to find a full-time academic job. Academia is closer to a Ponzi scheme than a meritocracy.

RA: Looking back, is there anything you would change about your experiences in graduate school?  Anything that you think should be done differently about how we train and teach graduate students?

SK: Graduate students live in constant fear. Some of this fear is justified, like the fear of not finding a job. But the fear of unemployment leads to a host of other fears, and you end up with a climate of conformity, timidity, and sycophantic emulation. Intellectual inquiry is suppressed as “unmarketable”, interdisciplinary research is marked as disloyal, public engagement is decried as “unserious”, and critical views are written anonymously lest a search committee find them. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by the Academic Jobs Wiki.

The cult mentality of academia not only curtails intellectual freedom, but hurts graduate students in a personal way. They internalize systemic failure as individual failure, in part because they have sacrificed their own beliefs and ideas to placate market values. The irony is that an academic market this corrupt and over-saturated has no values. Do not sacrifice your integrity to a lottery — even if you are among the few who can afford to buy tickets until you win.

Anthropology PhDs tend to wind up as contingent workers because they believe they have no other options. This is not true – anthropologists have many skills and could do many things – but there are two main reasons they think so. First, they are conditioned to see working outside of academia as failure. Second, their graduate training is not oriented not toward intellectual exploration, but to shoring up a dying discipline.

Gillian Tett famously said that anthropology has committed intellectual suicide. Graduate students are taught to worship at its grave. The aversion to interdisciplinary work, to public engagement, to new subjects, to innovation in general, is wrapped up in the desire to affirm anthropology’s special relevance. Ironically, this is exactly what makes anthropology irrelevant to the larger world. No one outside the discipline cares about your jargon, your endless parenthetical citations, your paywalled portfolio, your quiet compliance. They care whether you have ideas and can communicate them. Anthropologists have so much to offer, but they hide it away.

I got a lot of bad advice in graduate school, but the most depressing was from a professor who said: “Don’t use up all your ideas before you’re on the tenure track.” I was assumed to have a finite number of ideas, and my job as a scholar was to withhold them, revealing them only when it benefited me professionally. The life of the mind was a life of pandering inhibition.

I ignored this along with other advice – don’t get pregnant, don’t get pregnant (again), don’t study the internet, don’t study an authoritarian regime – and I am glad I did. Graduate students need to be their own mentors. They should worry less about pleasing people who disrespect them and more about doing good work.

Because in the end, that is what you are left with – your work. The more you own that, the better off you will be. In the immortal words of Whitney Houston: “No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.” And in the equally immortal words of Whitney Houston: “Kiss my ass.” Both sentiments are helpful for navigating graduate school.

Academic training does not need to change so much as academic careerism. There is little sense in embracing careerism when hardly anyone has a career. But graduate school can still have value. Take advantage of your time in school to do something meaningful, and then share it with the world.

RA: How have things been for you since you graduated?  What has it been like to move beyond graduate school and academia?

SK: I’m not sure becoming the poster girl for the collapse of higher edu

cation means moving beyond academia, but overall things have gone well — albeit not in a way I had expected. I did an interview on this topic for From PhD to Life, and people can read about it there.

RA: Earlier you mentioned an adviser who sees anthropology as something that should not be removed from public life–as something that can benefit the public.  Do you share a similar vision of the discipline?  What’s your take on the role of anthropology in public life?

SK: Anthropology benefits the public. Unfortunately, it is blocked from the public, and anthropologists who engage with the public – people like David Graeber – tend to be shunned by other anthropologists, to the point where they lose their jobs. This makes younger anthropologists afraid of public engagement, even though they have valuable insights to share.

Anthropologists complain about politics and the media, but they rarely engage with either. Then they wonder why their voices are not being heard. The most obvious way anthropologists can increase their influence is by writing online. I don’t mean writing in places like Anthropology News — where you have to pay an exorbitant membership fee to leave a comment – but on real blogs, on Twitter, on mainstream media sites, and in open access journals. Publishing reprints of paywalled articles is also a good idea, and is usually legal after a period of time. I did an interview about the benefits of reprinting journal articles online with, which you can read here.

Anthropologists tend to forget that tenets basic to our discipline – for example, that race is a social construct and not a biological determinant of behavior – come as revelations to a lot of people. Issues of racial and religious discrimination are among the many areas where anthropologists can have a powerful voice.

I recently wrote an article for Al Jazeera, “The Wrong Kind of Caucasian”, that had a complicated premise but a simple conclusion: do not condemn people on the basis of their ethnic background or country of origin. It was read by half a million people and shared on Facebook 57,000 times. I got letters from people saying I had changed their preconceptions and that they were going to keep an open mind about race, ethnicity and immigration. It felt good to make a difference at a politically heated time.

Academics justify the paywall system by saying the public is not interested in academic research. I argue that the public has had no opportunity to decide for themselves, since access to research has always been blocked. But I have faith in the ability of non-academics to understand and appreciate academic work. Given our current political and economic situation, anthropology may be of particular interest. More than any other discipline, it tackles issues of power and corruption, paying attention not only to the powerful, but to the struggling and marginalized.

Except, of course, when it comes to the struggling and marginalized anthropologists. Rarely have I seen a group more oblivious to their own hypocrisy than the “enlightened” anthropologists ignoring the adjunct crisis. You would think such incredible structural inequality would be interesting, at least, to the anthropological mind. I know it is interesting to me.

RA: You’re writing for a lot of non-academic venues these days–Al Jazeera and so on.  How is this different from writing for academic venues and audiences?

SK: Hundreds of thousands of people read it. That is the main difference. I still write on many of the topics I studied while getting my PhD — digital media, politics, Central Asia. Stylistically, there is little difference between my Al Jazeera articles and my academic articles. The idea that academic writing needs to be abstruse is a myth. I had a pretty easy time publishing in academia — no reviewer criticized my writing style or suggested I use more jargon.

Because so many people read my work, I get a lot more feedback. Sometimes it is overwhelming. Al Jazeera is a great place to write because it has a huge international audience – I get email and tweets from people around the world, and like hearing their perspectives

That said, I enjoyed academic writing too. I don’t find it hard to move between different audiences, in part because I don’t make a distinction. Many of the people who like my Al Jazeera articles are academics; many of the people who like my academic articles are not.

RA: Above, you highlighted the fact that many anthropologists complain about their voices not being heard, yet ironically they often don’t engage much with politics or the media.  To me, this persistent disengagement paves the way for attacks on social science by the likes of Tom Coburn and Florida Governor Rick Scott.  We’ve essentially dug our own grave when it comes to public engagement–it’s easy to discount a highly insular, often silent discipline that few people have ever heard anything about.  So, in order to wrap up this interview I am going to ask you two simple questions that I hear all the time from non-anthropologists:  1) Anthropology?  What the hell is anthropology?; and 2) What are you going to do with that?

SK: You are right that academics’ lack of public engagement opens the door to political attacks. I wrote an article about this for Al Jazeera called Academic funding and the public interest.

I’m not going to answer “What is anthropology?” No one cares about our ontological debates. But here is how I would explain cultural anthropology to a layperson:

All of the social sciences – history, political science, economics, etc – study how people behave, form groups, and build a society. Each social science has its own way of figuring this out. Anthropologists believe the best way to find out what someone is thinking is to ask them. We respect that people in another community understand their own way of life better than outsiders do. We observe a community for a long period of time so that we don’t come away with hasty generalizations. We are careful when we write about others to put their words and their views before our own.

When you study anthropology, you learn about people and places that you might not otherwise. Anthropologists write about everyone – powerful and powerless, rich and poor, all races and nationalities. They explore how political decisions affect ordinary people, and how ordinary people influence politics. They look at how public perception is shaped, how social trends emerge, and how movements are formed. They ask what people expect from life, and what happens when they don’t get it.

Anthropology has a reputation for being exotic. But the point of anthropology is that exoticism fades when you get to know someone. Bigotry and prejudice fade too, which is why anthropologists used to be influential in reshaping ideas about race and ethnicity.

Anthropologists are interested in why people believe lies. For example, a large percent of Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya. For an anthropologist, it would not be enough to note that this is factually incorrect. They want to know why so many people believe it is true.

Anthropologists understand that the world often doesn’t run on facts, but on dreams and delusions, hopes and fears, imagination and ambition. They don’t dismiss anything as unimportant.

Now onto your second question — what are you going to do with that? First of all, higher education and the economy are both such disasters that you cannot assume any major or degree will guarantee you a good, secure life. STEM, liberal arts, law – no profession is safe. Industries are disappearing or being restructured out of existence. Practical training you get in college will likely be useless ten years from now. There are no safe bets.

So what is the point of an education? The point is to think critically, become an informed citizen, gain some specialized knowledge, gain broader insight into the world, and communicate well. Some people will say they don’t need to go to college to do this. I actually agree with that. But since college is a prerequisite for most jobs, you might as well get a solid education.

The best education is a broad education with an emphasis on primary sources, debate, and writing skills. I recommend that people study anthropology, but they should also study history, literature, religion, art, science, economics, sociology, political science, and other subjects. The constant assertion of disciplinary superiority is self-defeating. If the social sciences want to win the battle against people who want to defund us, we need to band together. We also would benefit intellectually if we read work outside our discipline and showed tolerance for alternate approaches.

I study Central Asia, a region of the world that is so understudied that there is a very small body of anthropological literature. As a result, most anthropologists draw not only from anthropological studies, but from the work of sociologists, historians, geographers and others. We also tend to read and cite non-academic work, since data on Central Asia is so limited. We have a supportive research community and no one’s knowledge is dismissed out of hand because of their background.

I also study the internet, and so I read broadly in communication, sociology, humanities and other fields. Yet when I write an article for an anthropology journal, I am expected to cite only other anthropologists. When I co-wrote a mixed-methods article with a quantitative communications scholar, and we got it published in the top communications journal, I was told by some anthropologists to leave it off my CV, because it showed I was interested in something other than anthropology. This is ridiculous. There is no need for this insecurity masked as insularity.

Anthropology is struggling as a discipline because anthropologists bank on a lofty reputation that they don’t really have while simultaneously shielding their work from the public. The public is not going to believe you have something worthy to say when you refuse to let them in on the conversation. Don’t be so afraid, anthropologists. You of all people should know the world is not what it seems.


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.

13 thoughts on “Savage Minds Interview: Sarah Kendzior

  1. – Anthropologists complain about politics and the media, but they rarely engage with either. Then they wonder why their voices are not being heard. The most obvious way anthropologists can increase their influence is by writing online. –

    Do you believe that increased online presence would lead to greater interest from mainstream media outlets?

    There is a wonderful line in The Gatekeepers in which one of the ex-Shin Bet heads notes that “politicians prefer binary options.” In your experience, can’t the same often be said of journalists working on a deadline and producers scouting guests? I ask because anthropologists tend to be the anti-oversimplification party, which would immediately put them at a disadvantage in that sort of environment.

    – your endless parenthetical citations –

  2. I think this is my favourite SA post so far.

    On media engagement, here in Australia we have a relatively new media site, The Conversation ( – ‘Academic rigour, journalistic flair’), which is all about getting news and opinion from researchers and academics out to the public. It’s been around for just over 2 years and so far has been a good addition to the Murdoch-dominated media environment here. I’ve noticed a few anthropologists writing articles for it.

  3. Thanks for posting this. It’s excellent. I speak as an evolutionary geneticist, with a Ph.D. from one of the world’s best programs (population biology, UC Davis), one of the country’s best postdoctoral fellowships (bioinformatics, NSF), and a respectable catalog of decently cited articles in name-brand journals (see or Google Scholar me if you care). But I decided to leave academia, because I don’t think it’s very conducive to significant thinking anymore, and its systemic problems seriously troubled me.

    “Because I’ve written critically about academia, people tend to assume I had a bad time in graduate school.” I suppose some may assume the same about me, so I suppose I should make a habit of mentioning I had a good time in grad school. Some of my friends definitely didn’t, however, and some of my criticisms of academia reflect my observations of their lousy experiences.

    “Academia is closer to a Ponzi scheme than a meritocracy.” True! It hadn’t occurred to me to put it that way, but yes. It bothered me that if I became a professor, it would behoove me to build a little empire of postdocs and grad students and put my name on their work ex officio, yet even if I took only the “best and brightest,” many of them who wanted to would most likely be unable to become professors.

    “Academic training does not need to change so much as academic careerism.” Agreed, although some changes in training would be helpful, such as more input from people like Ms. Kendzior who have put their academic training to work outside academia. One reason I had a good time in grad school is that I wasn’t careerist about it. I’d been working in the computer industry, and I went to grad school mainly out of curiosity. I was open to becoming a professor, but it wasn’t my goal.

    “[A]nthropologists who engage with the public – people like David Graeber – tend to be shunned by other anthropologists, to the point where they lose their jobs.” Graeber ruffled too many feathers at Yale, so they kicked him out. But guess what? I’ve read some of his stuff (including “Debt: The first 5000 years,” a powerful, messy, provocative, and frustrating book), and I strongly suspect people will still be reading him 50 or 100 years from now, which may well be more than can be said for any of his erstwhile colleagues.

  4. Brilliant and no-nonsense interview. As someone in the process of wrapping up a dissertation and moving into different field–not necessarily beyond academia, but maybe creating different institutions, I find Sarah’s ideas immensely helpful. It has been great pleasure reading her pieces on Aljazeera regularly for the past whole year. I think the time of ‘insural’ academia is over–whether we like it or not, and this will force good stuffs into academia. The day of abstruse presentations is also over. People will move past you if you are not clear.

  5. Thanks so much, Sarah, for this very astute and, for the most part, right-on, assessment, which rang a lot of bells for me. Back in the day when I had grad students hanging on my every word (not really), we had some meaningful discussions about the relevance of academic study as opposed to saving the world, which at the time seemed like a far nobler pursuit than doing the kinds of things I needed for them to do in my classes. And yes they were all scared, but maybe for different reasons.

    Anyhow, the only real problem I have with anything you’ve written has to do with this very tricky question of what is anthropology. Gertrude Stein once offered the following definition of poetry: “What is poetry? And if not what is poetry then what is prose?” I’m tempted to define anthropology in a similar spirit: “What is anthropology? And if not what is anthropology then what is sociology?”

    It seems to me that you see anthropology as a kind of hands-on sociology. And if you are looking for what it is that makes today’s anthropology so much less relevant than that of yesteryear, that, imo, is it. Because when anthropology becomes sociology that is a lot like what happens when poetry becomes prose. And that seems to have happened, yes.

    Anthropology was born out of a great shock to the system of what I suppose we can call “Western culture.” A shock produced by the growing realization that there was a whole world of people out there who lived in a very different way than “we” do and thought in a very different manner, and also had very different values, and were different also in a great many other ways. Anthropologists felt an urgent need to investigate these brave new worlds, to engage with them and attempt to understand not only their various cultures and histories, but also to use their research as part of an attempt at both self understanding and self realization, for themselves as well as their society in general. But now, what anthropology seems to be about is, to quote former anthro student, Kurt Vonnegut, how everyone is actually the same as everyone else.

    Unfortunately, the original bold, daring and, yes, poetic, project somehow got mixed up with the notion of something called “field work,” and because field work was in fact necessary at first, anthropologists became not only researchers into the workings of “primitive” or “indigenous” or “aboriginal” (as you prefer) societies but also field workers. And as time went on and these very precious societies succumbed, one after the other, to various pressures stemming for the most part from colonialism, then field work among them became increasingly futile, because they had changed irrevocably. And since “field work” per se had become the whole point of the exercise and field work among those fascinating “primitive” peoples had become impossible, anthro had no choice, apparently, but to transform itself into socio. And since socio is prose and anthro was poetry, all the poetry has gone out of the field and it is now boring and irrelevant — as you say.

    And I’m wondering if anyone out there can tell us if we are really stuck with that verdict, or whether there might possibly be a way out.

  6. Well, looks like my comment stopped the conversation cold. That sometimes happens when I post. Sorry.

    What I’m about to say might get things going again as I’m about to say something that will sound totally outrageous to just about everyone reading here. The problem, as I see it, is with the field work paradigm, the idea that anthropology is basically all about field work, or as many now prefer to call it, “participant observation.” When I challenged a group of ethnomusicologists with my reservations concerning field work, I was accused of being crazy. And I have to admit, almost everyone who gets into either anthropology or ethnomusicology does so because either they hanker to travel off to some exotic or at least interesting place or, as in the case of ethno, they want to study some unusual musical instrument or learn to perform in some exotic ensemble (usually a gamelan).

    This as I see it, is a far cry from what both of these fields used to be about, which was not some sort of personal fulfillment via going off on some sort of modern day vision quest, but the scientific (or if you prefer humanistic) exploration of what it means to be human, as reflected in the lifestyles of these so-called “primitive” or “indigenour” or “traditional” peoples who appear to be so different from “us.”

    When I hear anthropologists remind me that such societies cannot any longer be studied, a part of me understands what they are saying, but another part of me is literally flabbergasted, because what was ever the point of all the many ethnographies produced by all the many hard working anthropologists who did field work among such people in the past, if we insist that the study of such people stops when the field work cannot any longer be done. The great strength of a work such as David Graeber’s “Debt” is also what makes it so different from what most anthropologists are producing these days, as it draws its energies not primarily from field work, but from so much of the excellent ethnography (and archaeology) of his illustrious predecessors.

    As I see it, if anthropology is going to be relevant once again, anthropologists must be willing to return to the original point of the whole enterprise, the study of indigenous peoples, but this time, as with Graeber, through careful study of the vast ethnographic literature. If you see yourself as some kind of adventurer, and all you really want to do is what I call “pith helmet” anthropology, then I feel sorry for you, because the opportunities for that sort of thing have become all but nonexistent. But the opportunities for meaningful study of indigenous cultures are just beginning, as so much of the very rich literature on them (not to mention the vast archives of recorded and filmed material) has hardly been touched.

  7. Victor,
    I would agree with you that there is a great opening for syntheses of anthropological work from the library a la “A HIstory of Debt.”

    Where I would disagree is in your assertion that field work is dead, or should be dead. If ethnography is a humanity/art form, shouldn’t there always be room for more development? There are many great ethnographies emerging from unusual locales around the world. As you point out, it is no longer about “indigenous” people, but I’m not sure that that is really the central point of ethnography. I think ethnography as a well-developed form of story-telling which has value for its own sake, as do any number of media. Ethnography is not any more dead than other forms of story-telling found in film, novels, non-fiction, or even country-western music! Rather it takes on new forms.


  8. Thanks for your good response, Tony. I understand what you are saying and respect your point of view, and I don’t want to take anything away from the many people doing perfectly valid research in the name of anthropology. Only, as I see it, most of this work, valid though it may be, isn’t really anthropology anymore, but something that has gradually morphed into sociology. To me what makes anthro anthro and also makes (or made) anthropology such a fascinating field was its involvement with indigenous societies and their traditions, values, etc. And as I see it, there is still a lot more to be done in this area, despite the fact that most opportunities for the direct study of such societies via field work have dried up.

    I wouldn’t call this “library research” because it encompasses much more than what is usually implied by that term. Much of this research can be done via the Internet, and there are many possibilities opened up also by media such as film, video, audio recordings, and photos. There are also some very useful databases, ranging from George Murdock’s old Ethnographic Atlas to the recently developed WALS linguistic database to the many databases now being made available by population geneticists, not to mention the flood of exciting publications pouring out of that field in recent years. And I can’t fail to mention the database I was instrumental in developing (under the supervision of Alan Lomax), the Cantometric database of musical performance style. (Lomax also developed a similar database focused on movement style and dance, Choreometrics, though that is currently unavailable as far as I know.)

    Most of the fascinating mysteries surrounding the origins and evolution of the many and varied traditions surviving among indigenous peoples are still well worth exploring, especially since so much new information has been pouring in over the last 50 years or so, much of it all but ignored by the mainstream, which no longer seems to see it as relevant.

    I realize that for many if not most in this field, political concerns have become of primary importance, and many seem to feel their work to be all but meaningless and irrelevant unless it contributes to the political discourse. As I see it, every citizen has a responsibility to engage with the important political issues of his time and place, whether he be an anthropologist, sociologist, physicist, musicologist, artist, carpenter, plumber, whatever. I’ve certainly been politically active at many points in my career, as both activist and author, and, just for the record, taken some considerable risks in so doing. But as I see it, one’s responsibilities as an activist or politically engaged citizen do not and should not be an excuse to neglect one’s responsibilities as a researcher in one’s chosen field. For me, anthropology was at one time among the most rewarding fields available in the academic world, but today it seems to have lost its way, and become far more routine and predictable, and that’s a shame. The emphasis on field work does in my view have something to do with this decline, and as admirable as field work is, and as rewarding as it can be, I’m afraid the great majority of such projects are no longer particularly relevant, which would explain why the field has been forced on the defensive to such a high degree in recent years.

  9. Hi Victor,
    Thanks for the complement to sociology (I’m a sociologist!). I think you’re right to say that sociology is doing going ethnography–but it is hardly central to the discipline, quantitative methods is. Thus, the only course(s)/ethnographers specifically focused on ethnography left on my campus are in the Anthropology Department. A related issue is that Sociology (qualitative, quantitative, or otherwise) tends to be US American focused–due to disciplinary traditions, Sociology remains more US focused than Anthro is, a problem in my mind at least. I think most US America based sociologists would disagree with me, though.

    As for the politics issue you raise, I think that good Ethnography and political activism may go together sometimes, but not always. As I wrote above, I think that often ethnography is good for its own sake, i.e. as a way to tell a story. I think also that ethnographers can do a good job using film and the written word, and that this should be encouraged.

    As for the focus on the “indigenous” I’m not so sure that this was ever quite as pure as anthropology sometimes seems to claim. After all, ethnography itself is a distinctly academic endeavor which emerges from the modern world. It has done much good in preserving memories of the world before contact with the modern world–but no ethnographer from a modern academic institution has ever talked to anybody who has never had contact with that world. I think that the story of this contact–which is ongoing–is interesting for its own sake, and hope to read many good account on into the future.


  10. How does this issue of the loss of quality anthropologists and academic exploitation relate to issues of racism in anthropology (i.e. its ‘white public space’ issues) and sexual harassment/assault/abuse and gender discrimination (as acknowledged by the AAA’s recent ‘zero tolerance’ statement)?

    Also, and especially in light of the most recent Anthropologies issue on confronting racism, it seems to me that you, Sarah Kendzior, and Kate Clancy et al. are all talking about different facets of a co-constituting problem: abuse and/of power in the academy. How can such abuses ever be eradicated in an institution which is fundamentally about and produced through the valorization of *hierarchy* (a structural logic which makes it nearly impossible not to exploit someone: because the disappearance of the adjunct crisis wouldn’t mean the disappearance of race/gender/color/class discrimination). So what to do? Especially in anthropology.

  11. “We are careful when we write about others to put their words and their views before our own.”

    It is always interesting to me how Anthropology’s PR does not match its actual practice.

    Additionally, what Sarah Kendzior said above about why people believe lies is worth revisiting, and thinking seriously about, especially in relation to the news last week that Berkeley, along with Dartmouth, USC, and Swarthmore, is being sued for creating a hostile climate, ongoing Title IX violations, and covering up campus sexual assaults. So much for ‘zero tolerance for sexual harassment’; and perhaps all is not well in that department, contrary to Paul Rabinow’s claims here, in 2010, in Chris Kelty’s “DDR or Receivership?” post. It all brings full-circle the comments I made( in Ryan’s “Stop the Silence” post) to David Graeber about his apt description of the ‘habits of fear’ the academy inculcates. Habits certainly being discussed by Ryan and Sarah in the interview above. (And let us not forget that self-censorship of academic projects occurs in very patterned, race-and-gender-specific ways. Cue Elizabeth Chin on nonwhite anthropologists studying people of color while whites get to study everyone.)

    I guess unsurprising, then, that my previous question sank like a stone in water.

    We don’t all get to ‘speak truth to power’, even if the speaking is motivated by anthropological desire to make anthropology ‘publicly’ useful and relevant.

    The Anthropoligies article which quotes anthropologist Elizabeth Chin on who gets to study whom and what in anthropology is certainly relevant here. Because, unfortunately, it is just not true *in actual practice* that: “We are careful when we write about others to put their words and their views before our own.” (Especially not in relation to the kind of bullying, harassment, abuse, exploitation and assault that constitutes hostile climate violations that universities would rather cover up than acknowledge is taking place on their campuses.)

    Anthropology’s ‘white public space’ means that some issues of power and inequality, abuse and exploitation, are constantly avoided, ignored, and dismissed–especially when they are raised by those who are seen as both disposable and “meaningless” by virtue of their race/color/gender. There are certainly plenty of instances when anthropologists are more than happy to ‘speak for’ and over others, to tell them to shut up and “leave your ‘privilege’ critique at home”, and to make a point of NOT seeing things from the perspective of those others.

    I additionally think anthropologists need to think about the aforementioned Elizabeth Chin quote in relation to Victor Grauer’s insistence on anthropology studying “indigenous people”. What would such a prescription mean for, say, an anthropological study of everyday practices of white supremacy in the US (and who is seen as authorized to conduct such research in the first place)?

    And lastly, we can never talk about issues of academic precarity and unemployment without talking about race and racial disparities (colorism and gender included). But interesting that this evacuation managed to happen yet again.

    So everything Sarah Kendzior said above about what anthropology should be is spot-on, but we should be more honest about the extent to which these characteristics are aspirational and ideal–not the daily reality of what anthropology actually is in practice.

  12. Apropos of today’s validation of Sarah Kendzior’s ‘privilege’ analysis, by The Atlantic Wire ( it is again worth raising the question of who gets to study whom/what and is seen as authorized to speak in anthropology, and how race/gender/color affect who is seen as “the best minds of [a] generation”.

    When I was making these same points about privilege, employment, social (im)mobility, the academy and journalism, in 2007 (yes, before the global financial crisis), I was literally, as is documented in writing, told to “leave your ‘privilege’ critique at home”, viciously bullied, smeared as a violent ghetto criminal with nothing valid to say–including by the department chair who swept white male graduate students bullying me under the table instead of acknowledging the behavior as the Title IX hostile climate violations that they are, with this same professor making a point of putting in writing that she too saw me as a stupid black woman with nothing worthwhile to contribute to anthropology (or the greater world) who only wrote “meaningless” garbage and not valid race/color/gender/class/privilege analysis.

    So while I am happy to see Sarah Kendzior praised for talking about these issues of privilege, it is also disturbing to see the continued refusal to acknowledge the dynamics which make it possible for some anthropologists to be taken seriously when they raise these issues, while others will literally be told to shut up, stop “whining about your trillion dollar education”, ignored, dismissed, and literally racially terrorized via shocking forms of sociopathic abuse.

  13. @DWP:

    “How can such abuses ever be eradicated in an institution which is fundamentally about and produced through the valorization of *hierarchy* (a structural logic which makes it nearly impossible not to exploit someone: because the disappearance of the adjunct crisis wouldn’t mean the disappearance of race/gender/color/class discrimination). So what to do? Especially in anthropology.”

    Ya, there’s one of the million dollar questions–what can be done? It’s complicated and all that, but honestly I would rather hear more people asking this question rather than talking about branding or marketing and all that. I mean, the whole degree process is based upon the production and maintenance of clear hierarchies, and considering all of the rhetoric coming from many anthros it’s all pretty ridiculous. It’s ridiculous that people buy into these hierarchies and treat people in certain ways based upon credentials, publications, pieces of paper.

    “It is always interesting to me how Anthropology’s PR does not match its actual practice.”

    Ya, we talk a big game but our rhetoric often does not apply within our own academic houses. Huge problem.

    “So everything Sarah Kendzior said above about what anthropology should be is spot-on, but we should be more honest about the extent to which these characteristics are aspirational and ideal–not the daily reality of what anthropology actually is in practice.”

    That’s true–but the aspirational/ideal is what hopefully can drive some people to challenge some of what’s going on, to challenge some of these persistent practices that plague the discipline (granted, this isn’t just a problem in anthro).

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