Why you shouldn’t take Peter Wood (or Anthropology News) seriously

In this piece I would like to explain, in detail, why I think Peter Wood’s recent piece in Anthropology News is fundamentally misguided. For a lot of readers, there will be no point in my doing so — they will just write Wood off as ‘racist’ and move on. I’m, shall we say, extremely sympathetic to this point of view. But I do think that Wood’s piece deserves some scrutiny to explain why so many people find it so misguided.

In his piece, Wood takes issue with four essays in Anthropology News responding to the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent reaction in Ferguson. Wood  argues that the essays are “a retelling of… the left’s canonical myth of Ferguson: facts submerged in a sea of fiction”. He goes on to argue that these authors’ accounts of Ferguson ignore “the record of events established by the grand jury”. He claims that the concepts of “structural violence” and “structural inequality” used in the essays are “intellectually lazy simplifications of complex social circumstances” which “remove all moral and social responsibility from the actors who are portrayed as victims”. In doing so, he claims, anthropology “erases the motives of key participants and reduces them to objects acted on by invidious external forces”. In the end, Wood claims, it is a “just-so story that America is a nation run by privileged whites determined to maintain their privilege.” In  fact, he says, “this is, quite plainly, a myth. There is nothing in the realm of fact to support it.”

These are amazing claims, and it is difficult to understand how Wood can make them in the face of an overwhelming body of evidence that proves exactly the opposite of what he claims. Wood is clearly not stupid. Charitable readers will assume that he is not evil. The nicest interpretation of Wood’s position, therefore, is that he is simply ignorant.

Throughout this piece, Wood adopts the tone of a judicious, impartial scientist fighting against tendentious, politically motivated science. Given this fact, it’s incredible that Wood offers absolutely no evidence to convince the reader why he is right. Nor does he engage in any scrutiny of the logic or evidence used by his opponents. Perhaps the only thing more distressing than Wood’s refusal to engage empirically — in the name of science! — is Anthropology News’s decision to run this piece in the first place.

Nevertheless, as I hope to show in this piece, it is Wood’s argument, not that of his opponent, that is unsubstantiated by the facts. No American should accept the findings and proceedings of the Ferguson grand jury at face value. Structural inequality does exist in the United States as does racism, which ranges in form from unconscious and systematic to reflexive attempts by whites to maintain their privilege. That idea that humans are caused by external forces, rather than their own volition, challenges accounts of liberal responsibility that assign moral value to the decision of an individual to act. But this does not mean that accounts of structural causation reduce people to puppets — rather, it indicates that there is something profoundly tragic about liberalism. And while all people’s agency is, to be sure, one of degree, if anyone in America could claim to be living structurally determined lives, black Americans surely have one of the best cases to make.  As Americans who believe in freedom of opportunity, we ought to ameliorate these conditions because they reduce human freedom. As a distinctly American anthropological association, it is right and proper that our professional association take a moral stand on these issues. Or so I hope to prove.

I would say that the grand jury proceedings against Wilson will go down in history as a spectacular miscarriage of justice, except that this is how they are presently perceived by most reasonable people. By now many people are familiar with the fact that a key witness in the grand jury perjured herself and that even by the standards of conservative jurisprudence the grand jury proceedings were fatally flawed. There are good — even overwhelming — reasons not to take the grand jury proceedings at accurate, as Wood does.

It’s also difficult to ignore, as Wood seeks to do, structural inequality — by which I mean inequality that is the result of the relation and arrangement of the elements of the complex whole that is our society. Both in the past and the present, blacks have historically been poorer than any other ethnoracial group in the country. There are many reasons for this: ‘discrimination in contact’ (people acting like racists when the meet black people), residential segregation, decreased economic opportunity, deindustrialization, the deunionization of the American workforce, and so forth. Some of the reasons listed above are not just the result of structural forces but of conscious white choice, such as the re-segregation of American schools including those in Ferguson.

If people really need me to I’m happy to provide quantitative data from, say, the census, which documents these facts. But for anthropologists like Wood, it is even more important to remember that there is a rich ethnographic literature documenting black peoples’ lives, ranging from contemporary accounts like Goffman’s On The Run or Laurence’s Renegade Dreams to oldies like Powdermaker’s After Freedomand well-known classics like Black MetropolisAnd that’s just the anthropologists. For more you can google sociologists like Elijah Anderson, Mitch Duneier, Katherine Newman, Sudhir Venkatesh, and many others.

All of these books provide exactly the sort of rich nuanced accounts of human lifeworlds that Wood argues that we need. No one who has taken the time to read them could possible argue that anthropology erases the motives of human actors or reduces there actions to the automatic working out of a system. This is why I say that Wood’s position must be based on ignorance — I don’t think anyone who has looked into these issues can really come away claiming that structural inequality doesn’t exist.

This is one of these cases in which, as Colbert quipped, “reality has a liberal bias.” I’m not sure, but I also think that this is one reason why most people who study inequality tend to be from the left — exposure to the facts tend to turn people into lefties. I am not trying to stigmatize Wood here. I honestly think most people who maintain that widespread racism and inequality doesn’t exist simply have not looked into the matter. You certainly don’t find them publishing on it. If I’m wrong about this, I’m sure someone will let me know.

There is nothing sloppy or lazy about the concept of structural determination. From its very beginning in America, England, and France, Anthropology has focused on the fact that human behavior is shaped by forces that are larger than the individual will. When you argue that these forces do not exist you are not only taking issue with Angela Davis, you are taking issue with Radcliffe-Brown. To argue, as Wood does, that the concept of structural causation is a ‘simplification’ is to make a bug out of a feature — the appeal of scientific modeling is precisely to reduce a manifold of complex experience to a single, elegant model which explains and predicts it.

Of course, not everyone’s goal in life is to build general models of social behavior — the Boasian historicist tradition was founded in opposition to the generalizing ambitions of, say, physics. That’s why it’s so strange to see Wood argue that the concept of structural violence simplifies complex histories. Rather, the opposite is true: Advocates of the concept of structural violence use it to insist on more nuanced, more contextualized, more historical, and more holistic accounts of human life. This, for instance, is the position that Paul Farmer argues for in his article “The Anthropology of Structural Violence”.

Indeed, one common criticism of the concept of ‘structural violence’ is that it is not generalizing enough. Wood may be surprised, therefore, to find himself allied against Farmer with the likes of Phillippe Bourgois and Nancy Scheper-Hughes. In the article I cited above, they write that  “academic categories can obfuscate as much as they elucidate, but in support of Farmers call for an ethnography of structural violence, it is important to broaden the concept.” This language may sound mild, but keep in mind that this is how famous anthropologists nicely disagree with other famous anthropologists.

Other commenters on Farmer’s paper are less polite. Linda Green writes that “Framers [sic] critique of the resistance literature is salient, but I think he does not take it far enough… To be analytically and political useful, the concept of structural violence must be able to capture the heterogeneity, the complexity, and the contradictions of the lives of the poor and disenfranchised.” Loic Wacquant writes that “structural violence may be strategically useful as a rhetorical tool, but it appears conceptually limited and limiting, even crippling. One can adopt a deeply materialist approach to the anthropology of suffering without resorting to a notion that threatens to stop inquiry just where it should begin, that is, with distinguishing various species of violence and different structures of domination so as to trace the changing links between violence and difference rather than merging them into one catchall category liable to generate more moral heat than analytical light.”

Wood is actually aligned with, not against, major voices in our discipline when they argue that it is merely a call for more detail. The difference is that Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Loic Wacquant feel that the concept of structural violence does not do enough to parse the reality of structural inequality, while Wood refuses to believe that this inequality exists in the first place. Have we solved the antimony of structure and agency that has dogged social theory for centuries? No. Are we getting closer? Yes.

Ultimately, Wood’s refusal to discuss his own, positive explanatory account of the events in Ferguson leave us wondering why it is he thinks that poverty in America takes the shape it does. Perhaps he feels that black people are poor because they are genetically evolved to be stupid. I would prefer not speculate, but it does seem at times that the whole unstated point of his article is “no one is willing to stand up and say these rioting black people are a bunch of criminals”.

What is most distressing to me is the obvious scorn that Wood has for people who study inequality, and who seek to make our country a more equal place. Surely he is in a minority here. Americans want a more just and equitable country. We believe that people should get a fair shot in life to see what they can make of themselves.

But it is important to recognize that the American Anthropological Association takes a stand on these issues precisely because it is the American Anthropological Association. It’s a topic of research for American anthropologists because it is a topic that matters to Americans. Of course we differ about what, concretely, that means. Whether ‘fairness’ means ‘less laws to enable individual freedom’ or ‘more laws to level the playing field’ in something we can argue about.

Perhaps Wood would find he has more in common with other anthropologists from more hierarchical countries than he has with his American compatriots — at times it almost sounds as if Wood’s goal is to justify inequality rather than ameliorate it. More likely, he has confused the aspiration to make our country a fairer place with the empirical diagnosis that it is already fair, and that those who come up with the short straw in life must deserve it. The problem with this sort of thinking is hat you end up making the facts fit your hypothesis. And that is a model of poor science.

I don’t think that every anthropologist should be an activist — I’m not an activist. I don’t think we should all study racism and inequality — I don’t. My point is that caring about structural violence and racism is not activism. It’s a normative commitment that all anthropologists working in our country should think is important. Recognizing that structural violence and racism exist is not a political stance, it’s recognition of the truth. There will always be in our association who don’t hold to these fundamental values — Wood is certainly one of them — and of course we welcome them and invite them to try to change our minds. What else would one expect from an American Anthropological association? And we hope that as he learns more about these topics we can convince him that structural inequality exists. Hope springs eternal.

But at the end of the day there should be no doubt that Buck, Gregory, Codrington, Brassard, and Partis are at the center of American anthropology for a good reason. And contra Anthropology News, we should not seek ‘balance’ if the only way to get it is to post articles like the one written by Peter Wood.






Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

10 thoughts on “Why you shouldn’t take Peter Wood (or Anthropology News) seriously

  1. Thank you for writing about it. I hope we will see several more articles across public anthro responding to his ignorant claims, and that this incident will result in the voices of more Black and POC anthropologists at the front of our discussions of race, racism, and police violence in anthropology. The response I’ve heard from Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter activists is “What do you expect, it’s anthropology.” My perspective has been the opposite, that Wood is attacking anthropology, attacking our approach to studying inequality and race. But it’s also important that we acknowledge the persistence of white supremacy in anthropology, and all of the academy. This may be a very good time to bring Wood’s opinion piece into the classroom, have students read it alongside some of the work he critiques and ask them to write about what’s wrong with it. My first impression was the Anthro 101 students I know would easily be able to tear it apart. Wood is making, essentially, the same argument that we’ve been seeing from ignorant and racist trolls online for the past few months. In part this is what’s so disheartening about the publication of this nonsense, it’s not a novel or unique argument it’s the reaction that the movement has been getting from the beginning ‘but dressed up.’ Usually those trolls haven’t had their argument legitimated by anything more than Fox News like outlets, but now Wood has dressed up that argument and Anthropology News gave him ‘somewhere to go’ with it.

  2. Leaving aside the mild contradiction of arguing seriously and in detail about not taking Wood or AN seriously…

    The idea that the grand jury verdict is a dispositive vote against racism being a factor is legally and epistemologically absurd: a grand jury needs a super-majority to indict (and its members are barred from speaking individually afterwards about the experience) so it’s entirely possible that a majority of the grand jury DID believe that racism was a factor, that Michael Brown’s death was a homicide of some sort.

    Legal proceedings are a very weak form of evidentiary evaluation.

  3. I wonder who he was writing for, originally? He seems to take for granted that the reader will find the quoted material as absurd as he does, and he doesn’t seem to feel the need to provide supporting evidence for his claim that structural inequality is insignificant and white privilege doesn’t exist. Was this an essay originally intended for a more select, right-wing audience before AN picked it up for “balance”?

  4. Reposted from Anthropology Now’s comment section

    Peter Woods’s piece in Anthropology Now is completely predictable given the organization that he heads. The National Association of Scholars is a right-wing think tank opposed to “multiculturalism” and the like. It is funded by conservative foundations. Mr Woods is entitled to an opinion, but that is all he has provided. There is no real analysis or engagement with the facts except insofar as he annoints the grand jury testimony as “factual”. This, as anyone familiar with the criminal justice system knows, would seem to be a little naive at best. Anthropology Now may have done us some service by making our younger members aware of this organization and the worldview it promotes, but it has done very little to contextualize this ethnographic example of mainstream hate speech masquerading as “scholarship”.

    and also:

    A few bits of biography might also be helpful: Woods was tenured at Boston University, an associate provost and chief of president’s staff there -possibly under Silber, or else his protogé, Robert Brown (his bio at the NAS website is not clear on this) and a provost at The King’s College, a conservative, private, Christian, liberal arts school in New York City from 2005-7.

    What struck me about Woods’ peice is that it resonates very clearly with a particular style of internet troll that I have had the “pleasure” of reading over the years. This excellent background piece gives some insight into the mindset: http://boingboing.net/2015/01/28/a-beginners-guide-to-the-red.html

  5. Thank you for writing this piece, and as others have already said in the comments, it is important to address how Peter Wood got reprinted in Anthropology News. However, your depiction of Wood (“Wood is clearly not stupid. Charitable readers will assume that he is not evil. The nicest interpretation of Wood’s position, therefore, is that he is simply ignorant”) seems to me naive (deliberately naive?)

    I won’t link to this stuff, but Wood has made his career on similar assertions, claims that academia in general is a leftist cabal and that anthropology in particular is the worst of the bunch. His 2003 article “Sex & Consequences” in the American Conservative was a claim that anthropological research supported bans on gay marriage and “traditional family values.” His book titled “Diversity: The Invention of a Concept” (2004) was basically an attack on affirmative action. His stint as a blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Education was basically a riff on the leftist-academy routine, and his own National Association of Scholars an attempt to push his agenda. As far as I can tell, “Minding the Campus” is simply an allied organ of his NAS, and AN has also naively fallen for the ploy that this essay once may have been “published” in a legitimate venue–a tactic that he honed in the circular blogosphere in which CHE pieces could be used for NAS and vice-versa.

    In other words, please do not be a “charitable reader.” Wood has been doing political hatchet work for at least a decade, if not longer.

  6. I agree with Jason. There is a lot of money to be made in right wing “academia”. If you ever want to know who is deliberately lying, just find out how much they are getting paid and if there is financial incentive to state what they are stating.

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