Rewind and Fast Forward, Part 1

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Michael Agar].

A couple of months ago I was having dinner with an old friend in Seattle. He stopped his fork in mid-flight and looked at me, astonished. “Microsoft hires anthropologists?” “Yes,” I answered, “They fire them too.” He’d just complained about the over-techification of his hometown, worried that the rumors of AliBaba adding to the existing digital mob were true. I had just said that “even anthropologists” were part of the new tech world. He still thought of us as collectors of quaint and curious customs of exotic people. Interesting and entertaining perhaps, but hardly relevant to the brave new digital world.

It made me wonder, again, how to explain what anthropology “is.”  Why did my old friend still see it only in terms of the “savage slot,” Trouillot’s phrase that describes anthropology’s traditional academic assignment.

I do know that anthropology “is” something. It exists. It’s certainly the most self-conscious discipline that I know of, sometimes embarrassingly so at gatherings of diverse professions. It definitely tends to be more tied to the personal identity of its bearer than most professional labels that people use when you ask “what do you do?” Whatever it is, it has strong personal and social force. What is that force?

It’s been a half-century since I took the introductory cultural course at Stanford from Bernie Siegel. I signed up because a retired stockbroker and his wife, living in a restored house among the ruins of their abandoned former hometown in the California hills, asked me a lot of questions and then told me I should take it. I was there working for the State Department of Agriculture, looking for a moth whose eggs ate the leaves of grape vines. Cue Rod Serling for an episode of the old TV show Twilight Zone

A year later, I heard that Alan Beals was about to pack up his family and return for a second year of fieldwork in Gopalpur, a village in Mysore State, now Karnataka. He let me, a junior anthropology major, tag along because I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Much later I asked why he let me go and he said, “I don’t know. You kept showing up.” Just like Woody Allen wrote, that’s what 80% of life is, just showing up. The offer was, I’d work half the time as a research assistant and during the other half he would teach me what this mysterious “fieldwork” was all about.

This was old-time anthropology. I rented a hut, a former shelter for cattle that refused to stop trying to come inside. It was like trying to throw large drunks out of a bar at closing time. I hired a cook, feeling like a colonial sellout, but Obya, the head of the clan, said the roughly translated Kannarese equivalent of “Hire him fer Krissake, he needs the work.” Mukunda—that was his name—quickly became a colleague who could cook. The Human Relations Area Files project had published a codebook—The Outline of Cultural Materials—originally developed by G. P. Murdoch in the 1940s. I started working through the list, everything from cosmology to how to make a plow.

Once the villagers decided that their “secret tax assessor” and “Pakistani spy” suspicions were unfounded, a groove for me developed that we all enjoyed, a mix of entertainer, respectful listener, scribe and medic, and eventually a Peace Corps type job to get a well out of the government. It was a great experience and a sad departure. I’m still sympathetic towards the now disreputable “my village” syndrome. Months of empathy do create emotional attachment.

Now fast-forward a couple of years. I’m a graduate student at Berkeley, figuring a return trip to Karnataka is in my future. But there’s this war going on and I’m ripe for the drafting. I’d heard that the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps occasionally took on an anthropologist at an Indian Health Service hospital. I applied. But, no, kismet threw me a curve. A treatment center for narcotics addicts in Lexington, Kentucky, wanted to start up a “social science” unit. I had no idea what I was in for, but I gratefully accepted a commission and morphed overnight into the equivalent of a first lieutenant charged with doing “anthropology” in a federal institution full of psychiatrists, medical staff, social workers, psychologists, sociologists, security guards, and heroin addicts.

It was 1968, just a couple of years after Karnataka. I had no idea what to do. So, seeking the closest approximation to a village that I could find, I checked into the hospital to be a patient for a couple of weeks. And the clouds parted and the hand of Boas reached down and his fingertip touched mine and gave me anthropological life. I could do the same thing I’d done in the South Indian village. Well, not the identical thing, of course, but the same thing in terms of its fundamentals. I figured that that “same thing” was what anthropology “was.”

In those dark days, though, academic anthropology didn’t agree with my “we are one” conclusion. My first AAA meeting—for anthropology back then first meetings were as emotional as a telenovela—there was one session called “American Culture” that they put me in, me and papers on Scientology, wife-swapping—I know, I know, it was the late 60s—and I forget the fourth. We were a marginal exotic event within the gathering of specialists in the exotic. The rumor I heard later at Berkeley was that the only reason some faculty were comfortable giving me a PhD for a dissertation about heroin addicts was because I had, after all, worked in a South Indian village. When I took my first job in an academic anthropology department, new PhD in hand, a couple of old-timers told me what I’d done wasn’t anthropology at all.

Only the fact that I had found one of the few sane faculty advisers of the time, Paul Kay, saved me. In fact, shortly after I arrived at Lexington I called Paul and he asked, “What do they want you to do?” “Anthropology,” I answered. “So,” he replied, “write your dissertation.” Paul didn’t care what you worked on, as long as it had something to do with linguistic anthropology. What he cared about was that you did a good job and he gave generously of his time to help out. All grad students should be so lucky.

I knew from my experience working at the treatment center that the skeptics were inside a box they couldn’t see the walls of. Now, of course, the kind of thing I did in Lexington isn’t unusual at all. But back then, in my formative anthro years, it was beyond strange to most colleagues. And it was strange, really, I agree, because in Lexington most of my ideas about what I did took shape working with people who were not anthropologists, people whose image of us, to the extent they knew what we were at all, was of an unruly mob of savage slot, story-telling, pseudo-scientists. And Lexington was confusing in another way. It meant that most ethnographic colleagues I did find came out of sociology, out of a tradition of German phenomenology that we shared, and some other key figures, like Gregory Bateson for me, George Herbert Mead for them, that we didn’t. At least they said “ethnography” now and then, too.

When Savage Minds thought it might be useful to invite this old-timer to write a few blogs over a two-week period about how he saw anthropology today, I was honored and interested. One thing I enjoy is being an oral history informant for anthropology students, not to teach anyone how to do anything, but rather to show how what we do has a story behind it. The invitation fit the personal agenda. It made me think back to the beginning, the stories I started this blog with, to the strange career that kismet handed me with the shift from a South Indian village to a U.S. treatment center for narcotics addicts. After all these years, what do I think anthropology “is?  Is there a “there” there, to twist Gertrude Stein’s words about Oakland? Lately I think there is, and I think the answer to what the “there” is sits inside the story of whatever made it so easy to switch from a village to an addict hospital.

In the next installment, I want to write a little about the first question I asked in both places, a question I’ve continued asking in every project I’ve worked on, whether it was an elaborate research grant or a one hour consultation. I think it’s a question that anthropologists ask automatically, more than most other people, professional or amateur, who approach a group they aren’t a regular part of. Or even a group they are a part of, if they’re particularly masochistic. The highly technical question is, who are the people we’re talking about and what do they do all day? Not who you think they are and what you think they do. Outsider’s opinions are guilty until proven innocent, including one’s own. How do we learn the answers in a way where “they”—the people the question is about—participate in crafting them?

In posts to come, I’ll offer concepts whose ambiguities have a respectable intellectual pedigree—like Weberian ideal types, Wittgenstein’s family resemblance, a little of Zadeh’s fuzzy sets. For those who don’t recognize that peculiar mix of dated references, the mishigoss—a technical term from ontology—will come clear with time. I’ll start out in the next blog with a peculiar concept—not so much to linguistic anthropologists—of “task communicative competence.” Once it’s unpacked a little, I think most anthropologists will agree that it’s our first instinct, by birth or by training or by both, as soon as we aim our minds at a group we want to learn about.

The “task” in “task communicative competence” is a little strange. I use it for two reasons. First of all, traditional terms like “group” or “community” or “culture” have lost their edges in our globally-connected, post-structural world. More fine-grained concepts like “situation” or “event” ring too flat to signal their dynamics. Second, I’ve worked as an academic, an applied, and a practicing anthropologist. Historically those three categories are surrounded by moats filled with snark. If I think of “task” as the minimal focus, I can link what I do under any of those labels as related, something I’ll develop in the fifth and final blog in this series. “Task” will simply name those bounded stretches of activity where people do things together for some purpose.

A “task,” then, is a minimal unit of purposive social action. A study or a project might include a narrow set or a broad range of them that encompasses most of life. The point is that “task” lets me talk about anthropology – whether academic, applied or practiced – as sharing some fundamentals and, having done all three myself, I believe that the fundamentals link our past with our present, erase the outdated arguments about academic versus applied versus practice, and pull the alienated “four fields” of my graduate school days back into a coherent package.

Just one more thing, speaking of four fields. The blogs to come will reflect my background as a sociocultural type who focuses on language. But in today’s anthropology I believe that most of what I write in this series applies to how my colleagues think in archaeology and biocultural fields as well. Lately, my work on water in the Southwest shows this clearly, everything from Chaco Canyon irrigation to biologically grounded articles about water quality like “Fish on Prozac” are relevant. The old days when we divided anthro into bones and stones and words and customs are gone. I won’t have time to fully develop that last theme in these blogs, but I think all of us anthropologists wonder, in a fundamental way, about actual tasks and the people doing them, and that’s what these blogs will be about.

Promises, promises. On to blog #2.

Michael Agar

Mike Agar worked for decades professing, applying, and practicing anthropology, usually spicing it up with other disciplinary and professional ingredients as well. Savage Minds invited him to look back and think forward to see if he had any idea now of what anthropology is actually about. The five guest blogs over the first two weeks of November are a start at one possible answer. More info on him and his checkered past on his Ethknoworks home page at

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