Rewind and Fast Forward, Part 5

I’m grateful to the many savage minds for making room for Rewind and Fast Forward. Our deal was two weeks as a guest blogger and four to five blogs. My assignment was to say what I thought anthropology is today, and I decided to anchor the assignment  in the long-ago unexpected shift from a South Indian village to a U.S. drug treatment center. The best review would be if the concepts I’ve described put words to what looks obvious to an anthropological reader, but words that at the same time look reasonable to anyone, even someone who gets acid reflux whenever they hear someone say “social science.”  So now here comes Part 5, the last picture show.

As I look at the Savage Minds page right before I upload this final blog, it strikes me how many contemporary political issues animate it at the moment. As a veteran of anthropology in the 60s and 70s and a lifelong anti-war-on-drugs activist, I’m tempted to change course and make some general comments about anthropology, ideology and activism from my experience–the good and the bad–and, more to the point, what the fundamentals I’ve talked about in these blogs have to do with them. But I think it best if I stay with the original plan and write about the different wings of anthropology and how they all belong on the same bird, at least as far as on the ground professional perspective goes. First, though, a summary of the previous blogs:

After setting up the village/treatment center plot device in the first blog, the second described one part of an anthropological perspective that stayed constant across the change, namely, acquiring communicative competence in the tasks that people do. The third blog added another part, modeling the competence by crafting patterns that showed how something of interest connected up with other things of interest, both inside and outside the task. And the fourth blog added one more part that didn’t change, go with the emergent flow rather than forcing what you learn into structures that you started out with, be they professional or personal. Emergence worked across the change, but it also foregrounded a difference between a research setting that was part of traditional anthropology and another that was most decidedly not. In the end, I think these three fundamentals are parts of a perspective that anthropologists use, whatever their specialty, whatever kind of work they do. I stopped with just those three, a common Western structure for discourse, because of Savage Minds limits and personal fuel capacity.

As I’ve mentioned several times, there are still more fundamentals that carried across the transition from village to treatment center. For example, I drafted–but then didn’t use–a blog on how we mix universals and particulars in the statements we make. Universals, I think, are where the most important anthropological theory lies, in spite of the fact that we were taught to focus on differences. And then there’s the issue of self-reference, how we consider ourselves part of the “data,” or better said, how “data” is a joint construction built over time by us and the people in the task we’re interested in. Arguments about “objective” versus “subjective” lose their edge when everyone is a subject. It is an “intersubjective” science. And recently, I’ve written about abduction and context/meaning questions in the research process that an anthropological perspective initiates, but I’ve been after “perspective” in these blogs rather than “method” so that got left out as well. You can see more of that in my 2013 book The Lively Science: Remodeling Human Social Research, rated G and suitable for birthdays and weddings.

I’d like to end the series by revisiting something I advertised at the beginning and mentioned again here and there, how this version of an anthropological perspective helps dissolve some distinctions that get in the way of 21st century anthropology. Actually, they got in the way of 20th century anthropology quite a bit as well. The simple concept of “task” helps us see why those old battle lines shouldn’t matter.

One more rewind, then, back to the village and the treatment center. Both of them were clearly full-scale ethnographies, the first as traditional as they come, the second, weird back then but normal now. But, full-blown academic ethnographic research no longer describes what most anthropologists do today. In fact many—including me since I left the university—do things as anthropologists that are not research in any traditional academic sense at all. Recall the earlier examples of the cancer clinic and the museum.

Here’s the tradition: Anthropology used two terms to name what we do and whom we do it with. What we do is “ethnography.” That’s the research and the book we write. And who we do it with is a “culture.” That’s the boundary we draw around the human social territory that we mean to generalize to. Both terms register very high on the contentious scale these days—both inside and outside of anthropology—with good reason, what with the general “qualitative” explosion and the widespread use of “culture” in our blurry global era.

The Indian village was a classic fit with the historical template. Life in an isolated small community asking about, observing and participating in most everything that villagers did over a lengthy period. And the goal, a description of village culture, the assumption being that what I learned generalized, described and explained pretty much everything that the villagers believed and did.

Lexington was an ethnography as well, though different from the classic model. It’s clear why the treatment center looked weird to the anthropology of the times, and to me as well when I started. The community wasn’t isolated nor was the population stable or small. People were addicts but that’s not all that they were, and they came from all over the country. They were in a “normal” context for addicts—a total institution—but not on the street, another important “normal” context in their lives. Still, at its core, it was an ethnography.

But addict “culture?” Don’t be ridiculous, said more critics than I can remember. I grounded the claim in the observation that there were some things an addict at Lexington could say about who they were and what they did that most any other addict in the joint would understand, even if they had never met before. On the other hand, most any newly arrived staff member wouldn’t know what in the world they were talking about. It was as close to a perfect correlation as any statistician’s late night fantasy. What was that difference in task based communicative competence? Why not call it a “cultural” difference?

Nowadays, most anthropologists aren’t employed in traditional academic anthropology departments and most–I’m guessing here–do not do prolonged ethnographic work. But in spite of that major difference, the work we all do is shaped by the same “anthropological perspective,” that mysterious phrase that we chanted in the university back in the day but never unpacked in a critical way. That perspective, so goes the argument here, is the “same thing” that threads through my checkered traditional past into my elderly project-oriented present. Anthropology, by this argument, isn’t a particular theory or method or kind of data. It’s a particular point of view on the human situation with implications for how to learn about it, explain it, and act in it.

The reason I wanted to use “task” as a core concept is that it helps climb out of this maze. It is a simple, easily understood name for a dynamic bounded unit of purposive social action. It can expand or contract in coverage, and the fact that its participants communicate in ways opaque to a newcomer means it is cultural. An anthropological perspective can be applied to a single task or to a massively complicated network of them. In the case of the village, the network was dense and it clustered with a clear boundary. In some of my recent projects, the network is much more diffuse and impossible to bound, a particular task in focus being one node in a lot of different non-overlapping task networks that participants bring to it. Recall the patients in the crowded waiting room at the cancer clinic? Their main task in common—the focus of the project—was the need to get their treatment “cocktail.”

And culture? A concept even more contentious and more widely dispersed outside of anthropology than ethnography is. Whether we use terms like “poststructural” and “postcolonial,” or use network notions like “global component,” or recite the litany of “war, migration, neoliberalism, globalization,” we know that calling a specific group and its members a culture is like nailing the proverbial jello to the wall. No single culture concept can generalize any person or group like we thought it could with small isolated communities. My old undergraduate teacher Roy D’Andrade supposedly said that studying culture today is like studying snow in the middle of an avalanche. The task concept helps here as well, because communicative competence implies the background understandings and pragmatic abilities to participate in concert with others with reference to particular tasks. “Task pattern” anchors a partial but relevant culture concept.

The moral of the story?  An anthropological perspective can be implemented in many different ways. That, I think, is the major difference between the old days and now, because in the old days there was only one way of doing cultural anthropology, based on a traditional academic research model called “ethnography” and a single cohesive and coherent pattern-based conclusion called “culture.”  But to argue that this single use of the more general perspective is the only possible one is wrong and short-sighted—fossilized “academocentrism” you could call it.

Tasks can also be described according to the kind of engagement an anthropologist had with the ones in focus, however narrow or broad that focus might have been. Did they already know about them from prior experience? Did they actually do them? Or did they visit with participants in their task context while they did them? Did they gather narratives of those tasks, but in contexts other than the tasks themselves? Or did they access tasks via secondary material, like films, written work, or documents from various archives? Or all of those things, or something else?  Same task focus, but different kinds of information about them to challenge and change an outsider’s task communicative competence.

Those are useful questions to ask of any application of an anthropological perspective. What is the task network in focus and what kind of boundary does it have? What was the engagement of the anthropologist with the tasks relevant to a project? The question isn’t the old, “Is this a real ethnography?” It’s hard to tell what is anymore, if the old-fashioned model is the standard. The question changes to, what configuration of tasks were focused on and how were they engaged? That’s the information I would want to evaluate an instantiation of an anthropological perspective, be it a five-year research grant in the Peruvian Andes or a one-week problem-solving project in a clinic. It’s also the guideline I learned to use when deciding whether to take on a project or not. How elaborate was the task network and what kinds of engagement were possible? Could I structure an engagement to do the job or not? I had to figure this out on my own. Academic training provided no guidelines. I learned to turn down jobs once I left the classroom for the meeting room.

“Task communicative competence” and “pattern” and “emergence” cover a wide range of applications of an anthropological perspective, from the traditional to the never before imagined. Once I jettisoned the traditional academic model of “ethnography” and “culture” as the only legitimate versions of the perspective, I could better understand that early transition from village to treatment center, as well as the way that I have used the perspective from the old days in many projects since then, especially since leaving the university in the mid-1990s.

Even after rounding up all the usual hedges, most of this blog series I’m happy with, at least for now. The part I’m unsure of is, does an anthropological perspective as I’ve described it here only come with a graduate degree from an anthropology department, now, in 2015? Other academic and professional fields, still growing in number, have developed their own versions. Part of sociology has its own history, as long as anthropology’s. Newer subfields of disciplines like Speech Communication and Political Science and Public Health and Business and Design and many more have also joined the parade, some quite a while ago. Traditional concepts like “ethnography” and “culture” are not our exclusive property anymore and anthropological perspective type projects are done under other names.

But then last year I gave an invited talk to an anthropology department. They wanted an outsider’s view on how to integrate the academic tradition with applied and practice. I used the metaphor of a skyrocket. Anthropology shot up through time for a good long while, a century or so, like a skyrocket with a trail of light that stayed fairly well formed and coherent. Then, not so long ago, it exploded out into many lights of different colors. Applied, formerly marginal, moved to the center. Practice appeared and grew dramatically. Anthropology blurred together with other disciplines and professions and popular interests. Who knows what anthropology–or any other historical discipline–“is” in a world like this, especially when it’s all about “becoming” something different than it has ever been before rather than “maintaining” a single version of what it used to be.

Here’s one thing I do know that I learned from giving that talk. An anthropological perspective, the parts of it I’ve described in this series of blogs? I learned them by riding–and doing in the village–that hundred year old tradition when the skyrocket was shooting through time with a coherent trail of light. That’s where I learned the fundamentals. That much is clear to me. So is the fact that those fundamentals are at the heart of how I work, even when my project badge says things as different as epidemiologist, computer modeler, organizational developer, drug expert, intercultural communicator, qualitative researcher, computational linguist, or any number of other things that I’ve been called, some of them unprintable. Whatever the name tag says, I’m always using those fundamentals in an instinctive and intuitive way.

Something about the slow cooking of our historically marginal discipline is where those fundamentals marinated and developed their flavor.  Perhaps we are like a previously maladapted species whose time has come because of dramatic and sudden changes in the environment. I really believe that, especially based on my self-employed life since the mid 1990s. But I also believe, to continue the biological metaphor, that interbreeding, or mind-melding if you’re a Trekkie, is going on at an increasing rate. It throws up massive issues for—and receives resistance from—the 20th century institutional networks of traditional disciplines. It is also, in my view, where the exciting intellectual and practical action is today.

The problem is, the fundamentals, in my case, came out of a world of knowledge and practice from a long time ago. And they first took shape with an early ethnographic experience that was right out of the old-fashioned model, an Anglo European or American living for an extended period of time in an isolated poor small community that was not in the U.S. or Europe, the research on indigenous people in the U.S. being an exception in terms of location. Does that mean I’m arguing that we have to go back to the way things were when I started out to learn the fundamentals? That the only way to learn them is to learn them like I did? No, that would be ridiculous. Why when I was a boy, you couldn’t get a PhD until you’d had at least one life threatening disease … you know the routine.

I learned the fundamentals in a different world, but they still seem to work in the one I work in today. Younger colleagues and students have learned them in other ways. I base that guess on many conversations with them in recent years, the majority of them not working or aiming to work in traditional academic anthropology departments.  It looks to me like teachers are still teaching a perspective in ways that bring those fundamentals out of the past and carry them into the present, some better than others to be sure, and some still living only in the past, but the trend is there as I see it. They’re still part of what you learn when you learn anthropology, then and now.

But then another question: Is anthropology the only place where you get those fundamentals today? Do they define a contemporary disciplinary boundary? I believe us to be in a post- or trans-disciplinary era, and I’ve worked with colleagues from all over the map of both town and gown. It’s not frequent, but it’s not rare either, to find among them people who look at things in terms of the same fundamentals. Morrie Freilich edited a great book a long time ago, Marginal Natives, to show how traditional anthropologists’ “key informants” were often natural ethnographers.  I think it’s fair to say that anthropology has the longest history with the fundamentals I’ve described and it probably hammers them home with more iterations and a higher variety of materials than anyone else. And, in recent projects, it still surprises me how something out of ANTH101 is reacted to as a novel way of looking at a problem by people without that training.

Maybe the best provisional conclusion is this: The perspective is a valuable lesson from history to be carried into the present in multiple ways, by anyone who gets it, however they got it. Most of the “getting,” in this post- or trans-disciplinary day and age, will involve creolization with other perspectives. I experienced some of those blends early on with that shift from the village to the joint. But I also know that recent meetings, especially the applied anthropology gatherings, show a surge of younger anthropologists who are making blends for post-disciplinary work in multiple ways that still include the fundamentals I’m talking about here. I guess I feel, like Roy D’Andrade supposedly said about culture, that I’m trying to figure out snow in the middle of an avalanche here. So what the hell, maybe I’ll just shift from Roy to Shawn Colvin and sing about “riding shotgun down the avalanche.”

Age gradually overrides most other identity issues and therefore diminishes the number and frequency of existential crises. I know what I’m doing and  still enjoy doing it. Whatever it is, it relies on an anthropological perspective as I’ve described it here. It doesn’t matter to me personally anymore what you call it, unless a name helps leverage into a particular historical moment that I want to participate in. After I shifted to Lexington I was asked by colleagues all the time, “Is that really anthropology?”  So I quit caring what anthropology “was.”

Now though, especially with changes in anthropology and changes in the times and changes in the work I do, I’ve realized that–damn the early critics, full speed ahead–everything I do in my professional life is fundamentally anthropological, at least in part, as I’ve described it here, as I learned it as part of my biography. Writing these blogs made it even more clear and convinced me that a hypothesis–hypothesis? Good lord, what am I thinking?–is warranted that fundamentals like those I’ve described endure in many different forms, certainly in anthropology, but not only there, and that they currently serve as fuel for change in an increasing number of other places as well.

In the end,  I just kept doing the same fundamental thing with its roots in the history of anthropology along the very interesting road that I’ve been privileged to travel.  As the old cliché of my youth goes—an Internet source claims it was first in print in 1848, interestingly enough the year The Communist Manifesto was published—”call me anything, just don’t call me late for dinner.”

It’s been  a great pleasure and a lot of work writing these blogs. There’s much more to talk over and a lot more to do. Many thanks to the particular savage minds who created and now run this thing for inviting me as a guest. As older Nuevomexicanos sometimes say in local Spanish, ay te watcho. “I’ll see you later.” See, in the end I, an outsider, still have to prove I’ve learned something about local practices. Guess what I majored in?



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

2 thoughts on “Rewind and Fast Forward, Part 5

  1. Thank you for this series of posts. The way you worked through the concept of task has been very helpful. I also see patterns and emergence throughout my anthropological work, sometimes too much to my own detriment. However, what is more important is how you have connected all these ideas through personal stories and projects as well as written about them in an enjoyable and easily digestible manner. I only wish I could write/talk about such complexity so that people from outside anthropology could gain such insight into my own work. You are absolutely right that many others outside anthropology are drawing from our earlier work. The more obscure, obstinate and occult-like (the three o’s if you will!) anthropology becomes, the less relevant we become to those other fields and the less likely we are to make a difference beyond the ivory towers. Good luck in all your endeavors. Looking forward to reading more of your work!

  2. Thanks Eddie. Yeah, I think one of the best things that happened because of the surprising shift to the addiction treatment center was that I had to learn to talk about what we do in ordinary language. Or, when a piece of jargon was useful, I had to approach it in ordinary language to show why it helped see something clearly and saved a lot of time. Early on I used a term from one of my heroes, Bateson, and said “schismogenesis.” Everyone laughed. I still like the concept but I got the message.

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