The title of this post is meant to provoke. Or so I hoped, when I first thought of it one night as I was cooking (a very thought-inspiring activity, I must say). I was replaying a conversation in my head that I had with a visual anthropologist from Macau, who was trained in Berlin. Our conversation traced the postcolonial critique of anthropology, as well as difficulties of translating anthropological works for the public. The reason he calls himself a ‘visual anthropologist,’ he said with a laugh, is because the term gives him legitimacy in academic circles (he also gets invited to screen his films at various festivals). I think that, perhaps, doing so gives him room to be more eclectic than what a category would allow.
I wondered: why, when, and how do we call ourselves anthropologists? Of course, there are academic conventions, and institutional structures. But there’s also a sense of belonging to a professional community, a global tribe, if one is pushing the cliché. In undergraduate and graduate programs, we’re initiated into the history of the discipline, into understanding seminal moments (Writing Culture is still fresh in my mind from a course from last year), as well as into the ‘field.’ We are privy to the workings of the discipline; we see how our peers, teachers and institutions (the AAA, for instance) have responded to political questions like institutional boycotts, or Black Lives Matter (not to mention scandals within anthropology – the Yanomamo being another ‘seminal’ moment in pedagogy).
Yet, we are asked, perhaps more so than any other discipline, what anthropology’s relevance to the world is? Very often, it is a question asked in classrooms – both, by students new to anthropology and by those who’ve been here for a while. I do note a crucial difference between asking, ‘How can we be relevant?’ and ‘Are we relevant?’ Both, of course, operate in a similar rhetorical level. But the latter can be particularly challenging.
Can we, as the title of this post insinuates, describe a privileged professional community such as anthropologists as subalterns?
Not in the literal or scholarly sense, of course. And that sort of comparison was not my intention in the first place.
I use the term ‘subaltern’ more metaphorically (and, not to mention, with a heavy dose of irony), to evoke a relationship of power within which we can find ourselves. It is inspired by my (attempted) reading(s) of Spivak, and J. Maggio’s inversion of her question, i.e., ‘Can the subaltern be heard?’ instead of ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ But that’s just the background – and I really wish to avoid a theoretical argument here!
If we do imagine anthropologists as subalterns, then it would be in relation to how we ‘lose out’ to other disciplines like economics, political science or even sociology in the public sphere, and in formulating public opinion. Therefore it is not so much that anthropologists, like the subaltern, cannot speak; but rather that we cannot be heard.
As there are real structural issues confronting the discipline, the ‘anthropologist-as-subaltern’ position is a helpful exaggeration because it allows us to see our discipline – and its relevance – in a particular way. Such conversations, however, more often than not lead to prescriptive positions, almost always concerning ‘public anthropology.’ But, as Rex argued here previously, ‘how much public anthropology is enough public anthropology?’
Of course, we have scholars in academia who have always engaged with public discourses: in my classes, we’ve discussed Berreman, Scheper-Hughes, Fassin, and Fortun, to add a few more to Rex’s list. And I do agree with him that anthropology needs to be taught differently in universities for there to be a realization of the debates going outside of academia. But on the other hand, I am also wondering what it might mean to visualize the practice of anthropology outside of academia’s ivory tower.
What do issues like the crisis of representation, postcolonial critique, or maybe even the ontological turn, mean for those who Gerald Berreman once described as ‘professional anthropologists’? So what I want to ask instead is, what does the anthropologist-as-consultant, the anthropologist-as-researcher, or the anthropologist-as-activist, have to say to their academic counterparts, and to the public?
Admittedly, there are cases when such roles merge seamlessly with more academic ones. Indeed, teaching is a public role for anthropologists, albeit a rather complex one (given how accessible university education is in a given society, for one). But there are also cases when individuals decide to pursue research or activism, either out of disenchantment with academia or purely because they want to (I know both kinds of people).
With this group of people, their question of subalternity – of speaking, but not being heard – while qualitatively different, is further compounded by a position of precarity with neoliberal attacks on university structures and job markets (thanks to @Keguro_ for the conversation we had on this on Twitter). These are the ‘Sidelines’ of anthropology – which was the subject of an earlier series on Savage Minds – where uncertainty, collaboration, stepping out of comfort zones, learning new skills, and unlearning old ones, characterizes this position. Again, this is not to say that a sociology, philosophy, or literature gradate doesn’t face precarity. My main concern is the relation with anthropology here, since that’s the one I can speak about.
Even under conditions of precarity, I do think that anthropologists and anthropology graduates are carrying out important public engagements in various roles where – and this is the critical point – it is their training in anthropology (and especially ethnography) that makes their work unique than that of an economist or sociologist (and we work in collaboration with them, as well). More importantly, it is our engagement with local communities that I feel makes our interventions unique, in that we are able to critique the language of ‘tools,’ but offer precisely a toolkit to do grounded and contextual research (I am thinking of George Marcus’ ‘third spaces’ and ‘para-sites’; as well as Kim Fortun’s idea of ‘generating new idioms’). Broadening the perspective from just an academic concern with public anthropology or public engagement, to one where we are engaging with publics in different capacities, I think is an important move for people attracted to anthropology, and for those of us who have invested a great deal of ourselves in it.
Recognizing this is to not only counter our position as curious (and ironical) subalterns, but to demonstrate that our work is in many ways a part of the public – by the virtue of fieldwork, through professional engagement, and through teaching. It necessarily means, following Berreman, rejecting the fact that there can be two kinds of anthropologies – laissez-faire and principled. For, as he says, ‘There is no place anywhere for unprincipled anthropology or anthropologists.’
As a postscript, I think a global collaborative project on evaluating anthropology-trained graduates – the kind of work they do, their levels of engagement, the knowledge they produce, and so on – seems fascinating. It would shift the dogged insistence from the academic proselytizing of public engagement (in Rex’s terms) to an investigation of how we are situated in the publics (a la, Fassin); in Sherry Ortner’s terms, ‘real people/anthropologists doing real things.’ This idea is inspired by several posts I’ve read here on Savage Minds, the series on Sidelines and precarity, and also Rebecca Neilson’s post on ‘NGOgraphy’ being the more exemplary ones. If anything, it would certainly be a more grounded response to a student’s query, ‘Are we relevant?’