The anthropologist as a curious subaltern? Thoughts on precarity and publics

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?’

Proshant Chakraborty

Proshant is currently pursuing his MA in Social and Cultural Anthropology at KU Leuven, Belgium. He previously worked as a researcher in Mumbai, India, on issues like public health, AIDS advocacy, migration, and gender-based violence.

7 thoughts on “The anthropologist as a curious subaltern? Thoughts on precarity and publics

  1. Proshant,

    I agree that the way anthropology is usually taught has a lot to do with subaltern position in which anthropologists now find themselves. I note that in your sources you make no reference to EPIC, the Ethnographic Praxis in Corporations group (, the Journal of Business Anthropology ( or the recently published Handbook of Anthropology in Business ( While peripheral, and indeed largely ignored by academic anthropology, there is a growing community of anthropologists who, in many cases, not only do good work but also do well for themselves by doing it. The progressive puritans among us may be revolted by the thought of doing work for corporations, but if we can get over that, and if fieldwork teaches nothing else it means learning to live with—critiquing but also learning to adapt to—things that disturb us, a fruitful conversation should be possible. It might even be profitable.

  2. Hi John. Thanks for the comment. I haven’t actually come across a lot of corporate or business anthropology, except for some sporadic interest in organizational anthropology. But thanks for pointing out these sources! I completely agree on the fruitfulness and profitability of this conversation. Of course, the caveat being that the teaching of anthropology should precisely reflect, and prepare students for, this kind of diversity instead of making it a goal (for instance, pressures of increasing professionalization in sociology in the UK). I think this conversation will grow and unfold more with time. Thanks again!

  3. Proshant,

    I do wish that someone else would join this conversation. Meanwhile, let me offer a few more thoughts.

    When, in the early 1980s, when I stumbled out of academia and into a job as an English-language copywriter for a Japanese advertising agency, I became a “creative.” I was strongly motivated to learn more about this mysterious process called “creativity.” The most memorable thing I read was a comment by advertising legend Carl Ally,

    “The creative person wants to be a know-it-all. He wants to know about all kinds of things: ancient history, nineteenth century mathematics, current manufacturing techniques, flower arranging, and hog futures. Because he never knows when these ideas might come together to form a new idea. It may happen six minutes later or six years down the road. But he has faith that it will happen.”

    He sounded like an anthropologist to me.

    Many years later, still interested in the topic, I read Tom Kelley’s Ten Faces of Innovation, where, I was fascinated to discover, the anthropologist was No. 1. Kelley is founder and CEO of IDEO, one of the world’s most successful industrial design firms. Here is how he describes the anthropologist.

    “The Anthropologist is rarely stationary. Rather, this is the person who ventures into the field to observe how people interact with products, services, and experiences in order to come up with new innovations. The Anthropologist is extremely good at reframing a problem in a new way, humanizing the scientific method to apply it to daily life. Anthropologists share such distinguishing characteristics as the wisdom to observe with a truly open mind; empathy; intuition; the ability to “see” things that have gone unnoticed; a tendency to keep running lists of innovative concepts worth emulating and problems that need solving; and a way of seeking inspiration in unusual places.”

    What I observe in reflecting on these two texts is that neither how I was taught to describe anthropology, a four-field discipline concerned with the whole of human evolution from prehistory to the present, nor the way you have described it in what you have written here, appears in them. Neither author is concerned at all about the disciplinary boundaries and “critical theory” that seem to have been the focus of your training.since I have no career at stake in this discussion, that does not bother me at all. But I wonder what you will think of this difference I have pointed out.

  4. Thanks for the interesting post. One reflection this left me with is the value of looking at more publicly-intent projects that anthropologists run and/or draw on anthropological thinking. It is valuable when students question “is anthropology relevant?” though we ought to recognize that this stems from the academic context. As John mentioned with EPIC and what I’d add through inter-disciplinary efforts such as Design Anthropology and projects like Savage Minds, PopAnth or my own work with This Anthropological Life Podcast, the answer to the question of relevance is a resounding yes. 

    Part of the questioning of relevance comes from academic anthropology’s own apathy towards threads outside of the academy, as we who participate or have participated in academic anthropology know. This is not to discount the amount of incredible insight into the human condition anthropology generates. But as Tim Ingold has well-argued, the current run of academic anthropology and its adherence to being a science has divorced curiosity from care. That we are, and always have been, embedded in the lives and publics with whom we work. (Ingold goes further to argue that it is rather ethnography, or the writing up of our work into theory and anthropological knowledge after the fact that tends to solidify this divorce – something we need to keep in mind when we weigh the benefits of ethnography vs anthropology). This is akin to what you point out with Fassin’s idea, but taking things to the next step. As anthropology out of the academy continues to be seen as ‘sideline’, we are, in essence, “subaltering the subaltern” – to borrow your title.

    A second issue has to do with formatting inside and outside the academy. Irrelevance can rear its head, fairly or unfairly, when academics refuse to alter our formats of producing and disseminating knowledge – 1. namely using esoteric and difficult to understand language that the public, let alone some anthropologists can find difficult to follow, 2. theories that by and large serve only to converse with other anthropological knowledge (which is fine for a discipline to do, if that’s its goal) rather than give back or offer solutions to the communities and questions we first sought to answer, and 3. through publishing methods that require the first two issues in spades. There is also a fourth part regarding publishing-is-more-important-to-your-career-than-teaching in many elite universities which further sidelines sideline anthropology. We aren’t often heard (or lose out to other disciplines for public attention) because we refuse to produce our knowledge in a way that can be heard, or at least in a way that publics are used to hearing. Yes, this opens up power, institutional, and structural issues, but lets us question how we relate to and are embedded in public life. 

    I too struggle with the relevance question as a PhD student. But as publicly-engaged anthropologist, I don’t. I struggle more with how to best format anthropological thinking and doing in ways that are accessible to help people think more holistically and solve problems.

  5. Hey Adam. Thanks for the comment! I am in agreement with everything you say, except perhaps with a slight disagreement with Ingold. I am very sympathetic to his argument in ‘Anthropology is not ethnography!’ (or was it the other way around?), but I think Ingold too reproduces a highly esoteric language when he talks about materiality, for instance (in fact having to read Ingold made me pose the question of the relevance of that particular sort of anthropological writing; compared to Bourgeois, for example, who we read in the same week. But maybe I am nitpicking!). But I suppose every anthropological intervention has its margins (the topic of my next post), and we need more conversations of this sort. Thanks again!

  6. Hey John. Thanks for those quotes, I find them very inspiring, really! We anthropologists of the academic variety tend to be theoretical hypochondriacs of sorts, but reading this – how people outside of the academy engage with our work, find it useful or wanting – I think is something we should be more open to, especially for students who do feel the need for studying anthropology but may not wish to continue in academia (half my masters class, for instance). Thanks again for that insightful share!

  7. Proshant, thank you for responding so positively. Rereading what I had written in my last message, I was afraid that it might be read as opposition to theory. Nothing could be farther from the truth. My B.A. is in philosophy, and thinking big thoughts about the meaning of it all is something I enjoy. That said, the passage that best sums up my take on the proper relation of theory to ethnography is taken from Victor Turner.

    “In moving from experience of social life to conceptualization and intellectual history, I follow the path of anthropologists almost everywhere. Although we take theories into the field with us, these become relevant only if and when they illuminate social reality. Moreover, we tend to find very frequently that it is not a theorist’s whole system which so illuminates, but his scattered ideas, his flashes of insight taken out of systemic context and applied to scattered data. Such ideas have a virtue of their own and may generate new hypotheses. They even show how scattered facts may be systematically connected! Randomly distributed through some monstrous logical system, they resemble nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of inedible dough. The intuitions, not the tissue of logic connecting them, are what tend to survive in the field experience.”

    “Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors.” In Victor Turner, ed., Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society, Cornell University Press, 1974, p. 23.

    My point in offering the previous quotes, from Carl Ally and Tom Kelley, is not to deny the value of theory, but rather to observe that what seems most valuable about anthropology in our classes and seminars and what the world outside the academy finds of value can be very different. Thinking about that difference can be a useful exercise for those compelled to make a living outside the academy or eager to make a positive difference in the world in projects that require teamwork with folk from other disciplines.

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