All posts by Michael Agar

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

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.

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Rewind and Fast Forward, Part 4

In Part 3, pattern-seeking was added to the list of fundamentals of an anthropological perspective, following on from Part 2 where task-based communicative competence was proposed. I’m now on the fourth installment of this five-blog run. Since #5 is stuck with the conclusion job, #4 is the last one where I can try out another fundamental. The problem is, more than one comes to mind. Too many things crawled up into consciousness after I opened the doors of perception and stepped into the hall of mirrors, to mix Aldous Huxley with the Palace of Versailles.

But as I think back on the original plot device—the shift from village to treatment center—another characteristic comes to mind that was then, and probably always will be, a fundamental of an anthropological perspective. It plays an important part, like the previous two characteristics, whether it’s traditional or contemporary anthropology, academic or applied or practice. We call it “emergence.” In this case, though, the transition from village to joint was rocky because it alienated most of my new non-anthropological colleagues in the treatment center. It turned out that “I dunno yet” was not an acceptable answer to the question, “what’s your hypothesis?” Continue reading

Rewind and Fast Forward, Part 3

In the previous blog, Part 2, a first building block of an anthropological perspective was proposed,  awkwardly named “learning task communicative competence from those who actually do it.”  This part of the perspective makes it easy to see, in retrospect, why the shift from a traditional Indian village to a U.S. treatment center for heroin addicts  wasn’t as big of a deal as I thought it was going to be. I just kept doing the same thing in Lexington, even though by the anthropological rules of the times I wasn’t supposed to be there. I wondered what “patients” and “staff” were up to and how they got it done. I spent time with them in “the joint”—the residence, the dining hall, the chapel, the gym, therapy groups. I was still looking at things anthropologically, even though Lexington was out of bounds as a traditional  “field site.”

Here in Part 3, I’d like to suggest a second building block, this one with the much simpler name of “pattern.” Pattern will be a second part of the argument that this perspective—I’m still not sure whether to call it an “epistemology” or an “ontology” (or possibly a “pathology”)—works the same once you learn it no matter what kind of anthropology you’re doing, including applications where you’re not actually doing research at all. Continue reading

Rewind and Fast Forward, Part 2

In Part 1, I compared traditional fieldwork in a South Indian village with my unexpected and forced relocation to a U.S. treatment center for heroin addicts.  Now, in Part 2, I want to try out a concept to explain why it felt like I was doing the “same” thing in such different places. What fundamental of an anthropological perspective might have led to that feeling of sameness?

I’ll continue to use those early experiences from the late 1960s and early 70s. I don’t think the fundamentals have changed all that much.  But more recent experiences will be added in now and then. Over the decades, I’ve used what we do in all kinds of ways in all kinds of places, some of them not suitable for mention in a family blog of this type.

It strikes me that—in contrast to most everyone else who talks about a human group not their own—anthropologists start out by wanting to learn about that group and what they do, from them, beginning with a suspicion that what the anthro and every other outsider thinks is true is probably wrong. I sometimes describe us as “ambulatory falsification machines.” Tell me something that you or I think we know about the people we’re interested in, and I’ll bet my retirement savings it’s at least a stick-figure version and maybe flat wrong. Continue reading

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? Continue reading