All posts by Thomas

Farewell to the gift economy?

There is a lot of talk about networking, jealousy, plagiarism and similar perfidities in the academic system. It is about time that we begin to discuss why nobody can spare the time to do anything for free any more.

Reading oneman’s thought-provoking blog about the advantages of not getting a Ph. D. reminded me of an opinion piece I wrote for the Oslo newspaper Dagbladet earlier in the summer. The topic is tangential to oneman’s concerns, but it somehow seems relevant to this and other recent blogs on Savage Minds.

This English version is slightly different from the Norwegian one, which was inspired by the publication of, and subsequent media hum around, a campus novel written by the linguist Helene Uri, who resigned from her university job about a year ago. Think about one of David Lodge’s campus novels, and you get the general idea.

All good parents try to teach their children that the important things in life are free. This is also how it ought to be in the academic world, but after fifteen years of mounting student numbers, activity planning, auditing, efficiency-enhancing measures and reforms [I’m referring to Norway, but the situation is comparable elsewhere], it no longer appears thus. Today, what matters is everything that can be counted and measured, and in the last instance, this means death for the free exchange of knowledge.

Helene Uri’s recent novel De beste blant oss [The best amongst us] opens several secret passages in the university labyrinth. In particular, it paints a vivid picture of phenomena such as patronage and personal vendettas, cheating and plagiarism, jealousy and deception; but it also has a few interesting things to say about the closed circuits and musty corners of academia, as well as the vain unwillingness to popularise. Yet like all descriptions of the lived life the book is incomplete, and one important dimension of university life is missing both in the novel and in its reception. Much of the disillusion and unhappiness in today’s universities is caused by the fact that their academic employees are about to be deprived of the right to spend a fair proportion of their working hours doing free work for others.

A good academic publishes both nationally and internationally. It may indeed often seem as if books and articles published are all that counts. However, those of us who work inside the system know otherwise. It is gratifying to have one’s work published wherever one likes, but the publications are part of a larger ecology kept going by a very substantial amount of largely unrecognized work. Those who publish without contributing to this invisible ecology may rightly be considered freeriders.

The good academic supervises, teaches and encourages students without hesitation, and does her best even when she is asked to teach courses she is tired of or uninterested in. She organises workshops and conferences, reads and comments upon draft manuscripts by collegues, and she responds to emails even from students towards whom she has no formal obligations. She accepts to sit on committees and to take part in exhausting evaluations, and she referees manuscripts for journals and publishers. Sometimes she has to get up at four thirty to catch the seven o’clock flight to Bergen or Stockholm, in order to give a guest lecture or examine a dissertation. She often goes to research seminars, and she accepts time-consuming administrative tasks at her own department.

Much of this work is anonymous, and it is either unpaid or remunerated with a symbolic fee.

It is sometimes said that one has to build networks and alliances in order to have a career in the university system. Such a strategy may work to one’s benefit unless one is revealed to be a shallow opportunist, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient. Allow me to illustrate.

Department X has a vacent post, and the scientific committee is left with a shortlist of two candidates after a tortuous process of sifting and discarding. Candidate A has published in the best journals of the discipline, he has published several books with good academic publishers, and has been awarded a prize for his research. Candidate B has published less, but he has edited several books, has organised conferences with international participation, has supervised half a dozen students to their doctoral degrees, has excellent student evaluations from his many courses, and has served as both board member and editor in professional contexts.

Who is best qualified for the job? Or rather: Who is Department X likely to hire? Probably, the department will choose Candidate A, who brings prestige and money to the place. However, Candidate A is rarely in his office outside his weekly meeting hour, since he is busy with his research and hates to be disturbed. Candidate B, on the other hand, is a sociable man, interested in what his collegues are up to; he enjoys discussing the latest journal articles with collegues, mentions relevant new books to doctoral students he happens to meet in the corridor, responds indiscriminately to any email that comes his way, encourages people and makes them feel significant, and generously shares his ideas with anyone who cares to listen.

Most university academics know several specimens of both A and B, and few doubt who they’d prefer as a colleague. Also, nobody doubts who enjoys the highest prestige and is most likely to get tenure and promotion.

In this contrast we find one of the greatest problems in today’s academic system. Most of us who are involved in research and teaching may wish to be Candidates A and B rolled into one. We want to contribute to that which can be measured (chiefly publications at the highest professional level), and to that which cannot be measured (active participation in a community), but every year, this combination is becoming more difficult to manage. Recently, many of us have noticed that it has become increasingly difficult to persuade colleagues to sit on committees, evaluate articles for journals, turn up at seminars and so on. (For the record: I, too, politely say no thanks much more often than I used to only a few years ago.)

If the academic gift economy – where we offer each other intangibles and are tied to each other through vague debts of gratitude – were to be phased out entirely, the result would obviously be disastrous for the development of knowledge.

For knowledge to thrive, it must be shared, and the obligation goes both ways. Someone has to be head of department, someone has to go to the board meetings, someone has to fill in the Excel sheets for the professional association. (With a bit of luck, they get a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers at the Christmas party.) Some have to teach the unrewarding courses and mark the students’ papers. Some have to be the peers of peer-reviewed journals. Some have to get up at four thirty to mark MA dissertations in Tromsø. And some must keep the conversation going in the tea room. If nobody “has the time” to do any of these unglamorous but necessary tasks, one no longer has a professional environment; one is simply left with a collection of individuals following their own projects.

It is evident that quality, in all meanings of the word, suffers enormously if the best scholars withdraw and certain courses are taught exclusively by young teaching assistants, if no top researchers decide to spend half a day evaluating an article for a journal, if seminars with invited lecturers from abroad have an average attendance of less than a dozen, and if nobody has the time any more to chat about the latest theories in Darwinist kinship research over the percolator. You cannot publish in a refereed journal if no colleagues see fit to be the referees!

A critique of academia should take on informal networking and stupid arrogance, and recent debate [in Norway] has called attention to such phenomena. Nevertheless, the critique is incomplete unless it takes into account the profound disappointment experienced by many academics when they discover that the present regime does not encourage unmeasurable contributions to the knowledge community – not to mention the consequences for that coveted resource in academic newspeak, excellence.

What is good anthropological writing?

The above question needs to be split into (at least) three. First: What is good writing? Second: What is good nonfiction writing? (I discard, at least for now, a distinction between ‘nonfiction’ and ‘academic’.) Third: What is peculiar about good anthropological nonfiction writing?

We each have our answers to these questions. So why not make it personal: Which were the texts that made an indelible impression on you, and why? Any answer to this question has to be biographical. Many of the people I’ve asked over the years, usually in casual conversation over a drink, talk about books they read in their teens or early twenties. At this age, we are intellectually mature but emotionally volatile, and there is still plenty of free space on our internal hard drives. Anything relevant that comes our way is therefore likely to find a privileged place in our memory.

My unscientific findings can be summmarised roughly like this. The lit crit type would be likely to wax lyrical about the great Russians, Joyce or Proust. The natural scientist type might unashamedly speak about Tolkien or Arthur C. Clarke (very fine authors both in my book, by the way), or even a minor Russian like Ayn Rand (but as you know, those types, if unrepentant, are usually beyond salvation) … but what about the crossover, intellectually hybrid anthropologist type? Hmm… as always, it is impossible to generalise about one’s own people – we are so familiar with each individual tree that we fail to see the forest. It would be interesting to conduct an informal survey among the readers of Savage Minds. Q1: What were the books that changed your life? Q2: Which books (or films) turned you on to anthropology? Give short justifications for each answer, and be honest, it’s not a competition.

Uncritically but voraciously, I read all kinds of trash until my late teens, sometimes stumbling over something good without realising it. At that time, emerging from puberty with an audible sigh of relief, I turned to books on anarchism and green fundamentalism, pessimistic philosophy and novelists/essayists like Orwell, Huxley and Koestler, adding Greene and Naipaul as I ran out, as well as the mandatory bit of Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus (you haven’t lived until you’ve read The Stranger as an eighteen-year old!). There was little art for art’s sake in my life at that time. However, come to think of it, I did have a literary hero in my early twenties. Nowadays considered almost a minor novelist and nearly forgotten in practice, Anthony Burgess represented for me the quintessence of the great writer. His language was exuberant and powerful, his plots were clever and often extremely effective, and he was extremely knowledgeable in a casual way. He wrote pageturners about fascinating subjects such as ancient Christianity and colonial Malaya. It was only when I read Ulysses (on fieldwork in Mauritius) that I realised that Burgess somehow orchestrated a meeting between James Joyce and Harold Robbins. I still think that Burgess’ best books contain everything we try to achieve as writers: to enlighten without being boring, to make the world a larger and more interesting place, and to moralise without creating unproductive guilt-traps.

You may well disagree, and you have your own personal favourites. I no longer read Burgess, but I’m glad I spent formative years doing it. When it comes to nonfiction in general, the most important books for me as a twenty-year old were clearly those which followed Marx’ famous dictum about understanding the world in order to change it. In our first-year curriculum in anthropology back in 1982, I liked Roger Keesing’s textbook for this reason; the feeling was that he had his heart in the right place. There is a linear plot in Keesing which I didn’t see at the time – moving from the simple to the complex as the book progresses – which is epistemologically problematic but efficient as a way of organising a narrative: you know how he begins his book with a few chapters on human evolution (which we were not asked to read, by the way; anthropology is not a four-field subject in Norway), ending with horror stories of colonialism and capitalist oppression.

But then, in my second year, I discovered Gregory Bateson, and it was love at first sight. His convoluted style, his oblique way of discerning patterns of regularity and similarity, his strong metaphors and surprising perspectives got me hooked, then and probably forever. Bateson was like a Socrates in search of his Plato (or, better, Platos), stimulating his readers to finish the argument and to fill in the blank spaces. Bateson presented riddles and limited himself to suggesting the answer (unlike someone like Marvin Harris, about whom Sahlins once remarked, drily, that he told riddles, but the answer was always protein).

Yet the kind of irreducible complexity presented explicitly and implicitly in Bateson’s texts do not stand for typical good writing; it’s untypical good writing. (I have similar feelings, by the way, about Edwin Ardener’s intellectual pyrotechnics.) Most of the really memorable texts, in anthropology as in other nonfiction, are those that have a clear message or a potent metaphor somewhere. If something appears to be complex but lacks the beauty of simplicity, it is bogus: it is then merely complicated rather than truly complex. So there is a reason why we return again and again to Geertz’ cockfight, Evans-Pritchard’s poison oracle, Leach’s gumsa-gumlao dichotomy, Douglas’ anomalies and so on. The narrative thread in these texts may be weak, but their symbolism is persuasive, seductive and contagious, indexical of huge problematics. – Why is it that Anderson’s Imagined Communities is the most popular book on nationalism? Because of its powerful central metaphor.

As a writer, you can engage your audience in many ways (and I’ve described some of them in Engaging Anthropology – I’m not going to repeat myself here), but let us say that the most important ones are metaphor and narrative. Anthropologists are generally good at creating metaphors, but bad when it comes to narrative. (With historians, it is the other way around.) At some point in our profession’s history, we chose analysis over narrative. It may be time to reconsider that choice. For one can have it both ways.

As academics, we tend to write for a select audience: people who are either paid to read what we write, or who are forced to because it is on the reading list. I think these two categories of readers would be grateful if we began to have other kinds of readers in mind as well. And it would not necessarily mean losing complexity.

Now this is a slippery slope. A colleague at the University of Oslo, admired for his crystal-clear, simple style, says that if your auntie can’t read it, it is probably not any good. Yet we know from experience that some texts that offer solid resistance give ample rewards at the end – from Aristotle to Foucault and Derrida, not to mention Strathern. On a more mundane note, as an undergraduate, I struggled with Culture and Practical Reason, and never regretted it later. So simplicity is not always the answer. Voluntary readers are perfectly capable of absorbing considerable complexity as long as it is presented in an inviting way. Whatever my feelings about Richard Dawkins’ worldview, few will deny that he is a great nonfiction writer, and he invites you as a reader to join him. He appears to care about his readers. Someone said about Dawkins that he makes the reader feel like a genius. Far too many of us seem to try to make our readers feel like idiots instead. Anthropology is usually not technical in such a way as to exclude, by default, readers who lack a training in the subject. We have an unrivalled supply of metaphors, through our own fieldwork and that of others. But we also have narratives. The puzzling thing is why we don’t use them to better effect. Could it be that the ghost of Evans-Pritchard’s nasty depiction of Mead as representing a ‘rustling-of-the-wind-in-the-palm-trees kind of anthropology, for which Malinowski set the fashion’, is still hovering in the corridors?

Certain texts stick with us, change our world and make our own lives slightly richer and more bearable, not to say meaningful. They have a few things in common, notably strong narrative and/or powerful metaphors, and an active interest in the reader also helps – but what nearly all of them have in common, is that they are not written by anthropologists. Here’s a challenge to all of us!

My postings on this site are so lengthy, I am ashamed to discover, that I fancy you’ve got your fill of Eriksen’s ruminations for now. It has been really interesting to experiment with the blog genre, enjoyable to oscillate between the loose and the tight, and it may well turn out that I’m hooked now, converted as it were from the Gutenberg Galaxy to the Berners-Lee Bonanza [Tim Berners-Lee: The inventor of the World Wide Web] – in which case you’ll hear from me again on Savage Minds. Thanks everybody!

An old warhorse revisited

Today and tomorrow, I’m taking part in a workshop which aims to get the basic masonwork and scaffolding in place for a new book about culture. Don’t we have too many of those books already? Yes. Well then, do we need another one? Afraid so.

My colleague Øivind Fuglerud, who has written – among other things – Life on the Outside, a study of Somali refugees and long-distance nationalism, took the initiative for the book some time ago, invited an assortment of social scientists he trusted and respected, and wrote a fairly comprehensive outline. More recently, having changed jobs (he no longer directs research on minority issues), he generously invited me to co-edit the book with him.

Specifically, the book is going to deal critically with the uses of the culture term in the debate (academic and non-academic) about refugees and immigrants in Norway. Virtually every West European country has its debates about immigration and minorities, and they sometimes ricochet between countries. A topic raised in France may turn up in Sweden a month or two later, resurfacing in Germany after half a year. In recent years, the public attention in many countries has typically focused on hijabs, enforced marriages, honour killings, low educational achievements among certain immigrant groups and female circumcision. Not exactly uplifting.

Academic research on immigrants in Europe can, broadly, be divided into three phases. In the 1970s and 1980s, the emphasis was largely sociological, focusing on the labour market, discrimination and the quest for equality. From the late 1980s to around 2000, anthropological perspectives dominated, and there was an enormous interest in cultural dimensions. In the last few years, there has been more open disagreement among researchers than before; for example, researchers unsympathetic to immigration have become outspoken and visible.

What we want to say in the book, which will have around a dozen contributors, is that the culture concept has to be retained in the academic vocabulary. Yes, it is being exploited strategically for ideological or political ends, it is fuzzy, it has dubious origins in nationalism and relativism (as well as having underpinned oppressive power structures like the apartheid regime in South Africa), and it never ceases to produce misleading and dangerous essentialisms.

Yet experience tells us that we live in slightly different worlds and that these worlds sometimes vary along the lines of language, ethnic identity or religion – and that cultural differences can be identified quite easily within a these groups as well. Anthropologists have said much about this, in Norway liike elsewhere. We have also pointed out that culture does not explain class diifferences, and that social problems usually do not have cultural causes. We have spoken about hybridity and creolisation, stressed the cultural discontinuities within the majority (fundamentalist Christians are, in their way, just as exotic as conservative Muslims), and described cultural changes within immigrant groups. (Some Norwegian Pakistanis are so Norwegianised that you have to see them in Pakistan to understand it. In Norway, only their differences are generally seen.) There have been lively controversies over cultural rights, mother-tongue training in schools, the role of religion in Norwegian schools and many other issues.

This has created widespread confusion. As Øivind pointed out at the workshop earlier today, college students no longer have a clue as to what to make of the term culture. It appears to be everything and its opposite. A clarifying book is needed. But how?

I think we should try to be faithful to that old ethnographic virtue of crawling on all fours, our noses touching the ground. (The sociologists, psychologist and geographer in the team may not agree, I haven’t asked them yet.) But one needs to stay close to the cases in order to discover that one cannot generalise about cultural differences between particular groups, or about the role of culture in general as a descriptive or explanatory category.

The Parisian riots provide a good case. Some commentators have tried to link the riots to religious revitalisation and militant Islamism in the Arab-speaking world. Yet, others – including the anthropologist André Iteanu, who has done research in these areas for years – point out that the riots have social causes, not cultural ones: The people living in these parts of Paris have no metro, few buses, hardly any libraries – and the majority have no work. Deprived and poor people have rioted in Paris several times before. It has nothing to do with their being Muslim and everything to do with their being socially excluded. Conclusion: Leave culture out of this matter.

Another case, less familiar to most of the readers and less easy to disentangle, is the murder of Fadime Sahindal in Uppsala, Sweden a few years back. Fadime, the daughter of a Kurdish immigrant, was killed by her father, who saw her insistence to live ‘like any other Swede’ as intolerable and unbearable for the family’s honour. In the Swedish public sphere, it had by now been noticed that the people who invoked cultural explanations tended to be right-wing and bigoted. Thus, the official view, voiced by opinion leaders in Swedish society, was that Fadime was the victim of patriarchy and a deranged man.

After a while, the Uppsala anthropologist Mikael Kurkiala wrote an article where he argued that culture obviously had something to do with this: Although ‘Kurdish culture’ did not in any way determine the actions of Fadime’s father, his Kurdish universe offered cultural scripts, one of which consisted in killing a daughter to restore honour. Unaccustomed to the brutality of public controversy, Kurkiala was taken somewhat aback when respected liberal Swedes literally pounced on him, claiming him as a useful idiot for the extreme right wing. Kurkiala’s conclusion, which has recently been developed in a beautifully written book in Swedish, where he discusses ways of handling difference (he draws extensively on his fieldwork among Lakota here), was that if it is impossible even to mention cultural factors as dimensions of society and as ‘models of and models for’, then we have relinquished any attempt to understand our world. Conclusion: Bring culture back in.

So what is my position? I have considerable sympathy with some of the texts from the last couple of decades that have tried to exorcise the evil spirit of culture from anthropology. The have forced us to reach for higher levels of precision. Yet in spite of all the obvious objections and a few less obvious ones, we can’t do without it. To me, the proposition to use culture as a verb (Brian Street) makes sense. It varies within any group and has no clear boundaries, it is relational, it behaves oddly in an era of transnational communication, and it is more of a fluid than a solid. But at the end of the day, Fadime’s father killed his daughter in a world that was originally created in Kurdistan, not in Sweden. Keeping close to the cases is our only hope if the goal is to prevent further confusion. Maybe even some good writing can come out of it.

A predicament of sport

Most people who have heard about but never visited Norway (and a few of those who have), probably imagine the country as pristine, fresh, spacious and white in all senses of the word (although I have to confess we are having an unseasonal mild spell right now, and the snow is vanishing at an alarming rate this evening – as I write, I hear the ominous sound of dripping water). It is all of these things, and the Norwegian tourist board and foreign ministry are projecting rustic and wild images of the country worldwide in a bid to attract tourists. However, the moment you step off the airport express train in downtown Oslo, you discover that you’ve arrived in just another European city. It is noisy, dirty and cosmopolitan. The proportion of immigrants (and their descendants) is comparable to what you’ll find in many cities on the Continent. Take a taxi, and chances are that the cab driver is a Pakistani. Take the commuter train to Holmlia, and you enter a vibrant suburb where nearly a hundred languages are spoken. A visit to a street or school in Holmlia brings you about as far as you get from the imagery of national romanticism.

The highest concentration of immigrants in Norway is in the Oslo area. One of the oldest and most established settlements is in Drammen, a largish town half an hour’s drive south of the city. In terms of nationality, the largest groups in Drammen are Turkish and Pakistani, and they have had more than their share of hostility and indifference from the majority. For many years, Muslims in Fjell (the area where most immigrants live) tried – in vain – to obtain permission from municipal authorities to build a mosque. Since the Rushdie affair and, more recently, in the years after nine-eleven, their identity as Muslims has become increasingly marked in Norwegian society. The hijab, virtually unknown a decade ago, is now used routinely by many Muslim girls and women in Drammen, and other signs of religious revitalisation are also evident in parts of the Muslim population.

At the same time as some strengthen their religious minority identity, most immigrants – Muslim or not – and their children wish to participate fully in Norwegian society. Like in other European countries, non-European immigrants in Norway are relatively underprivileged. The de facto ethnic segregation is considerable. The labour market is far from colourblind, and immigrant children generally have school results below average. There is, in other words, a general lack of shared arenas where ethnicity and religion do not serve as boundary markers, where anybody can participate, and which may serve as pathways into other sections of Norwegian society.

The task of ‘integrating’ into Norway is not easy, even – say – for an Englishman. Everyday life is governed by tacit norms and subtle codes, bits and snippets of a way of life which usually goes without saying because it comes without saying. Some cultural realms shared by most Norwegians, such as winter sports, Christmas and national pride, are simply inaccessible for a great number of immigrants.

For these and other reasons, sports and perhaps especially football (soccer) can be important when one tries to transcend ethnicity and religion. Like in many other countries, sport clubs are ubiquituous, and a boy who is a skilled footballer is almost automatically popular among his peers, regardless of his colour or surname. A man of Pakistani origin who participated in the toughest cross-country ski race of the country – an endurance test of more than fifty kilometres – made the headlines and elicited much approval. He wasn’t stupid enough to say that he did it ‘for his community’, and for that reason, he did.

Drafn, known for its football, ski and bandy, is the largest sports club in the ethnically mixed neighbourhood of Fjell. Thanks to a handful of enthusiasts who saw the importance of sports years ago, Drafn has initiated pioneering anti-racist campaigns, and have actively sought to attract minority youths for a long time. The attempts have largely been successful in so far as the active membership in Drafn is unusually variegated. However, there are problems. For some time, I have been in contact with Dag Ramberg, a board member in the club and former chairman, who has asked for my help in sorting out some issues, and perhaps to propose solutions.

This is where the difficult bit starts. The problems are easy to see, but less straightforward to grasp fully. In addition, one has to maneuvre quite skilfully in the political arenas of Drammen – it ain’t my town – to make an impact and not just be written off as a naïve dogooder from the ivory tower.

Drafn’s economic situation is precarious, partly because the parents of immigrant children tend not to contribute to voluntary work. This kind of work, which typically amounts to selling hotdogs on match days (well, if you disapprove of pork sausages, I’m sure you can be assigned to the soda fountain), organising raffles and annual flea markets, is absolutely essential for the survival of any sport club in Norway which is working with children. In my experience, an attendance of around 75% or higher is expected, although clubs rarely have effective sanctions against parents who repeatedly fail to show up. At Drafn, most immigrant parents rarely take part. It is also a cause of some irritation among ethnic Norwegians that immigrant parents rarely drive the kids to away matches – also something typically shared in the parental group.

As a result, adult immigrants relinquish an opportunity to reduce tension and prejudice, and they also lose an important arena for integrating into the local community; simultaneously, the finances of the club (Drafn) are plunged into the red. The neighbouring club Skiold (based in a largely monoethnic Norwegian area) has refused to help Drafn by taking over some of their groups, the official reason being economic. But of course, one suspects other motivations may be lurking not too far below the surface. In Drafn itself, some of the older board members have suggested, bluntly, not to accept children with a ‘foreign’ background, thereby hoping to improve the economic situation.

Against such views, Dag Ramberg takes a more holistic and inclusive position. He argues in favour of strengthening the existing positive image of sports in Fjell as being colourblind, to solicit for economic support wherever it can be had (which in Norway usually means the public authorities), and to think about the future of Fjell and Drammen in the long term. Notably, he argues that the tendency towards ‘ghettoisation’ in Fjell will prove disastrous. If new housing projects are of a kind that do not attract ethnic Norwegians (Fjell already has its share of nondescript high-rise blocks of flats), segregation will continue, Drafn and other border-crossing institutions may collapse, and the people who warn that immigration is tantamount to the creation of a permanent underclass will be proven right.

There are doubtless people in Drammen who do not really mind having most of the immigrants in one place, probably not foreseeing the social problems that are likely to arise in the near future given such a scenario. There are others who think, not entirely unreasonably, that the minority parents are to blame for the situation, and who accept that their children suffer as a consequence. Few have the foresight of Ramberg.

This is where I come in. I have been thinking recently about how to go about this. The most realistic thing to do is simply to write an article in the local newspaper, Drammens Tidende. I could easily argue that children with a future in Norway are to important to be sacrificed due to the neglect of parents with a past elsewhere. I could add that a club of this kind deserves special treatment and public subventions. I could also say that it is potentially dangerous to encourage the perpetuation of an ethnically marked, segregated working class area – better to have mixed neighbourhoods. This last argument is not uncontroversial, neither in anthropology nor elsewhere, but in the present situation in Drammen, it seems evidently sensible. One does not have to go to infamous Parisian banlieues to see the disadvantages of physical segregation in a society where everybody either participates in the same labour market or is brutally excluded.

I could say these things in the paper and add a few others. For example, I could point out that the idea of voluntary work in evenings and weekends for sport clubs, kindergartens and juvenile brass bands is a curious cultural institution which takes time to get into. I might even mention that many immigrants spend much of their free time with relatives (while Norwegians tend to be more strongly integrated in the locality) or even with ethnic or religious organisations. The reason that I am hesitating, is that (a) my intervention might easily be written off as coming from an academic Besserwisser (‘one who knows better’) with little knowledge and no experience of local circumstances; or (b) that people might understand perfectly well what I was saying – nothing there that they didn’t know already – but they would disagree. In this way, an intervention on my part could merely confirm the already widespread view that liberal cosmopolitans comprise a ‘moral élite’ with no proper understanding of, nor sympathy with, the problems of ‘ordinary people’.

I am going to write something in Drammens Tidende, but right now, I’m uncertain as to what and how. Keeping quiet would just indicate indifference, but saying the wrong things would make the situation worse. Underestimating the intelligence of the readers would be the worst sin in this debate. We’ve been debating immigrants and ‘integration’ in this country for many years now, and the last thing we need is a repetition of familiar arguments and facile moral correctness. I welcome suggestions!

A drop of complexity

Having this opportunity to contribute to “Savage Minds” gives me great pleasure. Not only is it an unusually lively and vibrant anthropology site which takes on many questions that interest me; but the blog may indeed be the only truly new literary form to have emerged from the Internet. Just as email is intermediate between the letter and the chat on the phone, the blog is neither-nor, but with a residue of both-and. It contains elements of the diary, the seminar discussion, the tearoom chat, the written review or commentary, and the speech.

I should point out that although I have been running my own website for ten years now (nearly to a day), this is in fact not only my first posting on this site, but it is indeed my first attempt to write a blog ever. Perhaps I remain, in my heart of hearts, an unreformed child of Gutenberg; truth to tell, I have largely used my website to disseminate texts which have previously been printed. No real innovation there, in other words. I also write an occasional newsletter on my site, but the only interactivity involved amounts to email correspondence with readers. Oh yes, there is, finally, a section of the website called “Network”, which was initially conceived as an experimental area, but which – five years on – only contains a hypertext version of my 1999 novel.

I expect to submit a handful of blogs on a daily or bi-daily basis for a week or two, and my chosen topic is a staple on this site, namely the role of anthropologists and anthropology in a wider public sphere. It is strange and ironic that contemporary anthropology is an elusive and deeply academic discipline with few points of contact with a wider public sphere. The anthropological way of looking at the world is so crucial in this day and age, not just for enriching the public understanding of the world, but also as a means to make it a slightly better place, that it is high time we began to take it seriously. Stepping out of our secluded spaces is risky, you get your hands dirty, you hardly earn any credit points for your institution, you end up being misunderstood and quoted out of context; and at the same time, we have a collective duty to participate in impure ways. In my experience, anthropologists are generally really good at talking amongst themselves, but less skilful when it comes to mixing well with non-anthropologists. The discussion on SM about Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”, to take a recent example, may not tell us a lot about Diamond, but it reveals quite a bit about the attitude taken by anthropologists confronted by people who seem to be invading their fields.

Rather than – or, better, in addition to – castigating Diamond for his oversimplifications (my first reaction to the book, which I quite enjoyed in spite of its irritating determinism, was that this smacks of Marvin Harris), we should be asking ourselves what it is that he does that we could learn from. Why is it that this influential, bestselling book was not written by a social or cultural anthropologist (in which case it would probably have been more nuanced)? Have we become too sophisticated to ask simple questions, like Diamond does, which engage a wide public? If that is the case, I fear that John Brockman, the popular science publisher and editor, might include anthropology when he laments (in the introduction to his “The Third Culture“) that the humanities have long ceased to raise questions which interest non-specialists; that humanities scholars are making themselves busy squaring the circle while others (he has natural scientists in mind) explore problems of political and existential significance.

The kind of anthropology I have in mind is transparent, open-ended and lucid; it is capable of producing pageturners in addition to more arcane monographs, and it has the confidence to produce fast, provocative comments on anything from transnational terrorism to neo-liberalism and cosmetic surgery without fearing that such frivolities undermine scholarly claims to substantial knowledge. We have the power to supply the world with a few drops of complexity now and then, and you know as well as I do that they are needed. I recently published a book on these and related issues, called “Engaging Anthropology“. Instead of repeating myself, I’ll make a new proposal for productive public engagement in each posting on this site. Tomorrow, I’ll give you the story of a sport club in Drammen (a town near Oslo, where I live) and its struggles to incorporate minority children in its activities, and suggest how anthropologists might intervene. It goes without saying that I’m keen to receive your views, objections and suggestions as we go along.