Tag Archives: Theory

Anthropological “isms,” post and otherwise.

A Disempowering Rant

Welcome to the NHK

I usually try to avoid ranting about my pet-peeves, but I just gotta get this one off my chest: what’s up with leftist academics criticizing a theory for being “disempowering”? I don’t even know where to begin with such criticism. It is as if someone, upon learning of such a theory, would be so overwhelmed by the inevitability of domination that they simply give up trying to make the world a better place. Has this ever happened to someone? Really?!

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Anthropology, Empathy and the Other Regarding Emotions

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL

In the last few weeks, social work scholar turned pop-psychology web superstar Brené Brown came out with a short animated video summarizing much of her writing on empathy. It opens by drawing a distinction between empathy and sympathy.  According to Brown, empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection. For those of you who are expert in the area of the anthropology of emotions, I am guessing it would be fairly easy to come up with cross-cultural scenarios that put this pop-psych in its place (and please do!). That sympathy has become the bad guy in US self-help genres isn’t all that surprising.  In psychology and analytic philosophy, empathy and sympathy are part of a larger cohort referred to as “other regarding emotions”. Debating the appropriateness of the other regarding emotions—from pity to compassion to sympathy to empathy—lends itself to prescriptive ways of being the world.  This short video presumes that we can know what will feel good to others. In this case empathy feels good, and sympathy feels bad.

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Ontology as the Major Theme of AAA 2013

Most attendees of the annual meetings in Chicago are, as one wag put it, exhAAAusted from all our conference going, and the dust is only now settling. As we look back on the conference, however, it is worth asking what actually happened there. Different people will have different answers to this question, but for me and the people in my scholarly network, the big answer is: ontology.

The term was not everywhere at the AAAs, but it was used consistently, ambitiously, audaciously, and almost totally unironically to offer anthropology something that it (supposedly) hasn’t had in a long time: A massive infusion of theory that will alter our paradigm, create a shift in the field that everyone will feel and which will orient future work, and that will allow us, once again, to ask big questions. To be honest, as someone who had been following ‘ontological anthropology’ for the past couple of years, I was sort of expecting it to not get much traction in the US. But the successful branding of the term and the cultural capital attached to it may prove me wrong yet.

In fact, there were just two major events with the world ontology in the title: the “Politics of Ontology” roundtable and the blowout “The Ontological Turn in French Philosophical Anthropology”. But these events were full of ‘stars’ and attracted plenty of attention.

Will this amount to anything? What is ontology anyway? Were there other themes that were more dominant in the conference? I don’t have any answers to these questions yet, but I hope to soon and will let you figure it out when I do. If you get there before me, then fire away in the comments section and we’ll see what people think.

Made in China: Notes from the CIA Gift Shop

What might an anthropology of the covert look like? I think of the covert as a particular type of secret, one grounded in deception and shadows, and populated by individuals pretending—in part—to be someone other than who they actually are. My current research project is about the CIA as agents of US empire during the Cold War. It is about being invisible, being undercover, and being a legitimate ethnographic subject rather than just a historical or political one. Yet, what sort of ethnography can be written about covert, undercover subjects? How does one humanize the CIA?

I’ve been turning this question over since October 2009 when I found myself at CIA Headquarters. Two weeks before, a mysterious envelope arrived in my on-campus mailbox in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. The return address read “CIA Fine Arts Commission.” I remember looking around the office to see if this was a joke. The CIA Fine Arts Commission? For real? The CIA had an art department? It didn’t help matters that the envelope looked sort of homemade, as if someone had printed the mailing and return addresses on a home laser printer. Perhaps they had. At any rate, I opened the envelope up in the main anthropology office, thinking it was somehow safer to open it there rather than alone back in my own office.

There was no explosion. Phew. Continue reading

The History of the Personality of Anthropology: SMOPS 3

This week’s SMOPS is an edited version of Kroeber’s “A History of the Personality of Anthropology,” a piece which Kroeber wrote very late in his life. In it, Kroeber lays down his vision of anthropology’s unique outlook. In one striking passage, he describes anthropology as a ‘changeling’ discipline. Changelings are, in European folklore, elf or fairy children who are brought up by human parents who are unaware of their child’s true nature. The child of natural science on the one hand and the humanities on the other, Kroeber sees anthropology as ill at ease in its adopted home of the social science.

This paper is worthwhile because it conveys in a few short pages some of the fundamental instincts of American cultural anthropology. It will be useful for teachers who need a text to use as the basis for a lecture on anthropology’s outlook. Of course, the piece itself could also simply be assigned. Anthropologists from other national traditions will benefit from this thumbnail sketch of the American outlook, as will non-anthropologists looking for a nontechnical explanation of how anthropologists look at the world.

Savage Minds Occasional Paper #3: The History of the Personality of Anthropology by Alfred Kroeber, edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub

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Anthropology Co-Citation Graph

Recently Kieran Healy posted a link on Twitter to a co-citation graph he’d made to try to understand what philosophers “have been talking about for the last two decades?” He also posted a nice poster he made from this data [PDF]. I reposted these and mentioned that it would be great to have something similar for anthropology. The internet being the wonderful place that it is, I shortly had my wish, courtesy of Jonathan Goodwin.

anthropology co-citation graph

This chart isn’t as clean as Kieran’s – and probably has too much data (four journals going back to 1973), but Jonathan has helpfully provided instructions for how he did it in case anyone is interested in pursuing it further. I’d love to be able to create separate charts for each of the various sub-disciplines in anthropology, but that might be harder to do since they often appear in the same journals. Still, hopefully some interesting insights can be gleaned from this kind of data. If you are able to do anything with this, let us know in the comments!

UPDATE: Jonathan made a new, lower-density, chart for just 1998-to-the-present.

UPDATE: And a new one, with a chronological slider.

Happy Birthday Gramsci!

Gramsci was born January 22nd, 1891. I wanted to use the opportunity to correct three common misperceptions about Gramsci.

  1. Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony” is important because it allows Marxists to talk about “culture.”

The truth is the other way around. Gramsci did not so much provide a way for Marxists to think about culture as he sought to ground the study of culture in Marxism. That is to say, his work was a critique of idealist philosophy which viewed language and culture as having their own internal logic separate from that of political economy. His work was an attempt to ground the study of these subjects in a Marxist history of the Italian state.

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LOL Anthropology


Recently I’ve been rethinking my attitude towards popular trends in anthropological theory. You know what I’m talking about… that sudden realization that a whole bunch of anthropologists seem to be engaged with a theoretical framework, scholar, or empirical subject matter that seems to have come out of the blue while you weren’t paying attention. Lacan, Agamben, affect, transnational flows… whatnot. In the past I used to share Marshall Sahlins sense that these were but passing fads and that long-established anthropological traditions had already said many of the same things if we just knew where to look for it. Now I’m not so sure.

Lately I’ve been thinking that there is something productive about playing with the latest lingo. The important word is “play.” Just like internet memes, trying to fit your research or ideas into a new meme gives one a chance to see the material afresh. Hell, it can simply make it fun again, like remixing Gangnam Style with Star Trek the Next Generation, or removing all the music and adding sound effects, or perhaps even just singing it as an acoustic set.

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Notes on “The Poetics of History”

Metahistory (1973) is a remarkably prescient text. One of my projects this summer was getting to know Hayden White and I thought I might share some of the notes I took on the introductory chapter to his best known book. What brought me to the work initially was my interest in history and memory studies. Although the author’s intent is to address historians, Metahistory can be read as a comprehensive framework for thinking about how anthropologists construct representations through ethnography or how a community comes to relate to its past through the composition of historical narratives.

With the author’s focus on poetics it’s easy to see the connections to Writing Culture (1986). It’s kind of amazing really, to read this early seventies work that references all the same theorists anthropology starts talking about fifteen years down the road. White’s work contrasts with Writing Culture by virtue of being anchored to old school structuralism (my pet theory). White seems to have anticipated a lot of the later theory, only Metahistory is a much clearer read.

White is offering us a theory of theory that teaches us how to read for rhetoric in social science. Metahistory is about the problem of historical knowledge and White sees himself as working towards a theory of the structure of historical thought. This is a uniquely modern/ post-modern problem. In antiquity the question of what it means to think historically was debated by philosophers under the assumption that “unambiguous answers could be provided for them.” But, of course, theory since the ‘60s has concluded that “definitive answers may not be possible.” Continue reading

Finding value: Theory, abstraction, and fieldwork

I am still obsessed with the concept of value.  What is value?  What does it mean to say something has value?  How do we decide what something is “worth”?  How are different ideas about value connected to meaning–and action?  How do our ideas about value, worth, and meaning relate to our actions?  How is value connected to money (in its various forms)?  How are different forms of valorization (economic, cultural, moral, political) connected?  Where and when are they disconnected?

When I started on this exploration of the idea of value, one of my friends told me that if I’m really serious about looking deeper, then I should start with David Graeber’s book on the subject.  I did, and have subsequently read that book–and his book about Debt–and taken tons of notes.  My friend also said that my search for the meaning of value is going to head back to Marx one way or another.  And it did.  But it also led to Adam Smith, Clyde Kluckhohn, David Harvey, Noel Castree, Julia Elyachar, and many others.  This search for value has led me down many different side streets and avenues, and there’s still a lot of ground to cover. The most recent book that I am reading is James Buchan’s book Frozen Desire.  The money/value question, especially as it relates to land, real estate speculation, and development, is what has been keeping me occupied for some time now.  The more I look into value, the more I want to keep looking.  It’s a bit like an endless economic rabbit hole.

Now, I am definitely fascinated with the idea of value, but I am also willing to admit that it’s a massive, if not vague, concept.  Graeber said pretty much the same thing in the beginning of his book.  The word “value” can refer to a range of things: from prices and money values all the way to moral values.  So there’s a bit of fuzziness and abstraction going on, simply because of the wide array of ways in which people use the term.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell when one usage ends and another begins.  There’s a lot of contradiction and overlap going on.  I hate to say it, but the whole idea of value gets complicated–and really, really abstract at times.  Maybe too abstract? Continue reading

WC25: Jackson, Taussig, and Rutherford

If you haven’t heard already, the current issue of Cultural Anthropology covers the “Writing Culture at 25” conference hosted by Duke University in the fall of 2011. Happily articles by each of the panel participants plus supplemental materials will be open access for the remainder of 2012 (thank you Society for Cultural Anthropology). I’m especially keen to read Kathleen Stewart’s contribution as she was scheduled to speak alongside Danilyn Rutherford at the conference but was called away on other business at the last minute.

My colleague Ayla Samli and I covered the conference for Savage Minds last fall. You can read my introduction here. Ayla’s piece on George Marcus and Jim Clifford’s papers are here. And my post on Hugh Raffles and Kim Fortun’s presentations is here. Rex also contributed some reflections on his growing appreciation of Writing Culture since having it forced down his gullet as a grad student, a collective trauma many of us can relate to.

Like so many other things I start, I never finished writing up my conference notes. Really this is one of my most embarrassing short comings, but, you know… shrugs. So here (belatedly) is the thrilling conclusion to my notes on the WC25 conference. May they color and inform your enjoyment of the polished products now available through the OA Cultural Anthropology issue.
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Book Review — Freedom in Entangled Worlds, by Eben Kirksey

In Freedom in Entangled Worlds, the first book by anthropologist Eben Kirksey, Mellon Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, the reader is presented with a history of the merdeka movement in West Papua. This tale of magic, nationalism, and human rights in an “out of the way place” unfolds on a global stage as the author treks from the secret hideouts of guerilla fighters in the highland bush country to the seat of corporate power at BP headquarters in London. Along the way we get a master class in how an academic activist might balance post-structural theory with the kinds of strong knowledge claims that may influence political decision makers.

Indonesia formally incorporated West Papua into its nation in 1969 with the fraudulent Act of Free Choice. Since that time West Papuan leaders have pursued independence, or at least increased autonomy, for their region through many, often contradictory, means. From political engagement with the Indonesian state to pleas made before the international community tribal leaders and educated city dwellers have risked their lives through armed resistance, peaceful protest, and magic pursuing their dreams of freedom. The odds seem insurmountable and the movement itself endures near constant crisis, thus the theme of crisis as a sign of hope runs throughout this short, adventurous ethnography.

In a revealing scene towards the end of the book, Kirksey, finding himself in the halls of Washington power (and the crosshairs of an FBI investigation), forms alliances with other activist organizations such as the East Timor Action Network. Frustrated that his investigation into the murders of some American school teachers outside a Freeport MacMoRan mine is largely being ignored by those in positions of power he learns an important lesson every anthropologist who wishes to speak truth to power must learn.

“Politics isn’t about facts but about stories,” the director of ETAN tells him. “Your story is too complicated.” Continue reading

Keeping it open (fieldwork, abstraction, and unexpected surprises)

In case you haven’t heard, one of the ideas/concepts that I have been exploring is value.  Check out this post here on SM for a little background.  The concept itself is either really, really interesting, or, as one of my friends put it: little more than a big weasel word.

So which is it?  Both, I think.

Reading books and articles by Keith Hart, David Graeber, and Julia Elyachar, among others, has convinced my both of the fact that value is interesting and somewhat maddening.  It’s incredibly rich, and terribly vague at the same time.  I mean, how do we determine the value of particular things, ideas, and places–and how are different value regimes or systems comparable (e.g. is there a really useful way to compare or juxtapose moral value systems with those based upon money and markets)?

Going into fieldwork I decided to put the whole value question to the side a bit, and let things go where they may for a while.  Sometimes it’s a good idea to let certain pet ideas and theories take a back seat for a while to open up room for a range of possibilities. You know, let the empirical stuff run amok for a bit and keep a notebook on hand just in case.  Besides, I was getting to a point where the whole value thing was starting to seem a bit too abstract.  So I gave it a rest. Continue reading

A “Writing Culture” Moment for Psychology?

Psyche: #lfmf bro!

Ha! Just kidding.

The 30 March 2012 issue of the journal Science includes a news piece “Psychology’s Bold Initiative” on a possible moment of introspection for the discipline. Spurred on by some recent high profile academic fraud cases a cohort of scholars are leading a movement aimed at scrutinizing their field.

According to Science, many psychologists now feel that their field has a credibility problem. To my ear this underscores some of the differences between our disciplines and simultaneously calls to mind the critiques of Clifford and Marcus, et al.

The greater concern arises from several recent studies that have broadly critiqued psychological research practices, highlighting lax data collection, analysis, and reporting, and decrying a scientific culture that too heavily favors new and counterintuitive ideas over the confirmation of existing results. Some psychology researchers argue that this has led to too many findings that are striking for their novelty and published in respected journals – but are nonetheless false.

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