Rigoberta’s Revenge: The Implosion Of Anthropology

menchu.jpgOne of my professors in college defined an anthropologist as “a sociologist in a tent.” His comment was not a compliment — he was a sociologist — but it was true in ways that he did not have in mind.
Anthropology has always been a big tent, including as it does what one anthropologist calls “real scientists” as well as “fluff-head cultural anthropological types who think science is just another way of knowing.” Similarly, according to Elizabeth Cashdan, chair of anthropology at the University of Utah,

some anthropologists might mine the language and analytical tools favored by such humanities as literary criticism, while others may be more likely to deploy statistical methodology as befits social science. Still others might rely on the biological metrics, hard data and scientific method used by natural scientists. “This is reflective of tensions in the whole discipline,” said Cashdan, a bio-cultural anthropologist….

Now, however, that tent appears to be getting smaller; because of a revision in the American Anthropology Association’s long range planning document, many anthropologists believe they are being forced out. Inside Higher Ed (from which the Cashdan quote above is taken) has a long article on “Anthropology Without Science,” and a similar article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Anthropologists Debate Whether ‘Science’ Is a Part of Their Mission,” begins by asking, “Is anthropology a science? Is it a coherent discipline at all?” One day earlier the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a long piece by Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars and an anthropologist himself, on “Anthropology Association Rejecting Science?”

According to Wood,

[t]he new mission statement deletes the idea that anthropology is a science. It also blurs the intellectual boundaries of the discipline and, ironically, inserts a stronger warrant for using anthropology to engage in public advocacy….
The old mission statement declared that the AAA’s purpose “shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects.” The new statement jettisons “science” in favor of “public understanding.” It begins, “The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects….”
The change reflects a long-standing and growing divisiveness within anthropology between those who stick with the classic conception of studying humanity by means of systematic, rigorous, and ideally objective forms of inquiry, and those who see anthropology as inextricably and profoundly tied to the subjectivities of its researchers and their admitted epistemological limitations….

“The move,” Inside Higher Ed writes, ”

has sparked debate on blogs and among the various sub-specialties of the discipline about the proper place of science in anthropology. Some also say privately that this conflict marks the latest in a running cycle of perceived exclusions among the heterodox discipline.

Peter Peregrine, president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences, is quoted in the Chronicle saying “the removal of ‘science’ feels like a slap” and that the process by which the word was removed was “very strange.” A spokesman for the association, however, said “[n]o one realized … how loaded the word ‘science’ actually might be.”
How odd, as the first comment on the Chronicle article noted:

I hope I am not alone in the sense of amusement at the irony that a set of cultural anthropologists did not anticipate the power of naming and referencing a particular cultural construction. They did not recognize that the word “science” might be loaded, or come with particular associations? Then why go through the exercise of deleting it?

The debate over the significance of the word “science” strikes me, an outsider emigrant from the altogether different culture of academic history, as less about “science” than the role of raw ideology — not so much about whether “truth” and “objectivity” are attainable but whether they even exist as coherent concepts.
Consider, for example, the views of Dooglas Carl, who defines himself as “an anthropologist with a sense of humor.” Currently a doctoral candidate in Applied Anthropology at the University of South Florida, Carl asserts on his blog, Recycled Minds, that

[w]hen we examine the term “science”, we uncover a distinctly Western framework for explaining the world around us. “Science” has become privileged globally, and for many, represents the pinnacle of human achievement.
Historically not included under the rubric of “science”, however, are the thousands of distinct indigenous knowledge systems that exist around the world. Indigenous knowledge is only recently being understood and accepted by those in the West (and in anthropology) as the equally complex (and equally valid) indigenous counterpart to Western science. For the AAA, maintaining the use of the term “science” in their mission statement serves to maintain the colonizing, privileging, superior positionality of anthropology that continues to plague the discipline.

Ah, you veterans of the war over post-modernism will be thinking, we’ve heard all this before. Assuming Mr. Carl’s comments are not simply an example of his “sense of humor” (or even if they are), we have indeed heard about the colonizing, imperialistic effect of “privileging” science (not to mention the “superior positionality of anthropology”) before.
We heard about it most prominently during the extensive controversy over Rigoberta Menchu’s fraudulent autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchu, for which she won a Nobel Prize (a controversy I discussed back in 2004 here and again here, from both of which I’ve drawn). This controversy, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in a thorough January 15, 1999, article, “hit the scholarly community,” especially the anthropologists, “like a bomb.” A bomb, I might add, whose fallout is still being felt.
I, Rigoberta Menchu purported to be the autobiography of a poor, uneducated Guatemalan Maya Indian peasant who overcame extreme poverty (a younger brother starved to death, etc.) and violent oppression at the hands of Guatemala’s brutal right-wing oligarchs (who, she wrote, burned another brother to death before her very own young eyes). Her story, told in gripping and moving detail, quickly elevated her to iconic status among European intellectuals and American academics.
Alas, it was only a story; most of the dramatic events she recounted never happened. As the Chronicle article related, in the course of his own research in Guatemala, David Stoll, a Middlebury College anthropologist,

happened upon the town plaza of Chajul, which is near Ms. Menchu’s village of Chimel. In passing, he mentioned a key passage in Ms. Menchu’s autobiography to a villager. Wasn’t this plaza the place where the army burned prisoners, including Ms. Menchu’s brother, asked Mr. Stoll. The elderly villager looked puzzled, recalls Mr. Stoll, and told him that the army had never burned prisoners alive in the plaza. Six other townsmen told Mr. Stoll the same thing, yet Ms. Menchu’s book claimed she was an eyewitness to the torture and burning of her younger brother, Petrocinio, in that very place.

After several years of additional research Stoll concluded that Rigoberta’s “autobiography” was in fact highly politicized fiction. His results were published as Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. The New York Times investigated and published a long, complete confirmation of Stoll’s findings.
What is relevant here, however, is not the misleading inaccuracy of the “autobiography” but the response of many academics, especially anthropologists, who shared their reactions with the Chronicle: “They say it doesn’t matter if the facts in the book are wrong, because they believe Ms. Menchu’s story speaks to a greater truth about the oppression of poor people in Central America.” Most, in short, didn’t really care whether the book was accurate or not, at least in the western, scientific, logical, factual sense, and they regarded criticism as simply reactionary bias.

“I think Rigoberta Menchu has been used by the right to negate the very important space that multiculturalism is providing in academia,” says Marjorie Agosin, head of the Spanish department at Wellesley College. “Whether her book is true or not, I don’t care. We should teach our students about the brutality of the Guatemalan military and the U.S. financing of it.”
What matters, professors say, is that the kinds of crimes she wrote of were committed by the military, and indigenous people such as Ms. Menchu bore the brunt of the violence. “Even if she didn’t watch her little brother being murdered, the military did murder people in Guatemala,” says Ms. Agosin of Wellesley.

The controversy stoked by Stoll’s book and the following New York Times article was so intense that the Chronicle of Higher Education supplemented the article I’ve been quoting with a long “Colloquy” in which a much larger contingent of academics stated their views. Unfortunately that Colloquy is no longer available online, but I quoted some representative contributions in my 2004 blog post, a few of which follow:

  • Prof. John Peeler, Bucknell political scientist: The Latin American tradition of the testimonial has never been bound by the strict rules of veracity that we take for granted in autobiography.

  • Prof. Karen Jaimie, NYU: Does it really matter that some of these events did not occur to her but have occurred to someone else? Not really. We need to globalize our perspective and not try to minimize the relevancy of the book regardless of some fabrications that may or may not exist. The experiences related were all within the realm of the possible.
  • Magdalena Garcia Pinto, director of women’s studies, Univ. of Missouri: What Rigoberta Menchu is representing is not mendacity. Rather, it is a narrative about how large communities in the region are/have been oppressed. … It is fictional truth, if you will, that speaks eloquently about a reality that smacks at our faces.
  • Francois Lapelerie, university librarian, Universite de la Mediterranee, Faculte de Luminy Marseille, France: Her book has a very high symbolic value; she, herself, is a living symbol of the fight of all oppressed people not only in Central America, but all over the world. Everybody knows that. So when we read Menchu, we don’t care about what really happened.

The obvious question, raised but unanswered in these lockstep defenses of the “symbolic value” of the “fictional truths” of Menchu’s mendacity “regardless of some fabrications that may or may not exist,” is: what, then, is the difference between anthropology and fiction, or between anthropology and political propaganda? What happens to the pursuit of knowledge itself if its only validation is what “[e]verybody knows” already? As John Leo, editor of a well-known online site that covers academia (this one), wrote back in 2000,

when Rigoberta Menchu’s famous account of class and ethnic warfare in Guatemala was revealed to be largely false, many professors said this didn’t matter much because her book contained emotional truth. The blurring of the line between fact and fiction is far advanced in our university culture

It’s more advanced now than it was then.
Joanne Rappaport, president of the Society for Latin American Anthropology in 1999, accused Stoll’s book of being

“an attempt to discredit one of the only spokespersons of Guatemala’s indigenous movement.” A professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Georgetown University, Ms. Rappaport says that Mr. Stoll is going against the grain in cultural anthropology, which no longer advocates studying indigenous people as objects. “What I find is that I am increasingly engaged in a dialogue with people I used to study,” she says. Mr. Stoll, on the other hand, she says, risks cutting off “the possibilities of dialogue” between researchers and their subjects by discrediting Ms. Menchu and establishing himself as the ultimate authority on what happened to her.

If a person, whether “indigenous” or not, is “the ultimate authority” on what happened in his or her life, beyond the ability of others not only to judge but even to describe, then forget about “science.” Objectivity and truth become not simply unattainable goals; they cease to exist as meaningful concepts. This is post-modernism run amuck, and it reveals a void at the core of a large strain of multicultural academic work that is much larger than simply removing the word “science” from a mission statement may suggest.

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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