Tag Archives: anthropology

How Anthropology Was Corrupted and Killed

The knock against anthropologists used to be that they were all relativists.  Not anymore.  Many anthropologists today are hardcore moral absolutists.  The members of the American Anthropological Association are busy voting (until May 31) on a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The proposed resolution jumps off in its first sentence in universalist language, claiming that Israel has denied Palestinians “their fundamental rights of freedom, equality, and self-determination.”

I have voted against the resolution, because I oppose the politicization of an academic discipline. I also disagree with it on substantive grounds, but that’s beside the point.

The AAA’s anti-Israel resolution, of course, hasn’t materialized out of thin air.  It is part of the larger BDS campaign against Israel—Boycott, Divest, and Sanction.  Other academic associations, starting with the American Studies Association in December 2014, have gone down this road.  And the AAA has been politicizing itself for several decades.  Its virulent attack on the reputation of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon in 2002 was a forerunner of what was to come.

And as the new resolution points out, in 1999 AAA adopted a Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights that committed the body to “promotion and protection of the right of people and peoples everywhere to the full realization of their humanity.”  That Declaration is a perfect springboard for all sorts of partisan action on behalf of one group and against another.

Related: BDS and the Rise of Post-Factual Anthropology

The “promotion and protection” sentence sounds so benign that it is worth pausing to see exactly where the mischief lies.  Anthropology is, in principle, the study of humanity.  It attempts to sort out what is fundamentally human and therefore shared by all, what varies from group to group, and how those variations can be explained.  In that perspective, the 1999 Declaration’s phrase “full realization of their humanity” is a puzzle.  Anthropologists used to regard “humanity” as the question to be asked, not the answer that is already in hand.  Does the “full realization” of some people’s “humanity” mean that we should make room for some tribe’s deeply felt need for child sacrifice, widow-burning, torture of captives, head-hunting, or numerous other customs well-attested in the ethnographic record?

Our “humanity” is, as anthropologists well know, an extremely flexible thing, and one that can be and often has been stretched to encompass some behavior that most of us would regard as far from humane.  But that doesn’t seem to be the idea offered up in the Declaration.  Rather, “the full realization of their humanity” turns out to involve things like “the right to education and academic freedom, for peoples around the world.”

To anyone acquainted with world ethnography that is a pretty strange conception.  What did the Trobriand Islanders of Malinowski’s day know of “academic freedom?”  What was the “right to education” among herders of the Central Asian Steppe?  Or hunters in the Amazon rain forest?  If these are the desiderata of a “full realization” of humanity, did anthropology decide once and for all that only people who have universities can be human?  Perhaps the “right to education” can encompass learning how to herd sheep or blowgun monkeys from the forest canopy, but that’s probably not what the Declaration meant.

Related: The Long PC Battle in Anthropology

The Declaration reflects a sentimental view of humanity, as though in our essence we are a tribe of suburban Californians dabbling in the human potential movement of the 1990s, eager to get our kids into good local schools and send them on to Berkeley or Reed.

That this could turn in 2016 to the thinly veiled anti-Semitism of a BDS-style resolution should not be too much of a surprise. Anti-Semitism is back in fashion.  It is this year’s Merlot. And academics whose minds are shaped mostly by intellectual fashion were bound to arrive there.

This is, however, quite a journey for the field of anthropology. Not so many years ago, anthropologists were in a kind of arms race to see who could carry cultural relativism to the greatest extreme. Everyone knows roughly what cultural relativism is. If we can look at the world through X’s eyes, we can understand why X does what he does. If you just looked at the world through the cannibal’s eyes, you could see cannibalism was a sensible cultural choice.

No Generalizing about Humanity

Anthropologists circa 1980 seemed to come equipped with an internal alarm that went off any time someone generalized about humanity. If you said, “But all parents love their children,” an anthropologist of the era would be sure to say something like, “Not so! Among the Mundugamor of the Sepik River in New Guinea, parents consider their children a vile nuisance.” Generalizing about humanity based on the ideals of your own culture was “ethnocentrism,” of which there was no more terrible thing. To be ethnocentric was to be intellectually shallow and uninformed about the sheer variety of ways humans can go about being human.

But then anthropology touched its relativistic bottom. In the 1980s it collectively decided that anthropology itself was ethnocentric.  The things anthropologists studied such as marriage, family, and kinship were deemed no more than projections of the anthropologist’s own culture. This was in many ways absurd, but it caught on and many anthropologists decided their only option was start staring into the mirror. They wrote subjective stories about how they felt when confronted with “the other.” They studied their own communities. And increasingly they embraced ideologies that turned them into “post-colonial” activists, environmental activists, feminist activists, and so on.  The discipline of anthropology un-disciplined itself in favor of political action.

Anthropology Becomes Ideology

I wrote an essay on this for Minding the Campus January a year ago, “Ferguson and the Decline of Anthropology.” My perspective was considered sufficiently unusual that the AAA Newsletter picked it up and reprinted it, and this in turn set off a firestorm of criticism of the AAA editors for publishing such a disgraceful thing. One anthropologist took the trouble to post a declaration of his own: “Why you shouldn’t take Peter Wood (or Anthropology News) seriously.

But I’m far from alone in regarding anthropology’s descent into ideology as an intellectual disaster. My colleague Glynn Custred recently posted a similar essay, “Turning Anthropology from Science into Political Activism.

This is not to say that politicized anthropology is a single ideology. What has emerged in the place of the old discipline is a many-sided feud over which ideology should dominate. The lead article in the newest issue of Current Anthropology, for example, pitches the importance of the “decolonizing” project carried forward by “Black scholars,” and argues that decolonizing has wrongly lost ground to the postmodern “ontological project” in anthropology.  What is all that about?

You can read Jafari Sinclaire Allen and Ryan Cecil Jobson’s “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology Since the Eighties.”  But be prepared for explanations like this: “While the ontological turn contents itself with the assertion of multiple ontologies as a corrective to enduring North Atlantic universals, the decolonizing project insists that even in multiple ontologies, the work of dismantling a hegemonic Western ontology—and its adjunct systems of colonials and racial capitalism—remains.”

Busy Attacking the West

Translation: Many anthropologists busy themselves attacking Western ideas about objective knowledge, but they don’t go far enough. You need radical Black anthropologists to finish the job of destroying the West.

Allen and Jobson are perfectly explicit about their larger goal.  Their essay, though turgid, is clear enough in its lament for the fall of Soviet communism:  “The fall of the Soviet Union was of interest—and destabilizing—to anthropology.” That’s because the end of “state socialist projects […] foreclosed a moment of revolutionary optimism.”

This essay, given prominent treatment in a mainstream academic journal, is nothing unusual in the field as it now stands.  If you wonder how and why the BDS movement could gain a sizable following among academic anthropologists in 2016, consider Allen and Jobson as a benchmark of where the discipline is.

This is anthropology in the mode of saying more and more about less and less. Most of the anthropologists I know and respect have long since left the American Anthropological Association. A small but determined faction hangs on in the hope that real anthropological scholarship will somehow survive this decades-long descent into intellectual drivel. My own view is that the written record of good ethnography written before the 1980s will endure because it is readable and important. And there are solitary monuments in the 1990s and after, as the boulders left behind by retreating glaciers, which attest to a now vanished form of rigorous academic inquiry.

Celebrating Victimhood

Scholarship requires a community of scholars who actively learn from and challenge one another. That community is fast disappearing.  Anthropology departments today typically include a few people who know about DNA and evolution, and a whole lot of people committed to “social justice” by celebrating one or another kind of victimhood. Calls for papers go out to those writing “anthropology fiction,” “lies that tell the truth,” and “gender-responsive implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”  Those are items pulled from the top of the Anthropology News calendar. They capture the everyday business of a field that is busy talking itself into irrelevance to any serious intellectual endeavor.

What do anthropologists talk about when they talk about Africa?  “The relationships between the colonial/apartheid and the post-colonial/post-apartheid,” is on the docket at the African Critical Inquiry Programme.  This is the echo in that empty auditorium.  Africa like the rest of the world still has a great deal to teach us about what is fundamentally human and what varies from group to group.  But “postcolonial” theorizing is what we get after the serious questions go to bed.  It is post-anthropology.  And it is part of the fog, along with the proposed Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, the Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights, and the skirmishes between neo-decolonialists, postmodern ontologists. Anthropology today is dominated by hatred of science and civilization.  Some of its practitioners express that hatred proudly; others try to muffle it a bit; and a few gray members of the old tradition hang on.  How does an academic discipline die?  Like this.

A Harvard Apologist for China’s One-Child Brutality

The phrase “dominant narrative” is a sure sign that a postmodern, anti-Western or anti-male story line is about two seconds away. It appears early in a flattering Harvard Gazette profile of Susan Greenhalgh, “the newest professor of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences” at Harvard. The profiler, Katie Koch of the Harvard Gazette staff, says Greenhalgh “seized the opportunity to counter the dominant Western narrative that Chinese citizens are uniformly coerced into complying with the one-child rule.”

Continue reading A Harvard Apologist for China’s One-Child Brutality

A Footnote to the Anthropology Debate

As noted in my December 1 essay here, Rigoberta’s Revenge, the American Anthropological Association stuck a stick in a hornet’s nest with its recent decision to remove the word “science” from its long range planning document.
Stung by the resulting swarm of criticism, the AAA’s four officer’s have now issued a statement claiming the entire brouhaha is a tempest in a teapot, “amped up by blog headline editors” who have blown a simple editorial change out of all proportion. The critics, in short, simply didn’t understand. When the AAA’s Executive Board “specified, concretized, and enlarged its operational roadmap for investing the Association’s resources towards a sustainable future” (where is the academic prose police when you need it?), it had no intention of restructuring the epistemological foundations of the field.
In my essay I quoted “the amusement” of one the critics at what he called

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 AAA’s leaders seem to have taken at least that criticism seriously. “We believe,” their statement says,

that the source of the problem speaks to the power of symbols: we replaced the term “science” in the preface of this planning document by a more specific (and inclusive) list of research domains, while explicitly acknowledging that the Association’s central focus is to promote the production, circulation, and application of anthropological research findings.

Excuse me for interjecting a term often associated with science, but the truth here still seems elusive. Assuming for the sake of argument that “the term ‘science'” is the symbol at issue, was its shaman-like power somehow ignored by the anthropologists on the Executive Board when they unceremoniously tossed it overboard? Or could these anthropologists possibly be contrasting symbols with reality (oops, another hegemonic, western, scientific term)? If so, then what they are saying is that the Executive Board’s critics, also anthropologists, leapt to the erroneous conclusion that a minor editorial decision — deleting what after all is only a word — was symbolic of an attack on science itself.
Perhaps the inability to get to the bottom of this intricate, highly charged tribal controversy reveals the limits of anthropology as a discipline, whether scientific or cultural.

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?”

Continue reading Rigoberta’s Revenge: The Implosion Of Anthropology

Opening Old Wounds

An unusually bitter academic argument of 2000 came up again at the American Anthropological Association annual convention in Philadelphia. At issue was the long and famous (critics would say, notorious) work of Napoleon Chagnon among the Yanomamo Indians of the Amazon rain forest in Brazil and Venezuela. The Yanomomi are not among the most endearing of what used to be called primitive cultures. They acquire women by raiding nearby villages. In the process, the victors kill all the men, bash the brains of babies out on rocks, then gang-rape the women over and over and cart them home as spoils of war. A 1988 article in Science by Chagnon provoked praise and controversy, but the anger reached its peak in 2000 with the publication of Darkness in El Dorado, a vehemently anti-Chagnon book by journalist Patrick Tierney.
The book argued that Chagnon had exaggerated the violence of the Yanomami, staged some fights, and collaborated with his late colleague, geneticist James Neel, in starting a measles epidemic by vaccinating some members of the tribe.(The name Josef Mengele surfaced among critics of Chagnon and Neel.) In a syndicated column at the time, I suggested that the uproar over Chagnon was a shadow war over other issues—the noble savage myth versus the reality of the Yanomami, the sociobiological approach versus the blank-slate theory, and respect for traditional field work versus the post-Sixties politicized view that anthropology is little more than a destructive form of colonialism. The AAA censured Chagnon, an astounding act by a professional academic group. To the amazement to many, myself included, the association later revoked the censure and did it with unusually blunt language: “The task force compromised its objectivity by merging its investigation with a political agenda, in that its mission in conducting the investigation was intended to challenge ‘Western elites,’ and ‘interrupt regimes of knowledge and power.”

Work With The U.S. Military? Not If You’re An Anthropologist

The good news is that the American Anthropological Association (AAA), which wound up its annual meeting last week in San Francisco, did not go the whole hog and endorse the idea that it’s unethical for an anthropologist to consult for the U.S. military—even though that is exactly what many of the AAA’s 11,000 members, mostly anthropology professors and graduate students at U.S. universities, wanted the organization to do. The bad news is that is the AAA came pretty close to such a declaration, letting stand proposed changes to its code of ethics (to be voted on by the full membership via e-mail in December) that would partially reinstate a Vietnam War-era ban on research conducted according to the protocols of military secrecy. Furthermore, the rhetoric at the 2008 meeting, during which one superheated anthropologist characterized the war in Iraq as “people being butchered,” confirmed conservatives’ worst suspicions about academics’ empathy with terrorists and hostility toward anyone wearing a U.S. uniform.
The nub of the tension is the Human Terrain System, a four-year-old, $130 million program that embeds anthropologists and other social scientists in U.S. military units in Iraq and Afghanistan so that the scholars can use their expertise in field research to gather information about tribal and cultural norms that might prevent American soldiers from making tactical errors (such as interrogating someone during the Ramadan fast) that could alienate a local populace and also help them persuade that same populace that siding with the Americans instead of, say, the Taliban, would be in their best interests. During 2006 and 2007 the Human Terrain Teams, led by Montgomery McFate, a Yale-trained anthropologist, and focusing on efforts to understand and work with cultures radically different from those of the West, garnered generally favorable press coverage even from such reliably antiwar publications as the New York Times and the New Yorker.
Since anything that helps America win a war, especially the Iraq war, is anathema at the left end of the academic spectrum, it was only a matter of time before anthropologists not on the Human Terrain payroll would mobilize to try to ostracize those among their colleagues who were. Soon enough the left-of-center Network of Concerned Anthropologists began agitating for the AAA to drive scholars who worked for the U.S. military beyond the pale of academic respectability. A recent petition drafted by Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University in Virginia, and ten other scholars stated the following:

Continue reading Work With The U.S. Military? Not If You’re An Anthropologist

Anthropology’s Holy Trinity

Karl Marx did everyone a huge favor when he announced that all history was the history of class struggle because then it was simple to analyze anything and everything confidently and crisply. But in Anthropology a new holy explanatory trinity has emerged to replace the good old simple one: Race/Class/Gender. You can barely refer to the weather without taking into firm account the now-triply-coercive impact of these factors. There are some immediate things to note about how these relatively reasonable independent variables are influenced by the prevailing ethos of the academic institutions which have affirmed their necessary role in peering at any social behavior. The first and in a way most dramatic feature is that the trinity is essentially composed of factors which are viewed as centrally negative. The use of Race (which is scientifically a hopeless, preposterous and dumb concept which should be embargoed from serious discussion) implies not that race is a positive matter but rather a source of inequity, loss of face, and the origin of variegated segments of oppression.

Another negative vitamin of the RCG Trinity is its unthinking association with the industrial way of life or of industry. Most folks in most of nature’s constituency don’t think in terms of class, unless they’ve been to the London School of Economics or any more expensive US college. Instead, kinship is all. Family, Uncle Dirk, Cousin Frank in Wichita – that’s the organizing principle of human as well as chimp and even bat society. You may be a big-city alderman or the owner of a Chevrolet dealership but you’re always a son or daughter or dim-bulb cousin first. Class as a construct was useful in trying to figure out how to deal with the conniptions of Europe when farmers had to leave the land either because of the Enclosure Acts or bad potato prices and moved to cities where they were obligated through the need for breakfast to work hard, usually for people who got to wear velvet. But as a cosmic imprimatur of how human life gets lived, sorry, class is rather particular as a tool and of course that’s why the gaseous term “middle class” serves countless suave commentators as a method of avoiding any punctilious analysis of the matter, as compared for example with folks who have tetanus and those who don’t.

Continue reading Anthropology’s Holy Trinity