Category Archives: public anthropology

Anthropological writing for troubled times

editingWhen I made the shift from college teaching to the world of fundraising in support of anthropology and Native American arts, I quickly learned something about which I’d previously had only a vague suspicion: that as an occupational group, anthropologists do a poor job of making a case for the importance of our work.

In offering such a sweeping judgment, I’m mostly referring to cultural anthropology, my own subdiscipline.  Biological anthropologists have the advantage of being increasingly involved in genomics research as well as studies of human growth and development that have scientific cachet and often some practical utility.  Archaeologists can draw on consistent popular interest in cultural history.

If you ask an average American what recent work of anthropology he or she has read or at least is aware of, the reply is likely to be something by Jared Diamond, who isn’t an anthropologist at all.  (He was trained in physiology and now holds an academic position in geography.) This causes no end of consternation to anthropologists, who with few exceptions find Diamond’s work simplistic, derivative, and often wrong-headed.  What accounts for his popularity?  I’d say two things: the clarity of his writing and his willingness to explore big ideas. These qualities earned him a Pulitzer Prize for Guns, Germs, and Steel in 1998.

Clarity of expression and big ideas are not easy to find in the everyday writing of anthropologists.  There are occasional exceptions—one is David Graeber, whose work I’ve written about before—as well as the writers recruited by the website Sapiens, whose success since its founding in 2016 is a tribute to the vision of the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the leadership of the site’s editor-in-chief, Chip Colwell.

These exceptions and a handful of others aside, I’ve come to think of anthros as living in a dream-world in which we take for granted the importance and moral urgency of what we write without seriously considering its off-putting characteristics for the public we aspire to reach.   This suspicion was confirmed by the campaign to hold public readings of work by Michel Foucault to protest the inauguration of the current occupant of the White House.  I’m casting no aspersions on those who venerate Saint Michel, only noting the improbability that anything written by him would change the hearts and minds of Americans in a time of marked coarsening of our national discourse.

What do I mean by off-putting characteristics?  There is little point in belaboring the problem of jargon, which afflicts all academic disciplines. (Addendum, 2-24.2017.  That said, don’t miss this essay on academic BS by Maximillian Alvarez.)  But anthropology seems more prone than most to embrace weird linguistic tics, such as the compulsion to pluralize everything (“anthropologies,” “sexualities”) or claiming to “theorize” an issue when the author is simply undertaking comparison or offering inductive generalizations.  These are normalized in the discipline but are likely to baffle readers who aren’t dues-paying  members of the club.

More substantive problems include frequent, plodding references to the structure of one’s presentation—”In this paragraph I talk about X; in the next I discuss Y,” thus presuming that the reader is too dense to figure out where the author is going and why, which might indeed be the case if the prose is weak.  Or the now almost inevitable declaration that the author’s goal is to “complicate” an issue.  Some questions merit complication, of course. Many don’t.  One could even make a case that a good piece of writing is obliged to simplify or at least offer a concise interpretation of the complexities that it addresses.  Equally distracting is the perceived need to cite Big Theorists as a way of displaying cultural capital rather than illuminating an argument.  (Maximilian Forte discusses this in his video lecture “Beyond Public Anthropology,” beginning at the 36 minute mark.)

Brevity is an underrated virtue in contemporary anthropological writing despite the shift in the culture at large to ever shorter forms of written expression.  I’ve lost count of the number of ethnographies I’ve read in recent years that would have been twice as powerful if they’d been half as long.  As many gifted writers have noted, what one leaves out of a book or article is often as important  to clarity of expression as what stays in.

I was prompted to think about the future of anthropological writing by a recent message from a longtime supporter of the institution for which I work.  He heads a family foundation that funds a number of cultural institutions and progressive causes.  The present political crisis is leading him to shift his support in the direction of organizations that can effect positive social change and counter the nation’s turn to the populist right.  His advice to me: “No more esoteric stuff.  Deal with real issues and offer answers rather than narratives.”  He urged me to come out of what he called the “academic cave.”

Even if we discount the urgency prompted by recent events, his view has merit.  For anthropology to survive and prosper, its practitioners must become much better at bringing informed perspectives to issues of broad import, writing about them with impeccable clarity, and proposing practical solutions when appropriate.  This doesn’t limit work to applied or engaged or activist anthropology, although these are certainly valuable contributions to the field. There remains a place for big-picture research—on deep history, human evolution, ancient cultural traditions, and the like—that helps to contextualize current preoccupations within a larger frame.  This work has to be clear, inventive, and engaging.  If we can’t make this transition, we’ll be abandoned in our academic cave, reading Foucault by the flickering light of a dying fire.

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A short but useful blog post on writing and editing, drawing on the pithy advice of the late William Zinsser, can be found in the website of Bhaskar Sarma.

The March 2017 issue of Harper’s includes an amusing review by Nat Segnit of the latest crop of writing guides.  Not all of the review is relevant to non-fiction writers and social scientists, but it’s worth a look, especially Segnit’s witty editorial critique of the preamble to the United States Constitution.

The spectrum of cultural appropriation: Recent cases

Inuit_sweater_design
http://gizmodo.com/is-this-1-000-sweater-a-rip-off-of-a-sacred-inuit-desi-1744798184

 

Just when I’d begun to hope that egregious appropriation of indigenous cultural productions was beginning to decline, new cases are making headlines.  Nearly as troubling as the persistence of such acts of injustice is the viral spread of the “cultural appropriation” meme and its invocation in situations that flirt with triviality, a trend that risks undermining the term’s moral force.

In late November 2015, a UK fashion house was called out for selling very expensive sweaters that featured a design copied from a the parka of a long-dead Inuit shaman from Nunavut.  The shaman’s descendants complained, the story hit the media in the US, Canada, and elsewhere, and the company withdrew the product from sale after issuing a rather tepid apology.  Why a publicity-attuned corporation would think that their design theft would go unnoticed in a digitally interconnected world is anyone’s guess.

A more complicated case involves a group of Boy Scouts from southern Colorado who since 1950 have been performing Native dances that they identify as originating in the Hopi Tribe of Arizona, arguably one of the Indian nations that has most energetically defended its traditional religious knowledge and practices.  There is little question that the “Koshare Indian Dancers,” as the dance troupe is called, began as a romantic act of homage to Native Americans.  Over the years, the group has performed across the United States in highly publicized and celebrated events.  The director of the Hopi Office of Cultural Preservation, Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, has recently protested the performances, which Hopis regard as culturally insensitive because, among other things, the performers have no true understanding of the social and religious meaning of the dances.  Hopis are presumably offended because the dances—however unintentionally—threaten and implicitly show disrespect for Hopi religion by distorting traditional rituals and invoking spiritual powers about which the dancers are themselves completely ignorant.  Denunciations from other Pueblo communities are likely to follow.   (A recent article on the controversy, published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, includes a short video of the dances.)

Is the case of the Koshare Indian Dancers more or less troubling than the theft of an Inuit design by a commercial fashion house?  The latter was done solely for commercial gain, which doesn’t seem to be a factor for performers in the Boy Scout dance troupe.  In that sense, the Inuit case is a cruder form of theft.  The Boy Scouts apparently mean well, and they insist that their dance expresses appreciation for Native American culture.  But their dancing is perceived by Hopi people as hurtful and misguided rather than as admiring.  A case can be made that ongoing public performance of the dances constitutes a greater harm to the Hopi, who number around 20,000, than the sale of a handful of overpriced sweaters is to the more numerous Inuit people, although I don’t feel that I’m in a position to say whose hurt might be greater.

Then there’s the recent claim that teaching and practicing yoga by Americans, Canadians, and other people not native to South Asia is a form of cultural appropriation.  This made international headlines when a group at the University of Ottawa canceled a yoga course after concluding that teaching yoga in Canada was ethically fraught because the South Asian societies that developed it “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy.”

Michelle Goldberg convincingly demolishes this argument in a piece in Slate.   She notes that Indian nationalists enthusiastically supported the introduction of yoga in the West to demonstrate the richness and sophistication of Indian culture.  The engagement of Indian advocates of yoga with Western audiences changed the discipline significantly.  The emerging, cosmopolitan version of yoga has become so identified with India, Goldberg reports, that in 2015 “Narendra Modi, India’s right-wing nationalist prime minister, succeeded in getting the United Nations to recognize International Yoga Day on June 21, which was celebrated with mass yoga demonstrations worldwide.”

The final stop of this tour of widely publicized recent allegations of appropriation is a protest by Oberlin College students who claimed that the apparently inauthentic or substandard ethnic food served in the college’s dining halls was not just unpalatable but represented a form of harmful cultural appropriation.   A Japanese student, among others, resented the poor-quality sushi served in Oberlin’s cafeteria.  She was quoted as saying, “When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture.  So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”

Most of the published comments that I’ve seen on the Oberlin tempest-on-a-sushi-tray are unsympathetic, even snarky, and justly so.  But the students’ denunciation is not just silly.  It is a classic case of misusing a moral claim in a way that degrades its meaning and power in much the same way that the casual, uncritical invocation of terms such as “racism” and “ethnocide” distorts their meaning and threatens their legitimacy.  When cultures collide, there is bound to be friction and boundary-infringement of many different kinds, some of which may be unjust and destructive, others of which are merely annoying.  Still others, of course, evoke delight and mutual appreciation.   For a multicultural society to survive and prosper, citizens need to learn to make critical distinctions and exercise judgment about what kind of injuries are worthy of complaint and which are best shrugged off as the price one pays for cultural difference—a price well worth paying.


Additional sources.

The IPinCH project at Simon Fraser University continues to lead the way toward sensible thinking on this topic.  Don’t miss their recently posted “final exam” on the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural borrowing.

The Santa Fe New Mexican has just published a comprehensive article by Khristaan D. Villela on the circumstances surrounding the 2015 publication of a book documenting Acoma Pueblo’s origin myth by Penguin/Random House, the sale of which is being vigorously contested by Acoma’s traditional authorities.

For aggregated links to other stories  related to cultural appropriation between 2003 and 2014, see the Who Owns Native Culture? website, updating of which was suspended in mid-2014.

Can anthropology fund itself?

anthronews

The American Anthropological Association’s Anthropology News has just published a short piece of mine under the title “If Not Us, Then Who?”  It addresses a strange blindness shared by many academics about how their research activities get funded now and how they are likely to be funded in the future.  In the United States, at least, the state  is steadily backing away from its former role as a major funder of social science research.  Worst still, demands by influential politicians that government-funded studies be consistent with “American values” or produce immediate economic returns are making it increasingly difficult for some branches of sociocultural anthropology to find financial support.   A few private foundations have moved into the breach, but there is little doubt that philanthropy by individuals—some quite wealthy, others less so—remains the single largest source of charitable giving in the United States.

I never thought about this much when I was a working professor, although my home institution for more than three decades was a college famously successful at soliciting donations from its loyal alumni.  Now that I head a research institution supported almost entirely by charitable donations, I have little time to think about anything else.  (Any reader who has worked for a not-for-profit organization will know what I’m talking about.)  Without ongoing support from individual donors, my institution would be forced to close its doors within a few years, thus ending a century-old record of supporting innovative research in anthropology, archaeology, history, and Native American Studies.

So my AN essay asks: Now that many Baby Boomers are benefiting from the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history, shouldn’t we be thinking about giving back so that the scholars  who follow us will have the same opportunities for professional growth that enriched our careers?  And shouldn’t those research opportunities be as free as possible from the influence of the national politics of the moment?

Regarding Graeber’s “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”

bureaucracy Today anthropologists talk constantly about the need for “public scholarship.”  There are programs that promote it and a handful of anthropologists who successfully publish in popular venues such as the Huffington Post (e.g., the indefatigable Paul Stoller).  The problem is that the textual tics and high-mandarin vocabulary  of contemporary social science are hard to unlearn after decades of trafficking in them.  This makes it especially challenging for academics to write theoretically rich accounts capable of engaging ordinary readers.  We think we know how to do it, but few of us succeed.

An exception is David Graeber, an anthropologist and self-described anarchist who moved to a position in the UK after a high-profile departure from Yale a decade ago.  Graeber’s 2011 book Debt: The First 5000 Years, was widely reviewed in the trade press and is described as an “international best-seller,” although what that means in actual sales isn’t clear to me.  Perhaps it’s enough to say that it doubtless beat the average lifetime sales of a typical work of anthropology (well under a thousand copies these days, I’m told) by several orders of magnitude.  Not every review of Debt was glowing—a book covering so much history is bound to violate the understandings of some experts—but many reviewers found it witty, accessible, and convincing.

What is distinctive about Graeber’s writing, aside from its anarchist underpinnings, is its conversational quality.  He sometimes grapples with the work of major theorists (Lévi-Strauss, Jameson, Weber, Marx, etc.) but always manages to represent their thinking with refreshing clarity.  Whether critics find his arguments right or wrong is less interesting than is his ability to make the ideas seem worthy of contemplation because of what they tell us about contemporary realities, including the multiple ways that capitalism shapes our experience and understanding of the world.  And he’s often funny, which helps.

These gifts are on display in Graeber’s latest work, The Utopia of Rules, a collection of  essays on bureaucracy—its history, key features, and impact on societies and individuals.

Continue reading Regarding Graeber’s “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”