Category Archives: academic anthropology

Reflections on being an anthropologist…

It’s almost taboo to broach “what is anthropology” so far into my research as I prepare for some closure on my doctoral project. Seven years later, I should know what makes something “anthropological.”

I start with Jonathan Inda’s introduction in Analytics of the Modern for some guidance.

He writes: “[This book] has two general orientations. One is anthropological. What this means, simply put for now, is three things. First, it means that the essays gathered here treat modernity not in abstract terms but tangibly as an ethnographic object. Their aim, in other words, is not to come up with some grand, general account of modernity but to analyze its concrete manifestations. Second, it means that these essays examine the materialization of the modern not just in the West, as tends to be the case in most disciplines, but worldwide…Finally, to be anthropological in orientation means that at the stake in the analysis of modernity is the value and form of the anthropos or human being (Collier and Ong 2003; Rabinow 2003). Said otherwise, the book is centrally concerned with the modern constitution of the social and biological life of the human.”

When I was studying for an M.A. in sociocultural anthropology, terms and phrases like “ethnographic object” and “modern constitution of the social life” and “concrete manifestations” really confused me because I could not conceive of the opposite. What is a non-ethnographic object or an ethnographic non-object? What does it mean for social life not to be constituted? Besides citing the “right” people and reading different claims to the definition of anthropology, I don’t think I arrived at an understanding of my discipline until fieldwork and post-fieldwork. The defining feature of anthropology, I believe, is fieldwork. 
Bronislaw Malinowski, named the father of fieldwork, was given credit for establishing it as a systematic method for collecting data. For Malinowski, the anthropologist had to have a scientific goal, collect data such as genealogies, choose key informants, analyze the data, participate in activities with the informants while taking extensive notes, and be aware of one’s emotional state during fieldwork (Thomas Weaver SfAA Malinowski Award Papers 2002). When I read and taught Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), I was perpetually in awe of the details of his observations (some of it veering into gossip territory), his crystal-clear writing and conclusions that challenged assumptions about an economic system like the kula exchange among the Trobriand Islanders that relied on status, symbols and networks beyond the self-interested and rational individual. Malinowski defined anthropology as a science based on the systematic method of participant observation and other ethnographic methods used to shed light on and possibly, solve social problems. He was also a champion of practical anthropology (or applied anthropology) and stressed the intended use of knowledge for practical purposes. I am fortunate to have been trained as an applied anthropologist with the major aim of applying it to social problems and the world at large.


Anthropology’s defining feature is fieldwork — coming into close contact with the people we study. What separates us from other academics is that we must toggle between the introverted, analytical and isolated existence and the thick-skinned, extroverted and adventurous self. Even the shy or reticent anthropologists I’ve encountered have been adept at establishing rapport in the field and actually caring about the people they study. There is an element of empathy and natural curiosity about people. Some anthropologists do fieldwork domestically and others do it abroad. I think it is fair to say that many of us (myself included) were drawn to the discipline because of the lure of fieldwork. I was drawn to anthropology because of an ethnography I read written by an anthropologist/journalist and because I wanted to go back into the field. It’s the field that continues to beckon me. I spent 13 consecutive months in my fieldwork from 2011 to 2012 in addition to three-month spurts in 2007, 2008 and then 2010. Like the great Dr. Elizabeth Colson and my inspiring dissertation committee-members, I would like to spent a lifetime in the field — and with the practical aim put forth by Malinowski and anthropologists interested in addressing social problems.


The aim is a significant one. Many of my fellow anthropologists may be eccentric, a bit macho, and even hard-nosed, but they also tend to have tremendous empathy for others and a sensitivity to suffering, pain and injustice. Most importantly, every anthropologist I have met have a keen interest and curiosity about people; they are some of the most astute observers of human behavior.


That is why our methods have been used by so many other professionals and in the service of advertising/marketing, medicine, development work, social work, and in my research, business and the corporate setting. One can come to a better understanding of a problem or phenomenon by using the anthropological method of becoming an insider, gaining rapport from the people one is studying, and collecting all sorts of interesting and useful data, from what they eat to their responses to certain colors, smells and products to gathering their stories, backgrounds, family trees to observing and participating in their everyday lives. Any suggestions or recommendations made in a report using anthropological methods will have the advantage of having insider knowledge about human behavior. This ensures better decision-making at upper levels and where it matters.


And for my fellow anthropologists and myself, we get to do what we love. It’s fieldwork all over again — with its nascent discoveries, the close-knit relationships formed, the ups and downs of being an insider and outsider at different times, and the glimmer of hope that what we do will be of use and make a difference in people’s lives in some way.


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Debates within Anthropology…

Never have I been so overjoyed at the voices of dissension among my fellow anthropologists. I echo Aristotle’s acclaimed notion of the importance of the polis and the “political animal” which reside in the polis and Michael Sandel’s advancement of communitarianism, an idea that points to the spaces where individuals who are “encumbered selves”– encumbered meaning possessing specific backgrounds, histories, positionalities, values, characteristics – convene, deliberate, debate, and discuss what is at stake in our respectively differing ideas.

Anthropology as a broad discipline has evolved and become fragmented. This has advantages and advantages, which we can ascertain when we contextualize these changes within history. In America, World War II was a turning point (Eddy and Partridge 1987). Ethnology was defined as the study of living culture of people in contrast with archeology and anthropology was perceived to be the Science of Man which was sufficiently broad to encompass all facets of human existence and simultaneously specific to look at processes that facilitated the prediction of events. As American policy became less isolationist and more globally-minded, the expansion of anthropology ensued. In 1939, a “committee of human moral” was established, including Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, with the aim of addressing social problems. The war influenced early anthropology to use scientific procedures to study social problems. This included inductive empiricism of France Boas, the systematic study of culture of Bronislaw Malinowski, and methods of interactional analysis to identify problems holistically and attempt to solve them. In fact, Margaret Mead argued that we needed to focus on large problems and not relegate them to economists or political scientists because anthropologists had a working knowledge of how to move from the “microscale” to “macroscale” and devise “mascroscopes” to observe and record details of human groups while including them in the larger whole.

The British schools of anthropology were formed in conjunction with the demands of Colonial Administration. Abdel Ahmed in Anthropology of Sudan discusses Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Nuer as a response to the request of the government of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan which had difficulties in dealing with the Anuak nobility and thus needed “applied anthropology” to help the government organize its administration. It’s important to note Manilowski’s urgent plea in 1929 for anthropologists to try to bridge the gap between theoretical anthropology and its practical applications so that the study of social organizations and their relation to the “social nature of the individual” is practically useful. Thus, from its inception, it can be argued that anthropology as a recognized discipline was applied.

However, as Ian Horowitz points out, when analyzing the history of anthropology, we should consider the relative deprivation of funds for social scientists (Horowitz 1967). The expansion of academic anthropology was correlated with the flow of research funding provided by the government and private foundation sources. The expansion of education after World War II contributed to the rise of academic positions. The abundance of funding allowed for anthropologists to turn to more abstract concerns. Eddy and Partridge argue that fewer anthropologists sought practical uses for their knowledge and instead, retreated to their “departmental cocoons.” In the mid-1960s, the question of power and exclusion came to the fore as minority groups began to protest and demand equal rights and students and faculty questioned the role of the US government in the Vietnam War. Critical interrogation of international policies gave rise to heated debates in anthropology about ethics and whether social scientists should be used by the government as tools for their own agenda.

The application of anthropology, particularly in light of Project Camelot, which was endorsed by the army and department of defense, used research from social scientists to determine and predict potential of internal war within societies and measure effects of counterinsurgencies as well as government actions regarding the underlying problems, came under close scrutiny. Marshal Sahlins stated that this was an example of the “corrosion of integrity” and argued for the protection of the anthropologists’ relation to the Third World. He objected to any further involvement in research by American anthropologists working in defense, foreign policy, or intelligence agencies for the US government, while concluding that “we cannot legislate ethics…” and would be better off “letting each man learn to live with himself” (Horowitz 1967).

Conrad Arensberg (1958) reached a similar conclusion, asserting that “science has its own morality…which governs us in our doings as anthropologists and scientists,” but whether one wants to use anthropology for a specific end is a private, moral concern, not a public or scientific concern. On the other hand, as Robert Redfield argued (1958), impartiality on the part of the anthropology is impossible on a logical basis and perhaps undesirable. He said, “When the anthropologist intervenes, he lives and life is making difficult choices….seeing these men who have undertaken new difficulties, I admire them. They have given up the privilege of uncommitment.” With respect to ethics, the most common response was an avoidance of the issue rather than a warranted discussion and debate (Eddy and Partridge 1987, Comitas 2000).

The pledge to scientific neutrality pervaded various aspects of anthropology and came under attack as anthropology fractured into subfields with multiple interests, particularly clashing interests among academic and non-academic anthropologists. The debate about science harkens back to theories put forth by Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Durkheim argued for the distinctiveness of sociology as a science and used the method of induction in beginning with a set of facts and building a theory of suicide and then examining it as a “collective fact.” Weber, on the other hand, counters this type of science by analyzing causality through the examination of human intention and insisting on the “separation and mutual irreducibility of ‘fact’ and value’” (Burawoy 2000). What’s at stake in the argument is not only the object of knowledge but the positivistic and hermeneutic perspectives and methodologies within both disciplines. Both defenders and critics of anthropology as a science tend to subscribe to outdated and essentialist notions of “science,” calling it “Western” and necessarily linking it to “rationality” and borne out of the Enlightenment era and the Industrial Revolution. However, evaluating the emergence of science(s) in particular social and cultural milieu and looking it as a contested space imbued with power (Nader 1996) proves invaluable and liberates the anthropologist/ethnographer from having to choose between scientific, empirical research and interpreter. As Lisa Maalki maintains (2007), ethnography is a form of “situated empiricism that is simultaneously and without contradiction, an improvisational practice” which considers the role of affect, emotion, intuition, along with rigorous empirical research. This argument was first brought up by Victor Turner, who opened up anthropology to reflexivity as he “stressed the exception, the betwixt and between and marginal.” Similarly, his wife, Edith Turner noted the incompleteness and partiality of ethnography and our striving for understanding as an ongoing process (Smadar, Narayan and Rosaldo 1993).

Debates of neutrality on the part of the researcher contains far-reaching implications for the role of anthropology. Mounzul Assal writes, “To be neutral is synonymous with not making a moral commitment. But this is itself a commitment: two completely different stands but paradoxically exactly the same. To be neural is making a commitment to the support of the system within which one is working anthropologically. If one does not notice oppression or injustice exploitation because one is only a scientist and science does not concern itself with political issues, then one is being myopic and self-deluding without objectivity. Ultimately amorality is immorality.” Politically engaged and activist anthropology are predicated on Assal’s perspective. Perhaps Sol Tax was one of the first anthropological studies that espoused value judgment on the part of the researcher and set a precedent for future collaborative anthropology work. The Fox project was a program of action ad research which addressed ideas of self-determination with the help of the anthropologist.

In the 1970s, anthropologists were hired by local communities as cultural brokers and facilitators to help the community achieve an outcome with the research of the anthropologist. This is similar to politically engaged anthropology urged by Gavin Smith (1999) and activist anthropology advanced by Victoria Sanford and Angel-Ajani Asale (2006), who exhort anthropologists to engage theory with politics, link power structures and macro-forces with intimate social relations and examine and write against “unequally distributed suffering, violence and abuse.” Another position embodied in practical anthropology also attempts to synthesize theory with practice by inquiring into the cause and coming up with solutions to conditions that cause abuses of human rights in both vertical and horizontal dimensions of the problem (Kearney 2004).

Debates about development continue to proliferate among anthropologists working “in development” and those doing research “on development.” Edelman and Haugerud (2005) capture the debates well, stating that anthropologists working within development find criticism by academic anthropologists “self-serving and counter-productive” and neglectful of the constraints workers in the aid industry face (Gow) while academic anthropologists find much of the information, trajectory, and underlying premises of development agencies problematic and too simplistic to achieve any successful aims (Escobar, Ferguson). Van Willigen observes that there are different kinds of anthropologists. There are professional anthropologists who work full-time outside the academy. In fact, this has become more common. The challenges they face include keeping current with theories. In the 1960s and 1970s, many of the academic anthropologists also engaged in applied work as consultants. They straddled the best of both worlds. There are academic anthropologist who also do applied work, in particular in the sub-fields of medical anthropology.

Examining the debates within the discipline makes me relieved that there are disagreements, as long as they do not degenerate into ad-hominem attacks and polemics. Disagreements are productive since they make us question our own point of view and learn from others. I’ve arrived at a very cliche yet insightful conclusion. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Some anthropologists are good at academics. Some are good at development work. Some are better at theory, while others might be better at fieldwork. If we can learn to appreciate our respective strengths and collaborate where weaknesses might linger, than our discipline would benefit from more fruitful collaboration.

On Public Anthropology…

I am enthralled at the discovery of a fantastic and intriguing blog called “About Neuroanthropology.”

One of the reasons I love anthropology is its interdisciplinary and holistic approach to studying social problems in the world. This blog captures the source of my enthusiasm for the discipline:

Neuroanthropology. Sometimes it’s straight-up neuroscience, sometimes it’s all anthropology, most of the time it’s somewhere in the middle.

We’re about intersections and convergences, about meshing the insights of neuroscience and anthropology into a more cohesive whole. Often with some psychology, philosophy, evolution and human biology thrown into the mix.

Greg is the cultural guy, now interested in bio stuff. Daniel is the bio guy, now interested in cultural stuff. Or, to say it differently, Greg does capoiera and mixed martial arts and other sports. Daniel does alcohol and drugs. Two very different styles of recreation.

The post on public anthropology articulates exactly why I consider myself a public anthropologist, though I must stress that Robert Borofsky makes two important points about this — first, labels of whether we’re public, applied or academic are not as important as our discipline’s committed goal to solving social problems and second, we must engage with divergent perspectives. I disagree with Borofsky on the point that applied anthropologists are marginalized by the discipline because they focus on concrete solutions to concrete problems without accounting for larger macro-structures and power differentials, even among their informants. In my experience, academic anthropologists often exclude the history of anthropology itself, which was for the most part, until the 1950s and early 1960s, focused on applied work. As I stated in a previous post, the British structural-functionalist school trained many African nationalists and politically engaged anthropologists to aid in anti-colonial struggles. Most importantly, applied anthropology is part of our discipline’s history; distancing ourselves from it is really to deny that our current knowledge is cumulative and we owe much to our predecessors. Borofsky points to Eric Wolf’s insightful comment:

“In anthropology we are continuously slaying paradigms, only to see them return to life, as if discovered for the first time . . . As each successive approach carries the ax to its predecessors, anthropology comes to resemble a project of intellectual deforestation.”

Trivialities in labeling aside, I do consider myself a public anthropologist because I agree with applied anthropology’s goals without the denigration of theory. I never understood the insistence between theory and practice. I conjecture that it’s somehow reactionary to postmodernism or perhaps perceived marginalization within the academy. My response is twofold. First, what is theory? Why is Foucault automatically associated with theory and not Thayer Scudder or Elizabeth Colson? By being reactionary, I think applied anthropologists are buying into the division between theory and practice and thus, privileging theory in ethnography. Second, supposing that we do associate certain types of works, language, and scholars with “theory,” why should it be excluded in applied work? I believe theory is absolutely critical to questioning, challenging and formulating solutions to social problems. One of my heroines, Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American activist and organic intellectual who received her Ph.D. in the 1930s and became involved in the Civil Rights movement and workers’ movements wrote in her autobiography that reading Hegel, C.L.R James and other theorists deeply informed her involvement in these movements and compelled her question their trajectories. It was her profound and critical engagement with theory as an intellectual that propelled her and her husband to start a community center in Detroit and attempt to make change at the grassroots level. Some of the academics I most admire are the ones who are well-versed in theory and are involved in activism and community work (as distinct from policy research) independent of the ivory tower. Thus, I do not see any sound reason to reject “theory” as an instrument in the anthropological toolbox to examine and analyze pressing social issues. More than ever, I think anthropologists of all “labels” should speak to each other and “with” each other about our respective research and its implications. On that note, I shall conclude this post with an uplifting quote from Noam Chomsky, which I have taken from the awesome neuroanthropology blog.

To speak truth to power is not a particularly honorable vocation. One should seek out an audience that matters — and furthermore (another important qualification), it should not be seen as an audience, but as a community of common concern in which one hopes to participate constructively. We should not be speaking TO, but WITH. That is second nature to any good teacher, and should be to any writer and intellectual as well.