Category Archives: activism

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.