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Why the world needs anthropology

4 December, 2015

Standplaats Wereld has just published a nice report by  Giulia Sinatti from the recent symposium, “Why the World Needs Anthropologists – Burning Issues of Our Hot Planet” in Ljubljana. The symposium featured keynote addresses from anthropologists Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Genevieve Bell, and CM’s own Joanna Breidenbach.

The title of the article, “Anthropologist? You’re hired!”, is perhaps a little unfortunate because it suggests that the main issue is the employability of anthropologists (always an interesting topic) but the discussion focused much more on what anthropologists have to offer in dealing with a range of globally pressing concerns. For Eriksen, it is anthropology’s capacity to link local contexts with broader scales that allows anthropologists to make a unique contribution to decision making processes. For Bell, who leads a research team at technology firm INTEL, anthropologists can intervene in and humanise design processes by understanding how technologies are cultural artefacts that coalesce various fears and desires. Breidenbach links her anthropological perspectives to the crowdfunding philanthropic site, She emphasises the complex, contextual and multi-faceted perspectives that anthropologists bring to real world problems and the capacity that they have to build bridges between academia and the public (although I would add, somewhat wryly, that this seems to work much better in theory than in practice).

These kinds of discussions are interesting for me because they seem to revolve around a tension between the capacity of anthropologists to “talk back” to powerful institutional discourses and our desire to make our knowledge “useful” to precisely these institutions. If our primary capacity  is to provide the sort of nuance, context and complexity of “the local” that challenge the schematic view-from-above of institutions — in essence, a type of critique —  how do we convince these very institutions that these perspectives are useful to them? And what does it mean when they indeed recognise our gadfly interventions as “operationalisable”, to use a horrible term?

Come to think of it, perhaps the title of the article is actually on the money, so to speak, because in the end this comes down to anthropologists attempting to convince others to give us a job. And to do this we have to make a convincing argument that we are adding value in some sense. So the question behind this is not specifically why the “world” needs anthropologists, but why specific employers need us. Of course, this is a worthwhile question to ask — I’m all for anthropologists having jobs. And maybe we can make the world a better place by bringing more subtlety and nuance, and a multiplicity of perspectives, to decision making processes, whether they involve development initiatives, climate change policies, or the design of commodities. But I think we should probably also be up front about our self interest and to critically reflect on how this shapes how we frame the discussion.

For example, there seems to be a vaguely utopian promise running through the discussion: if only we can bring more subtlety, nuance, multifaceted perspectives etc into the decision making process, then we will have a more satisfactory, humanised, truly democratic etc outcome. This might be true. I, for one, often find myself thinking along these lines. But we might also question the assumption that the kind of knowledge anthropologists produce is inherently positive — that revealing the complexity of “the local” is an inherently good thing — particularly when our final obligation is to whomever is paying our salary.

I should emphasise that I don’t have a problem with trying to work out how anthropology can be made useful in various contexts, or trying to convince others of our inherent usefulness. At the same time I think that the discussion of “why the world needs anthropologists” should be broader than this, although I’m not entirely sure that I know how to express what I mean. Maybe I’m referring to the capacity of anthropology to do more than merely provide a more humane version of capitalism. Maybe I’m referring for its capacity as anthropology — the science of human possibility —  to provide the sort of critique of the contemporary that is not operationalisable in a narrow sense, but which instead provides truly alternative visions of ways to be human.

This would, I think, mean retaining (or resurrecting) anthropology’s grand — even megalomaniac — claims to be a universal science of the human. It would mean seeing our project as more than merely providing “context” or nuance, or “bringing culture in” to instrumentalist discourses. It would mean that we are involved in doing more than ethnography. In writing this, I realise that I might be arguing along similar lines to Tim Ingold, when he admonishes that anthropology should not be reduced to or equated with ethnography. Indeed, he sees this reduction as itself contributing to the decline of anthropology’s public voice.

In order to retain this broader vision of anthropology and its project, I think we need to be careful not to make our claims too “reasonable”. By this I mean justifying what we do in terms of other discourses, or arguing for our usefulness. Yes, this is an inherent aspect of being in the world and participating in a broader culture, but I think we should also hold on to the claims of a discipline that is in a sense self-positing, which provides its own reason for being, its own ground, and does not seek its meaning in terms of its service to other projects. This is a highly unreasonable, excessive, claim. But maybe the world needs that, too.

So perhaps the question that we should be asking is not, “Why does the world need anthropologists?” but rather, “Why does the world need anthropology?”

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