The Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, died today. His four-volume series on modern history from the French revolution to the fall of the USSR is the best guide available. To some extent, anthropology until recently offered an escape from modern history. While the world turned to industry, cities and war, ethnographers studied yam piles on remote Pacific islands. It is different now. We live under a regime of one-world capitalism and anthropologists study all of it. But our preference for local and regional approaches means that we have little to offer that might help humanity understand better the world society in the making. Hobsbawm's contemporaries, like Eric Wolf and my teacher, Jack Goody, shared his passion to study our world and to change it. Marxism gave Hobsbawm the confidence to attempt universal history, but it also restricted his vision in important ways. He saw the period 1948-1973 as a "golden age" when social democratic states managed capitalism in the general interest and Stalin's Russia for a time seemed likely to outperform the western economies. But this was also a period of nuclear terror and, however benign that time may now seem when compared with what succeeded it, the neoliberal era has opened up the world's movement and communications in ways that I for one would not want to exchange for the restrictions of that "golden age". The point, however, is that anthropologists need to complement our ethnographies with a vision of world history. As a profession, we are like peasants: we like digging holes in obscure places. But sometimes we need people to show us where to dig. Eric Hobsbawm had no rival in that respect.

A full and highly informative obituary may be found here in The Guardian.

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We live under a regime of one-world capitalism and anthropologists study all of it. But our preference for local and regional approaches means that we have little to offer that might help humanity understand better the world society in the making.


Who are you calling "we" white man?

As someone who is becoming increasingly deeply involved in researching and writing about the work done at Minpaku,  Japan's National Museum of Ethnology, I am struck repeatedly by the interdisciplinary, historical and geographical scope of the work done there, building on a tradition that began with the museum founder Umesao Tadao's interest in the comparative study of civilizations. Others here may know of work of similar scope being done elsewhere but outside the confines of Anglo-European anthropology. If so, please tell us about it. 

That said, a great mind and a great man have left us with much to think about. I mourn his death. Keith's point is all too valid for an anthropology too often reduced to only local significance. 

Yes, "we" is a weasel word. And the malaise is greatest in the western imperialist trinity of the US, Britain and France. I wish I knew more about Japanese anthropology. So far my main contact has been Naoki Kasuga through a shared interest in Mauss. I do know about other lively anthropological traditions such as Brazil and Scandinavia, but they still tend to practice ethnography rather than world history. I was referring to Hobsbawm as a universal historian ("Hobsbawm is interested in everything"). The nearest thing to him in anthropology are men of his generation like Eric Wolf, Sid Mintz, Marshall Sahlins and Jack Goody, to whom we can now add David Graeber. The question is whether anthropology can support others like them now, people who were not formed by the crisis of the mid-twentieth century. Perhaps history as a discipline permits the shift to universal historian more readily than our own. I find it interesting that Niall Ferguson has popped up in this situation to claim an affinity with Hobsbawm. Enough said. I believe that we live in decadent times which can only look back to the social achievements of the immediate postwar period as a pinnacle of human civilization that we have lost. That is why Hobsbawm grew in stature as society turned away from the principles that he fought for. Maybe another world war will forge the replacement of his generation. I posted this short obit because so many young people expressed sadness for his passing. I couldn't really understand this reaction, unless it is because there is no hope of replacing him right now.

I wish that I knew more about Japanese anthropology, too. What I have learned so far is largely through the opening provided by being asked to write about business anthropology in Japan for a forthcoming book edited by Rita Denny and Patricia Sunderland, both Chicago-trained Ph.D.s in anthropology, whose Practica Group is one of the most successful applied anthropology consultancies I know of. Since I knew several members of the 経営人類学=Anthropology of Administration group at Minpaku through Anthropology of Japan in Japan (AJJ), including Hirochika Nakamaki, who has been for many years the President of AJJ and is also a co-founder of the Anthropology of Administration group, I asked if I might write about their work—not realizing when I started the project, how much work has been done. 

The Anthropology of Administration group is one of several based at Minpaku, organized through the medium of joint research projects that bring together scholars from different universities and disciplines. The joint projects are typically funded for three-year terms, during which the scholars in question conduct research related to the project theme and meet occasionally for workshops at which they present and jointly critique their results. Ideally the result is a coherent body of work that results in a co-authored volume edited by the project's organizers. 

The Anthropology of Administration group was started by Nakamaki and Kyoto University Business School Professor of Management Koichiro Hioki, who met as members of an earlier project on the comparative study of civilizations. Nakamaki, whose previous research was on the anthropology of religion in Brazil, was interested in applying ideas and methods from the anthropology of religion to the study of Japanese companies; Hioki was interested in the role of corporations in shaping contemporary civilization. They shared the view that ethnographic methods had an important role to play in understanding corporations. Purely economic or sociological models might be fine as far as they appeared to account for macroeconomic behavior in the abstract but immediately showed their limitations when it came to understanding particular companies, their histories, their corporate cultures, and the ways in which they and their employees behave. 

To make a long story short, they have organized, proposed, and secured funding for a series of projects stretching over a period of more than two decades that has produced six large edited volumes of project results, two collections of articles on Japanese white collar behavior that began as a series of daily columns in a local Osaka newspaper, plus a variety of other work published separately by project members over the years. To me the work is remarkable for the way in which it starts out with classic ideas about the role of ritual in maintaining corporate solidarity and systematically examines how they work and increasingly do not work out in practice, since the discrediting of "Japanese-style" management by the collapse of the bubble economy of the late 1980s and the restructuring of Japanese industry under the influence of neoliberal, Anglo-American management ideas. Nakamaki cheerfully agrees that the group has both been in engaging in a kind of salvage anthropology, recording traditional corporate ways of life before they completely disappear, and also engaging in public debate about appropriate policy going forward as the government tries to address pressing social issues arising from corporate restructuring, itself an attempt to preserve the viability of Japanese business in global markets. One see no angst here over distinctions between pure and applied research or anthropology and business. People with similar interests have found ways to work together in ways that integrate input from people who would be segregated in different institutions and departments in other parts of the world.  It is most remarkable, of course, that a core group that now includes about a dozen members has managed to stick together, pursuing their joint projects for so long while amassing a wealth of ethnographic and historical research results connected by shared concerns, ideas and approaches. The contrast with the every anthropologist for him or herself approach in the West is very striking, indeed.

One final note. Two volumes published by members of the group have been translated into Chinese and have, it appears, been very well received in China. Nakamaki will spend a part of next year at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

I overheard a radio clip yesterday of Hobsbawm being interviewed - why had he continued to carry his communist party card long after the end of communism? It must have been out of an 'intense loyalty to myself' he replied, admirably it seemed to me. I remember reading Hobsbawm's Primitive Rebels as a student and being impressed that he could do things with history that anthropologists couldn't do with their material. 'social bandit', 'the invention of tradition' - he had a striking capacity for mid-range empirically grounded concept formation which probably came out of this intense loyalty to his worldview.

a striking capacity for mid-range empirically grounded concept formation

Great comment, great line. Yes, we anthropologists could use a lot more of that.

I suppose this is a good place for my first comment at OAC because I have been reading The Age of Revolution lately.  In part I turned to it because I have been reading a lot about 1848 since the Arab Spring and the many simplisitic pronouncements that it was an Arab 1848 brought about by Twitter.  But mostly I read it because I have been wondering, since the Global Financial Crisis, if politics as we know it in the West is no more.  That is the class based politics that Hobsbawm had arising out of the French Revolution and leading to 1848 and beyond.  Interesting to see from his BBC interviews he believed that kind of politics was finished.

So what, if anything, will take its' place?  I have recently turned back to Anthropology because I think, or perhaps just hope, it might have something to offer.  David Graeber is correct that public discourse today is dominated by economics and the language of the market, increasingly to the exclusion of all others forms of thought.   But is that an accurate representation of the world today?  Surely people who do not understand economics or markets are adapting somehow.  I hope there is a place for anthropologists to examine that and promote a greater understanding of alternative views of our world. 


Surely people who do not understand economics or markets are adapting somehow.

Or dying for all the usual Malthusian reasons: famine, plague, untreated illness, war. The notion that everyone, everywhere has some way to scrape by is one of those assumptions that useful theory needs to question.



John McCreery said:

Surely people who do not understand economics or markets are adapting somehow.

Or dying for all the usual Malthusian reasons: famine, plague, untreated illness, war. The notion that everyone, everywhere has some way to scrape by is one of those assumptions that useful theory needs to question.



Did I say everyone, everywhere is scraping by? Perhaps I did not express myself well but that is not at all what I meant. I am quite bewildered by the lack of an effective political response to the Global Financial Crisis, other than the Tea Party. I know there have been some riots and there was the Indignados/Occupy movement, but I don't think those were effective, and Hobsbawm would probably agree. What I do assume is many people are somehow adapting even though that might entail some unnecessary suffering. I am sorry I am not a brilliant man with all the answers. At this point all I have is questions.

Sorry, Paul, if I was a bit sharp there. What I am pointing to is the assumption that people caught on the shitty end of the global stick always have some way to get themselves out of their situation. It struck me, perhaps I was wrong, that the sentence

Surely people who do not understand economics or markets are adapting somehow

could only be written by someone living in a place with at least a meagre social safety net in place and the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse off somewhere else. 

I don't think that that is a fair rendering of what Paul said. Unless you are an economist you will not be up to speed on economics as a language/power game or re. the latest twists of the market ideology. From that perspective, economics is an occult form - the 'astrology of the modern age' as Ernest Gellner used to call it - gaining its hold over public discourse precisely from its esoterism and its independence from actually existing social conditions. My reading was that Paul is simply questioning the degree to which economics actually does rule the waves intellectually.

It is especially unfortunate that a new member, testing the waters here, should be greeted in this way. Paul approached me privately as Network Creator for guidance on how and where to participate. This is what he got for his pains. There is sometimes a thin line between being forthright and bullying. "A bit sharp" hardly covers it.

John, you read something into my statement that I did not intend.  I suppose "adapt" is a pretty imprecise term.  Frankly I am quite mystified by the entire situation.  I spend all day following financial markets and I know many many people are not only not prospering but are being hurt badly.  But there has been little or no political response.  So what are they doing?   I assume they are doing something more than just sitting there suffering, they are trying to make the best out of whatever they can (not always successfully).  I think there is a place for Anthropology to shine some light on this, but perhaps, as Keith says, they are busy counting yams someplace else.


Huon, that is closer to what I intended although I do not question the degree to which economics rules the waves.  I have accepted that it does.  What is needed are other views that broaden the perspective and allow some place for alternatives intellectually and practically.


Thank you Keith, I have managed to get over it.  It brought back memories of my undergrad and grad school years where there was always someone ensuring we were showing the appropriate anguish.

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