Updating the Anthropological Act for the 21st Century

I originally posted these comments in a thread in the Anthropology of Globalism group. However, it was suggested that it should be placed in a forum, where more people could comment on it. I'm just now understanding how to do so. :]

 

Keith Hart on May 11, 2010 (In the discussion thread on Film ‘Avatar’) wrote:

“This is not to endorse current globalization processes uncritically. It would not be the first time in human history that a progressive development came loaded with social contradictions...We need to upgrade our act for the 21st century and pushing cultural relativism regardless will not get us very far, I think.”

Keith, I’m not entirely sure I’ve responded head on to your assertion, but here goes a try:

To my mind, what you are proposing seems to present the challenge between critical and institutional frameworks. Before I go further, I’d like to say that the difference between these two frameworks is not inevitably antagonistic; also, we should not constrict our understanding to an either-or situation that may preclude the inclusion of other frameworks (terrorist, grassroots and revitalized tribal may indeed be others, I’m thinking).

I work in a capacity that functions in an institutional framework (I work in an office of institutional effectiveness for a small university). I report on and consider various categorizations of people on a daily basis, and categories of race, ethnicity and gender are chief among them when reporting at the state and Federal level. However, the discourses on race, ethnicity and gender in which I find my present work embedded are geared specifically toward institutional maintenance.

Among the significant differences that I am finding in this institutional framework is that the production of categories, along with the politics of those productions, are not only ignored, but are encountered as a rather senseless topic. That is, arguing that the racial and gendered categories in which we fit our students, and which we are compelled to report on the state and Federal level, are themselves a product of our own labors and embedded in institutional intentions would be met not only with skepticism but also with annoyance and possibly antagonism.

A critical framework for race, ethnicity and gender would point to the possibilities that are actually embodied in cultures, and which can be investigated ethnographically. Many would also likely extend this statement to say that a critical framework would also investigate the constriction of possibilities and the implication that assemblages of race, ethnicity and gender are in reality open ended.

It seems to me that anthropologists are confronted with this issue when considering what role we will have to play in the seemingly inevitable slide toward global integration. Globalization is not a phenomenon that happens devoid of entities, but rather within the presence of them; largely, those entities are structured in the form of formal institutions. I am arguing that these entities function within institutional frameworks, and not within critical frameworks.

There seem to be two sets of formal institutions at work here.

One set involves more or less concerted and organized efforts at specific tasks, though their efforts seem to proliferate into other areas as time goes by. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organization might fall under this category of institutions. I would also add the European Union and NATO in this category, though all five examples may tend to work in different ways and under different capacities. The point is that they are all quasi-governmental and international in scope.

The other set of institutions seem to be more loosely organized, though I wouldn’t argue that the organizations in the above list are necessarily organized together. My point is that this second list of institutions works less on a principle of governance and more on the principles of free-market economy. Multinational corporations, NGOs and cartels such as OPEQ would fit under this second list.

It should be noted that there is a set of relationships between these governance-oriented institutions and these market-oriented institutions, so the configuration is more complicated than I am portraying it here.

Yet the point is not a structural sketch of the international entities that operate under an institutional framework. Rather, the questions are: 1) what is the relationship that anthropologists have to these entities and 2) what relationship should we have to them.

Now back to the distinction between critical and institutional frameworks.

Every anthropologist seems to have her pet definition of what “critical” means. Some anthropologists advocate the complete obliteration of social differences, and call that critical. Others espouse a certain theoretical standpoint, such as the aptly-named critical theory. Others seem to couch the term critical in terms like “significance,” and “reliability.”

However you put it, the goal behind a critical framework seems to be to illuminate inconsistencies in practices and understandings and to promote a more measured and reasonable outlook, with the assumption that practices and conditions will follow. (Is that a fair assessment?)

No matter if it’s simply a matter of producing a better understanding of how human societies and cultures operate or a matter of advocating an actual change, anthropologists tend to be engaged in some kind of project that fits into the margins of regular institutional functionings. There’s the significant catch point: entities that operate on institutional frameworks may well (and do) employ anthropologists, sociologists and the like, but they will do so in order to fulfill some need within the institutional framework.

I don’t think I’m far off when I claim that most, though obviously not all, anthropologists take a dim view of the application of anthropological methods under the employ of the IMF, or under the employ of Pepsi Cola, or what have you. Mostly, the problem is framed in terms of the ethics of the discipline. However, stopping there seems to me to flatten the issue out grossly (although I’m going to do so for the sake of brevity).

Perhaps the question should be less of what role anthropologists will play in the global assemblages to come and more of what the relationship between the critical frameworks that our discipline entails and institutional frameworks will be. As it is, institutions like the IMF and Monsanto seem to listen to what anthropologists have to say only in selective ways (that which fits into their institutional frameworks).

I think that we will first have to face this basic issue before we can update our act for the 21st Century, as you put it, especially when it comes to issues surrounding globalism. There are plenty of theories and ethnographic works on the subject, but outside of anthropologists, few will actually read them.

I had a professor once ask the Ethnographic Methods class I was in about the target audience for anthropological literature. My first reaction is that it should be targeted to help inform the common public. Given the complexity of what we do, and given that most people would rather watch Dancing With The Stars (or Dance Off/Pants Off, maybe), the general public seems like a very unlikely audience. His response was that perhaps the works of anthropologists would be better suited toward a target audience of policy makers.

So, maybe another way to ask the question would be: 1) who will be our target audience, and 2) how will that target audience affect the tenor of anthropological literature?

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Joel,

You have made so many points at such length that my failure to respond was simply a result of not knowing where to start. You like making dichotomies such as between institutional and critical approaches or, within the former, between government and market institutions. You allow yourself many asides, including quite prejudiced assertions. To ignore them is to tacitly endorse them, to tackle them onerous, so better to keep quiet. Also there is disproportion here, a hammer to crack a nut, since the original comment I made was expressed in deliberately imprecise language, a signal for some future occasion.

I would say that to be critical is to exercise judgement. A good judge is able to identify general principles in quite particular events.

When two-thirds of the largest economic entities on earth are corporations and the rest countries, we need to be careful before applying the standard public/private sector distinction. Indeed Oliver Williamson just won a Nobel prize for blurring the boundaries between the two.

I believe that anthropology has an affinity with democracy as a political movement, from its origins in the 18th century enlightenment through the ethnographic revolution of the 20th century (join the people where they live and find out what they do and think) to our struggle to contain and combat bureaucratic power in the name of the people everywhere.

You talk about "the inevitable slide toward global integration". I don't think globalization is inevitable, least of all when an economic depression is setting everyone against the rest. In any case there are many different versions of it (as in the alter-globalization movement).

This all arose because you seem to resist such integration and I think the planet will not survive without a more effective world society than what we have. I also think anthropology should be indispensable to that end.

By all means go with the bureaucracy, if you will, speak to power ("policy"). But I prefer to tap into an anthropological trajectory that has been historically boosted by its affinity with democracy.Of course anthropologists have worked within and for imperialism and still do. I don't say our side will win, but I do know which side I am on.

As for audience, you just have to push the boat out as you can. But it helps to want to.
Keith,

Thank you for your response. Please excuse me if I have pulled you into a debate without your consent, as that was not my intention. However, I feel compelled to respond.

Before anything, I should say that my suggestions form as one possible avenue for anthropology, and not the only one. Yet the increasing rationality of our global society does call for some kind of consideration in and of itself.

When two-thirds of the largest economic entities on earth are corporations and the rest countries, we need to be careful before applying the standard public/private sector distinction.

This comment gives me something to think about, as I had not anticipated a distinction between the public and private sector per se. I'm guessing that you are referring to my distinction between institutions that take on a quasi-governmental role and those that operate from a more free-market economy principle. It was not my intention to claim that these two kinds of institutions are categorically discrete, nor should such a claim be inferred from what I wrote.

However, while there might not exist a sharp dividing line between the two types of institutions (here I think of lobbying in American politics), it should be safe to say that they work toward qualitatively different goals (economic integration and debt management for the IMF, profit for Monsanto, for example).

I believe that anthropology has an affinity with democracy as a political movement, from its origins in the 18th century enlightenment through the ethnographic revolution of the 20th century (join the people where they live and find out what they do and think) to our struggle to contain and combat bureaucratic power in the name of the people everywhere.

As I understand it, not all anthropologists follow from some 18th Century Enlightenment project, though that is perhaps a topic worthy of its own thread. Also, claiming to combat bureaucratic power in the name people everywhere is also fraught with pitfalls. It reminds me of the debates surrounding the concept of universal human rights (a concept itself that may be so culturally specific as to not fulfill its own ends).

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not arguing against human rights, and I'm certainly not arguing for bureaucracies. Actually, from what I've written, you can see that I'm arguing that the institutional (what you rightly dub bureaucratic) framework is gravely flawed, and that anthropology can provide at least an attempt at a corrective.

You talk about "the inevitable slide toward global integration". I don't think globalization is inevitable, least of all when an economic depression is setting everyone against the rest. In any case there are many different versions of it (as in the alter-globalization movement).

Perhaps distinguishing between integration and cooperation would be helpful. From my studies so far, a lot of integralism is a direct response to social and economic integration. Besides, with the centrality of free-market economies to globalization, perhaps the first principle does amount to everyone against the rest.

We may be in an economic downturn, but in the United States, we've also got a British international oil company at the heart of a terrible ecological disaster along our coast, employing American citizens as workers, likely on a foundation of international capital. See http://www.bp.com/multipleimagesection.do?categoryId=23&content... for more details.

Who cares if Americans grumble that adding color to our money makes it look foreign; that money is still looped into a global economy, ailing or not.

By all means go with the bureaucracy, if you will, speak to power ("policy"). But I prefer to tap into an anthropological trajectory that has been historically boosted by its affinity with democracy.

I would argue that bureaucracy and democracy are not separate entities. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that bureaucracy and democracy have both developed within the scope of European cultures. Perhaps treating the two in a dichotomous fashion leads to its own conflations. Clarity on what exactly we mean by "democracy" would probably help as well: is it an ideal or a socio-political assemblage?

I'd hardly say that I'm going with bureaucracy. Perhaps another discussion we should have is to the merits of an independent anthropology that is still relevant to policy makers. I'd anticipate that bringing an ethnographic perspective to the table would likely present evidence that bureaucrats and policy makers will not appreciate, and maybe that's exactly the value of one form of anthropology. For example, I’d like to do research on World Bank discourses on remittances from the perspective of knowledge-power, as the (admittedly few) works I’ve read seem to be gross oversimplifications.

Really, edification of common publics is a must. I believe that an uninformed public with no discernable critical (thinking) skills will result in a null-democracy, no matter how one defines "democracy." However, I'm afraid that's what we get out of most people: a bourgeois middle class that is marked by its invisibility to itself and by its recalcitrant, even truculent null-politics.
I work in a capacity that functions in an institutional framework (I work in an office of institutional effectiveness for a small university). I report on and consider various categorizations of people on a daily basis, and categories of race, ethnicity and gender are chief among them when reporting at the state and Federal level. However, the discourses on race, ethnicity and gender in which I find my present work embedded are geared specifically toward institutional maintenance.

To me, this paragraph is of vital importance because it points to an issue rarely (if ever?) discussed in anthropological debates, i.e., when and how to pick a fight. Reading this paragraph, I imagine an institutional context in which a substantial part of the university's income depends on state or federal agencies that require evidence that the university meets legally prescribed diversity standards before said funds will be released. In this context, a critique of the categories in question is unlikely to be received with any enthusiasm--unless it suggests a revision, e.g., substituting tags for categories (in the same way that Gmail uses tags instead of folders), that will both increase the university's income and be persuasive to the agencies or legislatures that have set the current standards. In the current situation of academia, appeals to justice and democracy alone may be less compelling considerations than economic pressures, and harping on them without substantial policy alternatives will only irritate those whose buy-in is essential to effect meaningful change.
Thank you, John. That's really what I'm trying to get at, in some ways. Really, keeping my head low is the best policy; it doesn't matter what my personal, ethical or intellectual stance is, even if informed by thoughtful social theory. So, it's not really time for me to "pick a fight," as it were.

However, it's not that my reactions, informed both by anthropology and sociology, are irrelevant; they're just not regarded as germane, given the framework of institutional functioning.

In the US, wads and wads of data are produced and submitted at the state and Federal levels, but two things (at least) end up happening.

First, numbers get processed because they have to, which doesn't mean at all that there is a change in the attitudes at a given institution, and certainly doesn't mean that there have been substantive changes in the community primarily serviced by the institution.

Second, the reliance on simple dividers, such as race and gender, perpetuates race and gender as objective categories that self-evidently hold. We should keep information on such demographic characteristics, and the university I work at does make an effort at minority recruitment and retention. Yet descriptors such as "Black female" or "Asian male" go only so far in explaining why certain trends might pop up.

I'd love to be given the free reign to do a more ethnographically-based, community-wide study focusing on enrollment and retention, but I seriously doubt that will ever happen. Instead, my labor will be employed at producing counts and frequencies to fulfill what reporting is mandated.
This is becoming a discussion of personal politics, which suits me. For what it's worth, I would like to share an approach that I evolved towards the end of my academic career. It is still relevant , even though I have taken retirement and most of my social interactions are virtual. Actually, I have discovered that one has to tread more carefully when communicating at distance, since the medium is unforgiving and one can't camouflage a potentially hurtful remark with reassuring gestures.

My line is that we all face at least a dozen political decisions a day, large and small. They could be whether or not to tell a student that her essay needs more work, whether or not to tell a colleague that he is full of crap, whether to answer a bureaucratic directive or let it go. Nor is the decision final, since you can let it drop later or retract. Sometimes, if you do take up an issue and follow it through, it is either because you care or are right or whatever. You sometimes find that others have made a similar response and your fight becomes collective in some degree. In exceptional cases you could find yourself in a major conflict facing all members of your institution or beyond. The great advantage of my method is that you are personally right behind the fights you pick, having selected them and found allies. Of course, if it looks like you are going to lose, it is usually wise to pull out. The opposite for me is to come across a petition that someone else has drawn up and sign it. I never sign petitions, mainly because I am not in the best position to weigh the social consequences. I guess you could call this approach pragmatic, but it does mean that if principle is involved, you can put all your personal history behind your stance.
Thank you, John. That's really what I'm trying to get at, in some ways. Really, keeping my head low is the best policy; it doesn't matter what my personal, ethical or intellectual stance is, even if informed by thoughtful social theory. So, it's not really time for me to "pick a fight," as it were.

At this point, we have considered two possibilities, pick a fight or keep your head down. There is, however, the third possibility to which I alluded in my previous message: Develop a serious proposal grounded in real insight. It may not be accepted, but if you clearly have the boss, client or institution's best interests in mind, you can, at least, position yourself as someone worth listening to, maybe even promoting.

I recall a conversation with Kazuhiko Kimoto, the Senior Creative Director who hired me and mentored me at Hakuhodo. The subject was responsibility. I wanted more.

Kimoto said, "Look around you. This is a big company. There's a lot more responsibility to be taken than there are people willing to take it. Don't try to do something that someone else is already doing. That belongs to them. Find something that needs doing and just do it. I guarantee you, he said, that within three months you will be in charge of it."

He was right.

I also recall an example that some here are sure to find deeply offensive. The agency was talking with Coca-Cola about the relaunch of Coke Light. When first launched, the product had been a renamed version of Diet Coke with zero calories. Japanese consumers hated the taste of the artificial sweetener aspartame and the launch failed. Now Coke was trying a new approach: Add just enough sugar to mask the taste of the aspartame while keeping the calorie count much lower than that of standard classic Coke. The client didn't, however, want to cannibalize its existing market for classic coke, mostly teenagers. Our brief was to sell Coke Light to women aged 25-34.

The insight we brought to the table was based on three observations: (1) that the average marriage age of women in the Tokyo metropolitan area where the product would be launched had risen to twenty-nine; (2) that young mothers with children became intensely health conscious; and (3) that single women in the 29-34 age bracket were more affluent than younger single women and moving on to more sophisticated lifestyles, Akasaka instead of Shibuya, theater instead of rock concerts, gourmet dining instead of curry rice and burgers. We proposed to target this latter group with advertising and events that acknowledged their sophistication and appealed to their more sophisticated tastes. The result was our winning the account, around US$20 million in new billings, and a successful relaunch of the product.

If my readers here can put aside their revulsion at the thought of working for Coca-Cola and treat this as a learning moment, they might observe what we didn't do -- pick a fight along the lines of "Are you guys crazy? This 25-34 demographic is bull...!" Neither did we simply keep our heads down and accept the brief as given. We looked for insights that would ground a better strategy to achieve the client's primary goal.

At the end of the day, finding a better strategy may not be possible. The boss, client or institution you work for may be too rigidly locked in to the status quo. If you want to keep your job, keeping your head down may be all that you can do. On the other hand, always keeping your head down is no way to get ahead—or, for that matter, build an academic career.
Thank you for the insight and the words, John.
Keith,

I've been reading some Erico Malatesta. I can't say I'm very knowledgeable about his philosophies, works or background, but his breif work Anarchy was definitely interesting.

Malatesta says that there has always been a relationship between the ruling classes and government. Up to, and including, the feudal era in Europe, the ruling class and the government were the same, embodied ultimately in the monarch.

As Malatesta argued, there was a significant change with the introduction of capitalism, in which there was a split between the ruling class and government. This split enabled a set of relationships between the ruling classes and the government, a sentiment that is echoed, I believe, in your admonitions above. So, in our present, state-level society, the state is in bed with capital interests, and the common people fall under that power-relation structure.

(It should be noted that, like Marx, Malatesta's works are very Euro-specific. However, his thoughts on the relationship between ruling classes and governments still seems applicable, if not totalizing.)

I once read an article on socialism in early Israeli kibbutzes (sorry...it was so long ago that I don't remember citation details). The original idea in these kibbutzes was that socialism would be the established social arrangement. In order to accomplish this arrangement, members of the kibbutz would rotate their jobs periodically, so as to keep administration from pooling in a few select hands. However, what they found was that doing so produced an inefficient system, as certain people were just more capable at certain tasks than others.

It strikes me that the spirit of socialism didn't immediately bleed out of these kibbutzes, even when a more stable division of labor set in. My point is that, even if we manage to expunge whatever ruling classes are at the top of a given society, issues of governance and organization will still have to be addressed.

That is, of course, the problem with bureaucracies: even in the presence of ruling classes, they tend to be crushingly democratic, maybe even in the more etymologically-driven sense of being people-powered.
Joel,

You seem to be treating the Forum like it was your personal blog, one moreover conceived of as a dialog with me. I don't see what these musings on Malatesta and kibbutzes have to do with any thread that might be considered an item for general discussion by the OAC. If you want, I promise to talk to you in a Group or a Blog post, but I think the world ought to have to work harder to find us there than at present on the OAC home page.

Joel M. Wright said:
Keith,

I've been reading some Erico Malatesta.
Keith,

Excuse my clumsiness. I'll look into setting up a blog or some such for comments like this. I'll also go back and consider just what the forum is being used for.

Keith Hart said:
Joel,

You seem to be treating the Forum like it was your personal blog, one moreover conceived of as a dialog with me. I don't see what these musings on Malatesta and kibbutzes have to do with any thread that might be considered an item for general discussion by the OAC. If you want, I promise to talk to you in a Group or a Blog post, but I think the world ought to have to work harder to find us there than at present on the OAC home page.

Joel M. Wright said:
Keith,

I've been reading some Erico Malatesta.
Anthropology is back bone of modernization and globalization but it is dying in third world countries like India where aspirants dont find any scope in the field of anthropology . when i think on this problem, i find that we are not excercising to make an environment for anthropology. It is natural that population is increasing and people are victim of circumstances, one hand an individual wants to retain his/ her culture and identity and on the other hand he/ she wants to take every advantage of nation-state programes, this conflict generate a pseudo violation. so we should study ANTHROPOLOGICAL HUMAN RIGHTS and try to do some concrete work on it, i am trying to do with my blog www.rightofman.blog.co.in
alok chantia
india
alokchantia@gmail.com
I realise Keith would prefer this didn't become a personal blog and I hope my upcoming comment does not encourage this so I will try to keep it short and sweet.

Joel M. Wright said:
Keith,
We may be in an economic downturn, but in the United States, we've also got a British international oil company at the heart of a terrible ecological disaster along our coast, employing American citizens as workers, likely on a foundation of international capital. See http://www.bp.com/multipleimagesection.do?categoryId=23&content... for more details.


I find this comment interesting, in among all the others made, because we now know that BP has near (within 1%) equal British-American ownership (40%-39% or something like that) and workforce. If you want to blame the Brits for an ecological disaster then go ahead but I think you should also blame America's huge over reliance on world oil resources. It is very apparent American policy allowed this disaster to happen furthermore it is apparent, on world news reports anyway, that the disaster is not as big as first thought.

Now back to our regular programming

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