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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Dr. Chantia, you make a very good point, and I will tame some time to look at your blog.

For what it's worth, I have met a PhD student from India who is interested in the growth of the middle class and the ascension of consumer culture in India.

I always found her to be critical in her approaches to anthropology, although I can't anticipate what she might have to say about these issues.

Dr. Alok Chantia said:
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
Michael,

I'm not seeing anything particularly personal in what you are saying, unless you are yourself British and have (mis)construed that statement as a nationalistic feint against Great Britton (which, I assure you, is not a tendency of mine).

The whole of that statement, along with the context in which it was made, should be considered.

Keith wrote in response to a prior comment of mine:

"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)."

To that statement, I wrote:

"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."


Your response actually helps to reinforce what I am asserting: that there is no such beast as a discrete economic system any more. Keith had admonished that global integration might not be as solid as I'm suggesting, given the current climate of global economics and what he terms as a growing "everyone against the rest" mentality.

I mentioned BP in order to demonstrate a point about national economies and multinational corporations. That US ownership is within such a margin of British ownership of BP just drives another nail into the frame for my argument that our economies are so interlaced that we have to consider the effects of global integration (piecemeal as it surely is). Further, this integration is articulated by two major flows: one is the flow of humans, while the other is the flow of institutional/bureaucratic frameworks into each other.

As for assessing blame or pointing fingers (I'm not even sure these are the terms I'd use), maybe pointing to the formation of socioeconomic class on a global scale is more useful than pointing to any ethnic group, constellation of related cultures (Arabs, for example) or nationalities.

One final caveat, though: if not nationalities, per se, we should indeed include nation states in our gaze here. Nationalities and nationalism are obviously important, but I think are second-order superstructural elements (excuse my use of antiquated theory!).

Also, you have great points when you say that Americans (I'll have to include myself here!) are reliant on an excessive use of oil and that our own breakdown in policies have led to the disaster off of our coast.

Michael Findlay said:
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
Joel M. Wright said:
Michael,
I'm not seeing anything particularly personal in what you are saying, unless you are yourself British and have (mis)construed that statement as a nationalistic feint against Great Britton (which, I assure you, is not a tendency of mine).
Joel, I actually worded my post the wrong way. I wasn't suggesting you personally were blaming British companies etc. I was suggesting that in all the hoohaa (very technical term I know) Americans wanted a scalp but they were not considering everything in the matter.
Joel M. Wright said:
The whole of that statement, along with the context in which it was made, should be considered.
Touche, I say this to people and have obviously fallen in to the trap myself.
I'm Australian. I have no feeling, ill or otherwise towards the Brits (my father is a Scot) or the Americans (my father's Uncle migrated to America). I actually see huge potential for this discussion if, as Keith has pointed out, it doesn't become a personal blog.

I think we are seeing great (structural) changes to our social fabric in the western world. America, Britain and Australia went to war against Iraq now all the leaders responsible for that choice are out of power and so are the political parties that they were a apart of. BUT, our countries are not stable like they were before our economic systems are not stable like they were before, our political systems are not stable like they were before. What does this mean for the future? I don't know and would hate to even make a suggestion. What I do know is we are in for years of difficulty and when multi-national corporations have more power than governments I think it's a problem.
Michael,

Thank you for the great complement. I'm warmed to hear that you think there's great potential in this topic.

Especially with the controversy of the mosque planned to be built around the 9/11 ground zero site, I totally agree that Americans are looking for some external source on which to vent their frustrations. Sad to say that we are not the first people to do so. I find myself frustrated that we cannot see the internal contradictions that are driving our difficulties.

In light of what I've said here, though, it seems relevant to argue that those internal contradictions are laden with all sorts of "external" connections, while the people of the United States (and doubtless elsewhere) are stuck in the mentality of a discrete nation-state model. One of the things that this ideology allows is for us to see an external entity upon which we can focus our attentions. Sure, the people might operate under a different government, with a different language and culture, but maybe capital interests are less discriminating and wants to cross as many boundaries as they can.

One more note about multinational corporations and governments. I suspect that it will be an error to set them as separate from each other, and to posit that corporations are necessarily gaining power over and against governments.

Realistically, there is a symbiotic relationship between the two.

Here in the First World, we operate toward a free market model, and so our governments have a tendency to be very corporation-friendly (think Bush Jr.'s disastrous laissez-faire attitude toward all sorts of business, and the mess that his administration's attitude has made for us; think Clinton's NAFTA).

My understanding is that governments in many countries of the Third World are run by and for certain ethnic groups (really, in some ways a democratic project, still, but limited to a very selective view of what the populus entails), often at the expense of other ethnic groups that have been forced within the same post-colonial border. As such, the two-tier system would be exacerbated in ways that are better hidden by large middle classes outside of the Third World. In such cases, it's not so much that the multinational corporations have power over and against the governments, but that the people in those governments recognize that wealth and power on the local level can be had from collusion with these multinational corporations.

So, perhaps power within the institutional structures can be conceived of as a symbiotic membrane that holds the various organisms of government and capital interests together? Yikes, now I'm sounding like a functionalist!

Michael Findlay said:
Joel M. Wright said:
Michael,
I'm not seeing anything particularly personal in what you are saying, unless you are yourself British and have (mis)construed that statement as a nationalistic feint against Great Britton (which, I assure you, is not a tendency of mine).
Joel, I actually worded my post the wrong way. I wasn't suggesting you personally were blaming British companies etc. I was suggesting that in all the hoohaa (very technical term I know) Americans wanted a scalp but they were not considering everything in the matter.
Joel M. Wright said:
The whole of that statement, along with the context in which it was made, should be considered.
Touche, I say this to people and have obviously fallen in to the trap myself.
I'm Australian. I have no feeling, ill or otherwise towards the Brits (my father is a Scot) or the Americans (my father's Uncle migrated to America). I actually see huge potential for this discussion if, as Keith has pointed out, it doesn't become a personal blog.

I think we are seeing great (structural) changes to our social fabric in the western world. America, Britain and Australia went to war against Iraq now all the leaders responsible for that choice are out of power and so are the political parties that they were a apart of. BUT, our countries are not stable like they were before our economic systems are not stable like they were before, our political systems are not stable like they were before. What does this mean for the future? I don't know and would hate to even make a suggestion. What I do know is we are in for years of difficulty and when multi-national corporations have more power than governments I think it's a problem.
Please excuse me, as I haven't had a chance to visit your blog site yet. However, I was thinking about your (seemingly strident) assertion that we should be focusing our anthropology on issues of human rights.

I totally agree. Please consider the original point of my comments:

1. There are multiple frameworks at work within our world. The two that I have focused on most fully here are critical frameworks (such as anthropologists might produce) and institutional frameworks.

a. Maybe it would be worthwhile to play around with the term "framework" to get a better picture of my intentions. Maybe by "framework" we can intend the type of interaction-cum-labor that frames a certain kind of ideology/practice/discourse.

2. There is a disjuncture between institutional and critical frameworks:

a. In critical frameworks, agents seek some form of redress or social amelioration.

b. In institutional frameworks, agents are employed at that task of institutional maintenance.

As further extension, I'd like to say that anthropologists, no matter their focus, can really afford to turn a blind eye to the pervasiveness of bureaucracies and institutions. Really, are there human beings whose lives aren't touched in some way (even if only tangentially) by institutions?

Further, I'd like to point out bureaucracies do not exist without the human agents who are employed in their operations on a continual basis. Maybe by changing minds, we can help to change actions (contributions to society).

If we want to address human rights, one way to do so is to meet those institutional frameworks, in which people are employed at sustaining bureaucracies, with critical frameworks. Those critical frameworks shouldn't really "talk to power," so much as they should "backtalk" power ("sass" power, give it lip, as we might say in American English).

People might continue stubbornly along their way, as cogs in the machine. Then again, resistance is resistance, and is likely to be productive somehow.

Dr. Alok Chantia said:
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
Hi Joel.

It seems to me that some of your comments in your replies can be taken as controversially debatable. I know your intention is not to make blanket statements about certain things but that is what I am seeing. I also think the scope of this topic is huge and it is difficult to know where to start. I may, for a while at least, just read what others say and follow along silently as I don't want to ruffle any feathers.
Michael,

Noted. I realize that I'm only really touching the surface here, and not really even scraping at it. I am, however, surprised to hear that scrutiny of institutions, and the roles that they play in our lives is controversial.

I did find a critical typo in my last entry, though. I wrote:

"As further extension, I'd like to say that anthropologists, no matter their focus, can really afford to turn a blind eye to the pervasiveness of bureaucracies and institutions."

What I meant was:

"As further extension, I'd like to say that anthropologists, no matter their focus, can't really afford to turn a blind eye to the pervasiveness of bureaucracies and institutions."

Sorry!

Michael, really, I'd like to hear what you have to say about the issue. I may or may not agree, but I'll definitely learn and develop a better understanding of this topic as a result!

Michael Findlay said:
Hi Joel.

It seems to me that some of your comments in your replies can be taken as controversially debatable. I know your intention is not to make blanket statements about certain things but that is what I am seeing. I also think the scope of this topic is huge and it is difficult to know where to start. I may, for a while at least, just read what others say and follow along silently as I don't want to ruffle any feathers.
Joel M. Wright said:
Michael, really, I'd like to hear what you have to say about the issue. I may or may not agree, but I'll definitely learn and develop a better understanding of this topic as a result!
Ok
Joel M. Wright said:
Here in the First World, we operate toward a free market model, and so our governments have a tendency to be very corporation-friendly (think Bush Jr.'s disastrous laissez-faire attitude toward all sorts of business, and the mess that his administration's attitude has made for us; think Clinton's NAFTA).
Being an Australian who is very interested in what the world sees as "Free Market" my belief is much of the First World (read Northern Hemisphere) is anti-free market. America Taxes imports with ridiculous levels of import taxes so that a superior product (Australian meat such as Lamb and Beef) is unaffordable to the target group. America and the EU subsidise primary industries that are uncompetitive and then send their produce overseas with prices under the local produce. That is not a free market, a free market would not subsidise an uncompetitive and inferior product and tax a competitive and superior product. Instead it would treat all products in the product group equally allowing natural market forces to determine what products stay on the market.
Probably way off topic now but that is just one thing I see and thought worthy of comment.
Michael,

Your criticism of free market economic models seems pretty cogent to me. I have no ties to the beef industry (aside from enjoying the occasional steak or hamburger), so I wouldn't necessarily have seen your point coming.

Thanks for the clarification!

In light of occurrences like what you describe, maybe we should also consider the concepts that adhere to the ideology of free markets economies.

As you may well know, globalization doesn't happen evenly, and it doesn't happen under the same effects everywhere simultaneously. That is to say that globalization is more like a dynamic, shifting and overlapping set of social and economic arrangements, not one of which really spans the whole of the globe. On top of that, globalization seems to be an agglomeration of interfaces at the regional and local levels. So too with the global spread of free market economic arrangements, I'd argue.

Also, I'm not arguing that free market economic models are based off of equity. Far from it! It seems to me that the very concept of a free market is a tool utilized by ensconced capital interests (that class of wealthy-wealthy), confused with personal liberty, and defended erroneously by all but the very few.

Taken together, maybe we can build a new understanding of what a free market economy really is. The class of capital interests, along with the masses of a country, bounded by the (Barthean?) myths of national unity, may tend to want a free market economy pretty much for themselves. Maybe it's not all that uncommon for people to think of themselves primarily (that is, on the regional or local level) when using the word free market.

In any event, your comment seems to echo what I am trying to get at. My point was that the American government, and likely the Australian as well, tends to be very corporate-friendly. There is a mutually supportive connection between governments and economic institutions.

I do sympathize with what you're saying: there's a top-down dynamic that mitigates actual free market economies, ironically emanating from the supposed center of such ideology. For what it's worth, the concept of a free market economy is an ideal type, and should not be taken as anything else.

Michael Findlay said:
Joel M. Wright said:
Michael, really, I'd like to hear what you have to say about the issue. I may or may not agree, but I'll definitely learn and develop a better understanding of this topic as a result!
Ok
Joel M. Wright said:
Here in the First World, we operate toward a free market model, and so our governments have a tendency to be very corporation-friendly (think Bush Jr.'s disastrous laissez-faire attitude toward all sorts of business, and the mess that his administration's attitude has made for us; think Clinton's NAFTA).
Being an Australian who is very interested in what the world sees as "Free Market" my belief is much of the First World (read Northern Hemisphere) is anti-free market. America Taxes imports with ridiculous levels of import taxes so that a superior product (Australian meat such as Lamb and Beef) is unaffordable to the target group. America and the EU subsidise primary industries that are uncompetitive and then send their produce overseas with prices under the local produce. That is not a free market, a free market would not subsidise an uncompetitive and inferior product and tax a competitive and superior product. Instead it would treat all products in the product group equally allowing natural market forces to determine what products stay on the market.
Probably way off topic now but that is just one thing I see and thought worthy of comment.
Hi Joel.

Just a quick reply as I am about to go out and do some work.

I think I need to clarify a couple of things. In no way am I being critical of the EU and USA for their stance concerning protecting their primary industries, I used them as a relevant example of how the Northern Hemisphere has played with "free markets" in Primary production. Australia, while not going to the same extreme in Primary industries, is no better when it comes to secondary industry products. Using the Automotive industry as an example, only because I have been part of it for 26 years, successive Australian Gov'ts have put a duty/levy on imported vehicles. I give the USA credit at least they don't fudge words they call it a tax while in Australia we say it isn't a tax it's a levy/duty. This to me is the wrong thing to do, instead of taxing a superior product (Japanese cars) we should be helping (not subsidising though) our industry to be more competitive on the world stage.

Having said what I have said my opinion is that the "free market" is a fundamentally flawed concept. Take a look at The Miniature Earth video on You Tube. I know its not academically challenging but it does bring up something of a moral dilemma.

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