While I would agree that anthropologists/ethnographers cannot (always) avoid doing some form of 'harm' through their work, a deliberate decision or ‘mission’ to do harm, to name and shame, discredit and condemn others under the guise of dedication to human understanding does anthropology a great disservice.
What about all these anthropologists that have been reported to have active commitement to military operations such as in Afghanistan ? I should like some colleagues here to relate the OPENESS OF ANTHROPOLOGY with these military activities.
An anthropology bent on moralizing not only puts those of its informants of whom the anthropologist disapproves at risk of harm, but is itself a retrograde effort. Certainly it is true that anthropologists are all human, more or less, and that we all have our values, ethics, and morals, or at least sentiments and opinions that we label as such. But, as we are agreed, that does not distinguish an anthropologist from any peasant, tribesman, or town dweller anywhere in the world. If all anthropology is is “critical,” “committed,” and “pro/anti-this-or-that,” it is no different from, and no more than any village, tent, or urban culture.
Today, there are highland Sardinians committed to community unity, who, in defence of equality, will shoot or burn any individual or enterprise threatening that by rising above the others. Around the world there are families of Middle Eastern and South Asian origin highly sensitive to local mores in the Middle East, and critical of local mores in Europe and North America, and ready to defend their honour by killing their wives, sisters, and daughters. In Iran today, those upholding the strict view of the rule of the just Shia jurist, know in their hearts that demonstrators in the streets are committing an offense against God, and will use all the power of the state to crush those demonstrators and destroy them and their families. All of these folks “know what is right or wrong” and are critical and committed to advance their visions. Why would anyone care what sentiments anthropologists have about these or any other issues?
While moralizing is normal and universal among humans, it is not anthropology. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a moralist, or an activist, or a politician, and many have chosen to be terrorists, but being these is not being an anthropologist. To pretend that doing these is doing anthropology destroys the value in anthropology, as we replace knowledge with moralizing and sloganeering.
Let us take Steve’s concept of anthropology as an example: “anthropology itself is concerned with bringing about a more equal and democratic society than ever existed.” This is not a research project with a goal of advancing knowledge. This is a political project, not that different from that of socialist parties of 19th and 20th century. I have no objection is Steve wants to start a political movement or party; but I do object if he want to call it “anthropology.”
This is not to say that anthropology cannot concern itself with “equality” and “democracy.” It certainly can, and perhaps should. But as a research enterprise. For example, we could direct research to understanding the conditions under which equality increases, and the consequences of such an increase. Similarly, we could direct research to understanding the conditions under which democracy arises, and the conditions under which it is sustained. Furthermore, we could, and perhaps should, look at relations between equality and democracy, to determine the extent to which they are compatible and incompatible. We might also wish to understand the rise and implications of other values, such as prosperity, freedom, order, excellence, holiness, superiority, creativity, etc., and the relations among them, and their relative compatibilities and incompatibilities. Our findings would be highly “relevant” and constructive, both in understanding human life more generally, and in considering pursuing one or other of these values in practical life.
I find it odd to say, as Francine has done and Keith has enthusiastically endorsed, that we should strive for something without knowing whether it is possible or what the costs may be: Anthropology should strive to “bring about a more equal and democratic society than ever existed (though the jury is out on how to make that happen or if its even possible).” There are at least three things odd about this: First, why would we be advancing something if we do not seem to know anything about it? Shouldn’t we have some idea what the possibilities are, and what the costs are, before advocating such a project? Second, wouldn’t it be the job of a serious research anthropology to collect information about how such changes happen and what the costs are? Why say “who knows?” when it is our job to try to know, or at least advance our knowledge on the subject. Third, the view presented seems to suggest that the many experiments in equality and democracy during the 19th and 20th centuries are not pertinent. I would think that a study of “people’s democracies” would be instructive: try the USSR, North Korea, China prior to 1980, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Cuba, etc.
If anthropology is to have a future, it had better be sure to make a serious contribution to understanding.