Who do ‘we’ anthropologists think we are? Reflections on the significance of collective anthropological identities

Welcome to the online arm of the ‘Who are “we”?’ project! (Some of you will remember that I posted about this a few months ago; many thanks for your responses then.)

Socio-cultural anthropology has historically and popularly been characterized by its study of ‘other’ societies – not only the remote, exotic natives of Malinowskian legend, but also ‘others at home’, such as marginalized minorities, activists and religious communities. But while endless debates have raged over how anthropologists construct and theorize ‘otherness’, far less attention has been paid to the other side of the story: how forms and notions of affinity between anthropologists influence the work that they do.

The ‘Who are “We”?’ project aims to redress this imbalance by asking how the anthropological ‘we’ is imagined and invoked – and how such processes feed into anthropological methods, theories and analysis. Some of these questions will be addressed at a small Wenner-Gren workshop in September, but we’d also like to invite as many anthropologists (and non-anthropologists) around the world as possible to participate in the discussions via the OAC forum. To kickstart reflection and discussion, we’ve put together a list of questions below: feel free to respond to all or any of them, or just respond to the overarching theme. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a ‘professional’ anthropologist, a student or even a non-anthropologist: we’d love to hear your views!


  1. Who are “we”? Anthropological texts commonly refer to an “us” or a “we” – an imagined anthropological (or other) community – that is engaging with the text. Do you follow this convention? And what/who do you see this “we” as comprising? 
  1. Is your anthropological practice shaped by how you relate to certain collectives, real or imagined – language communities, regions, disciplines, ‘turns’, departments, specific audiences, etc.? 
  1. To what extent are certain anthropological methods, theories and concepts premised on the existence of shared backgrounds, politics, preoccupations, etc. among anthropologists? 
  1. What do you make of concepts aimed at either broadening the discipline or demarcating a particular anthropological sub-set? E.g. “peripheral anthropology”, “world anthropology”, “other peoples’ anthropology”, “applied anthropology”, “digital anthropology”…etc. 
  1. Does anthropology have its own internal “Others” and/or “elites”? How are they produced? 
  1. Why are alterity and affinity extensively analysed by anthropologists when it comes to studies of the “Other” but less so when it comes to “us”? 
  1. Historically, has the anthropological “we” changed its form? If it has, how? If not, why not? 
  1. If one were to reimagine an anthropological “we”, what would it look like?

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This looks like an interesting project. Hope you get some answers to your questions. Here are mine.

  1. Yes, I sometimes say, "We anthropologists," by which I mainly mean people of my own generation who went to the same or similar graduate schools, or at least cite the same ancestors.
  2. Yes, absolutely. East Asia, especially China and Japan, and the types of research done there have had a major impact on my self-image as an anthropologist.
  3. They all are. A perfectly predictable result of people going to different graduate schools at different historical moments. The absence of a canon (books everyone has to read) or paradigm (ways of doing research that everyone agrees define good work) makes this conclusion unavoidable.
  4. They are all interesting experiments. At the end of the day they mainly provide evidence of what Andrew Abbott calls the chaos of disciplines, contributing to further fragmentation instead of major shifts in direction.
  5. Again, absolutely. The gaps between elite and second and third-tier programs, tenured and untenured faculty, races and genders in hiring are undeniable social facts. 
  6. It absolutely won't do for anyone pursuing a tenure-track job to say the obvious thing: that without the grand evolutionary narrative that made human biology, linguistics, archeology, and social or cultural anthropology all elements of the same natural history of humanity—the field has become a loose network of individuals pursuing their various hobbies. 
  7. Of course it has. The real question is whether there ever was an anthropological "we" more inclusive than the various national "we" who at times found it convenient to work together but were more like Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Freudians and Jungians, logical positivists and existentialists, than members of a single, coherent discipline.
  8. I imagine it as a collection of people whose education and social networks result in overlapping interests that comprise a bit broader than average perspective on the human condition.

That's my two yen.

Dear Liana, 

This is indeed very interesting project. I think that it touches on the core of the question of priority: as humans we all have different and very often contradictory identities but which one to prefer and when? In my opinion, religion is a very useful lens from which to look at how we construct ourselves as anthropologists, or as community, that, despite contradictory views on religion, appear to have a homogeneous agnostic stand towards it. There are many anthropologists who understand themselves as people belonging to different races, ethnic groups, sexes, genders and so on, but when it comes to religion, everybody seems to agree that it is not something that anthropologists can hold as identity. Today however, has allowed many people to be BOTH anthropologists and deeply religious persons, erasing the academically constructed line between the two. But who, knows, may be before the postmodern turn, there were many anthropologists who could feel their belief, but found it un-academic to publicly say so, we do not know. In short, my point is, that I think nowhere else but in the field of religious belief have we all constructed ourselves as different from the people we study and as homogeneous community of agnostic anthro. Today, this stereotype breaks down, and I think interviewing anthropologists who are successful in the discipline and at the same time belong to the some kind of religious group may shed the light on the alterity and affinity within our community.

Best, Ruslan 

Dear John and Ruslan,

Thanks so much for your thoughtful responses (and apologies, John, for not replying earlier!).Would you mind if I re-posted these on our Facebook page too (https://www.facebook.com/anthrowho) as a way of stimulating discussion?

I was at a conference in London yesterday in which some of these questions were mooted (by me and a few others), and I was struck by how little consensus there was over what 'we' thought anthropology was about and what anthropologists ought to be doing - and this was just within the London anthropology scene!

Ruslan's post also raises a very interesting question about the kinds of collective identity/affiliation that transcend and indeed challenge the usual suspects of ethnicity, nationality, region, etc..I suppose religion stands out as a particularly difficult case because of early-20th c. anthropology's own self-conscious attempts to position itself as a field science - a rationalizing (and thus necessarily secular) device that explicated 'other' ritual and religious practices and revealed their internal logics from an external perspective. Maintaining that perspective meant retaining a stance of non-belief (which, as a number of recent commentators have pointed out, was seen as the defining characteristic of religiosity); conversely, I wonder if believing was seen as tantamount to 'going native', even if anthro and subject didn't believe in the same thing. Matthew Engelke and Brian Howell have written some very interesting pieces on this issue... Add to all this the not uncommon association of atheism/agnosticism with superior intellectual capacity in certain (mainly Anglophone?) milieus, and it's no surprise that many anthropologists haven't been keen to 'admit' to having some religious affiliation. 

Having said that, I'd be interested in hearing what things are like for anthropologists in other contexts, where religion may be characterised less by belief than by ingrained identity/politics and may not be far more of a taken-for-granted aspect of people's lives and identities ('public' and 'private') than it is in, say, the UK and North America. Do anthropologists elsewhere face the same awkwardness, that same pressure to retain a stance of agnosticism?


Please feel free to repost my comments on your Facebook page. Also on the Website blog.


Dear Liana and other 'self-seeking' anthropologists

Thanks for opening up such a provoking line of thought of, as I see it, repositioning and redressing anthropology as a marginalized social science.

I am a non-academic bounded and applying anthropologist. My line of thinking to this cultural self-reflective question, therefore, has some weird directions.

As anthropology/ethnology originated in European 'civilization' we have to look what were and are we, European anthropologists, looking for?

Before Asad's 'Anthropology & the Colonial Encounter' (1973) we, European anthropologists, were inclined to avoid the colonial contagion in our work. We were supposed to bring back home the soothing message that somehow we, Europeans, were after all still the most progressed civilization. And we thought we were having a great and warm heart for vulnerable tribal peoples. After Asad’s confrontation feminist anthropologists, like Sherry Ortner (1972), went on with the 'project of cultural self-reflection' in anthropology.

Marshall Sahlins in his The Western Illusion of Human Nature (2007) states that, looking back upon a full ethnographical life of studying 'others', Europe's inner demons are located deeply in our collective anxiety for anarchy and passions. Hence populations need authority and hierarchy, the people has to be ruled and dominated (The Prince 1532; Levithan 1660) in order to avoid chaos and destruction.

Starting from these arguments we, anthropologists, could be seen as 'scouts' of Europe to look how 'others' dealt and coped with the risks of anarchy and 'uncontrollable' passions. Crime and murder & sex and violence  are 'primal instincts': passions ruled by biology. Early UK anthropologists, like Malinowski, targeted sex and repression (1927) & crime and custom (1926) both in 'savage society' which were rather popular books at the time.

Are we, anthropologists, members of intertwined, international and intergenerational communities of ‘scouts’ who have to roam the world in order to find out who we are as Europeans? Or one daring step further: are we searching for what Europe has lost? At least are phenomena like alienation, disenchantment of civilization part of our research agenda. From Durkheim & Mauss (Primitive Classifications 1922) to Levi-Strauss (Tristes Tropiques 1955). From Diamond (In Search of the primitive1974) to Taussig (Magic of the State 1997).

If this is a valuable and valid trope the position of first nation 'others' could be shifting from object of research to teachers what we have lost? This thought is not new. Vine Deloria, Standing Rock Sioux, in 'We Talk you Listen' (1972) made this case. The German translation this book was titled 'Only Tribes will survive' (Nur Stämme werden überleben) which supports the idea of a message we still couldn't hear'. The Colombian Kogi people situate themselves as the older brothers of us: the people from over the great water.

Thus the million dollar question for the beautiful workshop you are organizing could be: Do we become to know who we are when we, as anthropologists, start to focus on what first nations has to offer us, Europeans, to understand/solve what is troubling us, as Europeans? Does such a paradigm shift leads to know who we are?

In my case it did. In 1974 I started studying anthropology with a weird desire. I wanted to learn from 'tribal peoples' to solve problems in my own family and in other Dutch families/communities. Of course this seemed a mission impossible. During and after my anthropological studies I performed 'clinical' fieldwork for ten years in psychiatry as a group therapist. Since 1993 I train mental health and youth care professionals how to deal with cultural diversity among their clients and with troubled male adolescents from migrant families. In 2005 I became part of a female team of transcultural family therapists who educate new generations of transcultural therapist. They take applied anthropology as indispensable in their educational mission. My challenge to your project is: by putting anthropological knowledge to the test at home (!) we will become to know who we are. And by serving ourselves, as Europeans, our work will become of more value to 'others'.

Dirck van Bekkum, self-employed applying anthropologist, The Netherlands. (moira@ctt.nl)


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