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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Or (1) who will be our target audience, (2) how are possible audiences embedded in institutions, and (3) how do those embeddings affect the tenor of anthropological literature?

At one extreme, we have the Enlightenment dream of universal knowledge, available to everyone; at the other, governmental or corporate secrets guarded by intellectual property or other legal regimes. Between them we find alternatives that include (1) the educated public that Robertson Davies labeled "the clerisy," the sort of people who make a habit of reading newspapers and books in a wide variety of fields; (2) non-professionals who share narrower but relatively broad interests, readers of popular science or history for example; and (3) hobbyists with highly specific interests — I think here of the lovers of Asian art who subscribe to Orientations—as well as political activists, policy makers and product developers and marketers who all have particular axes to grind.
I am very glad that you started this thread and posted such a complex outline of its meaning. I think you had a point in the other thread when you said that cultural diversity and cultural relativism were not the same thing. Now you have introduced another set of questions about critique and institutions, plus the question of audience. I have an essay on the backburner, Death of the Audience (ironic reference to Barthes), but I doubt if you want a summary of that argument. These days I am a writer and public speaker more than an institutionalised anthropologist and I am constantly surprised by who responds to what I have to say and how. But I will back off for now and see if any other members of the group wish to comment on some of the questions you have raised.
I read the English translation of Mythologies as an undergraduate, and it totally changed my way of thinking. I love Barthes, and I'd be happy to hear anything you have to say about his works.

I'm also a big fan of Walter Benjamin, though all I've read was Illuminations.

Keith Hart said:
I am very glad that you started this thread and posted such a complex outline of its meaning. I think you had a point in the other thread when you said that cultural diversity and cultural relativism were not the same thing. Now you have introduced another set of questions about critique and institutions, plus the question of audience. I have an essay on the backburner, Death of the Audience (ironic reference to Barthes), but I doubt if you want a summary of that argument. These days I am a writer and public speaker more than an institutionalised anthropologist and I am constantly surprised by who responds to what I have to say and how. But I will back off for now and see if any other members of the group wish to comment on some of the questions you have raised.
NIKOS GOUSGOUNIS said:
This could be the final and supreme aim or task of anthropology as a human science par excellence

Glad you found us, Nikos. Rather than think of our time as the end, I prefer to emphasize beginnings. Everything that anthropology has been so far is just a preparation for what it can begin to be now, since we are living in a time when the shared potential of world society is starting out. I realise that beginnings and ends are rhetorical devices (see Huon Wardle's current blog post), but that is my preferred rhetoric.
Nikos: how would I go about putting it in a forum, so that more people might respond?

Also, has anyone caught the segment on NPR about the Grand Trunk Road in Southeast Asia? Not a lot of theory there, but something so invaluable: simply investigation of what is seen. Ok, so it's situated in specific ways, but I'd never even heard of this cultural-geographic feature, and I'm an anthropolist. Maybe simply producing more depiction and less dense theorizing will help to connect general audiences to a greater/fuller awareness of what it means to be human?

Re: Keith's thoughts. That's very interesting. I hadn't ever considered the idea of endings or beginnings. However, the following link contains some provocative implications, though maybe not completely unanticipated.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37256799/ns/technology_and_science-science

Maybe we should also be looking closer at some of the newer topics emerging in anthropology. This article seems to click a few gears in my mind in terms of coursework I've done on bioethics. Again, there's a dilemma of target audiences, though: anthropologists can talk about medical ethics and bioethics issues, especially cross-culturally, but people will tend not to sit up and notice until a movie like The Constant Gardener is put out (even if the film doesn't catch all of the complexities of the issue).

I took an applied sociology course years ago, and walked away with at least one valuable concept, in terms of planning: evaluate where you are, then evaluate where you want to be. Once you have these two points clear, building the road from the former to the latter becomes easier. I can't say we will ever be able to do this for anthropology with one fell swoop, but if we want to talk about placement in time, maybe it's something for us to consider.

Also, and to put Keith's thoughts in other words, maybe we should be generating dialogue on the historical present and the role that anthropology has to play within that historical context. Just a final note: I've long thought that history is not just a matter of the past, but also of the present and the possibilities of the future.

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