From its inception, from the 19th century efforts, from the modern founding works of Boas, Radcliffe-Brown, and Malinowski, anthropology strove to discover the human variety in the world, and to explain the manifold differences discovered. Starting in the 1970s, there has been a shift away from the goals of discovery and explanation and toward moralism and advocacy, which currently dominate our field. What has caused this shift in anthropology away from a scientific and humanistic vision and toward politics and activism? And what does this bode for the future of anthropology?

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Nothing left to be discovered? I think much of the world is left to be discovered.

First of all, anthropologists have been to few places, have studied and recorded few peoples, and there are many peoples and many places left to study. Just take India, a vast area of almost infinite cultural variation, the most colourful playground for anthropologists that one could imagine. We could send a thousand anthropologists, ten thousand anthropologists, and they would each find something new, and India would hardly notice. Even in the corner of the world where I did my research, only a couple of groups and places were studied fully, All the rest was unexplored anthropologically. And there was much more to see, I am sure of it.

Second of all, there are many important topics that have been explored in minimal or partial ways: e.g. nomadic and pastoral peoples; homosexual populations; health and medicine; education; mass media; pollution and purification; and many many more. Not only that, but new topics are thought of almost daily. Any and all of these could lead to new discoveries.

Third of all, time stands still for no man, the world changes, and so do the peoples and places that anthropologists have already studied. Anthropological reports are time limited, in the sense that they are reports of a particular period. My own research in Baluchistan is now 40 years old, and much as happened and much changed. To discover what has changed, and why, would be well worth a study. Even the most famous of studies are time specific: e.g. The three books and many article on the Nuer by Evans-Pritchard are based on research from the 1930s. Hutchinson's Nuer Dilemmas, based on research in the 1980s & 1990s, shows how very much was to be discovered from the changes in Nuerland. Another example would be the Bedouin, about whom there is a scattering of studies over time, good relatively recent ones by Lancaster, by Chatty, and by Kressel. But there are not many current ones, and far from all regions and subjects have been covered. For example, we know that the Bedouin play a major role in the Jordanian army, and the the Bedouin are something of a balance against the Palestinians in Jordan; I would like to discover what exactly is going on there. In Israel, Bedouin scouts play an important part in the Israeli Defence Force. I would like to know more about how Bedouin relate to Palestinians in Israel? And what is going on with the Bedouin populations in Syria, Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, etc.?

Nothing left to discover? Why we have hardly started. And will never catch up.
This is a very intriguing topic for me, and I have no idea where this large shift away from scientific study and toward activism comes from.

I've been working closely with an anthropologist who must be from the old school-- with him, it's always been about studying, learning, and understanding (he earned his Ph.D. in 1966).

Times are definitely changing, and even though Arizona State's School of human Evolution and Social change (formerly known as the Anthropology Dept.) does not offer any degrees or courses in Applied Anthropology, the motto in large typeface on their homepage is "Prepare to make a difference". This certainly implies an understanding that the anthropologists in charge at ASU are not just trying to study the world-- they're trying to change it.
I agree that earlier anthropology was not objective or uninfluenced by political considerations. But it did strive to be objective and was apolitical in the sense that it was not primarily oriented to political goals.

As I have mentioned before, no one assumes human objectivity. Scientific methodology assumes exactly the opposite: that scientists, being people, will be subjective, wish-directed, self-deceiving, stupid, dishonest, and crooked. That is why scientific procedures require replication of findings in other venues by other researchers before they are accepted.

Anthropology does not have such effective means of checking results, and we are not really very keen to try to do so. We do of course have open fora where discussion and criticism take place, and in some cases, e.g. Samoa, the Kalahari, examination has been quite close, the evidence produced quite rich, and the arguments quite sophisticated. We all benefit from this process, but few of us are lucky enough for our work to be taken up in this manner.

What happened in anthropology during the second half of the 20th century was the increasing politicization of anthropology. Political influence became not just an influencing factor, but the raison d'etre of anthropologists. One index of this was the formation of political identity groups within the American Anthropological Association. Currently there are formal Sections devoted to political advocacy: The Association for Feminist Anthropology; The Association for Indigenous Anthropologists; The Association of Black Anthropologists; The Association of Latina and Latino Anthropologists; The Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists. Who ever thought that anthropologists would segregate themselves by race? By ethnicity? By ideology? By personal preferences? But it is not just self-segregation; rather, anthropology has become a tool for lobbying for benefits of particular groups. The goal of anthropology becomes advancing certain political objectives: gender specific, racially specific, ethnically specific, preference specific.

The denial of objective truth and the celebration of subjectivity dovetails well with political interest groups, who can then say anything that advances their agendas, anything that forwards their political goals, all with the happy epistemology justification that one person's or one group's "truths" are just as valid as any others.

Did you know that the phrase "politically correct" is an old communist phrase, for discerning what statements or positions would advance the revolutionary success of the proletariat? Words and ideas become first and foremost manipulative political tools, all pragmatics and no semantics, linguistically speaking.
Aren't the critical issues here the difference between tacit versus overt politics and dismissal versus building on previous work?

As examples, let me use two of my favorite anthropologists, Ruth Benedict and Annette Weiner. Given that much of the criticism modeled on Edward Said's Orientalism has focused on the biases of work done by white males in collusion with if not active support of imperialism, the work of these two female anthropologists has, I believe, much to teach us.

In The Chrysanthemum and the Sword Benedict is overtly political. Her opening sentence notes that she is writing about the most alien enemy that the United States had ever faced. This statement did not reflect tacit or casual prejudice; it is amplified in detailed discussion of problems that the Allied forces faced, especially during the opening phases of the war in the Pacific. The following is taken from the chapter on Japan that Ruth and I wrote for Ray Scupin's Peoples and Cultures of Asia.

In the Japanese, the Allies found an enemy for whom, “Conventions of war, which Western nations had come to accept as facts of human nature obviously did not exist.” European and American generals, for example, were used to assuming that an army could be forced to surrender by killing one-fourth to one-third of its troops. The ratio of soldiers surrendering to those who died would be about 4:1. But even late in the war, when the first substantial number of Japanese surrendered, that ratio was 1:5, five times as many troops dying as surrendering, and that was seen as a huge improvement. In earlier battles the ratio had been as low as 1:250. Why was it that Japanese soldiers would go on fighting to the death, even in situations where they could not win? And then, when captured, why did these fight-to-the-death warriors become model prisoners, meekly doing whatever they were told and not trying to escape as POWs from Europe or America would? And why was the emperor never included in criticisms of their government, their officers and comrades?

She does not, however, abandon scientific objectivity because of her political aims. We continue,

Unfortunately, Benedict writes, a fieldtrip was out of the question. She “could not go to Japan and live in their homes and watch the strains and stresses of daily life.” She wasn’t able “to watch them in the complicated business of arriving at a decision," or to observe how they brought up their children. She would have to make do with what she could learn at a distance, by reading books, watching movies, and interviewing Japanese-Americans interned during the war.

She is warning her readers in advance that she may be missing something.

In Women of Value, Men of Renown: New Perspectives in Trobriand Exchange Weiner observes that while carefully documenting the Kula, Malinowski failed to consider the importance of the women's exchanges that accompanied the men's Kula exchanges. She critiques his proposition that deep sea fishing required magic while lagoon fishing did not because the former was more risky, arguing instead that the difference reflects the use of the catch, whether it is intended to influence trading partners. What she does not do, however, is simply dismiss Malinowski's work as flawed and, therefore, to be dismissed outright. She begins by noting that much of what he described still seemed to apply, even though Weiner's research was fifty years later and in a commoner rather than a chiefly village. Her critique is clearly grounded in emerging feminist concerns, but she adds to what Malinowski taught us, correcting his conclusions where she has data that contradict them, and enriching the previous account with both historical depth and a new class of informants, whose views predictably differed from those of the chiefs on whom Malinowski relied. Thus, I would argue, real progress was made.

Thus it is that in the chapter from which the quotes above are taken, we recommend to our undergraduate readers that whenever they read what an anthropologist has written they begin by asking who, what, when, where and why, developing an understanding of the historical context in which the work was done, why certain problems seemed pressing and certain methods were used. They might then be able to separate what remains of value (quite a lot in most cases) from errors in need of correction. They might learn a bit about what it means to be a serious scholar.
I am putting together a senior seminar called "Great Debates in Anthropology" for next semester. Because I want the students to read the original sources, we won't be able to cover all "great debates," and will limit the seminar to a few selected debates in cultural anthropology. We will examine the Mead-Freeman et al debates on Samoa, the Lee-Wilmsen et al clash about the Kalahari, and the Chagnon-Tierney controversy about the Yanomami.

The Samoa debate was in the 1980s, the Kalahari debate in the 1990s, and the Yanomami debate in the 2000s. The first two were about the substantive ethnographic and historical nature of the peoples in Samoa and the Karahari. The third and most recent controversy was about the ethics of the anthropological researchers. Granted, one confrontation does not make a trend. Yet, combined with the politicization, partisanization, and moralism of much recent anthropology, it is hard to dismiss as random this shift in focus, attention, resources, and judgement.
Philip- similarly I teach a masters module with my colleagues at Lampeter called Key Debates in Anthropology, which takes its inspiration from the Group Debates in Anthropology (GDAT) organised at Manchester (see: http://www.socialsciences.manchester.ac.uk/disciplines/socialanthro...), and which resulted in the Ingold edited volume 'Key Debates in Anthropology' (1996) (and you can also dowload other subsequent debates as PDFs). I decided to look at controversies rather than just debates, because it's a great way to look at anthropology operating as a discipline and reverberating beyond academia. I run two sessions, one on the Yanomami controversy and research ethics, and one on the Mead/Freeman controversy and ethnographic authority.

And by the way, a great for-and-against a disinterested versus a militant vision of anthropology can be found in:

D'Andrade, R.G. 1995. Moral Models in Anthropology. Current Anthropology 36, 399-408.
Scheper-Hughes, N. 1995. The Primacy of The Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology. Current Anthropology 36, 409-420.

best, Piers


Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
I am putting together a senior seminar called "Great Debates in Anthropology" for next semester. Because I want the students to read the original sources, we won't be able to cover all "great debates," and will limit the seminar to a few selected debates in cultural anthropology. We will examine the Mead-Freeman et al debates on Samoa, the Lee-Wilmsen et al clash about the Kalahari, and the Chagnon-Tierney controversy about the Yanomami.
The Samoa debate was in the 1980s, the Kalahari debate in the 1990s, and the Yanomami debate in the 2000s. The first two were about the substantive ethnographic and historical nature of the peoples in Samoa and the Karahari. The third and most recent controversy was about the ethics of the anthropological researchers. Granted, one confrontation does not make a trend. Yet, combined with the politicization, partisanization, and moralism of much recent anthropology, it is hard to dismiss as random this shift in focus, attention, resources, and judgement.
I think the main reasons behind the shift from boot-camp model anthropology to bazaar model anthropology are that lacking the research grant. I recall Buddha’s saying that empty stomach cannot realize the truth. How many people can remember the contributions of Lewis Henry Morgan? I should like to pay my gratitude to him. He was the real father of anthropology. Today how many of us, like to study ‘marriage and kinship’ which is the core of anthropology? But no wonder, in the past anthropologists did investigations for colonial powers and today we are doing for them whom we study. In my own case, I became passionate towards anthropology because I found it as a tool to understand Buddha’s Dharma because of its empiricism. If there was Buddha alive, he would say, “O monks (anthropologists)! Go to every suffering people, investigate their problems and advocate for them!”
Philip wrote: "...What happened in anthropology during the second half of the 20th century was the increasing politicization of anthropology. Political influence became not just an influencing factor, but the raison d'etre of anthropologists..."

In my opinion, the shift from discovery and explanation to moralism and advocacy has something do with the way anthropology has been used in the recent past. I would argue, for example, that our profession and anthropological research has been “mis-led” and “mis-used” by such organizations as the Rand Institute and the research that was used to fight the Vietnam war. Whether it be used in a vertical function designating what is represented, or a horizontal function linking what is represented to some mode or practice, the use of anthropological studies in elaborate statistical models, probabilities, reasoning, systems analysis, data and statistical inference to study war, “first strike” capability, insurgency, counterinsurgency, conflict evolving dynamics, statistical and social behavior modeling has sullied anthropology. I believe that in some areas this shift is an attempt to raise the profession above the level of propositions and analytic ordering in an attempt to regain some sort of humanistic perspective again.

As a practicing anthropologist, I believe that anthropology should be used to show people that they are much freer than they feel; that people accept as truth and evidence, some themes which have been built up at a certain moment during history, and that this evidence can be analyzed, criticized or even debunked. It is one of my objectives to show people that a lot of the things that are part of their landscape are the result of some very precise historical changes. And, finally, that anthropology should be used to show people which space of freedom we can still enjoy and how many important changes can still be made. I only hope that some of the new areas in anthropological research having to do with consumerism will not be “mis-used” in a similar fashion.
Nikos,

...my sentiments exactly. Thanks for your response.
Interestingly enough, at the same time as Western anthropology and particularly North American anthropology was becoming more keen to bring politics into its discourse, it was shifting to the study of culture, dismissing questions of social and political organisation as archaic, a trend which lead a lot of stuff appearing in anthropological journals to be merely comments on others' culture and society, if not comments on inquiring others' culture and society.

The threat of so-called cultural studies is well known (I cannot keep myself from linking to Cultural Studies will be the Death of Anthropology from the series Piers Locke was citing). And it is in a way too late, the same port-modernist trend has been at work in anthropology since the same time as cultural studies started to develop.

There has indeed been a shift from science to opinion. I am much grateful to you for arguing about this very convincingly, better than I ever would.

Self-reflection has been a good way to avoid to go out there to discover what the world is. Post-decolonisation European anthropology has faced the problem in the very same terms: there isn't much to discover left, let us reflect upon our way of looking at them. But despite this, it remained somehow more "archaic", scientistic, and as such more scientific, than the global trend overseas.

I remember a Soviet colleague, who was accused of doing old-school ethnography, who said that he was very proud of being himself an archaic person (he was an Armenian) and to keep on doing archaic ethnography.
Interestingly enough, at the same time as Western anthropology and particularly North American anthropology was becoming more keen to bring politics into its discourse, it was shifting to the study of culture, dismissing questions of social and political organisation as archaic

A palpable hit, a vital point. Good to hear it made by one of us peripheral people. How do we bring social and political organization back in, to make it once again the core of solid ethnography? As opposed to just groaning about the good old days?
John McCreery said:
How do we bring social and political organization back in, to make it once again the core of solid ethnography? As opposed to just groaning about the good old days?

By keeping doing old-fashioned fieldwork on lineage and pastoralism. I am half joking. By teaching students how one discovers and explains, to paraphrase our host on this thread.

On the other hand, the days of the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology are probably over but its successor still has a lot of attention devoted to kinship, to keep on this. And many European journals like Anthropos, L'Homme (or more recently Social Anthropology) did not abdicate encouraging and publishing ethnographically grounded studies of social organisation, or whatever other real topic — I mean really relevant to anthropology as the science of human culture and society.

Let us keep positive science up. I will say, it is still there, despite a superficial (and extraneous) shift toward discourse on discourse and fruitless moralism.

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