'Who are “we”? Reimagining alterity and affinity in anthropology' workshop

Nayanika Mathur and I have recently obtained Wenner-Gren funding for a workshop on collective anthropological identities (in short, who we anthropologists think “we” are), to be held at Cambridge University, from 3rd to 5th September 2014. Here’s the blurb:

This workshop revolves around the myriad ways in which anthropologists construe and conduct themselves as part of larger communities, movements, and disciplines, and the implications of these practices for our understandings of difference and similarity. Although the ethnographic "other" has been subject to endless investigation and description, less attention has been paid to its implicit foil – the anthropological "we". Yet the the tacit assumption of belonging and speaking to an intellectual collective is often pivotal to conceptualizations and theories of alterity, which remains a mainstay of anthropological knowledge-making. This workshop seeks to lay bare the relationship between forms and ideas of anthropological affinity and broader issues of alterity and affinity in ethnographic theory, practice, and writing. Explicitly plural and international in scope, it will invite scholars from around the world to interrogate questions about anthropology’s composition, ethico-political agendas, and futures. In the process, it will build on existing reflexive trends within anthropology while extending them beyond the influence of post-modernism and the Euro-American circles in which they have mostly occurred. As the discipline becomes increasingly public, engaged, and global, this workshop will be a timely and democratizing intervention that will engender new understandings of how anthropology is crafted and mobilized.

Due to financial and other constraints, we had to limit the number of core participants to about 20; a more-or-less final list should be available by the end of the year. A handful of extra places will probably be available on each of the three days. However, Nayanika and I are also keen to get as many anthropologists as possible to participate in our discussions. To this end, we’re hoping to use OAC as a kind of extended forum to which anthropologists from around the world can contribute; we’re also looking at pre-circulating some of the material (possibly as an e-seminar) and engaging with people’s responses during the workshop.

Obviously it’s still early days, but I just wanted to flag this workshop well in advance in the hope that some of you will be keen to get involved in its online dimension! We plan to begin posting stuff and starting discussions on the OAC forum early in 2014. Meanwhile, feel free to drop me a note if you’ve got any ideas or want to find out more about this project! 

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Comment by Mark Stahlman on February 28, 2014 at 6:07pm

As Jerry McGuire reminded us (and as this discussion underscores, vis-a-vis "grants" and "grantee" language), we always need to "follow the money."  So, who is/was Wenner-Gren?

Yes, we know that its founder was "blacklisted."  Yes, we know that it operated out of a townhouse on 79th Street and a castle in Austria.  Yes, we know that it specialized in providing grants to those who were often outside the "institutional" framework.

It gave crucial support to Teillard de Chardin in the 1950s -- housing him in NYC, far from his Jesuit superiors in France.  It gave crucial support to Gregory Bateson -- funding his watershed 1968 Conference on "Conscious Purpose vs. Nature" -- helping to launch the "environmental" movement.  Yes, it asked the (Rockefeller) Univ. of Chicago to scope out its intended journal "Current Anthropology."

Given this background, it would appear that Wenner-Gren was a "specialist" feeder-fund that was part of the larger efforts by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, like, for instance, the Macy Foundation, which supported both the famous Cybernetics conferences and the later conferences on LSD (in part with money from the CIA).

In the 1970s, the funding and the "politics" of anthropology were both upended, including for Wenner-Gren.  So, who/what are they now (and how is this workshop supposed to help them to figure that out) . . . ??

Comment by Liana Chua on February 5, 2014 at 2:23pm

Thanks, Lee. I hadn't really thought about 'affinity' in those terms, though they are bleedingly obvious when you mention them - d'oh! It'll be interesting to see whether that incorporative other-us notion of 'affines' comes into play in the discussions.

I can see why you're skeptical about that sentence about anthropology's increasingly public nature. I get frustrated enough with the exclusionary effects of those 'rarefied, academic exercise[s]' within anthropology! But again, I think this is why our conversation is necessary: to show that there are middle grounds between the esoteric and the public dimensions of anthropology, in which an awful lot of anthropologists dwell. A couple of other considerations may be pertinent here: i) does public necessarily mean plain-speaking and non-esoteric, or is that a peculiar British/N. American concern? What about in countries (e.g. France, Denmark??) where academic anthropologists can also be 'public intellectuals'? (I don't think that you're drawing such a dichotomy, but it is something that ought to be addressed.) And ii) What can we learn from contexts in which anthropology is inextricably tied to a notional public good, e.g. through involvement in state development projects and policy bodies? I suspect that my Sarawakian colleagues don't feel the same impulse to become publicly relevant because, as civil servants in a country where academics have often been incorporated into statist projects, that distinction between academia and public relevance isn't all that pronounced. Perhaps this is where we need to start asking about how the postcolonial baggage (anthropology as handmaiden, etc) of European (but also, in a way, North American) anthropology has fed into the powerful distinction between 'pure' academic anthropology and applied/public anthropology in these places...

Comment by Lee Drummond on February 2, 2014 at 11:59pm

  

Liana,

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful and lucid response to my Comment.  Although I haven’t employed it in a while, I do understand the constraints of writing in the register of grantese.  You’re quite right that the demands of establishing a sense of ourselves within the community (?) of anthropologists is onerous enough, without taking to the street and doing JayWalk interviews.  Even with your sound unpacking of the notion of “alterity,” I still find it an elusive concept.  Part of my problem is your linking it to “affinity,” which in traditional old-hat anthropology had the referent of “outsiders who have become us” – affines who are by necessity Others – non-kin – but whose incorporation in various ways into Our group results in the creation / birth of more, full-fledged members of Us.  It is the irresolvable dialectic of [kinship – ethnicity] (sameness-from-difference)  that I see operating at a fundamental level of cultural process. 

    I would still question your hopeful reference to anthropology:

“As the discipline becomes increasingly public, engaged, and global. . .”

My sense is pretty much the opposite: that the public presence of anthropology has steadily declined over the past several decades (in part because of a schism between a misdirected “development anthropology” which is anthropology in name only and, on the other hand, a rarefied, academic exercise whose productions are all but unintelligible even to an educated public). 

    Finally, though, as I noted in my previous Comment, I find your experiment in encouraging contributions from an open-access forum such as OAC a great way to flesh out anthropologists’ understandings of what they are about.    I wish you the best of luck with it. 

 

Comment by Liana Chua on February 2, 2014 at 7:01pm

Thanks for your comments, Lee. As I said in my reply to Keith, these are early days and there's going to be a lot more to our project than that blog post. And in simple English too! A few points of clarification may be useful here...

1) The blurb that's up there was basically cut and pasted from our Wenner-Gren application. That is to say, it's the product of quite a different project of academic translation to that which constitutes 'public' or 'popular' anthropology, i.e. a grant application, which is becoming the scholarly lifeblood of many academic anthropologists in the UK, at least. That requires a specific sort of performance to a specific audience (in this case, the WG's grantmaking committee) using a specific kind of self-promoting language - and I agree that it may have come across as more bombastic than it needed to be. But hey, it was the middle of term and I wanted to get something up, and cutting and pasting was (for better or worse) the best I could do at the time. That may tell you more about the pressures of academic life than anything else!

2) But that still leaves the question of the title and topic of the workshop. The important thing to point out here - and this may come as a disappointment - is that this workshop is not meant to be an exercise in public engagement or popular anthropology. This is meant to foster a series of exchanges among anthropologists and other interested parties (e.g. intellectual historians). If we were using this workshop to make anthropology accessible to a non-anthropological audience, we would indeed have used some very different language. But our point here is that the growing interest in public engagement in certain anthropological quarters (and of course some others have long been embedded in the public sphere) is one of several factors that's made this conversation that we're proposing even more pressing. How do 'we' become publicly relevant if we can't even agree on who we're talking to or where we're coming from? So no, we're not proposing to ask the general non-anthropological public about anthropological identities and notions of otherness: we're proposing that anthropologists ask themselves these questions and get talking. This is particularly important for us because, like you, Nayanika and I have found ourselves increasingly annoyed by the jargonisation of Anglophone anthropology (for want of a better description) and - more importantly - the way in which fancy theoretical/pseudo-philosophical language is used to enact barriers and hierarchies within the discipline. As in that implication that if others can't/won't deal in self-consciously clever thought experiments and theorisations, they can't possibly be 'good' anthropologists. This is partly why we're trying to get anthropologists from around the world and different fields involved in this conversation: to refuse the exclusionary political games that anthropologists can and do play. 

Anyway, back to the title. Some thought did actually go into these words, so let me try to explain what we're trying to do here. Identity and otherness do come into play, but they're not the only elements that matter. First, 'alterity': yes, a word that you wouldn't expect to find in your average layperson's (or even anthropologist's) vocabulary. But if scholars only stuck to 'commonsense' words in wide circulation, they wouldn't get very far. ('Identity' and 'ethnicity' are two examples of scholarly terms that made their way out into the public sphere, and whoosh!) We use 'alterity' in part because it is a word that's currently making the rounds in Anglophone anthropology (e.g. through the ontological turn) and has a history of being used in the discipline (e.g. Taussig's Mimesis and Alterity). We could have ignored it, but we felt that it was important to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and get stuck into those ongoing debates. But more importantly, 'alterity' for us is not simply another word for 'otherness'. 'Otherness' implies a certain state of being and carries with it all sorts of exoticising baggage. 'Alterity' is also not just 'difference', which is too vague to be of use. Instead, as I tried to explain in my response to Keith, we're trying to use 'alterity' here as a heuristic device, something (and we do need something) to serve as a conceptual anchor for the discussions. In this case, it's a useful way of getting at the (shifting) relation between anthropologists and their xyz (informants, collaborators, colleagues) in the same way that 'affinity' is. As for 'affinity' - well, that's a fairly commonly used word among mere mortals, and again, we found it useful because it encompassed various kinds of relations and ideas: closeness, sameness, similarity, different degrees of intimacy/fondness....etc. What we're trying to ask, then, is not simply 'what are the ideas of otherness anthropologists employ in describing their ethnographic subjects and that in turn reflect on their concept of their own identity?' as you put it - we're also trying to ask how their sense of affinity with and difference from their colleagues and informants shape their fieldwork relations, their identities and their ethnographies. And finally: why is it important to 'reimagine' alterity and affinity? Because these two don't simply exist as a matter of course; they have always needed to be imagined - they are imaginative projects. So we don't just want to 'rethink' or critique these projects; we also want to move beyond them and ask how our discussions might give rise to newer ways of imagining alterity, affinity, ethnographic relations and anthropological identities. 

Hope that clarifies what we're getting at! 

Comment by Lee Drummond on February 1, 2014 at 7:16am

 

Regarding the Wenner-Gren workshop:

 

Who are “we”? 

Reimagining alterity and affinity in anthropology' workshop

 

    Things are at a preliminary stage here, so I will merely hazard a couple of preliminary remarks.  First, I think it is a marvelous idea somehow to incorporate or coordinate the august discussions of a Wenner-Gren conference with an open forum of anthropologists as represented by the OAC.  I don’t know if this sort of thing has been tried before at such a distinguished institutional level, but it is certainly time to crank up the experiment and see what happens.  Hopefully the participation of OAC contributors, in whatever capacity, will only sharpen the focus and broaden the appeal of the Conference topic.  Such an outcome is especially desirable in the case of social / cultural anthropology, for my impression – anecdotal and episodic as it is – is that the outcome of Wenner-Gren conferences on social / cultural anthropological topics is much less impressive than those dealing with archeological or paleoanthropological issues.  Although an outsider to those fields, I find that I become engrossed in problem areas such as the origin of agriculture or, most recently, the interface of the behavior and culture of Neanderthal and early modern human populations.  With the social / cultural-oriented conferences, I quickly become bogged down in what I can only think of as a mush of polysyllables. 

    I’m afraid that difficulty is present here. 

    First, though, I applaud the conference convenors’ statement of the problem to be examined: How do anthropologists articulate images of their own identity, as opposed to dwelling on the nature of the other’s identity – our traditional stock in trade?  Second, I also applaud their intention (Oh, no, that word again!) to communicate their findings to a wider intellectual public, as they state in the final sentence of their abstract (I have highlighted it in boldface below:

  This workshop revolves around the myriad ways in which anthropologists construe and conduct themselves as part of larger communities, movements, and disciplines, and the implications of these practices for our understandings of difference and similarity. Although the ethnographic "other" has been subject to endless investigation and description, less attention has been paid to its implicit foil – the anthropological "we". Yet the tacit assumption of belonging and speaking to an intellectual collective is often pivotal to conceptualizations and theories of alterity, which remains a mainstay of anthropological knowledge-making. This workshop seeks to lay bare the relationship between forms and ideas of anthropological affinity and broader issues of alterity and affinity in ethnographic theory, practice, and writing. Explicitly plural and international in scope, it will invite scholars from around the world to interrogate questions about anthropology’s composition, ethico-political agendas, and futures. In the process, it will build on existing reflexive trends within anthropology while extending them beyond the influence of post-modernism and the Euro-American circles in which they have mostly occurred. As the discipline becomes increasingly public, engaged, and global, this workshop will be a timely and democratizing intervention that will engender new understandings of how anthropology is crafted and mobilized.

    The problem I have is that I don’t see how one gets from the title of the conference,  Reimagining alterity and affinity in anthropology to a postulated discipline of anthropology that “becomes increasingly public, engaged, and global.”  Does such a beast even exist?  Unbeknownst to me (and that in itself is readily accomplished), is social / cultural anthropology in the process of acquiring a higher profile with the educated public, of throwing off its status of near-invisibility, and, more remarkable still, of acquiring an influential voice in public affairs?  I really don’t think so; perhaps others, more active in both disciplinary and public forums, can point out what I’ve missed. 

    But suppose I’m wrong (it has been known to happen).  Suppose social / cultural anthropology does hold a new appeal for public audiences.  Is the project of “reimagining alterity and affinity in anthropology” the way to solidify and extend a public enthusiasm for the field?  Here I feel myself being swallowed up in that polysyllabic mush I mentioned earlier.  I will get to specifics in a moment, but first let me propose what I regard as an acid test to establish the relevance or lack thereof an anthropological idea or project has for the general public.  It is the simple, straightforward wo/man in the street interview as developed by that great ethnographer of American society, Jay Leno.  The research protocol would go like this:

    You stop someone on the sidewalk and explain that you’re an anthropologist interested in promoting a wider appreciation for your field among the general public.  To that end, you’re conducting a survey to gauge public interest in a topic that anthropologists at the highest level of their field are actively debating.  Your respondent seems amenable, perhaps even sympathetic, and agrees to participate in your survey, which, after all, is just a single question.  Then you pop the question:  “Tell me your thoughts on reimagining alterity and affinity in anthropology.” 

    I would suggest that respondents’ immediate reaction would be no reaction at all, other than blank-faced stares of utter incomprehension.  Not even a stammer.  They don’t have a clue about what they’ve just said.  Secondary reactions would likely be one of two kinds: defensive, as in, “Sorry, I really don’t know enough about that to give you an answer,” or, more probable, outright annoyance at being hoaxed, set up, made to play the fool.  I doubt if even one in ten thousand people would take a serious, informed stab at answering your question.   

 On to specifics.  For some reason it has become fashionable to frame research problems, not as a simple question, but in a gerundive construction.  Rather than ask, say, “How do anthropologists conceive of and describe their identity, particularly with respect to their ethnographic subjects?”  Furthermore, rather than using a term that just might have some salience, say “conceptualizing anthropologists’ identify,” the fashionable choice is to go with a term virtually no one has heard, in this case, “reimagining.”  That word alone immediately drags even a perceptive listener into that mush of non-words favored by those bitten, even incidentally, by the pomo bug.  The use of a gerundive form of a near-nonsense word asserts that something is happening, that some process is already underway.  It is ING.  And it follows that, since you haven’t a clue to an event already happening, you are really out of the loop.  What kind of word is “reimagining,” pray tell?  Did I imagine something a while ago, and now find myself “reimagining” it?  Is it even possible to use the concept “imagination” in that way? 

    And what are we asked to consent to being “reimagined” if we can even get the slightest handle on that word?  Well, we’ll be reimagining alterity and affinity.  Oh, boy.  We won’t be given a chance here, won’t be asked to think about a concept already sufficiently elusive: the ideas of otherness anthropologists employ in describing their ethnographic subjects and that in turn reflect on their concept of their own identity.  Of course the word “alterity” by itself is hopelessly obscure; only a tiny circle of intellectuals might be expected to attach any meaning to it.  And then to “reimagine alterity”?  Sorry,  way too elusive a task for anyone to undertake. 

    For some reason – and it would make a nice research project in intellectual history – social / cultural anthropologists seem to enjoy doing semantic violence to language: gerunds replace verbs, and made-up adjectives replace good old-fashioned nouns.  Another example of this is the publication by Cultural Anthropology of a collection of articles on “Theorizing the Contemporary” – about the deliciously reflexive project of interpreting African identities in light of anthropological discourse about them and Western identities in the context of African thought about those others, who are, of course, we, who appropriate an “otherness” borrowed from . . . and on and on.  Why make a gerund of the perfectly good word, theory?  And why fabricate a noun from an adjective?  Wouldn’t any half-way perceptive reader ask, “the contemporary . . . what?”   And most importantly, why fix on such a precious topic in the midst of global processes of multinational dominance, endemic religious-ethnic wars, and assorted other horrors?  How can anthropologists pretend to be relevant when they carry on like this? 

 

Comment by Keith Hart on January 31, 2014 at 6:58pm

Thanks for this very lucid reply, Liana. Much more than just making sense, it's a convincing statement of your and Nayanika's perspective and holds out great promise. I look forward to taking part. Sorry if I jumped the gun, but I look forward to the fuller discussions when you are ready.

Comment by Liana Chua on January 31, 2014 at 2:22pm

Hi Keith,

Thanks for your support and very thoughtful response. The blurb above just skims the surface of our main interests, and our plan is to provide more fodder for thought/discussion in our workshop website/blog (currently under construction) and a dedicated thread in the OAC forum - both of which should be ready in the next few weeks. In response to your response, meanwhile....

We use 'alterity' and 'affinity' in our title less to privilege specific categories of being than to ask how those categories get produced and deployed in different ways. We want to ask - in a poststructuralist/postmodernist fashion - how alterity and affinity can be understood relationally, as shifting and often quite unstable stances rather than as essences or pre-existing states. Take a Bornean anthropologist, trained in Britain, doing 'anthropology at home' in a small upland village where she grew up, for example. This situation involves juggling various levels and modes of alterity and affinity (which we can only use as heuristic thought-anchors): her affinity-through-birth with her informants (which is assumed to exist in different ways by herself, her informants and anthropological thought), her sense and experience of alterity in a rural setting that she left 20 years ago (one informed in turn by her academic background and her informants' reactions to her), the theories and ideas of alterity and affinity with which her anthropological training has equipped her, the national politics of difference that have shaped statist interventions in the villagers' lives, and so on... Where do her loyalties lie? To/for whom does she later write? How might her desire to 'be an anthropologist' (whatever that means) shape the way she approaches her ethnography?

That's a slightly trite example - and of course Narayan was raising these questions about 'native' anthropologists years ago - but it does capture what we're trying to do with this workshop. The story of British anthropology does centre very much on an essentialized notion of alterity - one defined by spatial, temporal and racial/ethnic difference - but our point is that there are many other forms and relations of alterity and affinity that are constantly getting made and unmade in anthropology more generally. This is why we feel strongly about getting anthropologists from different parts of the world and beyond the academy involved in this discussion: Nayanika and I only have our short academic careers within Britain (but also our 'subject positions' as Indian and Singaporean anthropologists who don't fully identify with the white, middle-class, left-leaning stereotype of today's British anthropologist) to draw on, and we're acutely aware of the need to broaden the scope of our conversation! 

Where we depart from postmodernist precedents: i) the Writing Culture project tended to privilege the individual anthropologist's selfhood and 'subject position' - sometimes with the much-critiqued effect of navel-gazing - in the production of ethnographic knowledge. While we're building on this insight, we're also trying to shift our focus to the disciplinary, institutional and other collectives - real or imagined - of which individual anthropologists are part, or see themselves as part. ii) Postmodernist (and subalternist) energies were often spent on critiquing the 'othering' practices of anthropology, history, etc., and taking steps towards rehabilitating the 'other''s agency and voice. This remains a central concern in much current British/North American anthropology, e.g. with the recent popularity of the 'ontological turn'. Our concern with this is that can reifiy alterity/otherness as the very nub of anthropology while glossing over both the fuzzy nature of such alterity and the notions and forms of affinity that are also shaping our theory and practice. Hence our interest in exploring both questions of affinity between anthropologists and ethnographic manifestations of affinity in the field. 

As for promising new departures in global anthropology: no idea! We're convening this workshop partly to find out. We may well find that the very notion of 'global anthropology' is inadequate, though...

I hope all that makes some sense! Nayanika may have more to add to this. We'd love to hear more from other people...and do stay tuned for updates on our project website and forum thread!

Comment by Keith Hart on January 31, 2014 at 8:58am

Hi Liana and Nayanika,

This post came at a difficult time for me (new job, illness, bereavement, three edited collections), so it slipped through the cracks. I am delighted that you see the OAC as a potential vehicle for your exciting enterprise and I have recently written to our core team to ask them if they are willing to support the idea. I understand that you have already contacted Fran Barone and you can certainly count on my participation, to the extent that globetrotting allows.

Like Philip, I question the vaue of privileging alterity in your title. As I understand it, the ethnographic revolution was born as part of the nationalist project and was then harnessed to the needs of imperialism (although in France, anthropology at home remained significant, if somewhat overshadowed by exotic anthropology). The end of empire saw a mass return of ethnographers to work closer to home. But neoliberal globalization has tended to collapse the distinction between inside and outside, with many anthropologists pursuing multi-sited ethnographic projects wherever they want in a world unified by capitalism. At the same time, imho, anthropology in the main imperial centres has declined, while the discipline now flourishes in many national contexts. There is a danger that your story applies mainly to Britain, where even sociology at home was suppressed, and then not to Britain since Thatcher. I would say that alterity has long been an assumption of anthropology in France, but it never had a monopoly there. I recognize that your description is more two-sided and that the ethnicity of the principals promises a new departure from the old stamping grounds, but titles matter. Affinity and similarity don't really do the job of opposing The Other.

I wonder too if the precedents for what you have in mind could be made more explicit. Writing Culture was flawed as a project, not least in disavowing its debt to feminism, but the impact of their interrogation of the poetics, politics and epistemology of a triadic relationship between ethnographers, their subjects and readers was huge. How does your project build on and depart from theirs?

Where do you think the most promising new departures in global anthropology are coming from? Brazil? India? Japan? Scandinavia? Eastern and Southern Europe? South Africa? Australia? Or are we thinking of intellectual movements for which academic anthropology as it stands today is an inadequate category?

So congratulations on your impressive initiative and welcome to the OAC which I hope can provide a long-term vehicle for exploring its potential.

Comment by Liana Chua on November 7, 2013 at 12:15pm

Thanks, Philip! That's an excellent idea which we'll try to follow up on. In fact, you've made me realise that we've not engaged sufficiently with the question of anthropology's own intellectual 'othering' practices - thus far we've mainly looked at various strands of applied anthropology, different national/regional anthropological traditions and cross-disciplinary exchange. These all raise very interesting questions of alterity and affinity (and indeed challenge the notion that they are central to anthropology), but I can see there's a lot more to be covered. And this is where we're really keen to exploit the possibilities of online forums such as OAC! I'll look forward to your contributions to this discussion as things get moving. 

Comment by Philip Swift on November 6, 2013 at 6:48am

Thanks for posting this, Liana. It has the makings of a great project.

I very much get that the 'we' of your project is a collective that ought to be questioned. But I wonder if you shouldn't include - or at least, canvass the views of - cognitive anthropologists, since, I don't think, broadly speaking, that they subscribe to any idea of alterity. And possibly for that reason, they are themselves othered by social-cultural anthropology. (I say this, as an adherent of the latter myself. I only mention it because I have raised the issue of cognitive anthropology on the OAC.)

 

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