Loving Anthropology

Loving Anthropology & Living Anthropologically

by Jason Antrosio

Loving anthropology for the questions it asks, the way anthropologists search for answers, and the importance of the answers to our world. Anthropology asks big questions, root questions, origin questions. Anthropologists listen, look, and explore. Doing anthropology means having humility and openness to discovery. What anthropology has discovered is world-changing: that there are more possibilities than the way things are. What seems so natural and permanent is not the way it has to be.

1. Anthropology’s Questions – Loving Anthropology

Although I was woefully unprepared for graduate study in anthropology, I knew I had found my home when I heard the discussions. The questions anthropology asks are fundamental to the human condition: How did we get here? What are the material bases and social conditions for different ways of life? How do people make sense of their world?

For a research-based discipline, anthropology may be unique in questioning its own questions. Often the best anthropology comes not from the initial research question, but from the research that calls into question the terms of the research question. As John Comaroff put it, anthropology conducts a

critical estrangement of the lived world . . . thus to pose the perennial question: What is it that actually gives substance to the dominant discourses and conventional practices of that world, to its subject positions and its semiosis, its received categories and their unruly undersides, to the manner in which it is perceived and experienced, fabricated, and contested? (2010:530)

In contrast to other disciplines:

For the most part, they are not given to critical estrangement or the deconstruction of their ur-concepts. Political scientists, by and large, study political institutions and processes, conventionally understood, just as economists study economic institutions and processes. They rarely ask what politics or economics actually are. Anthropologists do, repeatedly. Unlike political scientists, we also spend a great deal of time trying to discern what taken-for-granted terms like democracy or the rule of law might mean for “natives,” both as signifiers and as species of practice, which often turns out to be anything but obvious. (2010:533, in The End of Anthropology, Again: On the Future of an In/Discipline)

This can certainly be a frustrating process, even resulting in some paralysis. It can lead to accusations that anthropology is too insular or has too much jargon (and I quote from the more readable parts of the Comaroff article). However, what keeps bringing us back is that

2. Anthropologists Listen – Loving Anthropology

Anthropologists ponder and anthropologists read, but anthropological research is about listening. As Sidney Mintz described the “traditional anthropological catechism”:

Study what you can see and hear; record everything you can, do not expect it to be entirely consistent; listen; count the ancillary blessings of discomfort. If those items in the catechism do not add up to a methodology for other, sterner disciplines, so be it. They have, I believe, nonetheless helped to reveal worlds otherwise hidden or unimagined. (1982:186 in Afterword: Peasantries and the Rural Sector–Notes on a Discovery)

Anthropology requires a basic respect for people and working with them, not just studying them. Looking for answers means being humble and open to this process. This stance of listening, studying with people, applies not just to cultural and social anthropology, but to how archaeology is attentive to artifacts, how primatologists study with non-human primates, how forensic anthropology understands the context of bone measurements, how anthropologists read historical documents to coax hidden meanings.

3. Anthropology’s Answers – Loving Anthropology

I found anthropology because of the questions it asks, and I appreciate how anthropologists listen and study with people, but what keeps me hopeful and loving anthropology is the empirical documentation of human possibility. This is not simply neutral documentation but a counterpoint to dominant narratives, what Michel-Rolph Trouillot terms anthropology’s “moral optimism.” In an age when neoliberal market discipline has become a religion, at a time when versions of determinism have been gaining ground:

We owe it to ourselves and to our interlocutors to say loudly that we have seen alternative visions of humankind–indeed more than any academic discipline–and that we know that this one [neoliberal capitalism] may not be the most respectful of the planet we share, nor indeed the most accurate nor the most practical. We also owe it to ourselves to say that it is not the most beautiful or the most optimistic. (2003:139, in Global Transformations; see In Memoriam, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, 1949-2012)

The issue is one of making sure anthropology has a honed message, identifies who needs to hear the message, and is speaking loudly enough. I was heartened by the efforts to brand and provide a vision for anthropology. Although John Comaroff has a point for the internal health of the discipline that “what is most likely to assure the Future of Anthropology is that those who inhabit its Very Small Planet continue to argue with one another” (2010:533), anthropology cannot persist unless we engage with the rest of the planet. Loudly.

I love anthropology because it’s interesting, but I stick with it because it’s important.

Updates on Loving Anthropology

2017: I was saddened to hear of the passing of Michael Agar (1945-2017), an incredible multifaceted anthropologist and human being. Agar was very much in touch with this way of doing fieldwork, of asking questions, and of using anthropology in the world. See The Professional Stranger: An Informal Introduction to Ethnography.

2016: This post on “Loving Anthropology,” originally inspired by the 2011 call for a love letter to anthropology, became a foundation for so much of what Living Anthropologically is about. I revisited this post on the occasion of the sad passing of Sidney W. Mintz, an anthropologist who loved anthropology, loved fieldwork, and never stopped asking questions. See also The Discovery of Sidney Mintz: Anthropology’s Unfinished Revolution.

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  • Molly Mullin

    Very nice. I like the Mintz quote the best. Thanks for writing it!

  • I like this so much. As Molly says, the part about listening is excellent. I don’t know if you intended the “with” in your sentence

    >>how primatologists study with non-human primates

    but I think it’s appropriate: Primatology is a very colllaborative enterprise across species lines!

    • Jason Antrosio

      Thank you Barbara, thank you Molly. I did intend the “with” for the primatologists sentence. One hidden source for the listening section is an idea from Tim Ingold’s lecture notes for his Intro-to-Anthro class: “What is really distinctive about anthropology is that we don’t so much study people as study with people.” I wanted to include the quote, but the lecture notes are not posted online anymore. With reference to primatology, I was thinking of “Towards an ethnography of African great apes” by Barbara J. King. Very inspiring!

      • Discuss White Privilege

        On the subject of the African great apes, listening to and studying with apes, I am reminded of the deeply racist ‘Who Will Speak For Them?’ poster which went up in the Berkeley Anthropology department, which the department would rather not admit to (as well as the circumstances and the hostile departmental climate issues which made it possible for the poster to go up in the first place, and stay up for so long before a black anthropologist complained about it). I bring up this poster because I think it speaks to ways in which many anthropologists forget to listen to and care about others they are working with, both as colleagues and informants, be they non-human apes, human apes, or dark-skinned Africans who are far too easily seen as being ‘more like’ non-human African great apes.

        Anthropology’s ‘moral optimism’ means truly listening to all, not deciding that some people are de facto less-than-human and need to be ‘spoken for’, or that what they see is “meaningless” because it challenges the very status quo conventions and assumptions discussed in the Comaroff quote. If we can study with and listen to non-human apes, why is it so hard for so many anthropologists to study with and truly listen to those humans pictured in the Berkeley poster who actually don’t need to be ‘spoken for’ (i.e. (dark-skinned) black people)?

        I know this is not a ‘positive’ comment, but perhaps all comments and queries on what practices actually produce and reflect anthropology’s ‘moral optimism’ can be. Perhaps sometimes anthropologists need to be more honest about the ways in which they are not always so good at working with, treating (non-white) colleagues respectfully, listening to–and why. After all, this kind of querying is certainly what anthropology (per the Comaroff quote) is supposed to be about.

        To moral optimism, right?

        And thanks, as always, for a most thoughtful post.

        • Hi Discuss White Privilege, thank you for the comment. I originally wrote this two years ago, as one of the first blog-posts here, but try to periodically revisit. It is striking that although Trouillot ends his thoughts on Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World with anthropology’s moral optimism, it begins of course with a discussion of how anthropology was born within the thematic of the “savage slot”: speaking about and for others in a dialogue that had a long history in the West. As part of this beginning, Trouillot writes that “anthropology’s future depends largely on its ability to contest the Savage slot” (2003:9). That was 10 years ago, and we might very well ask if anthropology has been able to contest the Savage slot in the past decade. With the 2013 publication of Noble Savages still standing as the biggest news item for anthropology this year, it’s a useful signpost for what has not been done.

  • I appreciate the post as well as the positive outlook … which is often sorely lacking on other sites. I’ll be back! 🙂

  • Great post, Jason. As I go into the last two weeks of the semester, it’s good to be reminded of the positive voices in our field, the ones who also see the enormous vitality of the questions anthropology poses, rather than just the obstacles to addressing these questions. For me, one of the great reminders of this positive vision — the wonder and mystery that the field brings, and not just our internal critiques of each other and ourselves — is the moment of teaching. Nothing is quite so encouraging as when the students, too, have an ‘oh WOW!’ moment as you’re discussing a classic case or set of concepts from our field. It reminds me of how I felt more than 20 years ago when I stumbled unknowing into my first anthropology class.

    Oh, WOW!

    Not just interesting though, but important. (Thanks for the positive jolt as I prep to talk about psychopathology across cultures on Wednesday….)

    • Thanks Greg! I have a few more weeks than you to go on the semester, so I may not be at the “oh WOW!” moment, but do remember Sidney W. Mintz saying something similar about the primary message of anthropology as best understood at the undergraduate level. And it also seems an ideal aim for the blogging message, as Daniel Lende has said.

      I originally wanted to title this project “Angry Anthropology” because I wanted people to know more about what anthropology should be saying. But a smart editor convinced me to at least try and always focus on the positive. It was a valuable lesson–even if I’m unable to always succeed!

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