Update 2016: I wrote this post on the “Purpose of Anthropology” in 2013 when I first decided to adopt Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World as a text for my Cultural Anthropology course. I tried using the book in 2013 and 2014. In 2015 I took a break because it seemed too difficult. However, I immediately missed Trouillot, as described in this post on How Did Anthropology Begin?. In 2016 I am returning to use Trouillot as required reading. Please follow along with my current Cultural Anthropology 2016 course for updates.
Teaching the first class of Cultural Anthropology, thinking about the purpose of anthropology, especially sociocultural anthropology. In previous versions of this class I have used Carol Delaney’s Investigating Culture: An Experiential Introduction to Anthropology. It’s fun, interesting, and works well especially since this is a course after a prerequisite four-field Introduction to Anthropology.
However, as I outlined in Doubling Down on Culture in Anthropology, Delaney never diagnoses the idea of culture, or helps us navigate a world in which culture is now everywhere.
So I decided to go directly to the book I’ve been trying to use as a back-text all these years, assigning Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. Probably an insane idea, and I’ll pay for it in various ways, but reading through the first pages convinces me that it is what most needs to be conveyed–in a cultural anthropology course, at the undergraduate level.
Purpose of Anthropology: Gap between the Here and the Elsewhere
This morning’s comment from my Anthropology Report Facebook Timeline: “Anthropologist is or was working as spy agencies for military and imperialist around the world. They think that they can speak on behalf of people and their cultures. It is a joke.”
What would Trouillot say?
Anthropology emerged in the nineteenth century as a separate discipline specializing in the occupants of the Savage slot. To put it differently, anthropology as a practice is part of the very geography of imagination that it seeks to understand. Anthropology as a discipline emerges from the projection of the West, from the gap between the Here and the Elsewhere, in ways that no other discipline does. No wonder it has been accused of being an inherent tool of North Atlantic power in ways that no other discipline has been charged, as being a child of both colonialism and imperialism. These charges are deserved only to the extent that many anthropologists have ignored the duality of the West and thus the global inequalities that make their work possible. Indeed, anthropologists sometimes forget that the projection of the West entails not one but two intertwined geographies.
From the beginning, the geography of imagination went hand in hand with a geography of management that made possible–and was in turn refueled by–the development of world capitalism and the growing power of North Atlantic states. (Trouillot 2003:2)
Purpose of Anthropology: Question Universal Claims
Yet if the West is a claim to universal legitimacy, it is fair to say at anthropology’s partial discharge that no other discipline has sustained such an explicit questioning of that claim. Thanks in part to anthropology, many humans inside and outside of the North Atlantic now accept the proposition that there may not always be one way for collectivities to do the right thing, that goals and values, truths and practices deemed to be self-evident and therefore universal in one place are not necessarily accepted as such elsewhere. (Trouillot 2003:3)
Which is a good set-up for the first book of the class, Ruth Benedict’s 1934 Patterns of Culture. Certainly flawed, but the strength of Benedict’s relativizing mission cannot be underestimated (see Benedict and the Concept of Culture).
Purpose of Anthropology: Border between Humanities and Social Sciences
Just after the recent reflections on Steven Pinker, Science & Humanities Together:
Because of their discipline’s location at the borders of the institutionalized divide between the humanities and the social sciences, anthropologists have had the leisure to look both ways–and often enough took advantage of this duality.
What we need to do today is to systematize the benefits of that doubly ambiguous location at the border between the humanities and the social sciences and between the Here and the Elsewhere. (Trouillot 2003:3)
Here, an intersection with the First Year Seminar I am teaching on Tim Ingold’s Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description:
The truth is that the propositions of art and architecture, to the extent that they carry force, must be grounded in a profound understanding of the lived world, and conversely that anthropological accounts of the manifold ways in which life is lived would be of no avail if they were not brought to bear on speculative inquiries into what the possibilities for human life might be. Thus art, architecture and anthropology have in common that they observe, describe and propose. (Ingold 2012:xi)
Purpose of Anthropology: Addressing Rise of the Financiers
“In no way can a symbolic analysis of globalization today avoid addressing the rise of the financiers” (Trouillot 2003:3). See the incredible essay series and bibliography just posted by Keith Hart and Horacio Ortiz, The anthropology of money and finance: from ethnography to world history. See also Public Anthropology and Bill Gates: We Cannot Abandon Humanity and Rick Salutin’s The hour of anthropology may have struck in The Toronto Star.
Purpose of Anthropology: Dispelling Savage Illusions
Of course, after the hubbub of Napoleon Chagnon’s Noble Savages:
Anthropology must adapt to a world where none of us can take refuge in the illusion that we have found the uncontaminated Savage, the bearer of that pristine culture supposedly untouched by its Western alter-ego. (Trouillot 2003:5)
Purpose of Anthropology: Relations and Processes, not Essences
There is no stateness to states, no essence to culture, not even a fixed content to specific cultures, let alone a fixed content to the West. We gain greater knowledge of the nation, the state, the tribe, modernity, or globalization itself when we approach them as sets of relations and processes rather than as ahistorical essences. (Trouillot 2003:5)
Here again, another connection to Ingold’s Being Alive, and the idea of seeing life as process and relation:
[It is my ambition] to replace the end-directed or teleonomic conception of the life-process with a recognition of life’s capacity continually to overtake the destinations that are thrown up in its course. It is of the essence of life that it does not begin here or end there, or connect a point of origin with a final destination, but rather that it keeps on going, finding a way through the myriad of things that form, persist and break up in its currents. (Ingold 2012:3-4)
Ultimately, anthropology will only matter to the populations that we study and to most of our readers if it evokes a purpose outside of itself (Trouillot 2003:5)
On this point, see Gina Athena Ulysse’s series in the Huffington Post on Why Anthropology Still Matters, featuring Paul Stoller (April 2013), Arlene Torres (August 2013), and Faye Harrison (December 2013). See also–What is Anthropology?