Anthropology is Taking Over the World

Taking Over the World

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The first clue that anthropology was taking over the world in 2015 was the March 2015 issue of American Anthropologist, where anthropologist Virginia Dominguez wrote she was “taking over the world.” Well, admittedly she meant taking over the “World Anthropology Section of the American Anthropologist,” but still.

And then there was Erin Taylor, who wrote about anthropology going public, and was working to revitalize the big Open Anthropology Cooperative.

But most of all, there was President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan meeting with President Barack Obama and talking anthropology. Ashraf Ghani taught at the Johns Hopkins University, and while by the time I arrived there he had moved on to the World Bank, I was fortunate to learn from his team-taught class with Katherine Verdery. But as President of Afghanistan, perhaps it gives new meaning to his analysis of Eric Wolf as an “attempt to write a history of the present as a history of power” (Ghani, Writing a History of Power: An Examination of Eric R. Wolf’s Anthropological Quest 1995:32; see also Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History).

Of course, Barack Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham was an anthropologist. Ghani remarked that “your mother was an inspiration to us. I understand that the president of the World Bank actually got the job because he invoked your mother’s teachings to convince you that an anthropologist could lead the World Bank.” So yes, also World Bank President Jim Yong Kim.

So back when anthropology was declared the #1 worst major for your career, they weren’t really thinking about becoming President of Afghanistan and President of the World Bank, and (very related to) President of the United States. Anthropology is the worst major for your career, but the best major for taking over the world.

Taking Over the World: What’s the Agenda?

Of course, if anthropology is taking over the world, what’s the agenda? Obama quoted Ruth Benedict: “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” And indeed, I referenced Obama and Benedict in one of the first “big” posts for Living Anthropologically:

Modern existence has thrown many civilizations into close contact, and at the moment the overwhelming response to this situation is nationalism and racial snobbery. There has never been a time when civilization stood more in need of individuals who are genuinely culture-conscious, who can see objectively the socially conditioned behaviour of other peoples without fear and recrimination. (Patterns of Culture 1934:10-11; see War on Terror: Osama bin Laden, Barack Obama & Anthropology)

But as important as cultural relativism has been, is that what anthropology should espouse? Or, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot put it:

The time is gone when anthropologists could find solace in the claim that our main civic duty–and the justification for our public support–was the constant reaffirmation that the Bongobongo are “humans just like us.” Every single term of that phrase is now publicly contested terrain, caught between the politics of identity and the turbulence of global flows. Too many of the Bongobongo are now living next door, and a few of them may even be anthropologists presenting their own vision of their home societies, or studying their North Atlantic neighbors. The North Atlantic natives who reject them do so with a passion. Those who do accept them do not need anthropologists in the welcoming committee. (Global Transformations 2003:137)

The point of anthropology taking over the world might rather go back to the volume on Articulating Hidden Histories, in the sense that it is anthropology’s task to articulate the stories and histories that no one else has been willing to hear. Or back to Trouillot:

The populations we traditionally study are often those most visibly affected by the ongoing polarization brought about by the new spatiality of the world economy. They descend directly from those who paid most heavily for the transformations of earlier times. . . . We are particularly well placed to document these effects on the lived experience of real people everywhere, but especially among those who happen to be the ones most disposable from the viewpoint of capital. The need to renew our topical interests is real, but it should not lead into the temptation to aestheticize the native or to study only natives that suddenly look like us. We cannot abandon the four-fifths of humanity [seen] as increasingly useless to the world economy, not only because we built a discipline on the backs of their ancestors but also because the tradition of that discipline has long claimed that the fate of no human group can be irrelevant to humankind. (Trouillot 2003:138; see Transformational Storytelling Anthropology)

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  • Quik

    President of Afganistan. Probably the worst presidency there could be. I’d drop that as a bragging point!

  • Carson Summers-Pelkey

    The idea that anthropology has an agenda sounds strange. Seems like something typical of him as though. Always thinking “How can I use this for My goals”.

    • Hi Carson, thank you for the comment. I think I meant “agenda” more in the sense of “what do people in power do with anthropology?” And I was also being a bit tongue-in-cheek here. 🙂

  • Mcfarland

    Given the widespread voting fraud in the Afghanistan elections, and alignment with American military and intelligence operations, this is a strange salute to anthropology. Likewise, how is the World Bank any different now than it was during the corruption 80s and 90s? Yes, these are anthropologists, but where is the anthropology? Why write something so lite and fluffy with no nutritional value?

    • Ah yes, the headline is light and fluffy, but I do try to then bring in some weighty books and blockquotes. I think the latter part of this post asks the same question–if these anthropologists may have risen to prominence, what is the anthropology, the “agenda of anthropology” that should be promoted? In this sense, I find my position–that we do not need more and more cultural relativism based on more and more ethnography–is allied with Tim Ingold’s recent That’s enough about ethnography! which argues for a return to anthropology and participant observation as involving “long-term and open-ended commitment, generous attentiveness, relational depth, and sensitivity to context.” Which is the only way to articulate the stories and hidden histories discussed at the end of this post.

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