Purpose of Living Anthropologically

In a time of global convulsion, I’m rethinking the purpose of Living Anthropologically as a blog and website. And yes, that image up there is borrowed from the Anthropologie clothing store, which now has its own Anthro Day, AnthroPerks, and “the Anthro community.”

My idea for a 2020 tagline:

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together.Click To Tweet

I launched Living Anthropologically in 2011, and there have been over a million web visitor “hits” since then. It was supposed to be a supplement for anthropology courses, especially Introduction to Anthropology. This purpose of Living Anthropologically continued through spring 2020, when I blogged through two modified online courses due to the COVID-19 pandemic: Introduction to Anthropology 2020 and Cultural Ecology 2020

The main purpose of Living Anthropologically was to bring this teaching of anthropology into wider public debates. As Thomas Hylland Eriksen expressed in Engaging Anthropology: “Anthropology should have changed the world, yet the subject is almost invisible in the public sphere outside the academy.” The Living Anthropologically project meant to make anthropological findings visible in the public sphere, drawing upon undergraduate teaching to highlight the most relevant lessons of anthropology.

With the very first post, I tried to take counsel from Ruth Benedict’s approach to popularizing anthropology. As Benedict launched Patterns of Culture into the world in 1934, she was very concerned about titles, writing, book covers, and public perception. However, Benedict also provided a cautionary tale for popularizing anthropology. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote in Global Transformations, Benedict’s use of culture quickly became amenable to reinforcing ethnocentric and racist hierarchies that anthropology purported to challenge.

And more than anything else, the purpose of Living Anthropologically was to further Trouillot’s 2003 plea for a conversation within anthropology. Or as Trouillot put it:

A major hope behind this book is that anthropologists can explore together the possibility of a […] model of engagement that reflects our awareness of the true power and limits of our position as academics. No single individual can or should define that model, yet I venture to say that its collective elaboration requires a responsible reflexivity. . . . Within North Atlantic democracies, imperfect as they may be, we are paid to speak our minds with relatively few personal risks, and we should use this privilege responsibly yet fully, lest someone takes it away from us. (2003, 114-15).

In part due to Truoillot’s untimely passing, this hope went unrealized. The consequences of this unrealized conversation–partly explored in the 2018 post on Starbucks Enlightenment–placed US academic anthropology in a precarious situation.

Anthropology: Failed to Find Relevance

It is quite fitting that part of my reconsideration of the purpose of Living Anthropologically stemmed from re-examining my class notes on Trouillot’s Anthropology and the Savage Slot. There, I was led to Jonathan Rosa and Yarimar Bonilla’s 2017 pronouncement in Deprovincializing Trump, decolonizing diversity, and unsettling anthropology: “As the discipline failed to reinvent itself and find a new purpose beyond the ‘savage slot,’ it also failed to find relevance in public debates” (205).

In 2020, Rosa and Bonilla’s pronouncement about anthropology failing to find relevance reinforces the need to find a new purpose of Living Anthropologically. What Trouillot described as “Global Transformations” might in 2020 be recast as “Global Convulsions.” And so there are a number of reasons for this reconsideration, including the state of academia, the state of anthropology, and the notion of a public intellectual or the relevance of public debate.

As is now obvious from the Coronavirus and Academia, the state of a college or university education is in peril. Many US institutions where anthropologists taught are now in jeopardy. (There has been and will be lots of speculation about colleges and universities, so I’ll leave this point for now.)

Within the US academy, the situation of anthropology is also precarious. Around 2010, anthropology had been riding into a record number of undergraduate majors. However, even though there was a lot of pushback to the economic rankings that declared Anthropology is the Worst Major for careers, the truth is that the relentless metrics of material value (and narrowing the scope of education) have also significantly shrunk the anthropology major within US academia.

Finally, the idea that anthropology could be part of public debates has become increasingly difficult. Trouillot urged us to better identify and directly address the interlocutors that anthropologists should be arguing against: “from rational choice theorists, historians, and cultural critics to World Bank officials and well-intentioned NGOs” (137). And indeed, some of the most popular posts on Living Anthropologically have been about identifying and addressing one interloping interlocutor: Jared Diamond. But Jared Diamond just kept writing book after book. Now the Diamond project is carried onward by the extremely popular book Sapiens (which unfortunately is also the title for the Wenner-Gren blog project Sapiens, one of the only remaining prominent anthropology blogs). For most anthropologists, there isn’t even enough time to keep up with the critiques–see for example this 2017 Agustin Fuentes plea to Get the Science Right! that tries to take on three huge books in one blog-post.

And then came Trump

Living Anthropologically began in the middle of the Obama years. These were hardly idyllic times. In fact, one of the main purposes of Living Anthropologically during the Obama years was to point out ongoing racism and debunk the ridiculous-but-growing idea of “anti-white bias.” Nevertheless, the predominant ideology of the time, embodied by Obama, was that progress was possible, government could be rational, public debates could be had, and that we could have an educated citizenry. In 2015 I even wrote that (still tongue-in-cheek) Anthropology was Taking Over the World with the triumvirate of the anthropologically-influenced Obama, Jim Yong Kim as president of the World Bank, and the anthropologist Ashraf Ghani as Afghan President.

Trump did not win the popular US vote and should not have won in 2016, nor should the Electoral College have allowed him to become president, and impeachment should have been oversight.

But Trump is the US president and that means that in contrast to the times of Obama, government is fundamentally irrational. There is no such thing as public debate, because one side simply repeats talking points, no matter how conspiratorial and divorced from reality they may be. There is no desire to educate the citizenry. Sure, people who want to have values, facts, science, and education try to keep on keeping on. But Trump is the dominant figure, with the backing of millions of bots.

What Would Trouillot Do?

It’s been almost 30 years since “Anthropology and the Savage Slot” and almost 20 years since Trouillot republished that essay along with a call to say Adieu Culture. Trouillot’s reasoning was that anthropology needed the concept of culture but not the word, which had been lost to essentialism. For the past few years I’ve been wondering: what would Trouillot do now? Would he believe we needed to say “adieu anthropology,” since perhaps the word has been lost to essentialism and a lot of institutionalized baggage? Is anthropology’s failure to find relevance now irredeemable?

To be honest, when I first began writing this post, my instinct was to pose a tactical retreat for Living Anthropologically. I then turned to the last pages of Global Transformations: “Dazed by the speed and multiple directions of global flows, the retreat of alarmed academics into an aesthetics of theory is also understandable” (138).

Trouillot, however, did not see retreat as the best option:

That solution, however, is not the only one at reach. It is not even the safest one inasmuch as the life expectancy of irrelevance tends to be short. More courageous and healthier is the acknowledgment of the many dead ends within the human disciplines brought about or brought to light by current global transformations, including the death of utopia. We might as well admit that all the human sciences may need more than a mere facelift; most will be deeply modified and others, in their current institutional shape, might disappear. As the world changes, so do disciplines. (Trouillot 2003, 138; I’ve used this quote for my 2011 Four Field Manifesto and my 2013 riposte to Steven Pinker)

Reading on, it seems Trouillot might say now that even if the institutional space for anthropology and anthropologists is under attack, the conceptual grounds–and the core tasks–of anthropology are more urgent than ever:

Anthropologists are well placed to face these changes, first by documenting them in ways that are consistent with our disciplinary history. 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. . . . 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; I used this quote in the 2013 reflections on Public Anthropology and Bill Gates and in the 2014 reflections on Anthropology and Storytelling)

Purpose of Living Anthropologically

So as I see it, the purpose of Living Anthropologically now will be to:

  1. Try to make people aware of anthropological findings, by continuing to revise, update and disseminate the teaching of anthropology.
  2. In that teaching of anthropology, to pay special attention to documenting those populations that have become “most disposable from the viewpoint of capital.”
  3. To at the same time not lose sight of critiques by Rosa and Bonilla, Zoe Todd, and Discuss White Privilege. Anthropology and anthropologists can too often be pretty toxic.

And so, as the academy unbundles into the ongoing throes of coronavirus, that’s what I’ll be trying to do as the purpose of Living Anthropologically. I also have the last paragraph of Tim Ingold’s Anthropology: Why It Matters going through my head:

Anthropology’s real contribution lies not in its literature but in its capacity to transform lives. . . . For what drives anthropologists, in the final resort, is not the demand for knowledge but an ethic of care. We don’t care for others by treating them as objects of investigation, by assigning them to categories and contexts or by explaining them away. We care by bringing them into presence, so that they can converse with us, and we can learn from them. That’s the way to build a world with room for everyone. We can only build it together. (Ingold 2018, 130-131)


Got this interesting take on Twitter:

I am definitely not attempting to be either totalizing or universalizing. But I’m also trying to think through something Ingold wrote about the one-ness of the world:

Anthropologists have long been at the forefront in making the case for cultural diversity. Indeed they sometimes seem constitutionally averse to singularity: never one world, they insist; always many worlds. I believe this appeal to plurality, however, to be misguided. It is not only wrong in principle; it is also perilous for the discipline, leaving us powerless to oppose the hegemony of global forces that have delivered mass inequality, disenfranchisement and indebtedness. An anthropology worthy of the name must, in my view, be founded on the principle that we inhabit one world. But this world is not the globe of corporate finance, of international telecommunications, of ‘the West’. It is a world not of similarity but of manifold difference. For anthropology, the challenge is to spell out, with clarity and conviction, the one-ness of such a world. (2018, 26-27)

I’ll readily admit that I’m not sure if I want to quite follow Ingold here–I wrote “hm” twice in the margins, and it was a difficult passage to try and explain in Intro-to-Anthropology. However, I think Ingold is trying to detail how we are truly profoundly different as human beings, but those differences allow us to form communities and think through building one shared world together.

Update & Note on Graduate Studies

The June 2020 A Game Changer for Graduate Schools and Anthropology by Irma McClaurin is an important initial reflection. For the most part, Living Anthropologically has been and is about undergraduate-level teaching, and I have not been involved or commented on graduate education. McLaurin’s points I believe echo what Trouillot would be saying about the need to change graduate-level anthropology:

We need a new anthropology. . . . Perhaps COVID-19 has provided a call to action for a public anthropology with a relevant curriculum that contributes more directly to conducting research for public good. It also shouldn’t consume seven to nine years of our graduate students’ lives.

The new anthropology will also require a new set of methodological practices that take into account the new norm of social distancing and limited access that countries will surely adopt. Our standard ethnographic method of participant observation will need to be rethought, as will other methods that necessitate direct contact.

Is the discipline prepared for such shifts and processes of change? I doubt it.