The Voice of Anthropology
June 2, 2011 § 3 Comments
In the weeks leading up to the American invasion of Afghanistan, I distinctly remember the frustration expressed by an American professor of anthropology, whose intimate knowledge of that country led him to believe it was a wrong policy decision for both the US and for Afghanis. It was a frustration that came from not having a voice – his academic authority on the subject did not resonate with the media, with the politicians or with the policy experts who took over the public debate over why a military invasion was viable or not. And this is a frustration that I have heard American anthropologists repeat time and again – their work and their knowledge is not valued at home, and very rarely shapes public policy, unless they are willing to work for the military and put their ethical principles at stake.
Elsewhere, anthropology is much more present within the public sphere. While doing ethnographic research in Brazil, I was surprised by the frequency with which Brazilian anthropologists were asked by journalists to comment on a wide range of topics – from beauty practices and gender relations to national security and political events. And anthropologists regularly participate as political actors, combining academic research with governmental positions that define, for example, which lands count as “indigenous” or which social policies will be implemented in recently “pacified” favelas. Of course, this means letting go of the illusion that anthropology could ever be a purely academic enterprise, and faces head-on the challenge of striving for social justice within the messy political realities that exist within Brazil.
The main difference between Brazilian and American anthropology is that most Brazilian anthropologists do research within their own country, making their milieu their field rather than seeking it elsewhere. The founders of Brazilian anthropology, like Gilberto Freyre and Roberto Da Matta, actively sought to provide a narrative that would explain Brazil as a nation and thus discover its defining characteristics, like its hybridity or its hierarchical tendencies. These narratives, problematic as they are, still captured the imagination of Brazilians, making their way into official state narratives, school textbooks and everyday discourse. Today, critiques from within Brazilian anthropology favor more nuanced ethnographies that do not aim to make general claims about national character, but look at relationships of power. Yet the reputation of anthropology remains that of a respected discipline that has much to contribute to ongoing national conversations.
American anthropology once had that same impact and reach. Franz Boas and Margaret Mead were respected public intellectuals whose research on race and gender challenged the ways Americans viewed those topics. Margaret Mead, in particular, dedicated much of her time to addressing lay audiences and routinely appeared in radio and television programs to put forward her ideas. No matter how one regards her scholarship, she remains a model of how anthropological theory can be translated into everyday debates and make itself relevant at home. That ability to voice anthropology was somehow lost over the past few decades, as we lost space to pundits that produce more palatable social analysis. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from anthropologies elsewhere that successfully reach lay audiences without losing their critical edge, and thus find our voice once again.
By contributing author, Alvaro Jarrin