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Anthropologists Debate the Role of the Anthropologist

Updated on August 18, 2014

Arturo Escobar

Escobar's opinion regarding the role and responsibility of the individual anthropologist and anthropology as a discipline has something to do with the state of the ongoing “…colonization of reality…” (Escobar 1995:5) by the development discourse – the way in which western ideas of development have been projected onto other cultural spheres, used to judge those cultures as ‘lacking’ on the development scale, and then proceeded to assiduously intervene in their societies with the alleged aim of moving those “underdeveloped” states up a scale not even of their own. Escobar believed, in large part because of this state of affairs, that “We need to anthropologize the West: show how exotic its constitution of reality has been; emphasize those domains most taken for granted as universal.” (11). He calls for an anthropology of modernity that entails the dominant culture becoming self-reflexive enough to stop assuming its paradigm of progress is correct and applicable to all. This is the “…needed liberation of anthropology from the space mapped by the development encounter…” (17).

When Escobar writes “Representations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America as Third World and underdeveloped are the heirs of an illustrious genealogy of Western conceptions about those parts of the world.” (7), he is pointing out the fact that the development paradigm as it is applied to those parts of the world is actually being applied based on perceptions that are ethnocentric and absolutist, harking from a time when colonialism still existed and the colonial paternalism of European nations inspired the belief that the West had the right and responsibility to put order to a messy world. Escobar gives a cogent example of such paternalism when he writes about the contrast between the self-represented women of the West and the misrepresented women of the “Third World” (8). All of these elements combined show in the development discourse a “…will to spacial power…” (9) operated by the projection of “imaginative geographies” (9) essentially structuring our categorization and understanding of the world based on the development discourse’s criteria.

Escobar’s views on the common conceptualizations that divide the world into "haves and have-nots", “developed and underdeveloped”, etc. can be seen through his confrontation with the development discourse. Escobar finds fault with the materialistic/capitalistic origins of concepts of progress as they are inexorably deployed from the Western “way of knowing” into the ways of knowing of the rest of the world’s cultures. The have/have-not dichotomy is rendered obsolete if the have-nots have not had an opportunity to represent themselves as have-nots, and further do not believe themselves to have-not. To “have” something, and what it is essential to have, are not universally defined ideas that span all cultural modes of knowledge and experience.

Escobar's Great Work

In this work, Escobar used Foucault's discourse analysis to analyze the roots of the development discourse in Truman's foreign policy decisions.
In this work, Escobar used Foucault's discourse analysis to analyze the roots of the development discourse in Truman's foreign policy decisions.

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Post-modernism and applied anthropology

Johanssen’s and Singer’s views regarding the connections between postmodernism and applied anthropology have similarities and differences, as illustrated in their articles. In Johanssen’s “Applied Anthropology and Post-Modernist Ethnography” (1992), she states that rather than attempting to solve practical problems as applied anthropologists do, and rather than trying to depict cultural systems through writing as do postmodernist, interpretive anthropologists, the union of post-modernism with applied anthropology produces a study in which the anthropologist “…lets the people represent themselves.” (71). She argues that despite the fact that applied anthropology and post-modernism share “common ground” (76), they have traditionally been associated with “scientism” and “humanism” (76), respectively, and thus the correlation between their approaches has been neglected. But as Johanssen later points out in quoting Wolf, “…anthropology is both the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences.” (77). This implies that the schism between the humanities and sciences as it has played out in the history of anthropology need not impede the synthesis of the applied and post-modern approaches to the discipline, suggesting, in fact, “…the possibility of a methodological convergence.” (77). Johanssen locates one such point of convergence in the shared recognition of applied anthropologists and interpretive anthropologists that their “…work inevitably constitutes a form of intervention.” (77) and the development of that intervention’s concomitant ethical considerations. Other points of convergence are found in that both kinds of anthropologists must negotiate their authority, both have a common interest in education, and both can be used to create subject-informed studies that create a crucial link between unique ‘ways of knowing’ and the academic and/or policy-driven research goals (78). In sum, Johanssen finds that applied anthropology and interpretive anthropology can be joined in a “…fruitful collaboration…” (79).

Singer lauds Johanssen’s “…goal of developing…a nonimperialist praxis…” (1994:336), believing in essence that applied anthropology needs to be influenced by some “anti-dominative” theoretical approach, but he expresses doubts that the incorporation of post-modernism into applied anthropology would achieve such a goal, suggesting “community-centered praxis” as an alternative (336). Singer finds “…fundamental contradictions…” between applied and post-modernist anthropology, and identifies such a union as an almost insurmountably difficult project to implement (337). The fundamental contradictions he speaks of are “…understandings about the nature of culture and community that would appear to preclude many routes of action in contested social fields.” (343). Singer sees in applied work a necessary kind of partisanship and advocacy that is difficult to accommodate with post-modernism’s absolute relativity. Singer finds that community-centered praxis works better in conjunction with applied anthropology because it involves the acceptance of siding with the “…struggling communities…” against which larger interests are generally pitted in various forms of contestation and exploitation, while theoretically a post-modernist approach would assume a neutral stance regarding the validity of any group’s concerns in such contestations. The extreme post-modernist mood that Geertz referred to as “epistemological hypochondria” implies the hesitancy of taking any kind of intellectual stance, a hesitancy that does not meld well with a value-driven application of anthropological knowledge in and for a community.

Bunzl disagrees with Besteman and Gusterson's assessment of pundits and gives reasons why it is hard for anthropologists to get their voices to the public. Bunzl finds that Besteman and Gusterson’s book Why America’s Top Pundits are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back (2005) has its very premise – that pundits are “…inherently right-wing…” (Bunzl 2008:54) undermined by examples of “progressive pundits” such as Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, and others (54). Bunzl finds that one of the reasons why anthropologists find it hard to have their voices heard by the broader public is their absence from such venues of the American intellectual establishment as the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker, etc.: also pointing out that this absence from the “public sphere”, so very different from the discipline’s glory days under Boas, Mead, and Benedict, is in part due to the way anthropology’s theoretical trajectory “..precipitated…marginalization” (54).

Bunzl goes on to talk about the shortcomings of exactitude in current anthropology, and suggests an epistemological revolution (literally full-circle) in the discipline with the hopes of keeping it relevant and perhaps gaining more of a foothold in the public sphere. Bunzl posits that contemporary anthropology, influenced by the post-modern trend to reject the positivist abstraction of the idea of culture, has ended up endorsing a different, “more immediate” (57) form of positivism which claims that “…all empirical phenomena are amenable to observation and description.” (57). As “…exercises in total deconstruction and absolute empirical specificity.” (57), the majority of the ethnographies produced in modern times, Bunzl claims (quoting Borges to emphasize the point), adhere to such exactitude that anthropology will ultimately render a representation that “…would be entirely unwieldy…altogether useless.” (57). The rejection of the former scientism accomplished by post-modernism, what might be viewed as the first dethronement of positivism, served only to usher in the era of “…the prison of specification.” (58) and the reign of a new positivist tyrant –ultra-specificity. The revolution Bunzl calls for is here termed a revolution because, as the author suggests, “…I am ultimately urging…progress by way of reengagement with its basic principles…the tradition of Boas…a classic reach for a middle ground…” (59) that searches for connections despite its knowledge of the impossibility of finding universals; that seeks the truth about the world despite an understanding that all knowledge is contextualized by space, time, and participants; that strives for objectivity even though it is recognized as an unattainable position (59). This middle ground that Bunzl urges the discipline to return to is not defeated by the realizations of the post-modern mood, but incorporates their lessons without obfuscating the possibilities of a bigger picture – and in this way makes the discipline more accessible to the public sphere and returns it to its original and inspiring optimism.

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Excerpt from Truman's 1949 Inaugural address which introduced the primary concepts of the development discourse

Fourth, we must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. 44 More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate. They are victims of disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty is a handicap and a threat both to them and to more prosperous areas. 45 For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and the skill to relieve the suffering of these people. 46 The United States is pre-eminent among nations in the development of industrial and scientific techniques. The material resources which we can afford to use for the assistance of other peoples are limited. But our imponderable resources in technical knowledge are constantly growing and are inexhaustible. 47 I believe that we should make available to peace-loving peoples the benefits of our store of technical knowledge in order to help them realize their aspirations for a better life. And, in cooperation with other nations, we should foster capital investment in areas needing development. 48 Our aim should be to help the free peoples of the world, through their own efforts, to produce more food, more clothing, more materials for housing, and more mechanical power to lighten their burdens. 49 We invite other countries to pool their technological resources in this undertaking. Their contributions will be warmly welcomed. This should be a cooperative enterprise in which all nations work together through the United Nations and its specialized agencies wherever practicable. It must be a worldwide effort for the achievement of peace, plenty, and freedom. 50 With the cooperation of business, private capital, agriculture, and labor in this country, this program can greatly increase the industrial activity in other nations and can raise substantially their standards of living. 51 Such new economic developments must be devised and controlled to benefit the peoples of the areas in which they are established. Guarantees to the investor must be balanced by guarantees in the interest of the people whose resources and whose labor go into these developments. 52 The old imperialism—exploitation for foreign profit—has no place in our plans. What we envisage is a program of development based on the concepts of democratic fair-dealing. 53 All countries, including our own, will greatly benefit from a constructive program for the better use of the world's human and natural resources. Experience shows that our commerce with other countries expands as they progress industrially and economically. 54 Greater production is the key to prosperity and peace. And the key to greater production is a wider and more vigorous application of modern scientific and technical knowledge.


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