Category Archives: reply anthropology

On anthropological impotence

Experiments by Professor Shafir at Princeton and others have documented how poverty itself leads people to make self-destructive decisions, perhaps by forcing them to focus attention on satisfying immediate needs to the exclusion of other considerations. (New York Times, February 24, 2016)

The American culture of the “culture of poverty” is alive and well. New York Times journalists still quote approvingly professors who tell them: “The poor lack two things: money and cognitive freedom.” And it appears that a major State actor, “the Obama administration,” relies on such experts for designing policies aimed at changing the behavior of those who do not act according to economic rationalism (e.g. do not save more for old age).

We, anthropologists in my network, know all this.  We see “governmentality” at its most hegemonic (though not necessarily unchallenged as the current presidential campaign suggests) when networked media, academia, and State reinforce each other’s common sense, make alternatives disappear, and more importantly, transform “understandings,” “representations,” (“ontologies”?) into action with massive consequences. “Poverty is a sickness” is not only a metaphor we live by (Basso 1980). It is also a conceit endlessly developed in discourse, policies, debates within the conceit, new discourses, regulations, requests for action by others subjected to them, etc. It is not surprising, then, that the journalist develop the report by saying that Shafir’s understanding

shifts the onus onto those with power over poor Americans — employers, government — not just to design their application forms, their business hours, their policies in a way that takes into account the restrictions poverty imposes, but also to shift real resources to where they would make the biggest difference.

If poverty is a sickness then … and then … so that… The progression to action is inexorable.  I’ll pick up just one issue and note the last phrase “make the biggest difference”: “those with power” can do things to the poor that will make a difference among the poor.

Cause -> intervention -> effect.


They did, we do, and then they will.

In this perspective, “poverty is a sickness” is also the first statement in a most powerful speech act that limit dissenting responses to “poverty is NOT a sickness” thereby maintaining “sickness” as the issue.

I point out this process of development of an idea into a conceit because of an apparent paradox in the New York Times story.  The paragraph quoting Shafir is followed by another that goes:

That understanding might act as a corrective for the belief that poor people are mostly to blame for their poverty.

I am not sure that talking about “lacking cognitive freedom” is not “blaming the victim.” But it remains a form of classification and identification of an individual shortcoming. Poverty remains what it has been: something to cure individuals from through targeted programs.  Michael Harrington said much the same thing in 1962. He may then have been optimistic that his pleas would find an echo in the Federal Government, as they did. He might now be depressed that half-a-century of targeted programs do not appear to have much of a dent.

Anthropologists can be depressed for other reasons.
Continue reading On anthropological impotence

On the (mis-)use of anthropology

Sherente Village
(Nimuendajû 1942: 17)

Last week, I heard a most interesting paper by Oren Pizmony-Levy and Gita Steiner-Khamsi about, of all things, school reform in Denmark! It may seem strange that I resonated to such a topic.[Ftn 1] But it should not appear so: in graduate school, I also resonated to reading ethnographies of Ge people of Central Brazil! People over all the world do amazing things and “school reform” is one of them.

network represenation
an example of the representation of a network
using UCINET (White 1997)

Last week, I particularly resonated to the methodology. Nimuendajû, the great ethnographer of the Ge, in his time, modeled Šerente villages on the basis of his local observations. Pizmony-Levy and Steiner-Khamsi have found a way to make visible networks involved in the production of “school reform,”[Ftn 2] on the way I suspect to modeling how such reforms proceed. Their work is part of a broad movement in the social sciences, and anthropology in particular (at least in the networks who attempt to build on Jean Lave’s work as transforming social structural analyses). The goal is to trace movement and change (or return to the old normal) in position, and perhaps even in the field of positions within which people move (including school organization). The current consensus, backed by much ethnography, is that these changes do not “just happen” as effect following some cause. It proceeds through deliberate action by emergent polities. Nimuendajû did not have the tools needed to trace how the Šerente came to do something that could be modeled as he did. But these tools are now available.

More on this another time.

What surprised in me most Oren Pizmony-Levy and Gita Steiner-Khamsi’s paper was that the most quoted document in the network of people and institutions who performed “school reform” in Denmark was …. an ethnography, of a school, by Danish anthropologists!

Anthropology of education, actually applied for what appears positive change!
Continue reading On the (mis-)use of anthropology

An actor-network of consequential consociates: applying anthropology to one’s personal case

In this post, I am doing something somewhat different from the usual.  I am maintaining the order I think I have established (at least as I look at it, retrospectively): this is an experiment in anthropological theorizing and teaching.  But I am delving further into parts of my life that I have not brought out.

So here it goes: applied medical anthropology

A few years ago, my wife, Susan, was diagnosed with a form of cancer known as “myelofibrosis” (who may not know it under that name might be a topic for another post as the exact name can be consequential—see below).  The “official” diagnosis was made, not surprisingly by an oncologist, the acknowledged, state approved, expert who can transform speech (this is myelofibrosis) into not simply an act, but a sequence of new moves a particular set of others, from the patient, to her family, to insurance companies, must now make. [This would be easy to model as a special case of entry into a particular kind of polity of practice.]

The oncologist told us, as I remember it four years later, something like: “People live with this for 15 years or more … You are likely to die of something else … It will change your everyday life as you will now have to schedule regular medical visits.”  I remember she was altogether good at telling us something that we knew, and much that we did not know: we had certainly never heard of this cancer or of its treatment.  Of course we went to the Internet and learned what we could, talked to her further, and settled into what I am experimenting in calling, for various theoretical reasons, a “new normal.”  Actually, what we learned was not extremely bad news for people entering in their 70s.  The oncologist then (and I will keep emphasizing conversational and interactional temporality) tried a drug that would alleviate the symptoms of a cancer that affects the production by the bone marrow of red blood cells: profound anemia and the attendants limits on mobility.

Susan’s body, in its thinginess and peculiarities, was leading us to various particular disabilities that can be mitigated or expanded depending (de Wolfe 2014).

So, this was actually a good time for us to adopt the car culture of suburbia.  The long walks in Manhattan to which we were accustomed would not have been possible anymore.  We escaped one disability.

Things were relatively stable for a few years.  We had educated ourselves in still another polity of practice.  We evolved a new adaptation to the now extent conditions given our resources and consociates.  This was now our new normal, the culture we could not quite escape (though we tried some bricolage with it).

At that point I would have described our “actor-network” as consisting of:

  •     a general practitioner
  •     a clinic with a staff of
    •    oncologists
  •  a   mail order pharmacy
  • a radiology center

That is, ethnographically, these were the people with whom we had to talk in order to maintain the syntagmatic order of the treatment.  Each of the person (but not any) could authoritatively tell us when to show up for an appointment, what tests or drugs to take and when.  This question could be asked here but not there.  This act could be performed here but not there, before but not after this other act, etc. [one should also be able to model this syntagm.]

At that point further actor nodes in the network remained as faint indexes mostly buried in the conversations with the interlocutors we mostly had to address.  We did receive reports from the insurance company about what it was paying the doctors, how much it reimbursed for tests and drugs.  While reading these we were amazed (guilty? thankful for the opportunity?) at the cost of the primary drug: $1,600 a shot, every six weeks.

But cost and attendant controls was not part of the syntagmatic order of the treatment as we experienced it so far.

And then something happened.

In my other life, as long-term employee of Teachers College, I know that insurance companies are big players in constraining what we can do.  Every few years, we are told of long conversations TC has with the various major companies.  We are told about the final proposals and why TC might shift, as it did starting in January 2015, from United Health Care to Aetna.  The cost of these conversations are barely indexed though I have a good sense that it is not trivial, either from TC or the companies: staff time and compensation, consultants, lawyers, writers of glossy presentations, etc.

Anyway, the shift by my “employer” (the term is consequential here) brought to my practical attention the insurance company as we registered on new web sites, a new mail-order pharmacy, new styles of reports, and we continually checked and re-checked that the various doctors that were part of my wife’s actor-network were also “in network” (consequential category in American insurance).

I thought this would only be a minor annoyance and that we would return to the “old” (2014) new normal.

This was not to be.

Aetna told us (clinic, oncologists, Susan and I) that the drug, Aranesp, that had worked at maintaining Susan’s condition for three years was:
a)     experimental for her disease
b)    experimental drugs were not covered by Aetna’s contract with “the employer”
Aetna told us, emphatically, repeatedly, after a variety of appeals by various actors, “NO MORE PAYMENT FOR THIS!” Through this speech act Aetna revealed itself as an inescapable interlocutor in the ongoing conversation.  The expanded text of Aetna’s statement repeatedly indexed two different other worlds:
a) it challenged, successfully, medical practical authority (Aetna did not attack its legitimacy but its everyday consequentiality: what is not reimbursed will not be used)
b) it challenge me to, perhaps, challenge TC about a not so minor detail in the contract it has signed with Aetna (and may or may not have allowed it to undercut United Health Care)

I will not go through the many conversational turns that led, after three anxious weeks to Susan starting a new, and altogether experimental treatment (since we will not know for several months whether it will work) at the (reimbursed after full consultation and authorization) cost of … $11,000 a month (not to mention added visits to the oncologist, more costly tests, a blood transfusion)!!!  (I cannot help but believe that Aetna, as a monstrous network of actors with conflicting authority, confused itself: the outcome is altogether … surprising!)

Who knows that Aetna may be correct in its act and is practicing medicine better than our oncologist (though Aetna is careful, I think, never to shapes its speech as an instruction to “do that”).  But, for now, here is our expanded actor-network of consociates who make a difference:

  •     [the one listed above is still very much active]
  •     various parts of Aetna:
    • the doctor(s) who categorized Aranesp as “experimental-for-this-purpose” and the other doctors who discussed our oncologist’s recommendation (she told us how one of them told her to not get so involved in the case! She was not happy!)
    • the staff members of the clinic who have to check the why’s and wherefore’s of each step, repeatedly, with the staff member of Aetna.  The number of phone calls, waits on hold, recalls, faxes, etc. is astonishing.
    •  Susan multiple calls to clinic, hospital, Aetna special pharmacy.
    •  various parts of Teachers College

There are many anthropological points but, to emphasize my usual themes:

  • these are not matters of social structure (à la Parsons) or modern governmentality (à la Foucault) nor even neo-liberalism.  There are matters of structuring through interlocking conversations that transform the field even as they seek the production of temporary (immortal) new normals.
  • in these conversations everyone “screws around” (Garfinkel) even as they all play deeply with matters of life and death (Varenne & Cotter ).
  • ethnomethodology, conversational analysis, and actor-network-theory (that expands on the other fields) are the most useful starting framework but they are not sufficient
  •  screwing around and playing deeply will always produce something extra-vagant (Boon ) that is not predictable on the basis of efficient rationality.
  • each moment in the evolution of the normal-for-some-now (“culture”) makes sense as a syntagm in a local order.  But this syntagm is always at the edge of catastrophic collapse that leads, in temporality, to

A)  instructions “do NOT screw around! Stay in line! Do what your doctor tells you to do”

B)  efforts to bricolage one’s way out of the order and thus:



de Wolfe, Juliette   2014    Parents of children with autism: An ethnography. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Varenne, Hervé and Mimi Cotter   2006
“Dr. Mom? Conversational Play and the Submergence of Professional Status in Childbirth.” Human Studies 29:41668.

[here is the list of the most common references I use. Many of these are implicitly indexed in this post]

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What some anthropologists who reply did, on a Thursday in February 2015

In my last post, I argued that “Applied Anthropology” is, to all of us anthropologists, a total social fact, a “thing”—both in Mauss’s and Latour’s senses.

But that does not tell us much about the actual practices of anthropologists who find themselves caught by this thing facted in a long history. So, today, I wonder about what was done, one Thursday in February 2015, in New York City, in a classroom of a Columbia building. Then and there, a bunch of anthropologists told each other what they do. What did they say?

In the first few minutes of the conference, Ray McDermott put it this way: “when someone says stupid or mean things about kids, I want them to know I will be at their door the next day.” This, he said, is “reply anthropology.” Replace “kid” with “mothers,” “haitian farmers,” or whomever is talked about in stupid ways, and variations on this presentation of self were made. Some argued that McDermott was simply saying, colorfully, what may have been the presentation of anthropology by Boas in the United States, Mauss in France, Malinowski in England, and many others: when someone says stupid, or at least mis-informed things, about human beings, anthropologists will notice, shudder, bring out obscure, and often actively obscured, practices through painstaking observation. They argue among themselves on how to interpret the observation and what observations to conduct next. Then anthropologists reply. And now, they examine the replies to their replies as others continue to mis-represent their work and, more significantly, the work of the people about whom the conversations are held.

On that Thursday, the replies, and the replies to the replies, took many forms. Those who replied did it from the variety of positions in which they find themselves given the vicissitudes of their careers. Paige West talked to us about the work she has been conducting, somewhat under the academic radar, with colleagues in Papua New Guinea culminating with her “co-founding … the PNG Institute of Biological Research, a small NGO dedicated to building academic opportunities for research in PNG for Papua New Guineans.” Terrence D’Altroy and Brian Boyd talked about the extra-archaeological work needed to allow for the doing of archaeology in complex contemporary conditions. Scott Freeman told us about Haitian farmers have been doing. And he showed how this work keeps being obscured by the constraints under which local NGOs must operate. I’d say that West, D’Altroy, Boyd, Freeman, Oliveira, Baines, Hudson, that is “we,” anthropologists, were replying to what others had been saying. We asked our others, mostly from outside anthropology, to look further at the people whom they want to help, and particularly to consider the exuberance of the people’s activity around professional or state-sponsored activity. That is, to the extent that there we were saying something useful to our professional audiences, we were saying it because of what we have learned about the social conditions of all human activity, including professional activity. And, by analyzing the conditions of our work reflexively, we were also developing anthropological theory.

Jean Lave generalized all this by telling of her experience building an institution within another institution: a Ph.D. program in Social and Culture Studies in Education within a School of Education within a university priding itself on its international status as a research university. Her experience as an anthropologist willing to build new institutions within old ones is one the participants in the conference recognized: as conversations with colleagues proceed, we are told either that we are not anthropological enough (next statements by anthropologists in research positions) or that we are too anthropological (next statements by colleagues in the professional school).

I hope that the conference will help us turn the tables: 1) replying to those whose work obscures human activity is what anthropology does, and 2) replying effectively requires more anthropology.

First, as anthropologists, we go where people work and learn about it through that work. These days, many people work in and around (N)GOs particularly when these involve dangerous matters in their lives. How they work, and how this work is organized, is a core issue in anthropology. As Lave reminded us, quoting Gramsci, we must assume that, among the people there are “organic intellectuals,” and thus complex organizational processes producing their position, its local authority and discursive forms. Giving new accounts of all these complex processes, including the relationship among all intellectuals (organic or not), is a profoundly theoretical task.

Second. Facing the ethno-methodology of everyday work in professional settings requires more rather than less anthropology. Professional activity of the non-organic kind, that is the activity of professors and other professionals, whether working with/in or with/out (N)GOs, is also everyday activity that requires the kind of practical intelligence which allows all involved to recognize that this (that we are doing or see being done) is just what “we do.” But all work on such activity, in any setting, including the work of “scientists” (Kaplan on “logic-in-use” 1964; Latour on science 1987) and other licensed professionals (Wieder 1974), has demonstrated that the formal problematics of the activity (as it may be stated in mission statements, flow charts, program descriptions, etc.) is but an aspect of the activity itself that can easily obscure other aspects of the practice, whether the practioners are “aware” or not of the gap between what we are known as doing and what we just did. Bringing out the possibly contradictory constraints of that gap is what anthropology offers. Workers in schools, hospitals, development agencies, government offices, etc. should require that more anthropology, at its most disciplined.

Kaplan, Abraham
1964 The conduct of inquiry: Methodology for behavioral science. Scranton, PA: Chandler Publishing Co.
Latour, Bruno
1987 Science in action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Reply anthropology (?)

After the end of the February 26, 2015 conference on “‘Applying’ anthropology,” Jean Lave wondered whether we had not “reified” applied anthropology by discussing what became, discursively, an “it” that stood against another “it” (unmarked, regular, academic, ivory tower anthropology).

Reification is of course the trap all critical discourses fall into, willy nilly: the more people say “I am (not) an applied anthropologist,” the more they affirm there is a such thing even when the object is to criticize IT.

But what were we to do? in the active practice of a particular critical discourse? in the second decade of the 21st century? within the confines of a State authorized institution dedicated, by statute, to “Applied Anthropology”?  I thought we would spend more time on alternate qualifiers.  Actually, we did not, much.  The fundamental issue, I guess we all agreed, is not a matter of qualification but one of whether there is anything to qualify.  In that sense at least, we all feared what Lave said we did do, and that is reification through questions about the classification of many different kind of actual research and publishing practices as, more or less, “marked anthropology” and thus NOT [unmarked] anthropology. [Ftn 1]

The fear of reification is not irrational, or matter of feelings or beliefs.  We all know that reification blinds, can lead us to make mistakes, can be used against us.  Reification puts us in a place that is no less real for being the cultural production of a time and population.  But we, as the kind of anthropologists who participate in a conference on “‘applying’ anthropology” cannot really NOT stay in this place we fear.  We must stand our ground (to develop the geographical metaphor) if only because acting on this fear could send us back (or be pushed back) into small ivory towers of irrelevance—and that would be ironic indeed since [applied] anthropology may have been, at times, a response to calls by students and others for relevance (engagement, etc.)!

But standing our ground does not mean that we cannot struggle towards some reconstruction, if not relocation.  To that end, I’d say we were giving examples of our practices over longer or shorter careers as professional anthropologists, and we were examining more carefully how these practices, as they are publicized, link with other practices both within and without the discipline.
Continue reading Reply anthropology (?)

Anthropologies of the dangerous (?)

[my current thinking about the title and rationale for an event the Joint Program in Applied Anthropology at Teachers College, Columbia University is planning for the Fall 2014]

There may be some truth to the romantic image of the anthropologist (archaeologist?) as daredevil pursuing dubious knowledge, motivated by obscure interests.   Why else would any scholar, or apprentice scholar, insist on visiting far away mountains or islands (or other scary neighborhoods nearer at hand), if it wasn’t because some knowledge about humanity and its possible futures cannot be gained from the comfort of one’s armchair (or even hard seat in the library)?  Boas, Rivers, Malinowski, Mead and countless others left the comfort of home on the conviction, we continue to share, that the knowledge they, and we, seek can only be gained by placing ourselves in dangerous places—not only when the danger may spring from wild beasts, poisonous plants, or not necessarily friendly peoples, but when it springs from sovereign authorities.  “Powers-that-be,” from governments to organizations controlled by governments to private foundations or universities more or less controlled by corporations and the more or less benevolent rich and powerful, may open routes to new locales no Indiana Jones could otherwise reach.  But they also control what can be made public, how and when.  They can be dangerous to one’s career, or coopt it, all the more so that the proposed knowledge challenges this or that common sense.  We also need to understand these dangers, theoretically and practically.

Anthropological knowledge can be dangerous and there is an argument for keeping it in protected environments away from polities that would use it to nefarious ends.  But at least some anthropologists always intended, and continue to intend, for their work to enter the political, no matters the dangers.  From Boas onwards, anthropologists have written specifically against what made so much sense that it could drive political action at the largest of scales, justify action, or mask the other motivations that can move people to act.  But many anthropologists have also gone far beyond what has been called, for much of my middle professional life, “deconstruction” (or “cultural critique”).  They have also wanted to help.  Emblematic is Ruth Benedict’s work for the American government in World War II.  This was actually but one aspect of the work of other anthropologists of the time as they founded the Society for Applied Anthropology.  W. Lloyd Warner was involved, as well as Conrad Arensberg, Allison Davis, Eliot Chapple, not to mention Margaret Mead.  That call to help took many form including Sol Tax’s “Action Anthropology” that was also a critical response to what “Applied Anthropology” was becoming (Bennett 1996).   It led to the creation of the Council on Anthropology and Education that provided an institutional framework for entering conversations about the evolution of schooling policies.  And it led to the inauguration of the “Joint Program in Applied Anthropology” at Columbia University as one of the responses of the Columbia department to students’ call for “relevance.”  The history of what an editorial in Current Anthropology called “going public with anthropology” (1996) is long and we must ground our own call in this history.

The desire to help may also have led to Oscar Lewis’ decision to enter the fray of the contentious fields that constituted policy relevance in the 1960s as he wrote, fatefully, about “the culture of poverty.”  This may have been a high point in the public acknowledgment of anthropology as having something to say outside of academia.  It may also have been the low point that soured many of those who, as students, may have called for relevance in 1968 and then later argued for a withdrawn casuistic irony that may not even be dangerous—as Shweder’s knew when he noted that Clifford Geertz was applauded, in the safety of our association, for “challenging … received assumptions” (1991: 72).

Many anthropologists, of course, picked up the task of responding to Lewis and, they continue to hope, to the polities that keep returning to what moved Lewis, often with specific attacks on anthropological critiques.  Indeed much of the more vibrant anthropologies of the turn of the 21st century have addressed matters that are directly dangerous in political term: abortion, pre-natal care and the new technologies of life and death, motherhood, disability, world diseases, drug use, the mining of natural resources, the production of scientific expertise, to mention but a few notable achievements.  Not only do they challenge assumptions or beliefs from the top of the battlements, but they also enter the fray as they trace in detail how this or that policy, regulation, routine practice, etc. enables or disables this or that possibilities for building personal lives.

Obviously, the danger now is not in the imagined travails of journeys off the beaten tracks.  The dangers lies much closer to home, like the research anthropologists now conduct.  Whether we continue to use labels like “applied anthropology,” revive others like “action anthropology,” create new labels (“public anthropology,” “engaged anthropology,” “anthropology of trouble,” etc.), the fact remains that many of us will not remain in ivory towers.  We will face the dangers that must be faced to elaborate the knowledge our ancestors, grand-parents, siblings and (dare I say?) children have been seeking and continue to seek.  We now need to move a long conversation forward.

Bennett, John 1996. “Applied and Action Anthropology: Ideological and Conceptual Aspects.” Current Anthropology, Vol. 37, No. 1, Supplement: Special Issue: Anthropology in Public  pp.  S23-S53

Shweder, Richard 1991. Thinking through cultures: Expeditions in cultural psychology.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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