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.

Of course, reviewing old practices open the classic anthropological questions about happenings, history, myth, and politics.  We started with several retellings of the origin myth of the creation of the “Joint Program in Applied Anthropology” at Columbia.  Something happen in 1968.  This is part of the history of Columbia.  But what is done, at any retelling, in any particular place or time, is not self-evident and would probably require the kind of analysis George Bond conducted about the use of this ethnographic publications in the Parliament of Zambia (1990).  Still, the myth as I have heard it told many times is interesting for me as it is told about a form of conversation among students, faculty, and administrators.  There was a call (by students, “for relevance”).  And then, in some temporal process, there was a response.  So, I’d say there is much to Ray McDermott’s quip during the conference that what we were doing is “reply” anthropology.  I find it powerfully evocative of where we should go in analyzing our situations and contemporary practices in preparation for future responses to the various calls from inside and outside the discipline.  To apply (!) a theoretical argument I have been making, practical activity (to bring together Lave and Stanton Wortham on the topic), at any moment in temporality, should be approached as a statement replying to an earlier statement within an overall conversation with any number of participants, whether directly involved or simply, and powerfully, indirectly involved through the network links binding one setting (polity if not community) to others.

I will not attempt to trace all those who call me to respond whether I wish to respond or not (since refusal to respond in the terms of the call can be interpreted/accounted for/evaluated/further acted upon as a particular response).  In a future post, I will however give my sense of the calls to which the papers in the conference could be seen as replies.  Perhaps, in this manner, we can figure out what are some of the current practices that anthropologists engage in that might be classified, for certain purposes, as “applied anthropology.”

But I want to comment today on a (total social) fact: Applied Anthropology was reified institutionally a long time ago.  We have no choice but to face a fact we did not make.  Now, when confronted with such a total social fact, what has been called a “community of practice,” or, as I have suggested, a “polity” of practice (to emphasize the political aspects of what some have also called a “field”), one can run away.  One can attack it, from outside or from its periphery.  And one can move through it as I have from the time, 25 years ago, when I found myself attached to the programs and later have been made administratively responsible for it and found myself … organizing a conference to face doubts and possible transformations.

Footnote 1: For those unfamiliar with the semiological concept of “markedness,” the Wikipedia entry is not a bad place to start. [Back to text]

Bond, George 1990 “Fieldnotes: Research in past occurrences.” in Fieldnotes: The makings of anthropology.  Edited by R. Sanjek. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.  pp. 273-289.

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