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