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!

As political actor at Teachers College (professor, coordinator, department chair), I am delighted. I hope the Gates Foundation notices and decides to fund anthropology!

As anthropologist, and as a political actor on broader stages (say, as citizen), I am conflicted. In the Q&A session at the end of the presentation, I could not help but make comments about what could be a mis-use of anthropology by the Danish network. As in any good ethnography (though of course they would not consider their work one), Pizmony-Levy and Steiner-Khamsi revealed something about people which, particularly when they are actually some of “us,” can be evaluated. Note that I am not judging the anthropological quality of an ethnography I have not read. I am judging the use to which it is reported to have been put as justification for the direction of the reform. That is ethnography was used to move a political choice towards its state sponsored institutionalization. Anthropology, as has happened many times, was coopted into governmentality. Foucault may have written some place about the use of “research has shown” as a claim to authority. Leaving aside wonders about what has made such claims difficult to impeach at the turn of the 21st century, it remains that we, as anthropologists, must worry and be conflicted when our work is transformed into “research that has shown that this is or that set of practices is better than some other.”

There are at least two issues: do anthropological methods allow one to make a comparative evaluative comment? What can happen when anthropological evaluations (whether made specifically or by assumption) are used outside of anthropology and thus become an actor within a broader conversation? The first is a matter for anthropologists to debate. The other is the thorny one that has become very real to me over the past 20 years as the glow “ethnographic methods” had in education was challenged by the “evidence-based” sociologists. Many years ago, the famous sociologist Nathan Glazer wrote a preface for the third edition of a book that was one of the research-based foundation for the Johnson era “Great Society” programs, E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Family in the United States (1966 [1939]). In this preface, Glazer dismissed what he called the “cultural relativism and anthropological romanticization” associated with Allison Davis ethnography of black life in the post-reconstruction South (1941). Glazer explains: “Frazier I think was more hardheaded, … as was W.E.B. Du Bois: It was all bad – the abandoned mothers, the roving men, the sexually experienced youth” (1966: xi). Similar arguments were made against Carol Stack’s All our kin (1975). Anthropologists, many sociologists (and economists, social psychologists, and such) might say, more or less politely, should not be trusted.

This is something I experienced. Once, after presenting strong ethnographies by several of my students I was told by sociologists that these “anecdotes” could not, indeed should not, be used in serious discussion of possible reforms. Such speakers are backed by powerful other forces in government, academia, the foundations (not to mention “benevolent billionaires”). We, anthropologists, should pay attention and continue to ponder our place and how to assert it. We know we are powerful when exercising what Margaret Mead called the anthropological veto. The work Ray McDermott and his cohort in the 1970s is exemplary: do not identify a child as [negative qualified] unless you have demonstrated that the child is not behaving sensibly, given conditions. This, as many of us have shown, just cannot be done: kids always make sense. But, as our critics would say, this demonstration does not tell us much about how to improve conditions, particularly when these are seen in all their implications (Varenne and McDermott 1998). Margaret Mead made comments to that effect at the end of Coming of age in Samoa (1928: 170). The difficulty remains.

Where does this leave reformers leery of “evidence-based” assertions of authority that may be but more veiled affirmations of value judgments? It leaves them with their political responsibility to assert their view of the good as what it actually is: a value judgment.


Footnote 1: The paper was first given at a Workshop sponsored by the Department of International and Transcultural Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University, and will be presented publicly at the CIES conference in March 2016.

Footnote 2: They are using UNICET.


White, Douglas   1997     “Graduate Seminar: Social Networks Theory and Analysis.”

Mead, Margaret   1928    Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: Morrow.

Nimuendajû, Curt   1942    The Šerente. Tr. by R. Lowie. Los Angeles: The Southwest Museum.

Varenne, H. & R. McDermott   1998    Successful failure. Boulder, CO: Westview.


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