Further preliminary notes on re-presenting anthropology

The new contexts of anthropology as a discipline, at the global level of the professional organization, and at the local levels of the Programs in Anthropology at Teachers College,  require a re-presentation, that is a new presentation, to their public of what anthropologists do.  As Goffman taught us, as well as generations of anthropologists and sociologists, such  “presentations of self” in the everyday lives of our practices, will have a feedback effect on these very practices.  Resisting these transformations may be honorable but it may also be counter-productive.  Alternative presentations preserve the fundamental contributions of the discipline to the world and indeed allow for the reconstitutions of these contributions in an otherwise hostile environment.  This post develops an earlier one: “Potential student to TC anthropologists: what is anthropology good for?

In general, anthropologists have been at the forefront of the argumentation that, precisely, “selves,” including disciplines, are the difficult, temporary and temporal, products of complex social and historical processes that are revealed in the very struggles to produce and control these selves.  This kind of argumentation allowed for a continuing renewal of the peculiar contribution of anthropology to political (and policy) debates, starting with the representations of the then-often-labeled “primitives” by the first generations of scholars in England, France, and the United States.  That the research that produced these representations was often commissioned by colonial administrations in their service does not mean that their contributions was not 1) quite different from what other disciplines produced; 2) often challenging to usual representations; and 3) foundations on which subsequent work could be built, even as the people who commission our work remain involved, more or less directly in State matters.  The same things can be said about the second generation of work by anthropologists as they began to address systematically what they noticed in the then-often-labeled “under-developed” worlds, from Japan to Indonesia to Africa, the Americas, etc, in the contexts of debates about development, independence from colonial powers, the constitution of new states and international agencies (United Nations, World Bank, International Money Fund).  The same struggles characterize the third generation of work by anthropologists when they focused their attention, as they did not have much choice to do, on the United States and other now often labeled “neo-liberal,” “global,” “etc.” worlds.  The attention of our publics shifted to matters of poverty, social stratification, mental health, disability, etc., and anthropologists entered the conversations.  Often, again, their work was coopted by State concerns and again, often, their work stood as challenges to the more politically acceptable representations.

Our students will conduct what I imagine as the fourth generation of our collective work.  They, I am quite sure, will face the now classic dilemmas of participation: does addressing current concerns, often when funded by agents of the dominant States, lead to simple cooptation? Or is it withdrawal that ends up conspiring with dominant representations that will proceed in our absence?  As I see it, at Teachers College, for the past 50 years, anthropologists have chosen the risks of cooptation over the risks of absence.  In the process all have challenged, in one way or another, the more usual representations.  They have addressed drug policies, the contexts and impacts of HIV, bilingual education, the implicatures of school assessments, the complexities of literacy programs, among other matters often developed by our students.  We intend to continue this work.  We just need to re-present this work given the evolution of the positions and concerns of the States that attempt to control us.  Matters that we thought settled have to be addressed again (for example our relationships to applied sociobiology–see my “Taking on (socio-)biologists“).  Other matters need to be addressed differently (for example our relationships to fellow social sciences–see my “Where do (psycho/socio)- metricians fit?“).  And, I am sure, new matters are emerging that will only become obvious in retrospects.

Our work is cut out for us.

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