Perennial Narratives in Anthropology

Since the 1960s, there has not been any new innovative advances in the field of anthropology. Although some good work has been done, most of it has been concerned with fleshing out the subtler nuances of what was discovered during that time. The 1960s and 1970s brought to anthropology issues of critical theory and awareness in American, British and French anthropology. Scholars focused on discovering important similarities and establishing links between factors that previously were hidden. It is safe to say that it was a period of reflection that sought to diversify conventional views by yielding new constitutive elements to a traditional practice. Armed with meticulous research, scholars sought to analyze the relations within politics, science and ethics and the processes that interacted with one another in their formation. This movement became known as the “crisis of representation” (Marcus and Fischer) whose purpose it was to lay bare the conditions and show the generative factors behind discourses in civil and political activism, feminism, environmental pollution, the growth of ghettos, health and wealth disparities between the rich and poor, race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, the impact of globalization, migration, material culture, and economic development.

Except for the work of scholars such as Ortner, Marcus, Fischer, Geertz, Chomsky and a handful of others during the 1980s, discovering the obscure, the overlooked, the displaced and challenging issues in a boldly discursive fashion all but vanished from the landscape. When we confront the politics of representation, as many scholars such as Hymes, Huizer, Mannheim, Okley, Callaway, Giddens, Clifford, Said, Fabian (and I would add Foucault to that list) rather clearly pointed out, we find that as a discipline anthropology had its roots in “implicit relations of inequality” between super-rich, powerful Western nations and smaller, less powerful under-developed countries. In fact, their work exposed the problem of how knowledge of other nations is constructed within unequal relations of political power. This is the segue where Foucault and the French writers (e.g., Derrida and Lacan) entered. For those of you that have heard Foucault speak (link below), lecture or have read with any degree of clarity his notions about the relations of power and how it impacts our systems of knowledge, his provocative intellect with its deliberate shifts in thinking invite a complex view which often leaves his readers baffled or sometimes they just dismiss or misinterpret his philosophical force.

But now, many of the literary devices of anthropology which were closely linked to the critique of the crisis of representation seem to have been abandoned.  Many of us are no longer concerned with the deeper movement to restructure the epistemological concern of representation that reflects reality. Perhaps, it was this failure that brought about the crisis in the first place – theory did not reflect practice – representation did not mirror reality. Thus, the nature of the crisis of representation gave birth to the unsettling proposition that representation was partial, positional, not constitutive of reality. The so-called claims of objective truth were undermined and the ideas of postmodern plurality in provisional narratives percolated to the surface. First appearing as a formal pattern and then transforming into an activity in which politics, tradition, history and our systems of knowledge had to be re-examined.

During the 1990s and 2000s, these concerns brought about an increased appreciation of issues such as  subjectivity, personal experience, cultural relativity, relations to power, disempowerment and inequality. New theoretical approaches developed that included postmodernist, experimental and reflexive ethnographic writing, interests in postcolonial studies, and perspectives on knowledge and power that were associated with Michel Foucault. Yet, it is important to note that these newer issues worked in conjunction with various topics that preceded them and actually assisted in opening more fluid notions of cultural orientations. For instance, previous views concerning the organization of cultural meanings and practices became influenced by subjective experiences in relation to social stress, inequality and change. As a result, interest in studying in remote village-based societies, for example, was complemented by concerns with better documentation in an attempt to become more informed about the dynamics of contemporary ethnicity and migration to modern urban environments.  In addition, older concepts of economic anthropology that rose from the study of small-scale societies were complemented by newer issues concerning the importance of consumption and development, the dynamic relations of interaction and feedback, and the environmental impact of state-level policies on cultures and societies. In the area of political anthropology, leadership and the organization of social control of small-scale societies became more engaged with considerations of political economy, economic control or leverage, and became more fluidly linked to cultural orientations. Also, the male-dominated anthropology that focused typically on men with little recognition of women was challenged by gender interests and issues concerned with topics of inclusion and theoretical concern.

As a result of the developments of this era, our understanding of issues concerning sociocultural diversity, sociocultural difference, and social and cultural inequality have arguably formed a proliferation of human collective experience in cultural orientations, beliefs, and motivations. More important, the anthropological interests that emerged as a reflection of these concerns did not overwhelm previous topics but in effect helped to augment and expand them in many new and exciting ways. The era of the crisis of representation was one of the most dynamic, creative, encompassing periods in the history of anthropology and the human sciences.


Hymes, D. (ed.) (1972) Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Pantheon Books; Huizer, G. and Mannheim, B. (eds) (1979) The Politics of Anthropology. The Hague: Mouton; Said, E. (1978) Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books; (1989) Representing the Colonialized: Anthropology Interlocutors. Critical Inquiry 15 (Winter): 205-25; Giddens, A. (1976) New Rules in Sociological Method. London: Hutchinson; Lloyd, G. (1984) The Man of Reason: Male and Female in Western Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; Okley, J. and Helen Callaway. (1992) Anthropology and autobiography. New York: Taylor and Francis.; Hawkesworth, M. E. (1989) Knowers, Knowing, Known: Feminist Theory and Claims of Truth. Signs (14) 3: 533-57; Hekman, S.J. (1990) Gender and Knowledge: Elements of a Postmodern Feminism. Cambridge: Polity Press; White, H. (1973) Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins Press; Foucault, M. (1980-81). Truth and Subjectivity. Fontana, A., Fontana, Ewald, F., and Gros, F. (Eds.), Subjectivité et Vérité. . Cours au Collège de France: Paris: Seuil/Gallimard.


6 thoughts on “Perennial Narratives in Anthropology

  1. Where have you been?! I have been actively engaged in Anthropology
    since the 1950s, in UK, Canada, USA, France, Porugal, Brazil, Japan and China –
    and nearly everything has changed with very valuable results on many currently
    important topics – and you are still chasing angels on the head of a pin!
    Nelson Graburnm U C Berkeley


    1. Dear Nelson, yes, I agree nearly everything has changed with very valuable results. But I would also add that the motivation for those changes were inspired by the work of scholars of the 1960s. Probably the most important of which was the philosophical stance to break with the “status quo” or to at least question it in an attempt to discover new perspectives. Thanks for taking the time to read the article…tchau.


  2. EDITORIAL COMMENT: This article seems to have rubbed some people the wrong way. Therefore, a clarification is necessary. In our mission statement, we state that Perspectives is committed to promoting debate and we welcome diverse comments and opinions. However, this article does not suggest that no valuable work has been done since the 1960s. What it does suggest is that most of the work since that time has been inspired by or furthered the narratives born of that era. In no way does it suggest that the work of scholars since that time have not made valuable and important contributions in a number of areas to the field of anthropology. It does, however, imply that if it had not been for the developments of that period, contemporary anthropology would still be pursuing the same old traditional agenda.


  3. Neil, I find your essay very interesting, and I am using it as a starting place for my undergraduate class in the history of anthropological thought. I strongly urge to correct the following errors: 1) flesh out, not flush out; 2) segue not segway; and 3) middle of third paragraph, this phrase is presented as a sentence, and it isn’t: “And thus giving birth to the unsettling proposition that representation was partial, positional, not constitutive of reality” — it’s a subordinate clause, I think. It needs a subject (unsettling nature of the crisis of representation cause the recognition that theory did not reflect practice, AND THUS…. (easy way to fix it); 4) 4th paragraph, middle: In addition, older concepts … WAS complemented…. I know this is an easy mistake to make when you write complex sentences….but please make Perspectives in Anthropology look top notch and fix these. Thanks!!!!


    1. Dear Bev, thank you for the corrections. You would not believe the number of things I am juggling right now – a college textbook, a book of short stories, an online magazine and the script for an ethnographic documentary. I really do appreciate your taking the time to point out these errors. But more important, for pointing them out in a “non-offensive” manner. Again, thank you…tchau.


      1. You are most welcome. I’m trying to teach my students how to critically read. I asked them to write short reflections (~200 words) on Wednesday, and we discussed what they wrote today. Their reflections indicate they “got” what you were saying…. wonderful. A good way to start the class, and we’ll return to it at the end of the semester probably too.


Comments are closed.