What Anthropologists Really Do-by Keith Hart

The Summary

The new anthropologist is a self-appointed people’s representative in the double sense of writing them up and acting as their advocate. And anthropology is a sort of democratic politics, informed by long-term, empty-headed exposure to strangers wherever they live and shaped by the main public issues of the day. This populism is hostile to elites, especially experts; it is anti-intellectual and definitely anti-scientific. The ethnographer is confident of making a difference simply by being open to what ordinary people think and do. There are no shared ideas in this discipline and whatever passed for theory before is now dismissed as a preoccupation with outlandish customs for their own sake.

What is lacking is a historical perspective on anthropology’s changing relationship to the world we live in. Who, for instance, would now claim that the end of western empire is behind us? We need a new story about what anthropologists have done and might do, based on what we really do and why.

The Essay:

Two books published in 2002 and taken together, The Best of Anthropology Today and Exotic No More, provide a chance to find out what anthropologists are up to these days. The first is a selection of material from AT (and its predecessor, RAI News), more than forty short pieces showing off its international authorship. The second has two dozen chapters written by well-known American and British anthropologists. Both books offer a lively read on a wide range of topics chosen to illustrate the discipline’s relevance to the contemporary world. I will not attempt to review the extremely diverse content of these collections, but rather offer some thoughts on anthropological method provoked by their dominant emphasis.

Jonathan Benthall, former Director of the Royal Anthropological Institute of London, is a major influence in both volumes, as editor of the first and instigator of the second. He parachuted into British social anthropology from a background in arts administration thirty years ago. His quirky, self-consciously amateur intelligence infuses the AT collection, where he consistently argues for anthropologists to come out of monastic seclusion to address issues of public concern, preferably in lucid prose. Anthropology Today is the best proof of his success in this mission. Here, Benthall gently depicts anthropology, at its best, asan exciting blend of intellectual distinction and low-key subversion, at its worst, a small, obscure, failing discipline with delusions of grandeur. Marshall Sahlins, in a rousing Preface, claims that “this collection proves we should neither discount anthropology’s utility nor fear for its destiny”. He also says, “Anthropology Today is not yesterday,” but surely a need to be trendy, relevant and useful bears the mark of the 1970s when the magazine was born. Is it enough to show that anthropology’s object has been brought up-to-date? Has there been no evolution of theory, method or teaching since mid-century? Society’s support for ‘anthropology’ depends on some effective answers being given to these questions, but general readers will find little here to enlighten them on the subject.

In December’s AT, drawing on work I did earlier with Anna Grimshaw (Grimshaw and Hart 1993, 1995), I suggested that British social anthropology in its prime was remarkable for the unity of its object, theory and method. The object was “primitive societies”, far-flung peoples of the empire encountered in the here and now. The theory was “functionalism”, the idea that customary practices, however bizarre, make sense and fit together, since daily life would be impossible otherwise. And the method, as their latter-day successors repeat in an unchanging mantra, was “fieldwork-based ethnography”, joining people where they live to find out what they do and think, then writing it up in universities back home. If the camera obscura of ideology (Marx 1867) turns the world upside down by making ideas seem to generate life, they put the image right side up again, except that, by making ideas emerge directly from life, they created another kind of illusion.

I would not want to turn back the clock to a time when the subjects of ethnography seemed to live in another world from ours. Exotic No More has already achieved excellent sales; as it should, given the interest of the topics and the authors’ commitment to escaping from their former ghetto. The essays address inner-city poverty, the global traffic in human organs, world markets, socialist ideology and practice, conflict and violence, ethnicity and nationalism, fundamentalism, race, gender and sexuality, medical knowledge, the environment, hunger, development aid, refugees, intellectual property, human rights, children’s rights, science, the movies, music, art museums, tourism and the survival of tribal societies. The Best of AT likewise carries a hefty punch and here too the watchword is relevance. Anthropologists are in the thick of contemporary problems, as well as using new media like film and being open to social trends like feminism.

If we are to believe the anthropologists on view here, all that old imperialist stuff can be forgotten, while we get on with our thoroughly modern discipline as the legitimate heirs of the twentieth century tradition. For, in the absence of any distinctive theoretical approach that might prepare them for action on ‘the front line’, they differentiate themselves from other fractions of the interfering classes by a unique and pristine method, signaled by occasional insertion of the words ‘fieldwork’ and ‘ethnography’. The Best of AT has no space for methodology. So readers who would like to know what anthropologists get up to and why must make do with Jeremy MacClancy’s introduction.

“For far too long social anthropology has been seen as an academic discipline dedicated to the study of abstruse customs of out-of-the-way tribes.”

Anthropologists today study the world, he says, not just its more remote corners. Most of them do good, exposing policy weaknesses, as advocates for the downtrodden.

“We want the taxpayers (sic), who ultimately foot most of our bills, to know what we are up to, not dive for the dictionary before they have turned the first page. Anthropology is about taking people seriously. It is about trying to understand how people interpret and act in the world. Anthropologists listen to what people say, watch what they do, and then try to make sense of their words and their deeds by putting them into context”.

This involves fieldwork, learning a language which takes time, trying to live like the locals, seeking trust and friendship from them, preferring a qualitative to a quantitative method, with no measurement or preformed questions, taking little for granted, ready to find the unbelievable true, relying on serendipity, above all, keeping an open mind.

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Keith Hart is International Director, Human Economy Programme, University of Pretoria and Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology, London School of Economics. He has taught at a number of universities, for the longest time at Cambridge. He contributed the idea of an informal economy to Development Studies and has written extensively on money. His recent books include The Human Economy (2010) and Economic Anthropology (2011). 

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