What anthropologists really do

By | February 10, 2017


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.

According to MacClancy, some anthropologists study myths, ‘the mind’, socio-biology, abstract models of behaviour etc. But his contributors emphasize

“the power and value of fieldwork-based ethnography, rather than, for instance, engaging in speculation about the nature of mental operations.”

He acknowledges that sociologists, lecturers in cultural studies and their ilk also embrace ethnography and fieldwork, but anthropologists do it better. We make the strange familiar and vice versa; relativize western assumptions, including science; and would democratize our expertise. Believing that small is beautiful, we address enormous issues through studying small groups, finding the global in the local and opposing local variety to universal pronouncements.

In his view, anthropologists today are neither colonial nor neo-colonial stooges, but critics who support the excluded majority. Apart from the engaged fieldworker type,

“other kinds of anthropology have what at first sight appears to be a much more academically narrow focus: for example, comparative mythology, kinship structures, the nature of symbolism, the intricacies of indigenous cosmologies.What may appear to be abstruse scholarship one day may become material of great political import the next day.”

He cannot mean that kinship and cosmology are narrower topics than organ transplants or refugees, but that the wider public is only interested in practical issues, either as taxpayers or through what politicians spend their taxes on. This is a depressingly parochial expression of the disease that has afflicted British higher education for at least two decades. MacClancy seems to be oblivious to the market financing of American education and research.

So 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.

It is time that anthropologists owned up to doing much more than fieldwork in arriving at their idiosyncratic perspectives on the world. What else do we do? We write, teach, read widely, attend lectures, join discussion groups, criticize, make comparisons, watch television, listen to the radio, go to the movies, read newspapers, exchange messages; travel, surf the web; some of us actually count numbers, develop abstractions, study international languages, acquire historical perspectives, attempt scientific analysis, write poetry, make films and even sometimes think and reflect. We tell stories. What is mainly missing from the standard account is how these stories have shaped the trajectory of anthropology.

It is surely time too to call the anthropologists’ bluff on their claim that “we learn the local language”. Even supposing that there is one such language, in a stay of medium length, most people would be lucky to acquire the linguistic competence of a nine-year-old. And, to put it crudely, what do ethnographers carry between the ears when they enter the field? Most of the activities I have listed above are practised by everyone in varying degree; only some mark out intellectuals from the rest. What makes up the intellectual style distinctive to anthropologists? Or is that an oxymoron? Let us look at one or two of the stronger essays from these collections.

Jane Schneider, almost uniquely, appears in both volumes. Her AT contribution is the magnificent “In and out of polyester” (Schneider 1994), where she explains how and why the western middle classes were first led to embrace artificial fibres and later rejected them. Her sources are fashion magazines, books on cultural theory, postwar economic history and membership of the class she writes about. This is not ‘fieldwork-based ethnography’, but rather a sensibility at work that we may call ‘anthropological’. But on what grounds? Her chapter in Exotic No More is on ‘world markets’, no less. Here she identifies an intellectual genealogy familiar to anthropologists — Malinowski, Mauss, Polanyi, Wolf etc — before reviewing some ethnographic sources from a perspective loosely based on world systems theory. In the same volume, Chris Hann offers a wide-ranging review of political ideology, where he claims that socialism has had an undeservedly bad press because most commentators had an axe to grind and didn’t consult the people on the ground. He argues, initially on the basis of his own research in Poland and Hungary, that ethnographers reveal considerable local variation and ambivalence in popular attitudes towards the old socialist regimes. Fair enough. But he then goes on to make global comparisons of staggering generality:

“In African and other postcolonial societies, self-styled socialists did not achieve as much as they expected to. Their efforts may nonetheless have resulted in more equal societies than those which followed untrammeled capitalist paths. Cuba, in spite of an American blockade since 1960, has still managed to provide better health, education and pensions for its population than many European societies. [More on China, India and the Soviet Union]. Here I suggest that anthropological studies which reveal how ordinary people understood the alternatives of capitalism and socialism and how far they internalized their own ideologies may add something valuable to the statistics of economists and demographers, the prejudices of politicians and the stereotypes of journalists.” (Hann 2002:96-97)

Leaving aside the questionable assertions, how could a student or layman follow the author’s journey from talking to some Eastern Europeans to writing an essay of this scope? Is there anything ‘anthropological’ about the ideas expressed here beyond the plug for fieldwork? If not, what is the relationship between the two? Are all anthropologists’ theories somehow extrapolated from such human encounters? Who is the intended audience for a pitch that represents anthropology as an empirical ragbag of hot topics compiled by academics who “take people seriously”? Insiders know that every individual follows their own path to a mature anthropological perspective. Why surround the process with mystery? I grant that the short essay form is severely limiting, since it does not give expression to ethnographic complexity. But then, since anthropologists, like other academics, spend most of their time writing journal articles, book chapters and conference papers, this genre is perhaps more typical of what we do than occasional monographs for which the publishing market is drying up.

Anthropologists fight the good fight these days over a large number of disconnected fronts. Some time in the seventies, the idea of a unitary discipline with an intellectual mission (‘theory’) gave way to a series of compartments or sub-disciplines corresponding to powerful outside currents — feminist anthropology, medical anthropology, the anthropology of development and so on. The roots of this fragmentation are several. The post-war expansion of the universities made it possible to publish exclusively for audiences who shared an academic niche. Having lost their original raison d’etre in the study of ‘primitives’, anthropologists abandoned any claim to a unitary object, theory and method in order to take up service in various public institutions. Jonathan Benthall thinks this was a good thing. I am less sure. This more fragmented version of anthropology has had to adapt to the requirements of bureaucracy, as the founders did in their own way; but, in often embracing a heartless postivism, the new professionals have lost anthropology’s original capacity to inspire a wide range of people inside and outside the universities.

Benthall is nostalgic for this fast-disappearing magical appeal and so am I. In his Introduction, he makes the acute observation that

“the mystique of cultural anthropology had been built up by its forebears such as [the usual suspects], with a strategic flair only surpassed by that of the founders of psychoanalysis.”

This reminds us that disciplines are built up by individuals whose strategies consist largely of telling impressive stories in a new jargon. It also led me to recall the closing chapter of Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things (1973), where he writes of the “privileged position in our knowledge” occupied by psychoanalysis and ethnology:

“… they form an undoubted and inexhaustible treasure-hoard of experiences and concepts, and above all a perpetual principle of dissatisfaction, of calling into question, of criticism and contestation of what may seem, in other respects, to be established.”

This already sounds more interesting than chasing the latest news headlines. He continues,

“…psychoanalysis and ethnology are not so much two human sciences among others, but they span the entire domain of those sciences, they animate its whole surface, spread their concepts throughout it, and are able to propound their methods of decipherment and their interpretations everywhere….. [They are] ‘counter-sciences’; which does not mean that they are less ‘rational’ or ‘objective’ than the others, but that they flow in the opposite direction, that they lead them back to their epistemological basis.”

I have long thought of anthropology as an anti-discipline and this begins to captures why it may be so. Foucault considered that the human sciences took their definitive, but unstable shape in the late nineteenth century and were unraveling when he wrote around 1970. AT has been around for most of the time since. If these volumes are representative, an intellectual enterprise formed to study the customs of the world’s simpler societies has remade itself into a distinctive source of description and commentary on human affairs in general. But when anthropology’s object has been transformed, can its theory and method remain the same? These two books are long on fact and opinion, but distressingly short on historical discussion of methodology. This is a pity, since Foucault thought ethnology once drew its distinctiveness from its object:

“It is no doubt difficult to maintain that ethnology has a fundamental relation with historicity since it is traditionally the knowledge we have of peoples without histories; in any case it studies (both by systematic choice and because of the lack of documents) the structural invariables of cultures rather than the succession of events…. [But] ethnology has its roots, in fact, in a possibility that properly belongs to the history of our culture….[It] can assume its proper dimensions only within the historical sovereignty — always restrained, but always present — of European thought and the relation that can bring it face to face with all other cultures as well as to itself.”

This explains why the classical teachings of the modern discipline were so successful and why it has been necessary to abandon them . The anti-colonial revolution pulled the rug out from under our feet — we couldn’t use that particular conception of the primitive any more. It is a disappointingly trite point, but maybe a lot else flows from it. Perhaps we have lost that moment of ahistorical historicity that made anthropology possible, that self-awareness of empire just before its end, captured in Hegel’s image of Minerva’s owl taking wing at dusk. How then can we cling to a method of ‘fieldwork-based ethnography’ as if it were unrelated to the end of empire and to the nationalist century that made the whole approach plausible?

Readers who would like to know more about my own programme for anthropology may care to look at some of my AT guest editorials (Hart 1996a, 2000, 2003a). In the last of these I suggested that our founders did not come clean on their true methods and objectives. It is unsurprising then that their successors give equally misleading self-descriptions. Even if all anthropologists once had to do field research in order to qualify (which is no longer true), there is an unacknowledged gap between this fieldwork and the stories they tell or the analyses they make. Moreover, each ‘ethnographer’ pursues a highly idiosyncratic path. Students may be forced to read some outdated classics by Radcliffe-Brown and his contemporaries, but there is no explicit guide to how they will ever become like their teachers. This would all become a lot clearer if anthropologists admitted that their humanistic anti-discipline is as much a voyage of subjective discovery as it is grounded in some shared practices. But most still pay lip service to the failed collectivist project of “the social sciences”.

What we need is Kant’s Copernican revolution in metaphysics (Cassirer 1981:148-9). In his Preface to The Critique of Pure Reason, he writes,

“Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects… (but what) if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge?”.

In order to understand the world, we must begin not with the empirical existence of objects, but with the reasoning embedded in our experience itself and in all the judgments we have made. The world is inside each of us as much as it is out there. Our task is to bring the two poles together as subjective individuals who share the object world in common with the rest of humanity. Kant (1798) launched ‘anthropology’ as an academic discipline and personal guide to a liberal philosophical project. It would pay us to revisit that project when rethinking the premises of an anthropology for the twenty-first century (Hart 2010). We might, for example, wish to contemplate humanity as well as human beings in particular; or to explore how we are all connected to an emergent world society that is both more and less than its constituent parts. In pretending to retain the founders’ methods while abandoning their traditional object of inquiry and keeping quiet about where theoretical ideas come from, anthropologists today have already lost the chance to renew their discipline on a sound basis.

In any case, 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.


Cassirer, E. 1981 Kant’s Life and Thought. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Foucault, M. 1973 The Order of Things. New York: Random House.

Grimshaw, A. and K. Hart 1993 Anthropology and the Crisis of the Intellectuals. Cambridge: Prickly Pear Press.

——– The rise and fall of scientific ethnography, in A. Ahmed and C. Shore eds The Future of Anthropology. London: Athlone Press.

Hann C. 2002 Political ideologies: socialism and its discontents, in MacClancy ed.

Hart, K. 1996a End of the world — anthropologists speechless, Anthropology Today, 12,5.

——– 1996b Anthropology beyond the university (Prickly Pear Polemics No. 1), Critique of Anthropology, 16,3.

—–— 2000 Reflections on a visit to New York, Anthropology Today, 16, 4.

——– 2003a British social anthropology’s nationalist project, Anthropology Today, 19,6.

——- 2003b Studying World Society as a Vocation, Goldsmiths Anthropology Research Papers  No. 9. London: Goldsmiths Anthropology Department.

—–— 2010 Kant, ‘anthropology’ and the new human universal, Social Anthropology, 18: 441–447.

Kant, I. 1977 (1798) Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Carbondale, IL: University of Southern Illinois Press.

Marx, K. 1970 (1867) Capital: the Critique of Political Economy Vol. 1. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Schneider, J. 1994 In and out of polyester: desire, disdain and global fibre competitions, Anthropology Today, 10.4 and in Benthall ed.


This essay was first published in Anthropology Today 20.1:3-5, February 2004 as a review of Jonathan Benthall (editor) The Best of Anthropology Today, Routledge, London and New York, 2002; and Jeremy MacClancy (editor) Exotic No More: Anthropology on the Front Lines, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002 .

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