French anthropology and the riots

Didier Fassin began his commentary on French anthropology’s non-response to last year’s riots (AT February 2006) with a reminder that an army of Andean ethnographers likewise missed the rise of Shining Path in Peru. While his subject matter is specifically French, the issue of anthropology’s relationship to contemporary society is a general one.

Fassin’s editorial begs for a sociological analysis of the discipline’s national predicament. Some readers may have recently received a letter asking them to oppose anthropology’s apparent demotion within the administrative structures of the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique). The discipline’s marginality in France is not new. The fast track into the national educated elite (competitive entry to the École normale supérieure, agrégation etc) never had a place for anthropology; and the country’s leading anthropologists (Mauss, Lévi-Strauss, Godelier) were often first agrégé in philosophy. The recent reorganization of the French universities has further entrenched sociology’s dominance over the smaller anthropology section.

The French profession is divided: the Association pour la recherche en anthropologie sociale (APRAS) is the keeper of the exotic flame, while the Association française des anthropologues (AFA) is more explicitly engaged with contemporary society, but lacks the other’s institutional influence. Finally, anthropologists share with other French academics the entrenched inequality privileging Parisian researchers (CNRS, École des hautes études en sciences sociales) above those who teach in the provincial universities. The present government has tried to do something to reduce this gap, but has met with the organized resistance of scholars whose conditions of employment are the envy of academics everywhere.

French anthropology’s weak engagement with racial inequality thus mirrors the general divisions and elitism characteristic of higher education there, with the added problem that it lacks the established position of history, philosophy or sociology. The concentration of institutional power in Paris both deters public criticism by academics who are ultimately dependent on it and ensures that their voices are largely excluded from policy-making circles and the media.

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National variations in the present condition of anthropology are striking. If French anthropology seems to be beleaguered these days, Brazilian anthropology, having once been confined largely to Amazonia, is now booming as a source of investigation and commentary on mainstream urban society. Scandinavian anthropology offers a flourishing model of public engagement. Anthropology is a major operation in India and Nigeria today, being mainly concerned with ‘tribal’ populations and internal cultural diversity. Anthropologists in the USA and Britain have organized themselves quite effectively as professional guilds, but there is little public knowledge there of what they do (try using ‘anthropology’ as a keyword for email alerts from the New York Times); and the discipline’s relationship to the universities is precarious. Perhaps institutional inertia will save anthropologists from the oblivion that perennially threatens us, perhaps not.

It is time to acknowledge that the ethnographic model that took root in twentieth-century anthropology is itself partly responsible for the contemporary malaise in the places where it was once strongest. I have argued elsewhere in AT that anthropologists are right to be proud of our discipline’s democratic move to join the people where they live in order to find out what they think and do. But an exclusive reliance on the method of fieldwork-based ethnography serves us ill if we wish to chart a way forward now.

To take my own training, British social anthropology in its prime had a coherent object, theory and method. Its object was ‘primitive societies’, the far-flung peoples of Empire; its theory was ‘functionalism’, the order in everyday life; and its method was ‘fieldwork’, supplemented by universal comparison. The resulting ethnographic vision shared some of the assumptions of a world divided into nation-states – bounded places, culturally homogenous, self-sufficient and outside time.

Even then, such abstractions contradicted the need to grasp a world in movement. American funding pushed British ethnographers to study ‘the dynamics of culture contact’ in the 1930s. The Manchester school explicitly took the side of Africans against settler society in the 1950s. And independence from colonial rule led many anthropologists to take a wider historical approach to local societies in the 1960s and 1970s. The recent shift to ‘cultural’ anthropology in Britain has reversed this engagement with social history, although it persists in the compromised field of ‘development’. But it has been obvious for half a century that the old object and theory of social anthropology have gone, even if the fieldwork method remains the (no longer wholly distinctive) badge of our profession.

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If we wish to consider what anthropology may become, it would be worthwhile asking what else it has been in the past. The modern discipline has its origins in the philosophical anthropology of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. It was after all Kant who first gave currency to the term. The object of this anthropology was ‘human nature’, what all human beings have in common, seen as a necessary foundation for the democratic societies that would succeed the old regime. The theory was, broadly speaking, ‘universal reason’; the method a combination of humanist speculation and wide-ranging comparison.

Anthropology put these revolutionary concerns behind itself in the nineteenth century, when the object was to explain racial hierarchy in a world newly unified by western imperialism. The theory was ‘evolution’; the method was ‘world history’, later disparaged as ‘conjectural’ history. Twentieth-century anthropology grew out of a rejection of this synthesis. But we may have thrown the baby out with the bath water.

What then might be anthropology’s paradigm in the century coming up? That depends on what you think its social function is or ought to be. I would guess that the Cold War’s emphasis on social science research will soon take a backseat to teaching of the humanities. Anthropology deserves to flourish as the broadest possible framework for general education, helping individuals to place themselves more effectively in a connected world. The discipline’s object in that case would be the making of world society or ‘humanity’ (at once a collective noun, a moral quality and a project for our species). The theory might be some amalgam of humanism, romanticism and existentialism; the method an eclectic combination of all anthropology’s previous paradigms – philosophy, world history, ethnography – and some more as well, perhaps autobiography.

Not all national anthropologies are as vulnerable. But we lack a vision of what anthropologists do for our world. At first, ethnographers detached themselves and the peoples they studied from world history, focusing on remote rural peoples, while humanity concentrated itself in huge cities and fought global wars. Our slogan could have been “Stop the world! I want to get off.” (What makes the French distinctive is that the world they want to get off is American.) Anthropologists once felt they could speak for humanity as a whole, despite ignoring the drive of non-western peoples to join world society on their own terms. Now, when production and capital accumulation are being relocated in China, India and Brazil, such complacency is even less tenable than in the heyday of the anti-colonial revolution.

No-one can deny that ethnographers of late have responded to the need for engagement with a world in movement, to the point where sitting in a faraway village has become the exception. But this stretching of the original research paradigm to accommodate contemporary social realities leaves more fundamental questions of method unexamined. There is a hunger for informed visions of what our world is becoming and how each of us might relate to it. Identification of anthropology with the academy alone inhibits our ability to bridge that gap.

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The standard recipe for making anthropology less insular and backward-looking is to argue for greater contemporary ‘relevance’. It is not obligatory to confront current events like the French riots, especially if we have some other defensible intellectual strategy for our discipline. But anthropologists are confused; and the public is even more confused about what we do and why. We are compromised by our own institutions, institutions as profoundly unequal as the society whose shortcomings gave anthropology its original democratic impulse. Getting involved with the contemporary problem of racial inequality is a good place to start; but it will take more than that if we want our discipline to flourish, rather than merely survive in some corners of a world going somewhere else.

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Category: Anthropology | Europe