Who do anthropologists think they are?!

You may have followed the ensuing debates around Alice Goffman’s ethnography and the broader moral, ethical and potential legal implications of her written account based on six years of ethnographic involvement in ‘an American City’.

As it has become the gold standard in our digital times for any controversial topic that needs a through discussion without approaching any solution, the major academic platforms have been featuring op-eds on this topic.
But it was a sentence in David Perlmutter’s
In Defense of Ethnography detailed and balanced piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education that triggered my own desire to share a few reflections in the broader context of development anthropology:
Ethnographers, thus, give voice to people who aren’t necessarily otherwise heard.
As a development anthropologist and academic myself I find such a sentence in 2015 quite astonishing-even if I understand his remark in the broader context of his low-level street policing ethnography; who do anthropologists think they are (sometimes)?!

The rituals of ritualized training and education: Another street corner, diaspora community and hackers group gets a book written about them
As much as many academic anthropologists feel that they are on the ‘fringe’ of academia and on the front line of contemporary socio-economic developments, the discipline follows trends, fashions and discourses like any other discipline (see my next point).
Within a growing sector of (investigative) international journalism, more sophisticated NGO advocacy and a vibrant digital communication space, ‘the voiceless’ or ‘hidden’ groups have more opportunities than waiting for an anthropologist to show up. When I sent a link about the Goffman debate to a non-anthropological colleague he simply replied ‘haven’t people watched The Wire?!’.

Traditional written anthropology is increasingly caught between more nuanced (fictional) storytelling, long-reads on sophisticated websites with cultural commentary and a book industry that is happy to publish more, on demand and globally.
The ‘front lines’ are no longer between a stereotypical international development consultant who parachutes in, runs her/his workshops and writes a report without grasping local nuances of power, conflict and relationships and the anthropologist who knows about local dialects, histories and the clan structures of the area. Both sides have been pollinated by each other, the modern consultant probably being more aware of the complexities of a country, region etc. and the modern anthropologist being more realistic of what a kinship study in a ‘remote’ place can really add to broader development work.

Professionalized, managerialized, yet looking for the final ethnographic frontier in a war zone – the paradoxes of academic anthropology
Anthropology is as firmly embedded in global academia as any other discipline. The products (usually a thesis, a few journal articles and maybe a book) pretty much look the same, most come with the ‘right’ caveats of reflecting on the student’s positionality (with an overall shift from Northern white men to Northern white women), how much more participatory one had hoped the study would be and how one had also hoped that the insights that were gathered three years ago would have some kind of ‘impact’. Meanwhile, the Nepali construction workers have finished their work in Qatar, the Occupy something tents have been dismantled and that peaceful/dangerous region in country A, B or C has turned the other way. But of course there are broader lessons learned-usually for the anthropologist, the supervisor or committee and the thematic sub-group at the big conference where a paper is presented.
To break through the routines of PhD studies, ethics boards and increased competition for tenure-track appointments it is tempting to look for the ‘voiceless’ in more remote, dangerous and fluid contexts. It makes for great ‘should you have really done/interviewed/gone this/that person/there?’ discussions, but the overall transformational power of engaging with a rebel group in country A, B or C still remains limited.

Anthropology and/in the Global South: Three interviews are not an ‘ethnography’
Many debates these days start with ‘but we have much more female professors in (enter MINT discipline of your choice)’ and you will likely hear similar comments on anthropology’s increased diversity. The bigger question is whether anthropology has done much to actively support this change, or whether it simply reflects the broader trends of a globalizing academic industry? More international students and more female students have entered the system and more capacity building has been taken place since, say, the ‘good old colonial days’, but many departments represent the reality of the global monitored and evaluated university with staff members being socialized in different ‘elite’ circles.
One issue that has puzzled me sine I joined academia pretty much ten years ago is the relatively poor state of substantial parts of anthropology in the Global South.
I know Nepal a bit better than many other places, and I have always been surprised by the fact that much anthropology has been fairly traditional along the lines of ‘what is the impact of globalization/migration on village D, E & F?’. Qualitative analysis often turns into ‘ethnography’ after just two days of participant observations and a handful of interviews.
This post is not the right space to discuss nuances, but I wonder whether traditional Western hubs still have such a ‘pull’ power, whether anthropology is underfunded and underused because it is not deemed ‘useful’ or whether there are other issues of time, resources and scale.
When I asked an African colleague a while ago about these challenges, she replied by saying that she would like to study Scandinavian bureaucratic organizations, but that the administrative hurdles were simply too high. Encouraging ‘reverse anthropology’ should probably be on the list of alternatives that I am going to outline briefly in my final paragraph.

Alternatives? Group writing, reflective practice courses & more
As long as the academic industry is what it is, a highly individualized, specialized and professionalized space, it will be difficult to change the forms and products of how anthropology is expressed by the majority of students and researchers.
What if group- or co-writing between ‘natives’ and ‘students’ would be encouraged? In ‘my’ field development and organizational anthropology many local aid workers, aid industry staff or ‘beneficiaries’ could easily join the ethnographic endeavor thanks to global academia’s advances.
And what if a training course on, say, reflective practice or writing or participatory video that will enable the ‘voiceless’ to express themselves would count as much as chapter of a thesis written by the trainer/student/anthropologist?
Or maybe time frames have to shift and a blog post or newspaper article needs to be published by the anthropologist every six weeks alongside a short reflection paper for the administration? And it would be acknowledged by funding agencies and tenure review boards.

But then we are back at the beginning: The question of what makes anthropology different and valuable in a globalized world of (media) content – and why anthropologists think they still have the ability to give a ‘voice’ to someone other than themselves.


  1. Tobias,

    Are you aware of a book co-written Kathryn March, David Holmberg, and Suryaman Tamang about their initial views of America and Nepal? It was published in 1993:


    Also, are you familiar with Davydd Greenwood's Participatory Action Research approach? Laurie Vasily used the method in her dissertation research on Dalit literacy programs.

  2. Thanks, Amanda, for sharing these very useful resources and I'm sure other good examples exist.
    But one particular focus of this post is PhD education and the need to deliver what is usually a book length monograph 'back home' at your university and anthropology department.
    I also agree that many colleagues have the best participatory and reflective intentions and implement them well during fieldwork-but a lot is often/usually lost in the process of taking field research to the next, written level of a project, thesis etc. (and I studied with the 'Participation Team' at IDS for my PhD...)


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