Whither anthropology? <debate> <very long>

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 22 Feb 1996 09:02:57 +0900

Dear Friends,

The following musings combine thoughts fueled by recent
discussions of the relationship of anthropology to sociology,
Mike Salovesh, et al. on the American Anthropologist, and
my recently starting to read very scary pair of books: One, by
historian Stephen Koch is _Double Lives: Stalin, Willi
Munzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals_. It
describes the life and times of Willi Munzenberg, colleague of
Lenin, a founding organizer of the Communist International,
a man described by Koch as "the Bolshevik Rupert Murdoch"
and at one time a much-envied model for Joseph Goebbels.
The blurbs on the back cover contain two quotes from
reviewers. Angus Calder writes for _Scotland on Sunday that
"Newspapers, magazines, books, plays, films appeared in the
west at his instigation...the fellow-travelling innocents who
joined the front organizations her controlled included some
of the major names in 20th-century culture --Mann and Gide,
Hemingway and Eluard. Bad-tempered Sinclair Lewis and
wise-cracking Dorothy Parker. " Anne McElvoy, writing for
_The Times_ says, "An excellent history of Soviet Propaganda
in the west under Stalin... Koch, to his credit, has not taken a
single rumour for granted. This is an excellent example of
both scholarship and detective work, sourced from newly-
opened archives in Germany and Russia." The second is
_Risk Society_ by German sociologist Ulrich Beck who
develops the proposition that while the classic social issue of
early modernization [which, as an anthropologist, I recognized
started with the neolithic] is the distribution of wealth and
thus the division of society along visible class lines, today's
world is one in which the central issue
will increasingly be the distribution of risk, i.e., exposure to
nuclear and chemical pollution, which remains invisible
until damage is done and is, knowable in advance only
through sharply contested scientific procedures, and,
ultimately, is indifferent to the wealth or poverty of its
victims. This last is not to say that there is no correlation
between class and risk; toxic waste dumping in third world
countries, the location of incinerators, sewage facilities and
pollution-generating factories in working-class neighborhoods
are obvious counterexamples. But as either Los Angeles or
Taipei shows too well, smog, for example, cannot be confined
to these neighborhoods.

What, you may ask, does a historian writing about conspiracy
and a scoiologist writing on the social implications of
ecological risks have to do with anthropology, and its place in
relation to sociology or other disciplines? A cursory reading of
Koch (added to the hints provided by John Brockman's
_Third Culture_ hints about _Partisan Review_) suggests, for
example, that the intellectual despair associated with what we
now see as "critical," "deconstructionist," "post-modern," etc.,
theory was deliberately promoted for Stalinist political ends.
Which is not to say that those of us who adhere to such
theories are Stalinists. What may be worse is that, to use Willi
Munzenber's term, we are "innocents," unwitting of what is
really going on in the world around us. A cursory reading of
Beck suggests that our innocence includes the rejection of
science, which whether we like it or not (the world is not
known for pampering humanist intellectuals, outside a few in
the ivory tower) defines the terms in which debates about risk
will be won or lost. Add the bloody-minded resistance of
those (like me) who prattle on about capitalism, corporations,
world-systems, etc., but, as Mike Cahill points out, remain
barely able--if at all--to read the balance sheets, income and
cash-flow statements that do, in fact, regulate our lives, and
our claims to knowledge....tricky, very tricky.

What, then, of anthropology? In either the classic American
four-fields form, or in the more restricted European sense of
social anthropology (often seen, I know my British colleague
John Clammer does, as a branch of sociology)? Both, I
suggests, are nodes in the webs of significance we and our
colleagues in other fields are collectively weaving. They are, to
use a currently fashionable phrase (seen yesterday in Web
Pages for _Cultural Anthropology_ and _The Journal of
Material Culture_), points of articulation where several
streams of scholarship meet. Seen in this way our problem is
not, in the classic knowledge-fragmenting way, to say what we
are not, but instead to decide which of the threads that meet
where we find ourselves standing in our own particular time
and place are worth cultivating and pulling together.

I was, oddly enough, even though I went to Cornell, trained
mainly in the European mode and escaped from graduate
school with no physical anthropology, a minimum of
archeology, and, thanks largely to the Summer Institute of
Linguistics and the efforts of Charles Hockett a fair amount of
linguistics. Now looking back over 20 years, I find the four-
fields perspective immensely attractive. It bothers me not at
all that, historically speaking, it represents a bit of ad-hoc-ery
from a time when the rough equation of "primitive" and
"prehistoric," "culture" and "race" defined a certain
intersection of scientific and scholarly interests. What it offers
me now is a place to stand from which I can reach out
comfortably to colleagues who study language, biology, the
history of science and technology, literature, economics,
politics, art and usually find myself with something to
contribute. To my friends who think that the latest
contortions in literary theory (in which I do, in fact, find much
of value) are all there is to know, I say "Poor innocents, do not
be surprised if your dreams are disturbed by monsters. The
unwitting have always been so."

John McCreery
February 22, 1996