BAs in Anthropology, Applied anthropology

wilkr (wilkr@INDIANA.EDU)
Fri, 24 Feb 1995 10:49:49 -0400

I hate to interrupt all the flaming with something serious. But here is
something I would like to throw out into the anthropological community for
some general discussion. Anthro-l seems like a good place to start. It
was prompted by the recent death of Robert Netting, who was my teacher and
friend. Throughout his life he never wavered in his commitment to
anthropology as a way of knowing the world. Thinking about his strength
of purpose led me to try to understand why he was never shaken, despite
many disillusioning experiences and the increasing cynicism of his
colleagues and students.

Well, I have tried to distill Bob's vision of anthropology, as I learned
it from him. I have cast it in a deliberately provocative form because I
hope it will generate some discussion and debate, maybe convince some
sceptics that there is life in our discipline yet.


A Manifesto for the Militant Middle Ground


Anthropology has been stalled for the first part of this decade.
We have been increasingly introverted and concerned with our own
issues at just the time we need to be more engaged with other
disciplines and with the world outside the academy. The concerns
of applied and academic anthropology, and among the
anthropological subfields, seem to be diverging dangerously.
Anthropology needs a center, a set of agreed-upon core concepts.
In the Boasian era, culture was that concept. Clearly it no
longer serves the function of bringing us all together.

At this time we no longer need a common object of study. What we
need are some agreements on the "ground rules." We need to know
that there are some standards, so our disagreements and conflicts
can be constructive, instead of tearing apart the discipline and
rending the legitimacy of our enterprise. With the goal of
building a middle ground where extreme positions no longer
dominate anthropology, I propose the following ten points.

1. Knowledge is possible. We do have standards for judging the
logical and empirical truth of anthropological writing. They may
not be perfect standards, and we may disagree about how to apply
them, but we recognize that statements of truth about the
empirical world are possible and desirable.

2. Intercultural communication is possible. It can never be
perfect, and it takes a good deal of hard work and learning, but
people of any culture can communicate with those of any other.

3. Explanation remains a worthy goal. Description is fine.
Translation is fine too. But explaining why things happen, or why
they don't, making causal arguments, is central for anthropology
if it is to speak with any authority in the world.

4. Reductionism is an obstacle. Simple explanations are
dangerous; part of our job is to reveal complexity. But the goal
remains an improved explanation, not to demonstrate that no
explanation is possible.

5. Clear writing = clear thinking. In the long run, nobody benefits from
turgid and difficult prose.

6. Trendiness is not next to godliness. The cutting edge should
always be in front; it should never dominate the enterprise. A
lot of anthropology requires long-term commitment to a place and
a problem; we need to value solid fundamental research as highly
as pathbreaking and/or fashionable projects.

7. We make moral judgments all the time. Let's accept that
anthropology is tough work that is engaged with ethical and moral
issues at every turn. This is not cause to abandon the work, or
seek some illusory objectivity.

8. Heal the rift between academic and practicing anthropology. Do
it now. Make applied anthropology a fifth subfield.

9. Reflexivity is good, but navel-gazing and auto-mutilation is
bad. We need to know the history of anthropology and see how the
discipline has been embedded in a social and political context.
But anthropologists are not our main object of study. And cursing
our ancestors does not move us forward. Criticize the past of the
discipline when you can suggest something better.

10. Anthropology remains a strong and unique discipline because
of its ability to produce detailed, specific, local knowledge,
great time depth, and a synthesis of natural and social
science based in understanding that people have both biology and

This is a manifesto for the militant middle. Our discipline is
being torn apart by false dichotomies. The most pernicious is the
continuing warfare between 'interpretation' and 'explanation.' In
the middle ground, the goal of anthropology remains understanding
and truth. Interpretation and explanation are false alternatives,
since neither is possible without the other. It is time to ease
up on each other and focus on the real enemies at the gate!

Richard Wilk Anthropology Dept.
812-855-8162 (voice) Indiana University
812-855-4358 (fax) Bloomington, IN 47405