It Ain't Anthropology?

James G. Carrier (jgc5p@UVA.PCMAIL.VIRGINIA.EDU)
Wed, 26 Jan 1994 08:41:02 EST

26 January, 1994

Dear Folks,

For those of you how think it has not been anthropology that you have been
seeing on this list, let me put a few points.

1. We have had some excellent examples of ethnic/religious boundary marking
and group identification. These move us beyond the sort of abstract approach
that holds such a prominent place in the literature on, say, nationalism
(such as I have just been reading -- Handler and Segal's introduction to
their special issue of Social Analysis). It demonstrates in concrete (and
culturally-accessible) form the place of language, slang or terminology (take
your pick) in identification and boundary marking. Just as pertinent, it
shows the association of certain sorts of consumption (e.g. which university)
with identity, and certainly points to mechanisms that reproduce shared

2. `I can get it for your wholesale' speaks directly to the issue of the
social dimensions of economic life in complex societies presumably based on
impersonal markets (vide Marcel Mauss). Official American rhetoric identifies
the market as the only significant economic institution, and places a strong,
positive moral value on the impersonal (`free') market. However, pervading
the economy and running counter to the market ideology is the web of personal
contacts and relationships expressed in the aphorism above. The existence of
the ideology and the nature of its subversions raise questions about
ideology, social class and power. That existence also raises questions about
the nature of the West, and hence (if we take Said's points in _Orientalism_)
that nature of the opposition between the West and the Rest that informs so
much anthropology.

3. My own post about smiley icons was concerned with the nature of the
generation meaning where the medium of communication is ambiguous (and what
medium is not somewhat ambiguous?). It also raised the question of the
perceived need to develop a set of symbols that could be used to reduce
ambiguity, and particularly reduce the likelihood that it would cause
offense. This points to the sort of ambiguities that are likely to concern
people who are on various lists, and certainly should raise questions about
why certain ambiguities are thought to be more dangerous than others.

If these are not anthropology, I do now know what is. It helps if you
think anthropologically about what you are seeing, rather than deciding that
it is just a bunch of idiots out there mouthing to themselves and each other.
What else do you think anthropological fieldwork is?

Finally, there seems to be a fantasy that if one subscribes to enough
lists one will find a group of intellectual soul mates who share your
interests and with whom you can discuss your work (i.e. have serious
intellectual conversations). I doubt that life is like that. Most people have
too many other demands on their time than to talk to strangers. The people
who are really likely to take the time to respond to your work and interests
are those with whom you have an established relationship, and ideally those
with whom you have worked. Of course there are exceptions, but I think they
are rare. The relative absence of such conversations, and the existence of
the fantasy, likewise raise anthropological questions. Those, however, are
left to an exercise for the reader.


James G. Carrier

29, University Circle / Charlottesville, Virginia, 22903
(804) 971-2983 /