Fox, Flames, and the Future of Anthropology

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 6 Oct 1994 12:26:48 JST

First, a word of thanks to Patricia Clay and Lane Schilmoeller. It was
heartening to read your responses to the flame from Mr. Fox. Personally, I
would not be so quick to dismiss what he says, however much I disliked his
tone. He will soon be teaching at a major state university and, assuming that
he has some impact on his students, will play a part in shaping their image of
anthropology. What that image should be is a matter of concern to us all.

When I think about this topic, a number of thoughts cross my mind:

Would it not be wonderful to be a Michel Foucault: to have published a number
of famous books, to be a Professor at the College de France with the public
clout that France is said to accord its intellectuals, while at the same time
participating in the front lines of political struggles on behalf of the poor
and oppressed?

Few of us have this level of talent and opportunity. What, then, are we to do?
To preach from the safety of our ivory towers without putting our bodies on the
line is uncomfortably close to what Tom Wolfe called "radical chic": Leonard
Bernstein inviting Black Panthers to his cocktail parties.

Sadly, too, the ivory tower is built on sand. Too few of us will enjoy the
privilege of academic tenure. What, then, are we to do?

The saints among us may choose to be worker-priests for their own particular
brands of political religion. They will live among the poor and powerless,
sharing their poverty, and using anthropological knowledge, they will do what
they can working from within to improve the situations they share. I do not
speak cynically here. I admire those with the moral courage to walk this road.

What, then, of the rest of us, who must also make our way beyond the academic
pale? To those of us who would sell themselves as anthropologists, I say that
we need a stronger public profile: we need "hooks" that will interest those
with money to spend in spending it on anthropology.

I, myself, represent another possibility: pursuing anthropology while making a
living at something else. My heroes are Lewis Henry Morgan (a lawyer) and
Benjamin Whorf (an insurance adjuster). When I came to Japan in 1980 and went
looking for a job to support myself and my family, my anthropology was
not what got me a job. Writing and editing skills, a better-than-average
knowledge of computers and office automation did that. Chinese and Japanese
language skills also helped.

I am convinced, however, that anthropological training made me better at what
I and my "henchmen" do: creating marketing strategies and advertising
campaigns. In today's increasingly information-saturated world, the
anthropologist's skill in synthesizing data from wildly different sources is, I
believe, increasingly valuable.

And, can't resist--vile exploiter that I am, I find that critical theory, with
it's emphasis on the power relations embodied in cultural processes, is a
valuable part of my tool kit.

Rage, alas, is not.