Anthropology and politics

William Price (Wfep@AOL.COM)
Sun, 10 Sep 1995 23:52:24 -0400

I've been reading this list for a couple of months. RJ's latest two posts,
"vamps and tramps" and "dean Middleton" compel me to make some observations.

It seems like a great deal of the strife we have had recently (that seems
thankfully to be subsiding) stems from "anthropological" postings saturated
with the personal politics or social agenda of the poster (which of course
elicit flames from people with differing politics--and then of course it
starts to get personal). How ironic that at the same time we have a thread
discussing whether anthropology is scientific.

I would like to add on to all the helpful insights about the scientificity of
anthropology by submitting that anthropology *can be* scientific in direct
correlation to its lack of politicization. Think of two physicists studying
molecules, one a marxist and one a capitalist. Are their observations going
to differ? I'm not talking about the politics of choosing what to study, I'm
talking about the actual empirical observation. What is the relevancy of a
scientist's view about the redistribution of wealth on the question of how
the AIDS virus attaches itself to human t-cells?

I really feel that the last ten years of virtriolic political segregation in
academics, while doing wonders for mapping the terrain of politics and power,
has not done a whole lot in advancing knowledge. Remember Marx's quote,
something like the point is not to describe the world but change it. Isn't
this a conflation of the role of the scientist and the politician.

If I wanted to change the world I wouldn't be an anthropologist. I'd be a
politician. it doesn't make sense to me that as anthropologist and
researchers, we should short circuit our investigation into cultural
phenomenon by having some social/political agenda to fulfill in our
"findings." I know there are no such things as facts, only interpretations
and I know that no observation is "innocent" (value free, situated in place,
time, etc.) But aren't there different degrees of methodological
contamination and wouldn't worst on the list be those findings predicated on
personal politics? One commentator eloquently described this process when
done so from the left as striving "to 'dream forward,' by 'enwrapping images'
of a normative past, an obvious slippage into a Blochian political myopia by
adopting knowledge in the service of hope." (Lucio Privatello) Can't we be
graded by our colleagues by how successful we have been at willing ourselves
to being less subjective?

I'm attracted to ethnography because it offers the best chance at an
interpretation of culture that is not the product of one person's overactive
imagination. Ethnography is anti elistist in the best possible way. No one
person is allowed to speak for the group. What emerges from the cacaphony of
voices speaking about a culture can often be something that is outside the
ken of any individual speaker within that culture. It may take the
ethnographer to find it but it still is as much a product of the culture
being studied as the ethnographer who gleaned it. Arent' we destroying the
democracy of ethnography to the extent that we impose our own (elitist)
political/social agendas onto our investigations, whether they are from the
right or the left? Is there anyone in anthropology who "knows it all" and
has nothing more to learn about/from culture studies? If so, you should quit
anthropology and become a politician. Much more efficient. Here you
investigate to learn not confirm your apriori beliefs. There you put into
action your already held convictions or those of your constituents.

Anthropology is a relatively new field. I think it has a long way to go. If
it did not we would have easy solutions to the myriad problems that plague
this planet that have to do with human culture. I think anthro appropriately
tries to solve these problems through continuing to learn about culture not
by failing to learn because of using anthro as another medium for politics.

I wish that the humanities and social sciences attracted less of those
obsessed with politics and more of those who are simply intellectually
curious. I'm sick of politics. I want to learn things (other than someone
else's politics). Do all research questions have to try to solve some
problem? If so, isn't it possible that this very "structure" might prevent
the finding of certain answers (think of Zen buddism and how it postulates
that your only chance of finding something is when you stop looking for it).
Isn't it reason enough to investigate something just to find out how it
works, even if you've no complaints about it?

William Price