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The Reluctant Anthropologist

Alexandra Coţofană

Project description

The current research project aims at understanding how nationality and imagined geographies play a role in the life of published anthropological work. There is a long tradition in anthropology of social researchers from the “Western world” being immersed in cultures seen at the peripheries of the “civilized world” (Escobar, 2004). I shall start the description of the current project with a disclaimer. I consider terms such as “the Western world” and “the civilized world” to be oversimplifications of what is largely referred to as the West. Such concepts, also known as imagined geographies started with Edward Said’s book, Orientalism (1978) and continued with more current work such as Derek Gregory’s research on the colonial present (2004). This West is a quilt of decontextualized fragments of economic analysis on GDP and industrial success stories patched together. Instances of poverty, illiteracy, medical services, social care and other indicators fluctuate within the ‘western’ states in similar ways to those of the states found on the periphery of this perceived core. Although these indicators do not spike at the same historical moments in “the West” as in the periphery, I argue that none of these indicators are solely dispatched at the peripheries, but rather reified as such through a biased lens.

This perspective sparked my interest in the way anthropologists today interact with the cultures of their fieldwork, more specifically how ‘western’ anthropologists interact with their respondents as subjects of the “peripheries”. As a native (almost) anthropologist myself – see use of term in Narayan (1993) – I have often wondered what are the difficulties one comes across when studying a culture that requires learning a new language.  The best source for this seemed to be the idea of interviewing anthropology professors at the Indiana University Bloomington Department of Anthropology. The pre-requisites when looking for people to interview was for them to be American citizens (largely by birth) and to have current or past research projects in a geographical area distinct from what is largely understood as the aforementioned West (Western Europe and North America – often expanding to include other economical areas, such as Japan). Although the discussion on what is native and what is colonial here can expand greatly, it goes beyond the limited scope and space of the paper, so the next pages will focus on the findings in the interviews.

The idea of looking at post-colonialist tensions between the anthropologists and the “natives” can be considered passé, as it has received repeated scholarly attention. My key question is whether or not the respondents feel their citizenship creates backlash or privilege in the way they interact with outlets of publication.

Methodology

The sample is seven socio-cultural anthropologists and one linguistic anthropologist. Although the research of some of them might have been at the intersection of fields or subfields in their work, these are the categories in which they are currently assigned by the department website. All respondents are in tenure-track positions or already tenured according to the same website[1].

The sample is split into four women and four men. This symmetry was unintentional, as age and gender were not the main criteria in choosing respondents. As stated before, citizenship and area of research are the two principal requirements. The geographical areas of their field research differ greatly, but avoid the geographical “West”, which places their research in Africa, Central and South America, The Caribbean, East Asia and Eastern Europe.

When it came to their involvement in the study, I chose to contact the respondents electronically or, in one case, face to face. I went on to set up the time and place for each interview. Some professors expressed a strong preference for half an hour meetings, which became the norm. I adapted the questionnaire accordingly limiting it to 10 questions. All interviews were audio recorded with my camera, but I did not attempt video recordings. The only significant difficulty was that during one interview, the camera stopped, so I took notes on my laptop, the only writing tool I had with me. I am pleased with the interviews, I had to change something, make them longer, so that we could go into depth.

Summarized results

The results revealed certain trends, which will be further summarized, but not unanimity in the answers. The research areas can be seen below – three respondents spoke about their research in Central America, two in East Asia, one in South America, one in Eastern Europe and one in Africa. Although the current research field for some of them differs, all the results will refer to the same situation.

1

Although all professors have published in US academic publications, not all have published in the country where their research took place, or in the official language of that country. The reasons differ. Four respondents who have not published academic work in the country of their research, and two of them stated that they are in different stages of developing a project and they will publish in the future. The other two stated that there are no anthropology departments in local universities, but have published in transnational journals. Of the four that did publish in their fieldwork countries, three expressed a strong desire to actively participate in the translation process, while the fourth did not have too; as the research field’s official language is English (RW: “Yes, I have published in Belize, in English, it’s the official language.”).

2

An important question was if the respondents felt that publishing in the local context brings the need for self-censorship on certain topics. The reasons can vary –working with risk groups, minority groups, under totalitarian regimes or because of the risk of public backlash which could backfire on their respondents. Three professors admitted to leaving some topics out when they publish locally. They emphasized the rigid, conservative political scene in combination with their research being focused on a vulnerable group as the primary reasons. (SG: “And that might speak more to my own kind of relative distance/alienation/marginalization within the Peruvian academia, which is super-conservative in my estimations.”)

3

A central focus of the research was to ascertain if the respondents feel their citizenship created backlash or privilege in their interactions with publishers. I asked two questions. Firstly did they receive positive or negative feedback from local scholars in the country of their research, and secondly do they believe that coming from US academia has helped or hindered their efforts to publish in the fieldwork country. Three of the four professors who received negative feedback were reminded of their American identity and it was directly associated with colonialism (SP: “who is this person, bringing the American agenda to our country and probably spent a couple of weeks here and thinks she’s an expert”), or accused of a lack of expertise in the topic (BB: ‘People say she doesn’t work on Islam but on women – they think she should be an Arabist or a historian and look at male figures’) and incapacity to perform academic skills properly (RW: “he also accused me of being an incompetent anthropologist”).

These were but a few statements about the tensions some of my respondents came across in terms of perceived colonialism. Asad (1973) was one of the leading scholars in the 1960s and 1970s that critiqued the involvement of the colonialism in anthropology. However, colonialism is something that Escobar (2004) defined as the subalternization of knowledge and culture of oppressed. Colonialism, in this case, is something that history has produced but that contemporary scholars often have to face the consequences of. Although the discipline changed from when French and British anthropology exoticized, local scholars use citizenship as a weapon that separates “us” from “the other”, reclaiming ownership of local scholarship.

 4  5

I asked the professors to answer was whether they believe that publishing in local journals should be postponed until after one gets tenure, in order to encourage publishing in flagship journals. As David Slater suggests, publishing in some top journals appears to follow rules so harsh that one has to follow a formula for the article to be published.  Four out of the eight answered no and believe that one is able, if willing to work with both.

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The most intriguing result that I feel this analysis holds is the fact that the old images of the West as an imagined colonial geographical space have not completely perished and they still feed – often uncalled for – resistance to US scholars.

 

 

Bibliography.

Asad, Talal (1973) ‘Introduction’, in Talal Asad (ed.) Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter, pp. 1–19. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Escobar, Arturo (2004) ‘Beyond the Third World: Imperial Globality, Global Coloniality, and Anti- Globalization Social Movements’, Third World Quarterly 25(1): 207–30.

Gregory, Derek, 2004, ‘The Colonial Present’, Blackwell Pub.

Gupta, Akhil and James Ferguson (1997) ‘Discipline and Practice: “The Field” as Site, Method, and Location in Anthropology’, in Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson (eds) Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science, pp. 1–47. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kuwayama, Takami (2003) ‘Natives’ as Dialogic Partners: Some Thoughts on Native Anthropology. In Anthropology Today 19(1):8-13.

Narayan, Kirin (1993) How Native is a “Native” Anthropologist? In American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 95, No. 3, (Sep. 1993), 671-686.

Said, Edward (1979) “Orientalism” Vintage; 1st Vintage Books ed edition

Slater, David (2004) Geopolitics and the Postcolonial. Oxford: Blackwell.


[1] http://www.indiana.edu/~anthro/ – However, the data provided by some respondents about their current positions revealed that the website is not fully updated.