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Graduate Student Work (1985)

Anthropology 1985 through the lens of graduate students works

by Anna Governale

For the purpose of this assignment I am asked to describe anthropology of 1985. This is relatively a tricky task to ask to an anthropology student.

In fact, how can I go ahead writing this assignment without questioning the action I am asked to take? Can I really describe anything without, more or less consciously, taking something else into the description? How can I reassure the reader that my description is not biased from my own perspective? That I am not projecting my own thinking in other people works? That I am not interpreting rather than merely describing? The question, as it was aroused by Bruno Latour : Is anthropology a model for describing our world?

Next puzzling point: whose world am I going to describe? Who is “us” and, if there is an us, who is “them”? If “us” means anthropologists, my ego is very pleased, but then I must take into consideration David Sutton comment: “the recent profusion of anthropological writing on anthropological writing has tended to ignore the question of who reads our texts and why.” (91). Of one thing I am sure, my professor is going to read what he asked me to write, after him the World Wide Web. I am afraid that “pen” is no longer “mighty”. In the era of keyboard the question who is our audience, instead of finding answers, raises issues and concerns that need to be explored.

Being conscious of the implications that writing this paper carries, being unable to reassure the readers about any of the questions that I have raised above, I will go on with my task. After all, good anthropological questions do not necessarily need to be answered. What is necessary, in my opinion, is writing. If writing implies a certain amount of responsibilities, I want to remind that reading means sharing some of them. The dissertations on which this paper is based are the works of five Ph.D. at the beginning of their careers. For no reason this paper must be used as a source for raising direct comments or criticisms on their works.

I started this project tracing back the works of a sample of graduate students who in 1985 were awarded grants for conducting fieldwork research. Three students did their field work in Nepal, two in Sri lanka and two in Java, I do not know if the remaining student never did his research. Some of these students shared the field work experience and provided each other, precious emotional support.

With my surprise all of the students I was assigned were interested in South Asia. I wondered how to interpret this information and I came out with the following finding: my sample of grantees is representative of the subdivision on South Asia of SSRC. I also learned that James Siegel, author of “Solo in the new order language and hierarchy in an Indonesian city” (1986) and Kathryn March whose work is based in Nepal were teaching at Cornell, where three of the students of my sample were studying.

Five out of seven of these students wrote a dissertation based on their field work experience. From the year they went to the field, it took them an average four years to finish writing the dissertation.

I only read two grant proposals representative of two different experiences. In one case the student stuck to her original proposal in the other case the topic changed. In both cases the students became professors of anthropology, and they embarked in the publishing enterprise. The first book came out in 1998. The second is still in preparation.

Since I had the opportunity to have the personal comments of the authors on their experiences I tried to understand what could I learn from what they shared with me. I believe they are equally valuable experiences, even if I understand that the feelings and emotions that accompanied the two experiences carried different loads. It is, of course, very common that a project changes from its initial stage. As the author told me, what changed once she was in the field was the theoretical framework. Both proposals do not show any close affiliation to a single theorist. The authors, instead placed the relevance of their research on a broad landscape of literature. One project proposed an approach different from what other theorists had already pursued on related studies. Suzanne Brenner proposed to study the social and cultural symbolic value associated to trade in Java. She looked at the role of women in the market and the household. The other project, instead, aimed to connect broad theoretical endeavors with specific problems. The research questions led the researcher to see a broader context for her interest, and realize that the traditional theoretical framework was inadequate. She was interested in people discourse on illness in Nepal, which led her to contextualize this topic in the broader frame of identity, locality social difference and representation of modernity in a Nepalese village.

What seems relevant to me for understanding what was going on in 1985, is the struggle between traditional theoretical paradigms and the emerging interest on processes and social change. What anthropologists are trying to represent is not fixed in time and space, it is not a culture, a village,or an event. This appeared evident to me from the topic of the dissertations that the class have analyzed. Graduate students were interested in conducting research in developing countries, that by definition are changing realities.

All of the works I read may fall in the categories of political ecology and developmental anthropology. In fact, if I look at the topics, two researches study the market, one studies healing and modernity (but it attempts a convincing comparison with trade), two works are about rural communities in developing countries.

In analyzing my notes on the different works, I noticed some commonalities. All the authors are concerned about defining the physical frontiers of the place they chose for their field work. They are aware that using a map to represent a place may mean to impose their own spatial categories. They are worried about limiting the meaning of the place to what is inscribed inside the boundaries. The argument that I see emerging from these works is that in defining a place the relations with other spatial dimension must be taken into account. This means that it is more important to frame a village according to its relation to the state and to the global dimension, than trying to trace its boundaries. In fact, marking a territory implies including into one category the people living within the line. When talking about place and people instead, the authors take into consideration the relation between the local, the state and the global dimension. For this reason trade and the market served well as a place where to look at interactions among those three dimensions.

The market is the place that Brenner and Mikesell chose for their study. Brenner social and cultural analysis shows how the market in Laweyan is the place were people become aware of their ethnic identity. Historically, Laweyan is not an isolated community because of its constant contact with the European, Chinese and Arab market. At the same time Laweyan people developed a very distintictive sense of identity. Brenner focuses her work on gender relation, social order and hierarchy her work offers the analysis of the public realm (the market) and the private (the household). Therefore, I would say that in presenting Laweyan people Brenner starts showing the relation with the outside world, focuses on the market community, and moves inside the household.

Mikesell’s study of a merchant community in Nepal offers an analysis of how global economy affects the market at local level. The State that has engaged a developmental politic is the interface between the local community of agricultural producers (that need to be developed) and the global spread of capitalism that the State aims to join.

In Pigg’s work healing offers as good a perspective as trade would do, on how notions of modernity and underdevelopment are framed at a local, national, and global level. Pigg, who was interested in the pluralistic aspect of the setting she had chosen, recognized soon that interactions among different cultures do not occur only within the village. People who need to make decision on healing practices, travel around the country. Roads become “metaphors of the relationships that structure Nepalese national society.” (p.83)

I conclude this brief overview, presenting two works that are representative of two different trends. Acharya and Woost study development in rural villages from opposite points of view. Acharya work is based on forest and pasture management. He tries to determine how development policies can be built on preexisting local institutional arrangements. In this work the definition of a village as rural implies the need to become part of the national developmental project. The final goal of Acharya’s research is to apply his anthropological knowledge of the rural community of Jiri for the development of the country. Woost’s work focuses on state formation. Even if Woost’s work looks at rural communities in Sri Lanka his analytical approach is highly ideological. Starting from Gramsci’s notion of hegemony the author demonstrates that development discourse operates symbolic domination on every day life practices and “common sense”.

Through the works of these five graduate students I was able to identify a common theoretical thread. I have illustrated what has led me to think that development anthropology was the guiding approach that characterized 1985. However, I must remind that these projects proposed in 1985, were based on previous literature. The dissertations, that came out of the field work experience, were filed in 1990. The span of time that elapses from the conception of the research questions to the production of a solid piece of writing, makes me feel comfortable saying that development anthropology was not only a trend theme of one frozen year in the anthropological thought. The works of these students are the product of an inquiry longer than their personal experience in the discipline. Their works are the outcome of their exposure to the history and theory of anthropology in graduate school. Before getting to the point of writing a proposal and a dissertation they have thought with their advisors and shared with them their knowledge and experience. After the dissertation was filed they have continued building up on their ideas till the publication of a book. The process of change and adaptation of to the new context of anthropology today has not finished yet. Dr. Pigg’s publication, now in progress, projects 1985 to a near future.

Since 1985 American anthropology has evolved and explored new intellectual frontiers. After my brief, but intense engagement with anthropology in these last two years it seems to me that new theories do not take over old ones and different approaches coexist and enrich the discipline. Any attempt to define anthropology based on what it does and how it does it, seems to me inexhaustive as well as contingent. You can not really tell what is and what is not that anthropologists are interested in exploring, and they do it from a variety of different perspectives. Therefore a full immersion in the new literature is always necessary. Besides participating to the intellectual debate through active reading, anthropology is also active writing and active doing fieldwork. All these actions imply a commitment to the people we work with, the people in the field, as well as our audience, our colleagues, our students and our professors.

What seems important to me is that, in theory as well in practice, the anthropologists’ priority is their ethical responsibilities towards the people and the discipline.


Acharya, Harihar, (1990) Processes of Forest and Pasture management in a Jirel community of highland Nepal. Thesis (Ph.D.) Cornell University
Brenner, Suzanne (1991) Domesticating the market:history, culture, and economy ina Javanese merchant community. Thesis (Ph.D) Cornell University

Mikesell, Sthephen (1988) Cotton on the Silk Road: subjection of labor to the global economy in the shadow of empire (or the dialectic of a merchant community in Nepal)

Pigg, Stacy (1991) Disenchanting Shamans:representations of Modernity and the transformation of healing in Nepal. Thesis (Ph.D.)

Woost, Michael (1990) Constructing a nation of villages:development and community on the Sinhalese frontier. Thesis (Ph.D.) University of Texas at Austin.

Bruno Latour (1993) “We have never been modern” harvard university Press, Cambridge, Massachusets.
David Sutton (1991) “Is anybody out there?” Critique of Anthropology, Sage, Vol.11 (1):91-104