Anthropology's World: Life in a Twenty-First Century

Anthropology's World: Life in a Twenty-First Century

by Ulf Hannerz


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745330471
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 07/06/2010
Series: Anthropology, Culture and Society Series
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Ulf Hannerz is Professor Emeritus of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University and a former Chair of the European Association of Social Anthropologists. His books include Cultural Complexity (1992), Transnational Connections (1996) and Foreign News (2004).

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Introduction: In the World, and a World in Itself

Anthropology's World, as in the title of this book, can mean at least two things. On the one hand it is anthropology as a social world in itself — the community of a discipline, with its internal social relationships, its ideas and practices. On the other hand, anthropology's world is the wider outside world to which the discipline must relate in various ways. For anthropology, which more than any other discipline may have a constant ambition to be global in its scope, this involves humanity everywhere, and the attempt to understand its variety of ways of life and thought and its conditions of existence. It is a world anthropologists are inclined to think of as made up of a multitude of "fields": research sites, actual or potential. In a more close-up sense, however, that outside world also includes people and structures which demand attention on a more everyday, often practical level: wider academic environments, student populations, local or national publics, the media. In both these senses — or perhaps I should say all these senses — the world of anthropology keeps changing.

This book is about some aspects of contemporary life in this world. Anthropology is now a global discipline both through engaging in research everywhere (at least in principle) and in having local practitioners everywhere. Yet within that worldwide community there are variations in scholarly interests and in working circumstances. In what follows I will draw continuously on my own experiences, taking my own path through anthropology's world. My enduring perspective is from one corner of Europe, but looking out. Over the years, I have developed close ties with anthropologists in this part of the world, but I have also had, and continue to have, some of my own formative experiences in American anthropology. When I have a chance (and such opportunities have included various stays and visits in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Australia), I cultivate contacts with colleagues elsewhere in the world as well.

The subtitle of this book specifies that its focus is on what the discipline is or can be now: in that twenty-first century we have already moved some distance into. Generally around us, these are times of many surprises: on the front tables in bookstores there are bestsellers with titles like The Black Swan, or The Age of the Unthinkable. What will happen next in anthropology, or to anthropology, is not easy to forecast. But some questions will be there, to be definitively answered or (more likely) to be debated again and again, perhaps wherever there are anthropologists. What, in these times, is anthropology for? What is its place in the world? How do we go about our work? Who should work where? How do we want to be understood, and how do we not want to be seen? For whom do we write, and whom should we read?

I will try and confront here some of the challenges that anthropologists face today and will face in the future. But I am inclined to take the long view towards them — in large part that of a twentieth-century anthropologist. It is almost 50 years since I began as an undergraduate student of anthropology (strictly speaking, in something then still named "general and comparative ethnography"). Some of the changes in the discipline and in the world since then have been fairly quiet and gradual, others more turbulent. I would hope that my sense of the present may in some ways be sharpened by a sense of the past. Moreover, as I will argue particularly in Chapter 7, that past can also be explored as a resource for the continued renewal of the anthropological imagination.

The period when I began in anthropology was, for one thing, still one of decolonization: Asia had mostly come through it, Africa was still in it. That dramatic historical process had much to do with my choice of direction, and no doubt many in my generation of anthropologists shared this interest. Yet if it was decolonization and newly independent countries that attracted us to the discipline, the growth of anthropology had until then clearly had its links to colonialism itself. Scholarship had developed most strongly in those European countries which were also major colonial powers, and in those other countries where European settlers had established their domination over indigenous populations. For a period in the latter half of the twentieth century, consequently, new cohorts of anthropologists and anthropology students were preoccupied with figuring out — revealing, debating, pinpointing — the nature of this factor in the relatively recent history of the field.

After a decade or two, that issue had more or less sedimented as a part of the discipline's past. It had become more a topic of intellectual curiosity, less a moral burden or a topic of conflict between academic generations. The decolonization of anthropology itself, however, had some enduring consequences. One of them was that it was no longer intellectually, morally or politically defensible to have a separate discipline for those parts of humanity which were "non-western"— sharing only the characteristic that they were exotic to the Occidentals from whom they were thus separated (although through colonialism they had also been linked to, and mostly dominated by, these Occidentals). It is from this point on that anthropology has moved towards being more explicit and consistent in identifying itself as a discipline concerned with all of humanity.

But that concern also meant that it became legitimate, perhaps even necessary, to engage as well in what became known somewhat loosely as "anthropology at home." For a variety of reasons, this has become a rather large proportion of anthropology as currently practised, although it works out in different ways in different places, depending on a number of conditions. It cannot now be taken for granted that the anthropologist, in the field-working, ethnographic phase of his or her work, is an expatriate. This fact has implications for the world of anthropology both in its internal relationships and in the interfaces between the discipline and its surroundings, inside academia as well as with the wider society.

It has also been in the times after colonialism that anthropology has really developed as a worldwide community of practitioners, becoming more or less well-represented in countries that never had colonies (or only briefly, or on a very limited scale), and in those that were themselves once colonies. In that way anthropology has diversified, and the question is reasonably raised to what extent we should now speak of anthropologies in the plural form — national and regional varieties, shaped by differing histories, circumstances and interests. I have something to say about this in Chapter 2, where I also comment on the relationships between such anthropologies. It is also one aspect of this global spread of the discipline that it is now conducted (thought, spoken, taught, written) in more languages, for different purposes. That has consequences for its internal cohesion, as well as for its relationship to its local and national environments. I turn to these matters in Chapter 6.

Anyhow, for a discipline self-consciously defining itself as global in scope, a more recent development has also had implications for how research fields are defined, and where they are found. The term "globalization" really worked its way into everyday language only towards the end of the twentieth century. In reaction to its becoming a buzzword, it has been pointed out often enough that the realities of global interconnectedness have been around much longer, although they may not have been equally acutely experienced by everybody: to take one example, the West Africans transported away across the Atlantic a few hundred years ago in the slave trade, for deployment on the plantations of the New World, were certainly being forcibly "globalized," and colonialism was itself one form of globalization. Yet the rapid spread of the new label reflected a new intensity in such interconnectedness, new forms, and not least a new diversity of forms. An integrated world economy with built-in inequalities, new material consumption patterns, media with new capacities to carry a great variety of cultural forms efficiently across great distances, transnational labor migration, refugee streams, diasporas, long-distance tourism, a plethora of international organizations and transnational movements, international crime and terror syndicates — all of these are conspicuous ingredients of the emergent global ecumene.

If the dominant mode of work in anthropology during much of the twentieth century, not least in field research, had involved a standard operating procedure of focusing on bounded local units (always, to a degree, an analytical fiction), the varieties of globalization and transnational connections posed new challenges to the discipline, which thus switched to seeing the older types of units as more open, and at the same time increasingly took on other units with not-so-local characteristics. Perhaps, after all, such steps came fairly readily to anthropologists, once they moved away from more distinctly local circumscriptions of their fields: they had never been as committed to the nation-state as the unit of societal analysis — what has been termed "methodological nationalism"— as some other scholarly disciplines have tended to be. Rather, they followed their topics wherever they would take them in the global terrain, allowing ethnography to show the ways the world comes together.

This, of course, is not to say that the entire discipline has now turned to the study of globalization. I became involved quite early in anthropology's global and transnational turn; although, not much later, I suggested that the time would come soon enough when global connectedness would itself hardly be so much of a research focus, but would be largely assimilated within the background understanding of much ethnographic work. Yet this connectedness has also added a range of new research topics to all those fields of study which were already established, and which mostly continue to be cultivated. The new topics and experiences have also played a part in provoking some reconsideration of key concepts, and of methodology. What should we mean, for example, by "culture"— and what should we ensure that we are not taken to mean? (See Chapter 3.) And again, what is now a "field," and what is field work? (See Chapter 4).

The introductory course through which I passed into anthropology's internal world was offered in a minuscule unit which had only very recently been constituted as a university department — it actually functioned as part of a much older ethnographic museum. The course had drawn a mere handful of students, perhaps a dozen. By now, in any more sizeable university, such a small number would very likely be considered a disaster. Over the last fifty years or so, the discipline has grown, I would say enormously, in terms of its number of practitioners and students, and also in terms of the institutional structures they inhabit. While it has been argued, as above, that anthropology was a child of colonialism, in terms of its population size, it really grew up in the postcolonial era.

Academia, in its varied shapes, at present makes up a large part of anthropology's world (in most places, I am sure, much larger than museums, which had a proportionately greater part in the discipline's earlier history; these seem to have become less places of work, and more objects of study). If there are thus now many more people teaching and learning anthropology, it is likely to have something to do with the way the central concerns of anthropology match changes in their world. More of these people seem to sense that this is a discipline which speaks to their personal experiences: one where they may expand on these experiences, organize them, and even put them to use. In my own introductory course those many years ago, probably all the students in the class were ethnic Swedes like me, mostly of similar background and experience (a large part perhaps even stereotypically blond and blue-eyed). Certainly that continues to be true in some places: students are embedded in everyday milieux of mostly cultural sameness, and meet the facts and stories of anthropology, the message of diversity, with a fresh sense of wonder. But in other places, many students now receive more of their own impressions from encounters with the foreign, whether in their own neighborhoods or from backpacking around the world. Some of them, too, will have their very own roots in the distant places we lecture about and make them read about, and their own views of them.

So classroom encounters may show us how some facets of contemporary global interconnectedness impinge on the way we do anthropology, think anthropology, talk anthropology — even when globalization is not itself our intended topic. But it makes its appearances elsewhere as well, as we now engage in our long or short conversations with people around us. A certain amount of cultural relativism may long have been a part of the anthropological message (at least as a critique of simple-minded ethnocentrism). That may have come more easily, perhaps too easily, when other cultures were mostly somewhere else. Does it make a difference that, for many people, some of those controversial ideas and practices of Others are now in evidence among neighbors and work mates, in their children's classrooms, even among new members of their families? And generally — in the flow of information or disinformation about other parts of the world and their inhabitants, through news media, entertainment channels, and political rhetoric — how should anthropology be heard in the crowd? What can be its part in the public division of communicative labor? Chapter 5 takes up some of these questions, examining how varieties of anthropological research and reporting can contribute to greater transparency in a world combining interconnectedness and diversity.

Getting out of the classroom, on my memory trip, come along for a moment to the office as well. The department office in the 1960s was fairly low-tech: there were typewriters, carbon copies, and rather untidy mimeograph machines. A bit later on, photocopiers and fax machines already made a difference. To the field you perhaps carried your portable typewriter, and a likewise supposedly portable tape recorder which was in truth quite unwieldy. What certainly makes the practice of anthropology in the twenty-first century different from what it was during most of the twentieth, in a development which also has its obvious connections to globalization, is the arrival of the Internet, and everything that goes with it. Anthropology's world, in both the senses identified above, is now also a cyberworld. This has become quite central. It entails changes in social and cultural life generally, and consequently in our field studies of that life, and it can even provoke debates about what should count as field studies. Taking the more internalist view of the discipline's own smaller world, the ubiquitous presence of that screen penetrates our everyday activities — our reading, writing, publishing, teaching, and chances of collaboration. I will touch on this in several chapters, though we can be reasonably sure that some of its possibilities have not yet been explored, or fully exploited — including, perhaps, some new ways of spending time less well.

But back to the classroom, and the growing student numbers of the later decades of the twentieth century. While the expansion of anthropology in the universities of the world sounds like a success story, and the attractions of anthropology itself surely had a large part in this growth, we cannot disregard the fact that it also reflected the overall expansion of higher education in this period. In much of the world there are now more colleges and universities, they have become larger, and it follows that there are both more students and more teaching jobs. Yet academia also has its problems, mostly not peculiar to anthropology. It is quite widely recognized that in much of Europe, and in many other parts of the world as well, the increase in resources for teaching and research has lagged behind the growing student numbers, particularly in the wide field of social sciences and humanities where anthropology usually finds itself. In many places and too many fields of study, too many students (I am thinking particularly of undergraduates) get too little teaching, hang around for too long, sometimes drift away without the degrees or other qualifications they were supposed to get, and finally head off towards what would appear to be an uncertain future in occupational life. These are not the circumstances in which it is always possible to carry out either teaching or learning in the way one might have liked; even so, the challenge is there to ask what kind of curriculum, and what sort of pedagogy, would best serve the purpose of introducing newcomers precisely to anthropology's world.


Excerpted from "Anthropology's World"
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Copyright © 2010 Ulf Hannerz.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vi

Series Preface vii

1 Introduction: In the World, and a World in Itself 1

2 Editing Anthropology: Two Experiences in Space and Time 13

3 Diversity Is Our Business 38

4 Field Worries: Studying Down, Up, Sideways, Through, Backward, Forward, Early or Later, Away and at Home 59

5 Making the World Transparent 87

6 Flat World and the Tower of Babel: Linguistic Practices in a Global Discipline 113

7 Before and After: Exploring the Usable Past 131

8 And Next, Briefly: Toward 2050 161

Notes 167

References 184

Index 199

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