Ok, for the record, I am not a left leaning anthropologist

I am not a right leaning one either. I feel compelled to mention this due to a bizarre claim made by Hugh Gusterson in an article he wrote for Foreign Policy Magazine. Heres a partial quote related to anthropologists accepting funding from the Pentagon:

“Some will be concerned that the Pentagon will seek to bend their research agenda to its own needs, interfering with their academic freedom. Still others will be nervous that colleagues will shun them. But many will refuse simply on principle: Anthropology is, by many measures, the academy’s most left-leaning discipline, and many people become anthropologists out of a visceral sympathy for the kinds of people who all too often show up as war’s collateral damage. Applying for Pentagon funding is as unthinkable for such people as applying for a Planned Parenthood grant would be for someone at Bob Jones University. One thousand anthropologists have already signed a pledge not to accept Pentagon funding for counterinsurgency work in the Middle East.”

Ok, let’s be clear. I don’t recall any poll or surveys going around inquiring to the political leanings of anthropologists, so I am not sure where the data is coming from that Anthropology is the most left leaning discipline.

Now, would Hugh LIKE it to be the most left leaning “discipline”, it sure looks that way to me. Why is it that the most ardent left leaner’s want to destroy real anthropology for the rest of us? Hugh, you adorable nut-job you. Just go ahead, toss in the towel and tell your students that Anthropology in your view is not an academic dicipline of any kind but a political ideology that can only be talked about by those that pass a special litmus test to ensure they are true believers. If you can agree to that, the rest of us can get on with repairing the damage of post-modernism and try to drag cultural anthropology back into a respected academic and applied subject again. Its supposed to be a real dicipline, not an ideology or (as it has become in recent times) poorly done literary criticism.

Do I think there are more liberals than conservatives in anthropology, sure… but thats a gut feel, not fact. In addition, I have never bothered to ask. I don’t care about someone’s political views. I care about good work. Many people seem to be able to do this without a political agenda.

I really wish the madcap “capitalism is evil, I care about the oppressed, Marxism is the best Idea” nut jobs would kindly get on with putting those ideas into practice in some oppressed community or country. Its pretty easy to make grand statements when you are in a safe air conditioned classroom and office typing. But its the classic applied / academic rift.. some people do the work, other people criticize from a safe, tenured distance enjoying all the privileges that they will never ever take the physical risks or pains to help others attain. Sweet deal for you.

Something about Homecomings and The Innocent Anthropologist by Nigel Barley

 One of my favorite anthropology books is The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut by Nigel Barley.  It is a memorably written story of Barley’s experience doing fieldwork in rural Cameroon.  The strength of the book is that it includes the personal problems that emerge out of the frustrations, boredom, tribulations, and mis-interpretations that emerge in the context of “doing ethnography.”  In this sense it is much different than the dispassionate, theoretical, and scientific ethnography typically assigned undergraduates in which the ethnographer somehow always ends up being always erudite, and insightful.  Barley’s explanation of how the mechanic at the dentist’s office removed his two front teeth is particularly memorable—and would never make its way into a standard ethnography (sorry, no spoiler here–you need to get the book!).

The scene from Barley’s book I have been mulling since my return from Germany to California three weeks ago, though, is at the very end of the book.  Barley spent a year and a half in Cameroon before returning home to England. He returns to England, where he finds out that life is—as it had always been. People ask him how Cameroon was, complain about the English weather, and then launch off into conversations about the more mundane things of life.  The friend who complains because he left a sweater at his apartment some two years ago—could he please pick it up some time?—provides the greatest homecoming dissonance for Barley.  Like, who cares about a sweater when you have been dealing with ancestor cults, goats, shaman, and have lost your two front teeth!?!?

But this indeed is how adventures which are big for us as individuals often end, in a mundane question about a forgotten sweater.  This happens whether we are ethnographers, archaeologists, or any other kind of long-term traveler.  I suppose that such dissonance happens to soldiers and anthropologists returning from Iraq as well.

It has long mystified me that The Innocent Anthropologist is not a staple of Intro to Cultural Anthropology courses.  It is well written, funny, empathetic, easy to read, and a fantastic introduction to what ethnographers do, and why they do it.  Students I have had read the book generally appreciate it, even if they never leave the US.

Some thoughts as my additions to ethnography.com wind down

Hello Folks-

I have been avoiding writing much about the Human Terrain System since I am not an “official voice” of the program. Also, as I have written before, I don’t consider myself a scholar in any way. I don’t write (or desire to) create the usual peer reviewed materials. I am part of the long proud tradition of tradesmen… craftspeople. I am an anthropological handyman if you will. People have a problem or issue and I am happy and lucky enough to use my training to help them with a resolution.

But what to make of my next adventure? It is of course an adventure, albeit a very serious one. When I started this road a few months ago some issues were pretty academic. Now, 4 months later, people I have known have been killed and injured pursuing this commitment to an idea.

Its hard to put into words how it makes you feel. I have been a corporate person for many years, my friends and colleagues span the corporate and academic worlds. Few of us have ever considered that there is a chance of getting killed during the fieldwork.

So why am I doing this? God knows, the program has its warts, thats hardly a mystery. As far as the nattering of the Concerned Network Of Anthropologists go, (yea, I am looking at you Gusterson and González), I see you as bolstering your flagging careers on the backs on both the people of Iraq and my passed colleagues.

I think its important to say that never, as in not once, has a corporate or academic anthropologist ever given me a moments grief about my choice. Most are very supportive and even the most conservative express their reservations by saying “no, I am not comfortable with this, but I will be interested in seeing what your experience is..” See people, thats science. You question, you may or may not agree and you say “ok, lets wait and see what the data tells us.” Thats always a respectable position.

The objections to Social Scientists working the corporate or military sectors is a vocal minority at best. Look, its 2008: Marx is dead, global warming is real, tobacco causes cancer, fossils are not “gods little jokes” and the experiment of communism really, really didn’t work out. Get the hell over it already. Most of us like to work, own homes, play nintendo Wii and send the kids to college. Money, as opposed to clam shells, seems to be the primary method of making this happen.

Its not the money… life would be safer (and my base pay was higher) in silicon valley, I would have done it for far less than I am making. For me, I feel like after all my time in the corporate world, I have something to give back, I hope. I am wiser than I was the year I got out of grad school, meaning I have learned I don’t know everything. But i can say without modesty that with my teams, we have provided advice to companies that have saved or earned them many millions of dollars over the years.

Surely I can turn that skill to something more meaningful, and a longer lasting effect?

So thats why I am doing it. I need to put my money where my mouth is. Do I believe in the power of cultural understanding to prevent violence or not?

I do. Of course, I might be wrong. Thats just the way it goes with human endeavors. They are uncertain, dangerous, it seems often outright stupid, but we all plod on regardless. I like to think that most of us do it to our own drumbeat that is guided by what our gut tells us is the right thing to do.

Will this all blow up in my face? Maybe.

Hurry, Deadline July 25th! Scholarships Announcement

I just received this from the EPIC folks!

Scholarships Announcement 2008 Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference

We [EPIC, not ethnography.com] are pleased to announce 3-5 scholarships for the EPIC conference in Copenhagen, 15-18 October 2008. Any student (undergraduate, master’s, Ph.D.) can apply! Scholarship recipients will receive free registration, in exchange for working 12-16 hours before or during the conference.

Deadline for applications: 25 July 2008

Application process: Please submit a curriculum vitae and a cover letter to scholarships@epic2008.com. In your cover letter, indicate whether you will be presenting a paper or organizing a workshop. Also, explain how you will benefit from attending the conference. Thirdly, we want to make sure that the scholarship recipients carry out their conference tasks in a responsible and effective manner, so you should describe any relevant experience of this type.

Scholarship recipients will be chosen by 4 August. Priority will be given to

  • Those who are presenting a paper or organizing a workshop
  • Those whom the conference would benefit the most
  • Those who seem most likely to be responsible and effective in their work for the conference

Questions? Contact Christina Wasson, Scholarships Committee Chair, at cwasson@unt.edu.