Saturday, February 23, 2013

Why anthropology?

There’s a telling scene in last week’s Times Magazine story on Napoleon Chagnon.

The anthropologist, having thrown in with a politically corrupt Venezuelan foundation to gain access to the Yanomami Indians, has been tossed out on his ear.

But Chagnon is unrepentant: “I got a year’s worth of data,” he said. “It was worth it for that reason.”

In the swirl of debate over the publication of his latest book, Noble Savages, which refers in equal measure to the Yanomami and his critics, the question that’s been missed is Why anthropology?

What might an answer to that question tell us about how to do anthropology?

The debate over Chagnon himself will never be resolved. The Yanomami love a fight. So does their chronicler. No doubt Chagnon is pleased with all the attention.

The arguments about him turn on matters of fact, which are now too cold to prove, or matters of principle, such as between positivism and interpretivism, which divide the discipline more deeply than Chagnon himself.

They are, in my view, beside the point.

I didn’t get into anthropology to learn about uncontacted people living in a state of nature (as the naïve Nicolas Wade fantasized in the Science Times). Uncontacted people don’t exist. If they did, they wouldn’t be interesting.

Human beings are interesting not for what they are in some pristine, static, or removed sense, but for what they do with other human beings. The Yanomami aren’t interesting because they represent original humanity. They are interesting for how they understand and manage their affairs with each other and their neighbors.

They are interesting – that is, they are human – for how they solve the problem of their humanity.

I am suspicious of the impulse to study so-called “uncontacted” people. They are trees falling alone in the wood without anyone to hear them. Anyway, they are lost, like Vladimir Nabokov’s butterflies, in our encounter with them. They are logical impossibilities.

I am just as suspicious of the impulse to extract knowledge from other people, whether it is pharmacological or textual, just to learn what the other knows.

That model of knowing assumes that knowledge is content, that others have something, and we want it, too. It is a naïve and exploitative understanding of knowledge.

I’d rather think of knowledge as a process, an encounter with the world. Such a view of anthropological knowing is not extractive but collaborative. We know with others, not from others. This is what Johannes Fabian meant when he described the ethnographic relationship as “agonistic.”

Our ethics of informed consent insist on a collaborative view: if the Yanomami don’t want us, then we shouldn’t study the Yanomami. We follow Immanuel Kant here: the Yanomami are ends in themselves. To view them as data, to view them as means to data, is unethical.

It was disheartening to read Chagnon’s selfish justification for his slippery associations in the Times Magazine. He simply misses the point.

I understand the confusion. Anthropology is a field discipline. Cultural anthropologists do field work with living people. We come back with notes, and having worked hard to collect them, we come, if we’re not careful, to value the notes more than the relationships that produced them.

Our careers, it seems, are made from our notes, not our relationships.

A romance with the idea of “heroic” anthropologists setting off for exotic locales and returning with a treasure of data has displaced what gives our data value: not the exotic, not the data themselves, but the human-to-human encounters.

In reality, the “field” in our discipline is not some far-flung place. The field is the space between us, the meeting of one human with another. That is where anthropology occurs, and it happens wherever there are humans.

The field includes South American rainforests and African deserts. It also includes suburban households, downtown coffee shops, Midwest farms – wherever humans do business. That is the anthropological frontier, the area we explore. We needn’t travel half way around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. There are cats right here in our backyard.

The exotic, the distant, the remote: these have become distractions.

Anthropology ought to shed its reputation for knowing strange people. Basing our work on the exotic – rather than the human – trivializes what we do. We are not in pursuit of strangers. Our job is making each other familiar.

The photograph above is from Noble Savages by Napoleon Chagnon via The New York Times.


Timothy said...

Thanks for writing about that story in the NYT. I thought it might make the trout rise to the top, striking a line of thought I had not considered.

So now you are a locavore? Would you go back to Africa and have to identify yourself every day to people you encounter? How do you say what you are doing somewhere at the same time you are honoring the process?

That is confusing to me, since on the one hand you seem to desire being present with people-- that is process to me. Then there is the doing anthropological studies-- and that has to include in my mind turning people into objects to observe.

I may be confused at what you are getting at...

Anyway-- Atlantic Monthly came and you might have another bone to pick here:

John Colman Wood said...

Tim. I'm still an omnivore (albeit unsure of the eating metaphor given the context). But you raise the central paradox: how can we be with others and also write about them. The paradox is related, I think, to the separation-attachment problem. And the answer, I think, is similar: it's got to be both. My worry about the Chagnons of the world is that, for them, it's all extractive. Like Faulkner's observation about Ode to a Grecian Urn: art is worth the carnage. I think not, not in anthropology anyway. I'd go back to Africa. But I don't think that place, or any place, is privileged in showing us what is original to us as human beings. I'll check out the Atlantic piece. Thanks for commenting! John

Anonymous said...

"We know with others, not from others." Great blog!
Katerina Vidner Ferkov