Overcoming the Gap between American Anthropology and East Asian Anthropologies

As the President of the Society for East Asian Anthropology for 2015–2017, I am excited by the fact that the section is doing so well and is so vibrant.  For many years in the earlier history of anthropology, East Asia fit more or less uneasily within conventional anthropological concerns, but an era of globalization, and of East Asia’s growing economic power in the world, East Asia is arguably moving from the periphery to the center not just in the world at large but also as a focus of anthropological inquiry. Parallel to this, the Society for East Asian Anthropology as a section of AAA which began just 14 years ago, is flourishing: it is now one of the middle-sized sections of AAA, and has had a number of independent and overseas conferences over the years, first in San Francisco and then in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea. In 2016, SEAA will return to Hong Kong, for a joint conference with the Hong Kong Anthropological Society on June 19–22. There are 150 paper and panel proposals now being considered, as well as a keynote roundtable of leading anthropologists from Japan, Taiwan, Korea, China, and Hong Kong.  Aside from this, SEAA will of course continue to present an array of panels at next year’s AAA, in the program committee headed by Akihiro Ogawa as well as awarding the Hsu Prize to the best anthropological book on East Asia, the Bestor Prize to the best anthropological student paper on East Asia, and the Plath Award, for the best anthropological media work on East Asia.

In light of the forthcoming Hong Kong conference, in this column, I will briefly consider the professional divide between American-based anthropologists of East Asia and East Asian-based anthropologists of East Asia, and ask whether and how it should be bridged. I am concerned with this topic because, having spent my professional anthropological career in Hong Kong, I am acutely aware of how anthropology may connote different things across the Pacific Ocean, making communication problematic.

The gap exists between Japanese anthropologists and American-based anthropologists of Japan largely because Japanese anthropologists don’t typically study Japan, but do research all over the world. Thus the two groups of anthropologists may have little in common to communicate about, with American anthropologists of Japan reading Japanese sociologists researching Japan rather than Japanese anthropologists doing fieldwork in Indonesia or Africa or Latin America. In China, anthropologists indeed study their own society, as do American-based anthropologists of China, but are primarily focused upon minority nationalities, as most American-based anthropologists are not. In Korea, many anthropologists focus on traditional Korean society as against modernity, and in Taiwan on indigenous groups in Taiwan, unlike American-based anthropologists, who may study aspects of these societies as a whole. Only Hong Kong is within the American anthropological orbit, largely because the majority of anthropologists have Ph.Ds from Anglo-American institutions, as is not the case in other East Asian societies. There are many exceptions to the above generalizations,but nonetheless they continue largely to hold true.

Is this lack of linkage between American anthropology and East Asian anthropologies a problem?  Perhaps not—anthropologists in different places of course have different concerns and different audiences, following their own different paths according to their different circumstances. However, in an increasingly globalizing world, our different anthropologies are inevitably increasingly intertwined: it makes sense for us all to be communicating more, simply in that as the world becomes closer together, its anthropologies must follow suit.

There are significant differences in how anthropology is conducted in these different societies. Japanese anthropologies may see American anthropology as being overly concerned with theory, and not sufficiently ethnographically grounded, while American anthropologists may see Japanese anthropology as overly empirical.  Some Chinese anthropologists I know believe that anthropology should be willing to serve the state when called upon, something reflexively antithetical to many American anthropologists.  In a broader sense, while most anthropologists in East Asia make use of Western theory, they may make little or no use of American anthropological ethnographies of their societies; and in turn, some American-based anthropologists continue to make only minimal use of anthropological and sociological writings from within the societies that they study.

However, our worlds are becoming more and more closely knit, with the increasing requirement in China, if not yet in Japan, that anthropologists publish in high-impact Anglo-American journals, and with, in turn, the increasing realization among some in the Anglo-American anthropological world that professional employment may be more available on the East Asian side of the Pacific than on its American side. For our professional well-being, we need to be aware of one another’s work, read one another’s work, and attend meetings where we can discuss and argue over what anthropology can be in our societies and in the world. Above all, there is still the sense in much of East Asia and in the United States as well that the United States remains the unquestioned center of the anthropological world. But in an interlinked and multipolar anthropological world, this is now no longer the case—the center increasingly does not hold, or in any case holds less weight than it once did. And this may be a good thing for the development of world anthropology, not least in East Asia.

In the Hong Kong meeting in June, we will have a roundtable discussing the gap between East Asian and American anthropologies, and whether and how we should work to overcome it. If this interests you, please come—the deadline is long past for paper and panel proposals, but please attend the conference anyway if you can (write us at seaa.hk.2016@gmail.com to register). We look forward to hearing from you and to continuing to discuss and debate in person some the issues brought up in this column.

Heidi Lam and Yi Zhou are contributing editors for the Society for East Asian Anthropology’s AN column.

Post a Comment

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approved. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.

Commenting Disclaimer

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approve. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.