Thinking About Knowledge Reproduction in Anthropology
This piece is a compilation of papers presented at the 2016 meeting for the Association for Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics, and Science Studies at the University of Notre Dame, October 2016.
They billed it as “Dinner with the Dean,” for recipients of a fellowship designed to promote “diversity” at the university. The confusion started when, out of three of us who are recipients of this fellowship, only two received invitations. And each of these invitations listed a different time for the dinner. Wanting to clarify both the time and why one of our colleagues was left off the list, we called the administrative office. Confusion gave way to vexation as the voice on the phone explained that no, there was no mistake: two dinners were to be held, one for students identifying as black/African American on their graduate applications, and one for those identifying as Hispanic/Latino. For those who had checked “Asian” on their application and had received the fellowship? Nothing. It is not entirely clear what these dinners were meant to do, but that was secondary to the off-putting feeling of having been separated in a way that reflected the superficial inclusion of historically marginalized groups in the academy, and the symbolic annihilation of non-black and non-Latinx graduate students altogether. If our inclusion is only superficial, so too might be the perception of our contribution to scholarly knowledge.
As graduate students, we already face a number of constraints related to research (some for good reason). However, our experiences as graduate students exist at the intersections of woman, young, non-white, and exotic; the challenges we face in order to exist and thrive in the academy, to move along a trajectory that includes as part of its foundation voices like ours, to have our contributions acknowledged in ways that validate these intersections, are myriad. Here, we highlight how our positionalities affect not only our research, but also our success in academia. These effects are embedded in deeply entrenched structures that dictate how we produce knowledge, both in the field and in the academy—structures that are as foundational to anthropology as they are any other Eurocentric discipline. Patricia Hill-Collins (2000) discusses this Eurocentric knowledge validation process, saying, “No scholar can avoid cultural ideas and his or her placement in intersecting oppressions of race, gender, class, sexuality, and nation. In the United States, this means that a scholar making a knowledge claim typically must convince a scholarly community controlled by elite White avowedly heterosexual men holding U.S. citizenship that a given claim is justified” (Hill-Collins, 253). Anthropologists, by and large, recognize this to be true. Why then, is the space for legitimate knowledge production by burgeoning scholars who are women, and more specifically women of color, so limited?
In 1945, sociologist Everett Hughes coined the term master status, describing social statuses that are the main characteristic used to identify people. They can be either achieved, like professional status, or ascribed, like gender or race. The master status, because it is the defining characteristic used by others to identify a person, can affect how others interact with that person. Master statuses have obvious implications when we think about the validation process of knowledge production, in which someone’s woman-ness, for example, may supersede her expertise. Status is, of course, contextual, yet our experiences indicate that master statuses are hard to overcome as graduate students; to exist at an intersection of marginalities is to be subject to the most salient master statuses (culturally speaking), and all the attendant interactional baggage that comes with them.
While there is much attention paid to how positionality affects research in the field, there is less explicit attention to how it affects scholars, especially graduate students, and their work in the academy, and given the power of master statuses, this is a bit problematic. An experience during fieldwork this summer made this point clear.
I met with a senior white male anthropologist, seeking advice on a new research project. At the conclusion of my explanation, he launched into a discussion on how I might do the project and still find a job. “Tourism,” he explained, “…is low-hanging fruit in anthropology.” Researching ‘primitive cultures,’ according to him, is what real anthropologists do. As an “expert,” he advised me that tourism is a topic for those who want to conduct “nine to five anthropology;” for those who want to “sit in a cafe all day;” for those who do not want to go out to communities and “sleep on sheepskin.”
Not all anthropologists would agree with him, but underlying his advice are ideas about what anthropology should be, ideas that are set within a Eurocentric worldview based on hierarchy and inequality that haunts anthropology’s roots, set as they are within structures that value certain kinds of knowledge produced by (and about) certain people.
There is a glimpse here into how these larger Eurocentric assumptions are embedded in the ways we conduct research and teach anthropology. We continue to teach as canonical the works of Malinowski, Levi-Strauss, and Sahlins, while marginalizing contributions from scholars like Léila Gonzalez and Zora Neal Hurston. Although the works of early anthropologists are important to teach, the maintenance of strict canonical boundaries reproduces a politics of knowledge production that reflects who is valued as a producer of knowledge, and who is not. When certain “anthropological lineages” are valued over historically marginalized scholars, this sends a message about who matters in the discipline and who gets to participate in the production of knowledge. This is evidenced by higher dropout rates of PhD students of color compared to white PhD students, and further by the fact that scholars of color have a harder time gaining promotions and tenure than do white scholars (Misra and Lundquist 2015).
The question of who matters and the ways in which our positionality and master statuses weigh on our work is illustrated by another example from the field.
While researching in Kathmandu, Nepal, I found that my status as a brown woman obfuscated, even precluded, my own self-identity as a scientist or anthropologist to others. In the field, I was often treated as a ‘native’ scholar by white American researchers because of my brown-ness, despite the fact that I am Indian-American and not Nepali. As I worked in cafés in Kathmandu, my American-ness was overlooked by other American and European scholars who introduced themselves to each other; it seemed that for them, because my skin was not white, they were unable to see me as a fellow scholar. Even after making my presence known and introducing myself to potential interlocutors and colleagues, I was repeatedly told that I could not possibly be American (read: scientist).
So…what? Our goal here has not been to criticize individual actors, or even individual institutions, but to show how long standing ideas about race, gender, and inequality continue to exist. Transcending these boundaries requires not only changes in how we teach in anthropology but how we think about and experience anthropology. The co-production of knowledge and the incorporation of international scholars and scholars of color should not be an afterthought. Rather, these should be valued as a way to move the discipline forward. As Zoe Todd (2016) notes, decolonizing the academy begins with the recognition that it is still a colonized space.
Mounia El Kotni and Emily de Wet are contributing editors for the Association for Feminist Anthropology’s news column. If you would like to contribute, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or email@example.com.