Anthropology Is Political

Public and feminist anthropologists use multiple modalities to remap the traditional distinctions between university and community through rigorous scholarship and a commitment to social justice.

As anthropologists, we recognize that knowledge production and circulation are intimately linked to myriad political projects. Anthropology has been and remains committed to interrogating social relations: Analyzing relations of power is an integral part of anthropological inquiry. Questioning the construction of naturalized categories and the social processes that circulate them as “natural” is what we do. And yet, while we engage with these questions as researchers, it’s possible that our understanding of our own scholarly projects as saturated with certain political projects remain less explored. How do we then respond to social injustices on our campuses and in our communities, particularly when our work speaks to these concerns directly? For graduate students, this might be expressed as an expectation that their social justice work is tangential to their identities as scholars. Once they become faculty, the separation of scholarship from service as part of the criteria used for promotion and tenure evaluations can compound this distinction. When this distinction is structurally maintained across generations, public scholarship, which is both scholarship and a kind of “service,” becomes understood as categorically ambiguous and is often clumped with “service” rather than being seen as scholarship. Although there are many examples of overlap between one’s public scholarship and more traditional forms, the dominant norm presents them as markedly different. In this moment, our discipline is ideally poised to respond to the challenges of studying how all social relations are political and thus recognizing how our scholarship is political.

In this column, I draw on Sara Ahmed’s work on the “feminist killjoy” figure—one who questions power structures across forms and genres to consider what a feminist killjoy (in/of) anthropology might look like—and take the feminist maxim of “the personal is political” as method to reconcile academic work with political investments. In anthropology, academic work is oftentimes a choice, and what and how one chooses to study, highlight, and center in their scholarship reflects a certain politics, either implicitly or explicitly. As such, our practice as anthropologists frequently demonstrates how the distinction between (public) scholarship and “service” is less rigid.

I offer this reframing in an attempt to reconcile my experiences in public advocacy before and after becoming an anthropologist. My early experiences in public advocacy were in response to “Muslim” and “Islam” increasingly becoming synonymous with “terrorism” in public discourse. I started by writing editorial columns for the college newspaper on the misrepresentation of Islam in our campus community. I had yet to study how youth experience Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim racism, which refers to a set of racializing discourses and policies. Later, in my research on migration, mobility, and aspiration among Pakistani-origin college students who travel and study in the United States and Pakistan, I ethnographically studied how forms of this kind of racism impacted Muslim youth lives, renewing my attention to my earlier advocacy work.

The construction of scholarship as separate from “service” is based on a problematic distinction that might discourage faculty and students from this kind of work.
Fortunately, anthropology has a robust tradition of reciprocity as part of doing ethnography, or how we contribute in appropriate and respectful ways to the communities that allow us in. I learned how to do this kind of work through scholarly communities, such as the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s Committee on Language and Social Justice, that provide  models for bridging the divide between research and public scholarship. This leveraging of our anthropological research and training to speak on issues of public concern echoes Robert Borofsky and Antonio De Lauri: the anthropologist’s role as an engaged intellectual is to foster social and political change that benefits others, specifically the people with whom anthropologists work. Deborah Thomas demonstrates this link in her research on the afterlives of imperialism and human rights issues in Jamaica that have been communicated through academic publications, an experimental documentary juxtaposing archives related to the “Tivoli Incursion” in May 2010, and a curated multi-media installation Bearing Witness: Four Days in West Kingston, featured at the Penn Museum in November 2017. Yarimar Bonilla’s compelling public scholarship bridges her research on the political and social aftermath of hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to English- and Spanish-speaking audiences through opinion-editorial columns, radio, and news media appearances. Within our disciplinary community, many public and feminist anthropologists use multiple modalities to remap the traditional distinctions been the university and the community through rigorous scholarship and a commitment to social justice.

Similarly, as a scholar of Islamophobia, I work on illuminating why sharing stories about Muslims as people “just like us” or defending Islam based on exegesis is insufficient for understanding the historical and structural dimensions of this particular articulation of the savage slot. The challenge of teaching about Islamophobia is demonstrating how the conceptual framework of anti-Muslim racism is discursively and pragmatically linked across foreign and domestic state policy, media, law, and education. One way this manifested was during a public lecture I gave on Islamophobia at a university in New Hampshire last fall. During the question-and-answer session, the college president and dean of diversity both remarked that while they could recognize blatant forms of Islamophobia, this was the first time they had understood the more subtle ways it emerges in political discourse. While I had not trained for such opportunities, I nonetheless drew on my anthropological training to explain how anti-Muslim racism is normalized and what they might do to address these forms of anti-Muslim discrimination on campus.

Drawing on our robust tradition of public and feminist anthropology can provide an ethnographically grounded, socio-historical, politically explicit rubric for how to consider contemporary issues of injustice within our communities and to speak to larger publics. I have presented these examples not as a suggestion of how such work should be done, but rather as a discussion of some possibilities, and as a call to think about how the construction of scholarship as separate from “service” is based on a problematic distinction that might discourage faculty and students from this kind of work. For many, these efforts are co-constitutive of our scholarly profile. Many anthropologists have historically produced and continue to produce scholarship of public concern that is directed to public audiences. Feminist critical theory offers the possibility of illuminating the forms of public scholarship that can be obscured in the traditional academy—that we must acknowledge our whole selves as researchers by including what brought us to this work, what sustains us to keep at it, and what broader impact, beyond our colleagues and students, we might imagine.

Mariam Durrani is an assistant professor of anthropology at Hamilton College.

Cite as: Durrani, Mariam. 2019. “Anthropology Is Political.” Anthropology News website, June 6, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1183

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