In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, anxieties abound about the future of humanity in the face of a diverse and interlocking set of issues that range from the climate crisis and migration to the rise of polarization and “post-truth” politics, and the increasing socioeconomic inequalities left by decades of neoliberalism. What is the role of political anthropology in this context?
We asked five scholars with different thematic and regional areas of expertise, at different stages in their career, to reflect on this question, alongside one illustrator-ethnographer. We invited them to suggest the themes that research should tackle in the coming years, and to consider how we should share our work publicly, and with which audiences, in this era of the attention economy. We also asked them what anthropological knowledge could do in the world to help us understand and propose solutions to the problems humanity faces.
Their answers reveal a common clamor for anthropologists to recognize the urgency of this moment, step up to the mark, and stop navel-gazing. They call on the discipline to adapt methods and mindsets, and to reframe research questions, methodologies, and forms for knowledge dissemination in ways that genuinely serve the world. This includes confronting the radical challenge of unveiling and undoing the destructive machinations of global capitalism. As our contributors outline, all these shifts require us to work collaboratively with other scholars and with social movements, sometimes even with powerful institutions, while maintaining a critical stance.
We offer these five reflections and accompanying illustration as the seeds of an open-ended manifesto for political anthropology, where “manifesto” is understood as both a public declaration and as a calling for new practices to manifest. Only together can we break open the structuring structures, imagine a better way of engaging with each other, and build a better world.
—Gwen Burnyeat and Missy Maceyko
Anthropology must advance progressive social change
The COVID-19 pandemic, the global economic crisis, and unprecedented uprisings for justice have all demonstrated the urgency of dedicating our skills, anthropological and otherwise, to healing the world. Given that, as anthropologist Bill Leap has often said about his activism since the HIV/AIDS pandemic, “people are dying,” how can we do anything other than prioritize research that can help improve lives beyond academia? This was never a choice for the sadly departed Leith Mullings, former president of the American Anthropological Association. Mullings stressed the importance of linking scholarship to social movements, which can provide important research questions, sites of research and cooperative knowledge production, and mechanisms to disseminate knowledge and ensure its practical impact in the world.
For too long, many anthropologists have fetishized contributions to theory, often with limited relevance beyond academia. This has led anthropologists to neglect empirical research, documenting, for example, human rights abuses, inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of injustice. Exposing the crimes of powerful people, governments, and institutions is urgent. Given the growing limitations of contemporary journalism, why cannot anthropology provide a rigorous, scholarly investigative journalism, produced for the broadest possible audiences, and designed for maximal impact, as Nancy Scheper-Hughes and other anthropologists have suggested?
To ensure our work has such broad impact, we must be strategic about every phase of the scholarly process: the identification of research questions, methods design, data analysis, and dissemination of research findings. Having a theory of progressive social change and the role of scholarship in such change is another important starting point. Finally, given the urgency of global need and the calls for justice globally, how can we do anything except use anthropological and other knowledge to propose solutions to problems and alternatives to a status quo that is so brutally harmful to so many?
We must improve our techniques for studying institutions
Chandra L. Middleton
As a condition of conducting participant observation inside the United States federal government, I agreed to avoid using certain examples from my fieldwork. This resulted in a passage in my dissertation about an alien species invading Earth. Using an obviously-imaginary story as a stand-in for actual ethnographic details enabled me to present my research findings without violating the agreement that allowed me to study the everyday work of civil servants doing the myriad forms of labor involved in “government.” This was just one aspect among many of how conducting research inside the government required close consideration of how ethical and methodological considerations shift inside institutions with sophisticated claims to confidentiality.
While anthropologists have studied the ways in which people challenge, resist, or (rarely) better the government from outside it, few have entered the belly of the beast to understand the working lives of those who do its everyday work. This is, I hope, changing, with more political and legal anthropologists interested in conducting fieldwork with the government and other tight-lipped institutions that play major roles in shaping our society. Opening such institutions to the gaze and critique of anthropology is important, but a lot can go wrong. We need robust conversations about how to do institutional ethnography—everything from how to negotiate access considering privacy concerns, to how to navigate research requirements like Institutional Review Board protocols. These issues go to the heart of ethical anthropological practice and are crucial if the discipline is to develop better theories of powerful institutions, revealing deeper insights into our world and pathways to better futures.
Collaborative, multisited anthropology is the way forward
David N. Gellner
Anthropology started as the study of places far away in space and—so the early practitioners imagined—far away in time. Today the world has shrunk, but at a very different pace depending on where you are. Some places (Antarctica, Mongolia) are still genuinely hard to get to, but, once there, you can be instantly connected to the world. Other spaces (e.g., of undocumented migrants) may be located in metropolitan cities, yet are unconnected, unseen, and often unheard by the machinery of government, despite being connected in their own ways. Still other places are simply off-grid as far as the modern world is concerned.
We need politically minded ethnographers to investigate every place and every scale—in the United Nations and European Union, in parliaments, local government offices, parish council meetings, and of course around the kitchen table or hearth. Accomplishing multisited, multiscale ethnographies requires teams of researchers with at least partially shared agendas, followed by collaborative—and doubtless painful—writing up. The age of the lone researcher, set down on an island to fend for herself for a year, is surely long gone, if only because the inhabitants of the island probably have their own social scientists and the island government may insist that every foreign researcher has a local partner.
There are hopeful signs that collaborative anthropology with an egalitarian ethos is on the rise, encouraged by the disciplinary politics (and economics) of large grants. In recent years, collaboratively written ethnographies have started to appear which may change the way we think about doing research and may show the way for a truly joined-up response to the global challenges we face.
We must champion intellectual dissidence
In this time of shooting inequalities and persisting injustices, a world ravaged by ecological, economic and health catastrophes, rising authoritarianism and stifling bureaucratic violence, the one value that anthropology needs to champion above all else is intellectual dissidence. The Latin root dissidēre means to sit apart; I see the dissident intellectual as the critically minded scholar who is willing to sit apart from and, thereby, challenge the prevailing value systems, power structures, and the political economy they justify, through careful research, writing and dissemination. This sitting apart may be in opposition to a neoliberal managerialism filtering down to us in the academy, against a rising authoritarianism, or even sitting apart from the counter-propaganda efforts of leftist revolutionary guerrillas, as I explored in my latest book Nightmarch. This dissidence should be the responsibility of all intellectuals – because, as Noam Chomsky reminded us, it is we who have the leisure and the time, the political liberty, the facilities and the training to explore hidden truths and express opinions about injustice without fear of persecution. As austerity and audit cultures, marketization and the ethos of business seep into every aspect of academic life, the responsibility of intellectual dissidence is one that anthropologists are particularly well placed to champion. Notwithstanding its colonial history, socio-cultural anthropology forces us to take seriously the lives of others, to question received wisdom about the world, produce knowledge that is new, was confined to the margins, or silenced. It thus enables us to understand the relationship between history, ideology, and action in unforeseen ways, and is therefore crucial both to understanding how the status quo is perpetuated, and in imagining ways of contesting domination and authority. Intellectual dissidence is part of the architecture of anthropology. We must honor this value in our research and develop it in our writing, giving power to its possibilities.
For an anthropological imagination against capitalism
The current moment is a reckoning on many fronts: humanity is at a precipice of self-inflicted apocalypse. People experience the current moment as simultaneous individual and collective crises, becoming overwhelmed, traumatized, hopeless. But it is also in periods of “crisis” that the fog of ideology is easier to lift. Political anthropology has an opportunity and obligation to help people move beyond the silo approach to analyzing issues through the narrow lenses of different specializations, and articulate a bottom-up, deliberately inclusive anthropological imagination.
An anthropological imagination identifies seemingly disconnected issues like climate change, xenophobia, and white supremacy as manifestations of global capitalism. Our task is to highlight the threads that bind them together and unveil the specific processes of dehumanization that operate as the capitalist war machine targets particular groups of people.
An anthropological imagination builds on radical empathy and engenders solidarity, seeing our human lives as already connected to one another, moving us beyond being allies to acting as accomplices. Anthropology needs to move beyond asserting its relevance and celebrating its activist stance, and engage in collective organizing, working with, alongside, and behind movements that employ an intersectional approach. This means dismantling the ivory tower and decolonizing anthropology, engaging specific movements—from Black Lives Matter to Extinction Rebellion and the Dreamers—who hail a deliberately inclusive, contingent humanity. Truly, this is humanity’s last stand.
Laura Haapio-Kirk a PhD student at UCL Anthropology researching ageing, smartphones, and health in Japan. She is currently writing and illustrating her first monograph which will be published by UCL Press. Laura is a Leach Fellow in Public Anthropology at the RAI and a co-curator of the Illustrating Anthropology exhibition.