Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Coming of Age in Economia

I am helping to plan this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, and the title for the meeting is “The End/s of Anthropology.”

That is not simply meant as a cheeky way to argue that the field has outlasted its usefulness. Not at all. If anything, it is a call for anthropology to recast itself as an important perspective from which to engage some of the most pressing questions of the day. For example, as Congress votes on Obama’s choice for Treasury Secretary today, I’ve been trying to think about all the many reasons why anthropology could be a useful voice in the deafening debates about a “global economic crisis” that he is being enlisted to help fix.

Anthropologists aren’t highlighted or invoked in such conversations, at least not as much (or as often) as they could be. Economists debate the merits of various fiscal vs. monetary policies, and our new President has assembled an experienced team of them to help him figure out the government’s next few moves. But where are the anthropologists?

There are many reasons why President Obama didn’t initially think about an anthropologist or two for his economic team. Indeed, anthropology has long been lampooned as an obscure and eccentric academic discipline with little practical purpose. Truly academic (in the rather dismissive sense). However, many anthropologists have always been sleeves-rolled-up scholars. And some of its practitioners have been pushing to expand definitions of “the economic” in ways that might prove useful today, offering definitions that more properly and accurately contextualize economic transactions with respect to differently configured cultural and political domains. Anthropologists proffer cogent critiques of reductionist treatments of economic actions/relations, treatments that too easily decouple economic logics from the cultural logics within which they are embedded -- and that provide the semiotic/interpretive engine for their permutations.

Why are important anthropological insights often marginalized in such debates, and would a robust reincorporation into such larger political and intellectual disputes be a turn of events that anthropologists should condone or condemn?

The field continues to grapple with some volatile and complicated subjects, from structural violence to neogenomic ideologies, from indigenous rights to cosmopolitan subjectivities, from questions of “war and peace” to invocations of post-raciality. And all of these themes provide valuable points of entry into potential strategies for dealing with a global recession by way of its inescapably and robustly localizable manifestations.


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wesduke said...
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wesduke said...

I think the presumed 'irrelevance' of anthropology today has to do with the discipline's beginnings and its conclusions. As a field that came about as a result of travel to/encroachment upon new and 'strange' lands/people, anthropology is seen by many (if not most) outside the discipline as outdated, given the again-presumed 'global village' we now live in. Put differently, 'we've been everywhere, discovered every 'strange' ritual/group of people there is to find, what else can anthropology offer us?'
Even if we can convince such detractors (i.e. almost everyone who isn't an anthropologist) that the field has come a long methodologically and theoretically (as you point to in your posting), we are then faced with anthropology (and anthropologists') second difficulty: insistence upon nuance. I've long argued that if our field were to have a catchphrase, it would be "it's more complicated than that." This simply does not make a good soundbite. Moreover, this committment to subtle and nuanced arguement is, I believe, anathema to readers/viewers of most popular media (NPR excluded) who are seeking definitive, not to say pointed, conclusions that do not allow for the possibility of difference/alternative conceptualizations.

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