Monday, 13 October 2014

An Anthropology of X

One of the things most guaranteed to raise my considerable ire is the bizarre and frequently incomprehensible jargon of modern social/cultural/socio-cultural anthropology. I'm not a fan of the modern subject of the discipline anyway, so I already feel a little out of whack with prevailing currents in it, as I've said in other posts.* But there are egregious academic crimes regularly committed by anthropologists that make me perplexed and then a little sad/angry, and most involve language.

Perhaps the strangest of these crimes is the construction of phrases that are literally incomprehensible. That's not necessarily a problem - plenty of phrases in English (or any language) are incomprehensible when taken literally. The problem is rather that these phrases are literally incomprehensible and entirely new, deliberately created by an academic to serve a purpose that other language apparently could not serve, and introduced in contexts in which the meaning of the new phrase can be opaque.

This criticism could apply to a lot of the language used by continental philosophers and anthropologists, but the use I'm thinking of here is the phrase 'an anthropology of x', where x = any noun or noun phrase.

This is a surprisingly common construction - a googling brings up nearly 2.5 million hits. I've seen it used countless times on blogs, in books and articles, and especially memorably, at academic conferences and seminars. I don't know exactly when it was first used or by whom, but its form makes me think that it is in origin probably a calque from French. 'An anthropology of women' is a standard example, but I've seen plenty of stranger and even more bewildering uses, including 'an anthropology of hypocrisy' and 'an anthropology of ignorance'. I don't really have a clear idea of what such phrases are supposed to mean, but it's fairly obvious that if they have an ascertainable meaning then that meaning is probably problematic and peculiar.

One issue is that that is a completely unnatural construction in English. We don't normally make statements like that, especially not with academic subjects; consider 'an astronomy of meteors' or 'a zoology of baboons' (googling 'an astronomy of' came up with 105,000,000 results, but only because 'an' and 'of' had been annihilated; 'an astronomy of' is clearly not a common or valid string of English).

Again, this isn't such a major flaw, and it probably isn't necessary to be hidebound by grammatical rules when trying to express new and radical meanings - it's just that it's hard to see what such constructions actually express or what purpose they serve. My initial (and continuing) reaction to them was and is the same as my reaction to flame decals on a pick-up: they're unnecessary, tacky, and they make the thing they're associated with look cheap and stupid, even when it's not. Within the culture of pick-up drivers perhaps painted flames look great on a car door. But from the outside they make you look like a wanker.

Another major problem with these phrases is the use of the indefinite article. I think 'the astronomy of our solar system' would be reasonably good English. If you picked up a book with that title, you'd probably think, and be justified in doing so, that the book is about the solar system, and that the writing will mostly be from the perspective of an astronomer rather than from a folklorist intent on detailing Greek or Iroquois thoughts on the planets. On the other hand, 'Our Solar System' would surely work equally well as a title for the book, if not a better one, making 'the astronomy of' redundant. But at least 'the anthropology of x' would make some kind of sense (and while 'Biomedicine' would just be about biomedicine, 'The Anthropology of Biomedicine' might more clearly express the idea that the book has been written by anthropologists about biomedicine**).

The reason for the indefinite article is presumably predicated on theories of knowledge that presuppose the 'situational' and changeable nature of rational and empirical enquiry, and presumably also on the idea that there are different 'ways of knowing'. 'Our book can only ever represent an anthropology of literacy, not the anthropology of literacy.'

I'm not interested in debating this idea at any length here (suffice it to say that I don't really buy the 'other ways of knowing' thing), but it should be noted that the existence of 'other ways of knowing' is debatable and not at all self-evident. It cannot be taken as a given within the discipline of anthropology, which is rather the impression you'd get from expressions like 'an anthropology of x'. I really don't think anthropologists should express themselves in general terms with statements that make it sound as if anthropologists share the same theoretical (read: cosmological, metaphysical) views when they really don't.*** In this context, 'an anthropology of' functions as a shibboleth for anti-rational views, and I'm not comfortable with its casual use on that basis.

Lastly, there is another reason to reject these phrases as incoherent: they are based on the idea that anthropology is not a discipline like any other, with a clearly-defined subject matter and methods of study, but rather a steak haché of a discipline made up of a separable 'anthropologies' with different subject matters, theoretical backdrops, methods, and purposes. The idea that there are 'anthropologies' instead of one anthropology implies that we're okay not only with argument, not only with disagreement, but with basic, fundamental incompatibility and incommensurability. It implies that scholars can just hive off from the main if they don't like the ideas of other scholars and create their own little discipline where they don't have to be challenged.

I absolutely want diverse views to be represented in the academy and for powerful scholars not to override neophytes. But the best way to do this is to encourage argument and debate at all levels, not to encourage the creation of protected silos of thought. The message should be: come together and fight it out and maybe we'll make some progress towards answering questions about people. It should not be: we disagree about the most fundamental aspects of the universe and disciplinary subject matter, and we're not interested in coming to terms/blows with one another's views.

Think about how anthropologists communicate with the public and with one another. Remember that some of the books and articles with these kinds of titles are intended to introduce fundamental topics in anthropology to students and interested amateurs, and that others are supposed to point the way for future theoretical developments. Anthropologists have chosen to proliferate a construction that sounds completely unnatural in English, barely expresses anything unless you're already aware of what it's supposed to mean, and is predicated on a questionable theory of knowledge that cannot be taken as basic to the discipline. And then they have the gall to complain about the 'branding' of anthropology.

I propose the following solution to such constructions:
  • Don't use them.
  • If you want to say that you're writing a general article or book on a topic, it might be fine to use that topic as the core of the title, e.g. 'Rock Art', 'Women', 'Marriage', with a subtitle explaining what you want to do. (Obviously there are other issues with book titles these days; why can't they all be dully descriptive, like Derek Freeman's Report on the Iban?)
  • If you say 'the anthropology of x', it's more initially comprehensible than using the indefinite article, and I doubt anyone will think that you're trying to set down in stone the god-given gospel of Ultimate Truth on that topic, especially if you include a variety of arguments, so it's probably safe to use if you have to.
  • If you're worried about readers mistaking you for a hegemonic neo-liberal bigot, you can always explain yourself in, you know, the book or article.


* I mean, I'm not opposed to studies of, say, crack addicts in San Francisco, but I don't think they're the subject matter of anthropology as opposed to other branches of the social sciences. This particular example always sticks in my mind as an example of a perfectly reasonable social scientific study that has, in my opinion, been mis-labelled. Anthropology is about non-state/non-industrial/non-literate societies, while sociology and other social sciences cover the industrial and post-industrial world, at least in my view; why studies of Wall Street and 'Frisco unfortunates come under 'anthropology' is a strange and malign quirk of academic history, and not something reasoned or thought-out.

**Again, obviously I don't think 'biomedicine' is a topic for anthropologists, properly speaking. But that's by the by.

***A paradoxical element of these constructions is that, in doing their best to avoid sounding like monolithic truth-makers, the writers of such things actually project more of a monolithic image for the field of anthropology, in making it appear that all anthropologists agree that there are other ways of knowing and other equally valid approaches to the topics under survey - that all anthropologists agree to continental philosophical views of the world. But they do not all agree.

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