On the Whiteness of Anthropology

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On the Whiteness of Anthropology

Post by ray245 » 2019-07-08 05:11pm

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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

When studying Sociology as an undergraduate student at the National University of Singapore (NUS) (1995-1999) I was introduced to the work of three seminal thinkers of modern social theory, who are considered to be the founding fathers of Sociology: Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim. My teachers at the time, while educating me on the impact of these men’s theories and their applications for an understanding of “modernity”, also emphasized that these theories emerged from a Eurocentric (“a way of seeing and not-seeing that is rooted in a number of problematic claims and assumptions”; Alatas and Sinha 2001) and Androcentric perspective. They reminded us that we should question the applications of these theories in non-Western contexts and remember the historical, gendered, and geographical milieu in which they were constructed. After all, European classical thinkers were usually men who wrote not only about their own societies, but also about the “Orient”, and “we” were representative of this feminized Orient. At the time, my lecturers were already formulating ways to make social theory relevant to their Singaporean students, to decolonize Sociology, and to further reflect on how to reorganize the teaching of social theory in a way that moved beyond “the abstract and reflexive level” acknowledgment of Eurocentrism, as well as its largely American and British contexts (Alatas and Sinha 2001). They asked important questions, such as: Why are non-Western precursors of social thought (e.g. Ibn Khaldun, José Rizal, Benoy Kumar Sarkar) left out of the syllabi? Why are these syllabi not engaging with European colonialism and its impact on how and why do we have to study these “founding fathers” as the sole originators of ideas? They did not intend to replace European thinkers like Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Instead, they aimed to critically engage with their work through a decolonizing perspective and to include other, female, and non-Western social thinkers (Alatas and Sinha 2017).

In my honour’s year at NUS, I did fieldwork with “Reiki” practitioners (an energy healing, alternative-health, therapy) and wrote a thesis that drew heavily on the earlier work of Michel Foucault. I caught the research bug, decided to apply to a Master’s program in Social Anthropology and, in 2001, was accepted into the prestigious London School of Economics and Social Science (LSE). There were no grants available for Masters’ students (the “LSE’s cash-cows”, as some called us) and I was taking a financial risk in order to see where this dream might take me. It was there that I was re-educated in the history of British anthropology and on the founders of my new discipline. Names like Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, and Fortes (amongst others) replaced Marx, Weber, and Durkheim and, to my dismay, Foucault was nowhere to be found. I have to admit that I was unprepared for the vastly different approach social anthropology offered (the “Virgin Birth” debates for example – see Leach 1966) but also excited at the prospect of eventually doing a PhD under the tutelage and supervision of several respected anthropologists. Yet, there was a lack of reflection on the continuing presence of colonialism and little efforts were made to decolonize the curriculum (though I hear that things are changing). If my former teachers in NUS had asked about the paucity of indigenous (i.e. Malay) sources when studying the sociology and colonial history of Singapore, my anthropologist teachers could claim that they were studying “indigenous” people in non-European settings (formerly colonized countries). I found myself in love with the ethnographic method of fieldwork as a way to get to know people over a long period of time (I later learnt that the method too is flawed), but uncomfortable with its whiteness and lack of reflexivity.

Decolonizing Anthropology

Before I carry on, let me first explain what I mean by “Whiteness”. It does not simply imply that the majority of anthropologists are of Euro-American descent. This is not the point and increasingly not the case. And it is not my intention to insinuate that anthropology continues to be a handmaiden of colonialism or unreflective of its past. Instead, I am interested in an ideological position of Whiteness – a class aspiration whose roots are located in an imperial past (that persists in transfigured forms) – and its real institutional effects on anthropology as a discipline today. I am speaking about the lack of any real acknowledgement of the continuing presence of an elite, masculine, and imperial habitus within the discipline, which has been, to varying degrees, internalized by all of us, even non-white anthropologists of different social backgrounds, genders, and sexual orientations. It is this remnant of imperialism that allows many anthropologists to think that they do not need to have real conversations about (but simply acknowledge) the presence of indigeneity, race, and misogyny, or the need for more feminist and non-white thinkers in our syllabi.

We somehow share the assumption that, just because we are anthropologists, we have acquired the skill of social critique and of self-criticism. That we have done the colonial analysis and called out “race” as a construct, that we hate what colonialism did, and are in a noble profession. Let’s move on. Let’s get on with our jobs. And yet, we often forget how, in order to become anthropologists, and in order to prove that we are successful at what we do, we, unconsciously or consciously, become that elite, white, male anthropologist that we sometimes publicly critique. It is to this history, embedded in our own aspirations – that includes a history of Whiteness – that we have inherited and largely internalized, that I turn to next.

James Baldwin writes in his essay The White Man’s Guilt:

“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

Baldwin goes on to explain that it is only with great “pain and terror” that we are able to personally assess and understand this inherited history “which has placed one where one is, and which formed one’s point of view”. For example, the anthropologist who attends the best American universities – “best” because they are recognized for their high-ranking and assumed to better train graduate students to publish in the top three American journals – potentially carries within them a history of an inherited intellectual prestige and a center-periphery relation with other universities. Baldwin claims that one can fight and struggle with this history in order to achieve “personal maturity.” But how many of us are willing to experience pain or even discomfort in order to “rob history of its tyrannical power”? Baldwin writes:

“On the other hand, people who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”

Decolonizing anthropology also means decolonizing our minds (from the flattery that a certain history of anthropology provides). This process is also about the ongoing imperialistic powers that some prestigious universities (and anthropologists) in North America and Europe have, in their assumed self-importance, as well as in their ability to produce the “best” work and the “best” anthropologists, who tend to be systematically preferred during job searches. It means that we have to look beyond the imperial (American) or colonial (British) brand and recognize the true value of a diversity in opinions, methodological approaches, forms of knowledge production, and citational practices. We have to look past the anthropologist with an inherited tradition and ambition to be the best (and inevitably exclude others), and seek out those with a willingness to work well with others and with a generosity to share (recognition and ideas) in a more inclusive environment. Then, perhaps, which university you come from would matter less than what you are willing to bring to a community of peers and students.

A lack of self-reflection on the part of tenured anthropologists (those who put their heads down and aim to simply start the next project or write the next article or book), is part of the problem, and an important reason why decolonizing anthropology is not easy. One can, rightfully, say that another major part of the problem lies in the neoliberal university and the institutional barriers that keep it from truly creating (not just acknowledging) a meaningful diversity, and from engaging in the practice of decolonization. This is why Tania Murray Li‘s new collaborative research project Discovering University Worlds, which will study the university as an employer, a site of education, an investor, and a place for “diversity”, is an important step in the right direction. Yet, we often use, explicitely or not, our ambition to achieve “success” or continue to receive recognition in our field, to justify our lack of engagement with such questions. Not everyone has to play the same role or participate equally, but to ask and articulate these questions – because we’re angry when injustice happens, when we see our colleagues in precarious positions, when we see anthropologists behave badly, when we see barriers for graduates from Canadian universities or anthropologists from non-hegemonic universities – should become common practice for us all.

Rather than academic competition, or the desire to make anthropology great again, we need to rekindle our desire to nurture one other. We need to educate ourselves, help empower others, and not criticize them for expressing their anger. As Audra Lorde (1979: 19) famously wrote “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, and neither will they ever bring about genuine change. “And this fact is only threatening to those… who still define the master’s house as their only source of support”. To ask difficult questions, to allow them to become uncomfortable and potentially bring pain, is a good first step. The anger on social media around controversial events and topics in anthropology is one (though not the only) way to deal with that pain, and it must be recognized as a legitimate response. As Lorde also wrote:

“Anger is loaded with information and energy… We cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect us into settling for anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty”.

Anger (in comparison to hatred) is, according to Lorde, “a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change”. Is the anger of junior, untenured, unemployed anthropologists more threatening than the claims of disempowerment and experiences of dis-belonging that potentially affect us all? This anger is not what truly threatens us as anthropologists. Instead, it is “our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment” (Lorde 1981).

A Contrapuntal Anthropology

I want to conclude this piece with a view from a contrapuntal anthropology. In his 1993 book Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said suggested that if we look at a novel contrapuntally, we are able to consider and interpret its intertwined histories and perspectives (of the colonizer and the colonized, the accused and the accuser). Borrowed from music, where it refers to the relationship between styles or themes, Said, intrigued by Bach’s multiple musical voices in counterpoint, used “contrapuntal” to refer to the relationships between narratives set in metropolitan centres and the colonies upon which the European powers depended for their wealth. Said’s “contrapuntal” analysis pointed to a multiplicity of coinciding voices that, in forming an atonality that lacked a center or a stark binary, considered a non-hierarchical order and the autonomy of the individual subject. This act of listening to the melody in life is what I call a contrapuntal anthropology, and its “atonality” serves as a reminder of an anthropological homelessness (the impossibility of return to a secure home) – or that the home of anthropology has radically altered – that is vital to its ability to be a force of social critique in the world. A contrapuntal perspective is, according to Victor Li, “less about the ease of accepting or accommodating differences than about exposing and challenging differential access to power” (forthcoming “Globalorientalization: Globalization through the Lense of Edward Said’s Orientalism“, ARIEL).

It is not lost on me that I am a child of colonialism and that this feeling of being unsettled is personal to me and my biography. My grandparents’ and parents’ generation lost their homes due to British colonial intervention and they continue to remain a diaspora and a minority in the countries they have since chosen to settle in. I have grown up in and continue to live and work in places that were colonized by – or the ruling centre of – the British empire. Yet, this feeling of living on the margins of identity has also been an opportunity, and it has become a way of doing anthropology for me. I have realized that being disconnected from the centralizing authorities of home has allowed me to connect with people and to question any real sense of stability (and flattery) that anthropology as a vocation may afford.

This feeling of being unsettled, of living in the margins, is the strength of a contrapuntal anthropology that aims to study people but that can simultaneously take enough distance from itself in order to reflect on and judge itself. This is the only way anthropologists can start to decolonize and take stock of how they treat people (sometimes unfairly) and how they start the difficult conversation of truly acknowledging the presence of others. It is not simply by getting rid of the past (our ancestors) that we can move forward. The past and its figures of authority should be read and acknowledged. However, with a decolonizing mind. Even as we acknowledge that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, let us not forget the intentional or unintentional carnage, loss of life, and disregard for others that takes place when these giants are making their way through the thicket, nor how something resembling truth may be found in the margins rather than from the heights of our achievements.
I've discussed before on how in a lot of disiciplines, especially in the field of social sciences and humanities, there's an issue of retaining a "euro-centric" mindset, that even post-colonial countries and people continued to share to this day.

The desire to rank universities, or expecting a hierarchy of published works meant that in papers and monographs working in areas that are less "popular" will continue to stay neglected, even amongst scholars in the post-colonial world. Measuring the number of cititations can be unhelpful to the study of humanities and social sciences, because unlike "hard science", the importance of someone's contribution is determined by how much people value certain sub-topics within an academic discipline.
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Re: On the Whiteness of Anthropology

Post by Feil » 2019-07-09 03:05pm

God save us from famine, war, pestilence, death, and the Liberal Arts.

1 Whiteness = a class aspiration with roots in an imperial past
2 Whiteness = institutional effects of a said class aspiration on the discipline of anthropology
3 Whiteness = the absence of acknowledgement of an elite, masculine, and imperial habitus ("ingrained habits, skills and dispositions") within the discipline of anthropology
4 Whiteness = the absence of serious conversations about: the presence of indigeneity, race, and misogyny, or the need for more feminist and non-white thinkers in our syllabi.

I'm sorry, what?

1: A class aspiration? What class? Are we asserting that white anthropologists constitute a class? What aspiration? Pretty sure we're just borrowing out-of-context Marxist terminology to get people who are used to agreeing with claims seated in Marxist terminology to agree with us reflexively. Three points from Griffindor for not being able to define what it is about which we want our audience to be convinced.

2: If only we knew what the class or its aspiration was, this would make sense.

3: Hurray, a definition that makes sense. At least, assuming that "elite" means "concerned with the culture and priorities of the wealthy and empowered", not "highly qualified." Presumably we agree that highly qualified people should, in fact, be the ones doing anthropology.

4: The presence of indigeneity, race, and misogyny, in what? In our syllabi? What does that even mean? Their existence in the world? The entire field of anthropology is about that stuff. Seriously, what does this even mean? Another three points from Griffindor for dropping buzzwords with no argument.

A further ten points from Griffindor for dumping on "whiteness" to get the Hated Others riled up while getting Us and Ours to nod along sympathetically about those awful whites, when what we actually mean is something like "intellectual Eurocentrism".

Let's make a better argument.

-

A combination of cultural and economic factors led to science emerging first in Europe, in a time where only men had good access to education and prestige and only the wealthy had the time to invest in intellectual pursuits. Consequently, bunch of wealthy European men did all the groundwork for pretty much all science.

This works out fine when we're talking about things like chemistry or biology, where cultural biases are irrelevant. However, it creates a blind spot when we're talking about things like sociology or anthropology, where cultural biases are relevant. This is especially problematic since at around the time that all the groundwork for science was getting done, European men were treating everybody else on earth really badly, and most of them didn't seem to have a problem with that. Our field has largely internalized the cultural biases of these European men, which may be described as a sort of intellectual Eurocentrism held even by anthropologists from other cultural backgrounds.

To correct for these biases, we should promote the ideas of people from other cultural backgrounds. For one, they might have first-rate ideas that we've overlooked because they didn't match our expectations. But even if their insights aren't as good or their arguments aren't as scientific as those of the wealthy European men that formed our canon, we need the ideas and experiences of these people as an antidote to the biases and blind spots we inherited from European thinkers. Also, fuck whitey.

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Re: On the Whiteness of Anthropology

Post by Gandalf » 2019-07-09 06:00pm

Feil wrote:
2019-07-09 03:05pm
1: A class aspiration? What class? Are we asserting that white anthropologists constitute a class? What aspiration? Pretty sure we're just borrowing out-of-context Marxist terminology to get people who are used to agreeing with claims seated in Marxist terminology to agree with us reflexively. Three points from Griffindor for not being able to define what it is about which we want our audience to be convinced.
The article seemed pretty clear that White itself is a class.
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Re: On the Whiteness of Anthropology

Post by Ziggy Stardust » 2019-07-09 09:33pm

Yeah, Feil, did you actually read the article? Or just skim it? I really don't have the energy to go through your post point by point but a large number of ones are described pretty clearly in the article and you seem to have missed it. For example, point #4 is given multiple concrete examples on what she is referring to.

In addition, your claim that "a bunch of wealthy European men did all the groundwork for pretty much all science" is utterly ignoring an incredible amount of historical fact, and hand-waiving away the incredible wealth of knowledge generated by non-white, non-European cultures to scientific knowledge (the Arabs, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Indians, etc.). Google people like Ibn Sina, Abu Rayhan Biruni, Aryabhata, Ibn Rushd, and Shen Kuo, many of whose work was widely read and incredible influential in Europe in its time. You are literally doing the exact thing the article is complaining about, ignoring the contributions of non-Europeans without fully understanding the history.

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Re: On the Whiteness of Anthropology

Post by Feil » 2019-07-09 11:45pm

I grant everything you said about the wealth of knowledge generated by non-Europeans and its instrumentality to the emergence of scientific thought. Europeans developed less than their fair share of the world's body of knowledge and philosophy over most of recorded history, and it was largely non-European knowledge (and/or proto-European knowledge preserved and developed by non-Europeans) that was instrumental to the emergence of modern scientific thought. So if you want to say that that body of knowledge constitutes science, then non-Europeans did the vast majority of science from the through around 1500, and Europeans wouldn't have gotten anywhere without them.

(Not especially important, but the author is male.)

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Re: On the Whiteness of Anthropology

Post by Feil » 2019-07-09 11:58pm

doublepost

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Re: On the Whiteness of Anthropology

Post by Straha » 2019-07-11 08:21pm

Feil wrote:
2019-07-09 03:05pm


This works out fine when we're talking about things like chemistry or biology, where cultural biases are irrelevant.
Say what now?
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Re: On the Whiteness of Anthropology

Post by Elheru Aran » 2019-07-13 02:15pm

Straha wrote:
2019-07-11 08:21pm
Feil wrote:
2019-07-09 03:05pm


This works out fine when we're talking about things like chemistry or biology, where cultural biases are irrelevant.
Say what now?
My interpretation of that statement was that when you are dealing with sciences which are more about simple objective data than those which deal with subjective matters where every subject interprets it differently somehow, cultural biases are less of an issue. Nobody is going to particularly dispute that H^2O is the molecular composition of water, or that 2+2=4. Those are the same pretty much anywhere you go.

Now biases among the actual people within those disciplines, that's another matter, sure. Certainly I could see greater weight being given to a European scientist over an Asian one if both submitted papers on the same subject, for example, even if the results were identical.
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Re: On the Whiteness of Anthropology

Post by Vendetta » 2019-07-15 10:56am

Feil wrote:
2019-07-09 03:05pm
3: Hurray, a definition that makes sense. At least, assuming that "elite" means "concerned with the culture and priorities of the wealthy and empowered", not "highly qualified." Presumably we agree that highly qualified people should, in fact, be the ones doing anthropology.
Of course, in the real world it is often the wealthy and empowered who get to decide what "highly qualified" looks like. (If you want a very strong example of them doing so, look to economics and business.)

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Re: On the Whiteness of Anthropology

Post by Straha » 2019-07-15 10:59am

Elheru Aran wrote:
2019-07-13 02:15pm
Straha wrote:
2019-07-11 08:21pm
Feil wrote:
2019-07-09 03:05pm


This works out fine when we're talking about things like chemistry or biology, where cultural biases are irrelevant.
Say what now?
My interpretation of that statement was that when you are dealing with sciences which are more about simple objective data than those which deal with subjective matters where every subject interprets it differently somehow, cultural biases are less of an issue. Nobody is going to particularly dispute that H^2O is the molecular composition of water, or that 2+2=4. Those are the same pretty much anywhere you go.
I mean, sure? The notion of some sort of material universe existing is sort of a given. I meant more the notion that Biology was a science where cultural biases are irrelevant when we have constant reminders of just how much of inquiry in that field is tied up into cultural assumptions to guide inquiry and how much of the data is drastically skewed in the same way.
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Re: On the Whiteness of Anthropology

Post by MarxII » 2019-07-15 01:47pm

What would be an example of this?

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Re: On the Whiteness of Anthropology

Post by Formless » 2019-07-15 03:52pm

MarxII wrote:
2019-07-15 01:47pm
What would be an example of this?
Sociobiology immediately springs to mind. Much of the research was about eusocial organisms like wasps (sometimes primates came up too, but not as often as one might expect), but too much emphasis was put on comparing those organisms to human behavior, thus leading to bias in the field. Because the humans they were comparing them to were mostly WASPS-- White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (which describes the biologists themselves, naturally). Therefore their interpretations were subject to bias, causing much criticism both from within biology and outside of it. Moreover, once interpretation starts driving research, it opens the door for observation bias as well.

For instance, wasps and their colony building behavior was often explained in terms of human altruism, since wasps tend to build colonies even with genetically unrelated wasps. This went against the tendency to conceptualize Natural Selection at the level of the individual even though that isn't necessary. But it appeals to western thought, and researchers needed to find a conceptual "out" to link the individual to the group (never mind that the math used to model Selection is based on population statistics, so you don't need an "out"). But this approach is a problem because first, their definition of altruism was contentious as its assumptions were based on western economic theory: self interest is the driving force for everything, because again, WASPS think in individualistic terms. Oh, they tried changing the language to imply Selfish Genes and whatnot, but most critics saw that as either a smokescreen or un-falsifiable (or both). And besides, they were comparing the most neurologically complex organism in existence-- Homo Sapiens Sapiens-- to fucking insects! In hindsight a little self awareness would have gone a long way. Eventually, though, even the sociobiologists had to admit that on close observation there were more parsimonious explanations-- wasps will complete even abandoned nests for future use. Nests get abandoned all the time, and the more nests that are out there the easier it is for a wasp to just move in and start using it. No appeal to altruism or Group Selection needed. Similar problems cropped up in their observations of other insects like ants as well, and even primate comparisons suffered from primatologists not getting onboard with Sociobiology. They just wanted to study monkeys and apes, not humans. Eventually sociobiology got such a bad reputation for bias that they had to abandon the project-- or at least rebrand as Evolutionary Psychology, where the research is explicitly about humans now. And it shares most of the same conceptual flaws, and gets tons of shit for being sexist.
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Re: On the Whiteness of Anthropology

Post by Jub » 2019-07-16 04:26am

MarxII wrote:
2019-07-15 01:47pm
What would be an example of this?
There's the fact that medical studies are most commonly done using caucasian males.

This leads to things like:

-Albuterol, the most most commonly prescribed asthma medication, results in no improvement amongst 67 percent of Puerto Ricans and 47 percent of African-Americans.

-Carbamezapine, or Tegretol, requires genetic testing of Asians prior to prescription, as it can severely damage their skin.

-Clopidogrel or Plavix, a blood thinner, works like a placebo in 75 percent of Pacific Islanders; its ineffectiveness prompted a lawsuit by the State of Hawaii for false marketing.

-Warfarin causes four times the incidence of intracranial hemorrhage when prescribed to Asians for atrial fibrillation.

So while the fact that the US tests new treatments primarily on white males doesn't mean that the data they're getting is incorrect, it just means that they also need to test it in other races and on women as well for a complete set of results.

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Re: On the Whiteness of Anthropology

Post by Vendetta » 2019-07-16 05:58am

Formless wrote:
2019-07-15 03:52pm
or at least rebrand as Evolutionary Psychology, where the research is explicitly about humans now. And it shares most of the same conceptual flaws, and gets tons of shit for being sexist.
Evolutionary Psychology as practiced by laymen (and probably some professionals) doesn't even always apply evolution properly. It very often proceeds from the assumption that any currently detectable behaviour is a descendent of something that has previously had an advantage attached, whereas that's not necessarily the case for evolution, some things hang around despite being detrimental because there's simply no path of incremental changes available to alter them (like the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which runs from the brain to the larynx via a loop around the aorta, which isn't too bad for us humans but means a detour of about 15 feet to connect structures six inches apart for a giraffe.)

That means it can produce just-so stories that support whatever preconception the person advancing them originally had.

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