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The dilemma's of public anthropology. Notes on the Amsterdam Anthropology Lecture Series (AALS)

Vrije Universiteit
What is the role of the university in the public square?

By Matthias Teeuwen            On Earth Day last Saturday thousands of scientists in hundreds of cities worldwide took to the streets for the March for Science. The statement they made was that science should not become subject to political restraints and that it should remain free to investigate the phenomena of this world. It was organised in the face of an increasing scepticism towards science which disregards scientific findings and scientific consensus in public decision-making. What, might we ask, is the proper relationship between science and politics? Should scientists engage with politics? And if so: in what way?

The biggest presence at the March for Science was that of the so-called hard sciences. But the same questions can be asked about anthropology: how should anthropological findings be employed in public decision-making and how should anthropologists relate to public debate? Admittedly, due to the nature of anthropology the answers will be very different from those of the hard sciences but the questions are the same. Last week we were able to welcome Sinan Çankaya who addressed these issues and talked about the need for an engaged and public anthropology.

Çankaya started off with the idea that being a public intellectual is a subversive act in itself. In politics it is not so much about science as about political views and ideologies. It is about different competing narratives about who ‘we, the people’ are and what’s best for ‘us’. In an arena where it is seen as absolutely necessary to have an attractive and cohesive vision on the way society should be, how much place is there for critical investigation?

But this is exactly what Çankaya argues anthropologists should do. Anthropologists should question the status quo and be critical about taken-for-granted norms. He calls for ‘micro-revolutions’, which are small, non-violent violations of social norms by which the workings of inclusion and exclusion that facilitate the establishment of the status quo are exposed and open for critical investigation. In the end this should emancipate people from restrictive elements of taken-for-granted structures.

It seems to me that there are two movements when it comes to science in politics. There is the movement that works towards a cohesive plan for society in which it is clear who belongs to it and how they should act. And there is the movement that criticises these views and tries to stay loyal to the complexities of social life.

In the first movement scientific findings are employed in order to undergird and uphold a certain plan for society. In itself this is a good undertaking, it makes sense to base your plans on what you know. However, a danger could be that scientists and scientific findings are misinterpreted and subsequently hi-jacked by exponents of a political view in order to either establish more strongly their own points or in order to criticise those of another political view.

Other issues arise when intellectuals deal with government institutions or other organisations with a clear mission and image. Çankaya conducted research in the Dutch police organisation on the role and position of ethnic minorities within the police force. Here he had to deal with suspicion whether he was ‘one of us’ and could be trusted, whether he was not ‘too critical’ of the police organisation and would harm its image. He also mentioned the danger of becoming susceptible to self-censorship because the police organisation was, after all, his employer. And then there is the difference between goals. In the end the police is interested in managing the population whereas the anthropologist is interested in gaining knowledge.

I guess anthropologists are in the business of both criticising the status quo and finding new ways of looking at things that can aid politics in establishing good policy. I would strongly plea for keeping these two aspects close together in order for anthropologists not to be carried away by attractive narratives on how society should be or by ceaseless criticism that serves no purpose.

Matthias Teeuwen is student of cultural anthropology and theology at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. His research interests include religion, language, and the philosophy of science.

The Amsterdam Anthropology Lecture Series (AALS) is a year-long event organised by the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam. It involves public lectures for the academia and the wider public and it means to connect current affairs with anthropology. The series is linked to the new research theme of the department entitled ‘Mobilities, Belonging and Beliefs’ (MOBB).

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