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What is troubling anthropology?

Poster of “Dag van de Antropologie 2018” by ABV (Dutch Anthropological Association).

By Matthias Teeuwen            Inspired by Paul Stoller’s 2017 blog ‘Doing Anthropology In Troubled Times’, the goal of this year’s ‘Dag van de Antropologie’ (Annual Anthropology Day) was to reflect upon the role of anthropology in some particularly challenging social issues of today such as decolonisation. This was taken up in various panels and workshops such as the opening panel on ‘Decolonising Anthropology’ and the closing keynote on ‘Racist Sorcery’. Throughout the day I tried to get a feel for what is exactly troubling about these times and what about it is troubling for anthropologists in particular.

As the first panel discussion suggests, the colonial heritage of anthropology and its lingering influence is certainly very troubling. The thrust of anthropology has always been to search for and understand the ‘other’, the ‘exotic’, the ‘strange’ but this comes with its concomitant issue of ‘othering’ and reifying relationships of dependence between ‘the West and the rest’. For some students of anthropology, learning about its colonial past can be a confronting experience, especially the realisation that anthropology is integral to the pursuit of the West to know the other. Considering this, Tarim Flach rightly asked why anthropology shouldn’t be dropped in favour of a different way of knowing the other.

Criticism on the heritage of anthropology is not new. What is troubling however, are the contradicting claims that, on the one hand anthropology is doing too little to address its colonial heritage and that on the other hand anthropology is ‘indoctrinating’ students in decolonial and leftist ideology. This is symptomatic of a loss of faith on the part of people holding the former claim and a deep-seated suspicion of anthropology’s supposed leftist dogmatism on the part of people holding the latter claim. In both cases, anthropology is taken to be out of touch with the times either because it fails to leave its tainted history behind or because it is too taken in with leftist criticism to provide a balanced understanding of social reality.

I think that there is an overarching sense that anthropology has failed to live up to its promise to ‘make the world safe for human difference’ – as Ruth Benedict famously set the task for anthropology. Anthropologists have often been engaged with the people they study and have addressed the corruption and injustices they encounter. This has been a longstanding tradition in anthropology. But might these times be troubling for anthropologists exactly because it seems to have had little use? And, additionally, might anthropologists have overestimated the impact the discipline can have on society?

There is no reason to be pessimistic, Ghassan Hage suggests. It is true that racism is still alive and well in Western societies. It is true that, despite countering racism with empirical arguments, anthropology has failed to prevent it from gaining traction in the West. This is the case, Hage argues, because anthropology misunderstands racism and takes it to be rational rather than performative. So it is able to debunk such claims as “White people have a higher IQ than black people” or “Muslims are taking over the country” but it is not able to address a statement like “You fucking ape!” flung at a black football player. Racism, Hage argues, is magical in that it is conjured up in order to hurt the other. It is therefore performative rather than rational. But, he says, anthropology has the tools for countering this racism drawn from a long history of studying magic. We just have to start employing them.

Regardless of whether Hage’s analysis is correct, I think it provides a good example of an attempt to get anthropology in sync with social reality as it is now. Despite the emphasis placed on reflexivity, might anthropologists be out of touch with forces current in our home societies? If it is true that Western capitalist societies have become more ‘magical’ in the last thirty years or so while anthropology has stayed decidedly rational, then it is imperative that anthropologists review their theories and methods if they are to understand this magical turn in society.


CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this blog Mark Westmoreland was credited with the claim that anthropology is ideologically ‘indoctrinating’ students. To be clear, this is not his position, but a sentiment voiced by some students. While acknowledging Tarim Flach’s position that anthropology is doing too little to address the discipline’s colonial tradition, Westmoreland said that we must also contend with this counter critique in our efforts to decolonise anthropology.

Matthias Teeuwen is student of the Research Master’s Social Sciences at the University of Amsterdam and editor at His research interests include religion, language, and the philosophy of science.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for writing these reflections. I find them very compelling, and I’ve used them as a jumping-off point for my upcoming Cultural Anthropology 2018 course.

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