Friday, September 2, 2011

The anthropologist as adolescent

The coming of age story, for the anthropologist who takes an interest in space, necessarily includes a part about geography. You may see yourself in this story. Early on, in a chapter that usually precedes the one about undertaking fieldwork, this anthropologist takes a gratifying journey through theories that respond to our queries and uncertainties about the “big picture”: the political economic processes that shape how we build, think about, and use the spatial realm. The theories offer a compelling narrative about how spatial relations guide the development of nations, cities, communities, and our understandings of ethnicity, gender, race, class, and the environment. What’s more, the theories give us a particular optic, that of space, through which to view and understand power and, more specifically, capitalist power. For most, this is the highlight of the initial journey through critical geography: its Marxism. Lefebvre preaches an insistent gospel, as murky as we might find the prose, about space being a product of capitalist relations. It is a gospel to which we are drawn. Those that have come since, Harvey, Gregory, Smith, and others, similarly compel us towards the adopting of a spatialized view of the social world. In the next chapter, feeling rather equipped, the anthropologist takes to her fieldsite seeking evidence about the making of sociospatial inequalities. But it is true that in the field, theories often seem distant as we make our way through the mundane and the magnificent realm of establishing relationships, setting up interviews and meetings, collecting evidence, and always, everywhere taking notes. We are, after all, in a pivotal moment in the process of developing into what we might deem full-fledged researchers. This is a stage during which prioritize the collection of data over its analysis. In the final, enduring chapter, upon returning from the field, we go through our notes, we read again the theories and a crisis, of the mildest sort, happens: critical geography has told us much about how space is an object and product of structural processes like capitalism, war, colonialism and more, and rather little about how individuals and institutions understand, use, and make decisions about space in everyday ways. What is left out too, is the cultural dimension which, having just returned from the field, we are certain matters quite a bit in ways that are not disconnected from – but not solely products of – the relations of the political economy. The data we have collected in the field yields a somewhat different kind of analysis of space than that which emerges from geography. It is not quite as simple as saying that people, rather than process, are foregrounded, but it is something along these lines. In writing up, our ethnographies too recount the space itself: its smell, its sounds, its rhythms. All told, the crisis marks a moment of becoming. The spatially minded anthropologist leans back towards anthropology and begins to form an emergent identity as an anthropologist of space. This is an identity which exists in harmony with critical geography, but one which, pun awkwardly intended, knows – and makes good use of -- its place.

Kristin Monroe
University of Kentucky

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