Friday, September 2, 2011

Anthropology and Geography: A materialist synthesis between disciplines

The subject of disciplinary boundaries and knowledge is a delicate one apt to cause controversy and hurt feelings. Many scholars and students who spend large amounts of time reading, researching, and writing in their respective areas can become over-invested in particular ways of knowing and find themselves engaged in intellectual boundary policing. The disciplinary approach to knowledge has organized the academy and university for the better part of the last two centuries and is deeply ensconced in our ways of thinking and writing (see Foucault, 1972). To challenge this organization and its suppositions is to invite criticism not only from inside one’s own discipline, but also the wider academy, creating very real risks for the challenger. But at the same time as academic disciplinarians have busied themselves defending the coherence of this approach to knowledge making, they have also often competed with each other over “turf,” attempting to win adherents and students. In Europe and the People Without History (1982), Eric Wolf criticized what he called “disciplinary imperialism” or the practice of swallowing other disciplines whole and banishing certain topics from discussion. More than one discipline has attempted to enrich itself at the expense of another and steal its intellectual resources. There have also been theoretical attempts at “grand synthesis,” which would officiate the squabbles and put an end to the fighting. Anthropology, one of the disciplines birthed out of this arrangement, was built on holism and perhaps took these pretensions to totalization most seriously. The word “anthropology” most directly means “the study of humans” and anthropologists have grappled with the charge to study the human experience in all its manifestations, while at the same time maintaining the liberal view that culture and knowledge were relative. This is in some ways an existential contradiction for the discipline, which has complicated its relationships with other disciplines. In this essay we examine its relationship with another discipline, geography, in hopes that we can have a profitable dialog without engaging in disciplinary imperialism.

The context of this discussion is a shared intellectual, pre-disciplinary commitment to Marxism (we are an anthropologist and a geographer, respectively). We have certain epistemological assumptions in common which have allowed for close collaboration and profited us both. Geographers and anthropologists are by no means obligated to work closely with one another as we have, but there are key imperatives to collaboration that we ignore to our own detriment if we are concerned not only with understanding the world, but changing it. Marxism is predicated on a commitment to the dialectic and is already a theory, which attempts to encompass the entirety of social relations. Marxist scholars thus work toward a specific theoretical holism. This commitment could lead Marxists in both disciplines and beyond down common avenues, but we have to have a division of labor as we build toward common synthesis. Marxists are committed to history and its study and we need a history of disciplinarity and social science to situate possible points of collaboration between anthropology and geography.

Disciplines with History

The academic disciplines were a product of Kantian philosophy and its notion of “things in themselves.”* Each discipline was conceived of as a discrete, bounded body of knowledge with a paradigmatic concept underpinning it, which structured, organized and parsed the disciplines. This structure gave each discipline an area of expertise that was solely theirs and a base of political power in the academy. Not surprisingly, many adherents get touchy when one starts questioning the foundations of their area, and by extension their power. We have seen this play out in a number of arenas, especially intracollege competition for prestige and financial support and rejected applications to funding agencies committed to disciplinary purity. While there is insufficient space to completely rehash competition between the various knowledge regimes in the academy and how it plays out, a brief historical vignette will serve to illustrate our point.

The divide between sociology and cultural anthropology is in many ways the example par excellance of disciplinary thinking and its negative impact on the development of knowledge. The theoretical divide between the two sciences was the product of a kind of gentleman’s agreement between Alfred Kroeber and Talcott Parsons, the disciplinary “doyens” of the time (Wolf, 1999). This agreement was designed to prevent a turf war, giving anthropology the culture concept, i.e. the study of ritual and meaning, while sociology was given the study of society and social structure. This neat division prevented major fights, but the problems with this division should now be obvious to us. How do you study social structure without the meanings attached to it? How do you study meanings without the social relations they reference? This kind of non-dialectical, non-relational thinking left anthropology in a position to conduct idealist research and it made it difficult to introduce other perspectives and many of the subfields in anthropology–psychological anthropology, symbolic anthropology, economic anthropology were used to address this limitation.

Personally, we have always had the sneaking suspicion that these subfields were standing in for the inadequacy of disciplinarity and were in fact a covert way of transcending boundaries. The urge to subdivide disciplines down to a somehow more meaningful essence is antithetical to the project of Marxist scholarship. Unfortunately, Parsonian functionalism infected the entire academy and created a number of artificial boundaries: political science studied the state, or more conservatively, government; psychology investigated the mind and consciousness and geography studies landscape, terrain and human population––and after having put the sciences in a theoretical strait jacket, Parsons claimed to provide the grand synthesis. Clearly, these early 20th Century divisions no longer hold true, as the disciplines have evolved, societies have changed and attention has turned to different problems.

Hey, at least we’re not sociologists**

One of the ongoing faults of much anthropological work is the fetishization of culture as a thing in and of itself, rather than the expression of particular materialities. Culture is a semiotic system, nothing more and nothing less. But it is the emphasis on this system which ironically put American anthropology in a stronger position than its competitors. The division of labor conceived by Kroeber and Parsons left sociology studying categories such as class, race and social groups, categories which neoliberals would later argue had no relevance. Anthropology on the other hand, studied shared meaning, values and religion, difference in short, and became of special interest to the powers that be and the discipline profited as a result***––the culture concept won.

Some contemporary geographers are busy rehashing these debates. While many cultural geographers have taken the lessons of anthropology to heart, many more have not, to the detriment of a more rigorous understanding of routinized social practices as diverse as wage labor, class and capitalism, which rather than cultures in themselves, call forth certain cultures or better, cultural practices. It is most certainly not just those who identify as cultural geographers who stand to benefit from increased collaboration with anthropology. Rigorous debates could, and should, exist between anthropology and geography on the production of space and its constitutive practices and processes. Culture, society and space are key ideas that continue to structure research programs, capture the imagination of graduate students and faculty alike and command attention from those doing politics. These concepts are critical for explaining the contemporary terrain of capitalism and are too important (and interesting!) to be sequestered to conventional disciplinary boxes.

That said, one key difference we see between anthropology and geography is that of method. While many human geographers have utilized qualitative methods in their work, few truly conduct the set of activities which constitute ethnography (Crang, 2002). While geographers pursuing fieldwork are generally viewed favorably by anthropologists, who are delighted to see aspects of their method gain wider currency in the academy, the anthropological gaze remains rarefied. As we heard it put by a senior anthropologist, “we love what [geographers] do, but they could never be hired.” Lamentably, the subtle but not insubstantial distinction between doing ethnographic fieldwork and writing ethnography remains a stumbling block for some and stands in the way of more direct collaboration. Even if these forms of disciplinary boundary policing are anathema to the particular type of “disciplinary imperialism” Wolf described, they are likely to be no more productive if the end game is to create ever more coherent understandings of social, political, economic and ecological systems of exploitation, degradation and change.

Avoiding another Neologism

There is little theoretical justification for the continued maintenance of many disciplinary boundaries. Indeed the disciplines themselves have changed. Sociology has “gotten hip” to culture to survive. Anthropologists are interested in space, time and scale, geographers have adopted ethnographic method and the culture concept, and the state is no longer the sole purview of political science. The paradigmatic concepts once deployed by particular areas are now used across the disciplines and many boundaries have lost their significance. In anthropology the most celebrated recent ethnographies are conscious engagements with geographic thought and are actively branded as “paradigm shattering’ (e.g. Moore, 2005; Gregory, 2007; Elyachar, 2005). But they are more than that: they are discipline shattering. And it’s not just Marxists making the shared effort for post-disciplinary work. Post-structuralism, actor-network theory and critical race theory, amongst many others, make disciplines less relevant as scholars are increasingly drawn to work that shares similar theoretical commitments, rather than their sequestered disciplinary boxes. Perhaps this is why the department of Anthropology at the City University of New York is filled with so many geographers.

As social scientists, we are already fighting from a less than ideal position in the wider academy. In light of the increasing marginalization of the social sciences, particularly those social scientists who work in critical/radical traditions, we would be foolish to continue in our disciplinary cages. The neoliberal restructuring of the academy will likely entail formation of new synthetic areas of study which defy old boundaries. Rather than a “two line struggle” between anthropology and geography, we should conceive of the collaboration as a mutually beneficial cross pollination that enriches both theoretically and gets us toward a more adequate totality. As topically connected programs multiply in many institutions, we would be remiss to ignore the shared intellectual projects manifest between and across old disciplinary divides. In other words, we can do it for ourselves or they can do it for us. To that end, we seek not a perfect synthesis of geography and anthropology, i.e. that collapses each into the other or which swallows one whole at the expense of the other, but as our title suggests, a synthesis between the two––a mutually productive ground where we can work. Let’s hope we’re up to the task.

Aaron Kappeler & Patrick Bigger

*Anthropology’s role in this should not surprise us. Boas was a Kantian and read Kant in his igloo.
**Many sociologists continue to do interesting and important work. What we lament is their increasing marginalization in the academy and the prevalent view that their discipline is “old hat.” What we don’t envy is their position or the sociological arrogance which got them there. “Some of our best friends are sociologists.”
***We can see this interest in the deplorable mobilization of anthropologists for work with the U.S. military and Pentagon.

References Cited

Crang, Mike.  2002.  Qualitative Methods: The New Orthodoxy? Progress in Human Geography 26:5, 647-655.

Elyachar, Julia. 2005.  Markets of Dispossession: NGOS, Economic Development and The State in Cairo.  Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Foucault, Michel.  1972.  The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pergamon Publishers.

Gregory, Steven.  2007.  The Devil Behind the Mirror: Globalization and Politics in Dominican Republic.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Moore, Donald.  2005.  Suffering for Territory: Race, Place and Power in Zimbabwe. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Wolf, Eric.  1999.  Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Crisis. Berkeley: University of
California Press.
-----1982.  Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.


FloydAnthro said...

You lost me at "Marxism".

Ryan Anderson said...

"Culture is a semiotic system, nothing more and nothing less."

I agree that the concept of culture is very much about systems of signs and meanings--but is that all it's about? Or is that all it should be about? This sounds like a definition of culture that is based in Geertz, or maybe Levi-Strauss? But culture can also be about actual behaviors as well--how and why people actually do certain things in certain situations. Anyway, I like how Wolf puts it: "We thus need to make our received concepts more flexible and operational, but we must not forget the relational value of concepts like culture, which--whatever its limits--sought connections among phenomena, in contrast to the earlier 'custom'" (in Envisioning Power, 67). For me culture has to be about something more than a semiotic system--it also has to account for what people do within those kinds of systems of meaning. Anyway, that's my culture rant for the day.

"Lamentably, the subtle but not insubstantial distinction between doing ethnographic fieldwork and writing ethnography remains a stumbling block for some and stands in the way of more direct collaboration."

Do you think this is a situation that is created mostly by stubborn anthropologists who want to see "ethnography" written in a certain way?

Ryan Anderson said...


Thanks for your comment. I was wondering if you might be willing to elaborate on your position just a bit more.

Anonymous said...

The early classic paper was by anthropologist Roy Ellen in 1988 in 'Progress in Human Geography' - it set me off on a new path. doi: 10.1177/030913258801200204

The complementarities and differences between the disciplines are overblown. There are loads of people with a PhD in one discipline and a job in the other. Paul Richards (ex UCL and Wageningen) is the best example.

I was also in a joint Department for some years. It imploded because of exaggerated disciplinary differences (constructed more than real) and over who should own 'development studies', which was the degree that paid much of our salaries.