Saturday, October 1, 2011

Introduction: A sense of purpose

So what's the purpose of anthropology?  In an attempt to answer this broad, imposing, and seemingly impossible question, here's a short story from my own experiences...

The year was 2005.  I was a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, working on my BA in anthropology.  This was my second year, I think, and I was taking a class called "Latino Migration to the United States."  One of the main texts assigned was by anthropologist Leo Chavez.  The book is called "Shadowed Lives," and is about undocumented migrants in Southern California.  I spent my entire life in this part of the state, so the book was immediately intriguing.  What could this anthropologist really have to say about Southern California, of all places?  What's anthropological about that?  I opened the book, flipped through some of the pages, and began to read what Chavez had to say.  Then I noticed that he was talking about San Diego County--my county.  It was getting more and more interesting, and closer to home.  It gets even closer: Chavez then proceeded to mention the name of my hometown, which is one of the main settings for his ethnographic study.  The book was published in 1992, when I was just another kid in high school.   But these histories--the stories of these unknown people--may as well have been from another part of the world.

My copy of "Shadowed Lives," by Leo Chavez.  Notice the mention of San Diego County and a few key cities in the opening lines of this chapter.

Chavez's book explores the struggles of people who lived in migrant camps tucked away in the hills.  These were the landscapes that surrounded my childhood.  They were always there, laden with unspoken histories and meanings that don't end up in high school classrooms.  Sure, I took classes in history and social studies during high school, but the people in Chavez's book were strangely absent.  This, even though they were a vital part of the community, whether anyone wanted to admit it or not.  Back in 1992 I was 17 only years old; I knew a little bit about these migrant populations, but not much.  They were like secrets, left on the edges, swept aside since they were a bit uncomfortable or disconcerting to think about.  Their stories opened up unwanted reminders about inclusion, exclusion, justice, and power.  What defines a community?  Who belongs, and who is cast aside?  These were stories that didn't exactly fit the narratives that my town liked to tell about itself.  Our historical society liked to talk about the origin story of the city itself in a way that avoided any sort of critical look at the past.  It all sounded so nice, progressive, and clean--from the 1800s to the present it was one smooth, glossy story.  There wasn't much mention of Native Americans, let alone the intertwined histories with the people who came from our southern neighbor, Mexico.  

Such silenced histories serve particular purposes, of course.  Reading Chavez's book was frustrating, shocking, intriguing, and inspiring at once for me.  It was frustrating to learn more about the lives of those people thirteen years after the fact.  Why had I never heard about any of this, I often wondered?  Where were these stories and histories when I was filling in bubble sheets and taking ACT tests in high school?  But the experience was also a game-changer for me: If Chavez could tell me this much about my own hometown through anthropology, then imagine what else could be done.  Reading that book was decisive, and it helped to completely transform how I think about the relationships between history, politics, and community.

For me, Chavez's book dramatically expanded my social and political world.  It literally took a place that I thought I had known so well, and told me about a whole layer of hidden histories.  It blew apart the myopic, sanitized histories of my own past, my own community.  To me, this is the purpose of anthropology.  Precisely.  Sidney Mintz once argued that anthropologists might be able to solidify its "sense of purpose" through deeper "studies of the everyday in modern life" (in Sweetness and Power, 1986: 213).  I could not agree more--this is exactly what Chavez accomplished with his studies about migrant populations.  The purpose of anthropology is to interrogate the boundaries that separate the people with history from the People without History.  We have an imperative to ask why these boundaries exist, and to detail the structures that keep them in place.  Even more, the goal is to seek out the cracks and passageways that exist in these self-imposed social walls, and to find ways to break through the social, historical, and geographic divisions that pervade our contemporary lives.  As Mintz and Chavez powerfully demonstrate, such a project can begin the seemingly innocuous details of our own communities and backyards--and extend outward from there.  That, for me, is the  purpose of anthropology, and it is what gives the discipline a relevance for audiences far beyond the halls of academia.


The rest of this issue explores the purpose of anthropology from a wide variety of perspectives.  We have essays from Daniel Lende, John Sherry, Simone Abram, Jason Antrosio, Sarah Williams, John Hawks, and Jeremy Trombley.  We also have an interview with Adam Fish, which explores some of his thoughts about the discipline of anthropology, and the intersections of media, power, and technology in his research.  I am also adding an open thread section where readers can join in with the discussion (in addition to the comments on each post), and add their own views about the "purpose of anthropology" (here's the link again, just in case you missed it).  Use this page to post your own answer to this question..whether in 10 words or 2000.  You can even post anonymously if you wish.  But I encourage you to take part in the overall conversation here--and continue it elsewhere.  That's the whole point of a project like this.  Also, I wanted to say thanks to everyone for taking part in this issue.  I know that life is really busy around this time of year, so I appreciate you all taking the time to help out with this project.  Last but not least, thanks Sarah and Veronica for all of your continued help with all of the ideas, editing, and organization of these issues.  Thanks! 



Anonymous said...

Thank you for an intriguing introduction. I fully agree with your idea that some books can turn a person into anthropologist and substantially expand one`s view of the world. Ii is my first acquaintance with your project and I will certainly become its admirer.

Roman (Russia)

Ryan Anderson said...

Thanks for your comment Roman! And thanks for dropping by and checking out the site. We are definitely in agreement about the power that books can have. Definitely!

Anonymous said...

As an archaeologist who studies culture contact in colonial eastern North America, I couldn’t agree with you more, Ryan. Like modern immigrants, the experiences and agency (for lack of a better word) of Native Americans had at contact are largely ignored in public education and other forums. I would point a finger at the important role history plays in shaping national identity. Just as structures exist to exclude the experiences of modern immigrants from everyday conversations, there also exist structures to keep Native Americans in their (historical) place in the national consciousness. But I think a deeper, more penetrating issue is a stake here. The “hidden histories” and stereotypes that we complain about as anthropologist keep the exploited, oppressed, and dominated peoples in their place. Even though this fact may not be explicitly recognized outside of academic circles, I think people implicitly understand it and this is why people awkwardly shy away from it in public settings. Recognition of the reality of immigrant workers or the role of Native Americans in the development of the U.S. would undermine the beliefs that justify the inequality, racism, and (fill in the blank) that persist. This is probably obvious to the three people that might read this. The real question is why/how we think we should be able to change people’s minds if they know (implicitly/explicitly) it means undermining their own (place in the) political economy? I guess what I’m really trying to get at is whether this is all just rhetoric or if we really mean to develop real plans/strategies to do something. This is not a critique, but more of a reflection I have had about my own thoughts on the matter. I wrote this yesterday before there were any comments. Perhaps I have missed the point and need to learn how to write books...

Ryan Anderson said...

@Anon archaeologist:

First, thanks for your comment. I think we definitely share some common ground.

"I guess what I’m really trying to get at is whether this is all just rhetoric or if we really mean to develop real plans/strategies to do something. This is not a critique, but more of a reflection I have had about my own thoughts on the matter."

These are good questions--and I think I know where you're coming from with this. What are we *really* doing with all this anthropology stuff, and what are we really planning on doing with it. Writing more books and talking to ourselves? More rhetoric? I am right there with you anon, and I definitely think that what we're doing has to move beyond rhetoric, internal conversations, etc (even if that's not exactly going to get us "tenure"). I think there's a lot that can be done with anthropology. Why? Because the insights that I have gained from reading anthropology (among other things) has definitely been meaning for me, and made me rethink the world around me. Thanks again for your comments and thoughts about this--and for the thoughtful questions.

catherine said...

I am starting postgraduate anthro next year (in southern hemisphere school year begins in february) and I trying to answer the exact same question you ask, 'what is the point of anthropology'. In my undergraduate classes some of my main critism was 'and the point of this research was what?' or 'what drug was that theorist on?'. I want to do anthropology for the same reason as the guy who wrote the book you read, to document and give voice to those without it, or to at least make some kind of contribution to the REAL world. I don't know what theory that falls under (applied anthro?)

Unknown said...

I have been a student and a teacher of science all my life and, at the age of 41,attempting to understand the fuzzy, extremely complex world of human interactions and their consequences. I'm reminded of what Chomsky said about human affairs and quote him here; "Science talks about very simple things, and asks hard questions about them. As soon as things become too complex, science can’t deal with them. Science studies what’s at the edge of understanding, and what’s at the edge of understanding is usually fairly simple. And it rarely reaches human affairs. Human affairs are way too complicated. In fact even understanding insects is an extremely complicated problem in the sciences. So the actual sciences tell us virtually nothing about human affairs.