This post is intended to be a somewhat late reply to Ryan Anderson’s post on the Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC). In the post, Ryan asks “What are we going to do with the OAC now? What can we do with it that contributes to building and supporting the biodiversity of anthropological media and ideas? How can we connect it with other projects, efforts, platforms, organizations, and institutions? More than anything, what does it meant to keep pushing for a more open, democratic anthropology?”
I don’t really want to talk about the OAC. I’ve said enough about it in the past, and I haven’t been involved with it for a few years, so I really can’t speak for or about anything that’s going on over there. Whatever future we imagine for the discipline, the OAC will be a tool – one that we can potentially use to leverage certain possibilities, but I don’t think that it itself will ever be the future of anthropology. Since I’ve distanced myself from it over the last few years, I don’t feel comfortable talking about what it is or should be – I’ll leave that to those who are and have been involved in it and hope that our paths align to some extent.
Instead, I want to talk more generally about the state and future of the discipline, and what I think we can do to make it a better field for everyone involved and promote the kind of “biodiversity” of modes of thought that Eileen Joy has called for. My suggestion boils down to one thing – one easy thing with many challenging manifestations. That one thing is this: to support one another however we can.
Anthropologists are out there all over the world doing some really amazing work. They are helping people to solve everyday problems, bringing attention to issues that most people are unaware of, and generally trying to make the world a better place. That’s not to say that all anthropologists are doing great things – let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that anthropology is some kind of academic utopia. It’s just to say that there is good work being done, and that we generally continue to strive to do better.
However, as everyone in the discipline knows, there are a lot of anthropologists who are struggling these days. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean that anthropologists are like the poor children you see on those commercials who need to be “saved” for just pennies a day. No, I just mean that many anthropologists are burdened by debt, struggling to find reasonable employment, and laboring under the weight of gender, racial, and ethnic discrimination.
I say “these days” and maybe what I really mean is that it has always been this way with some small differences. In the past, the only people who could get degrees in anthropology were those who could afford to attend college. Now, more people are able to get those degrees, but there is still a privileged minority who have access to the best schools, the most resources, and the best jobs. This is made painfully clear by the recent finding that most tenured positions are held by graduates of a handful of elite universities. There are, of course, other elements involved, but this fact exemplifies the hierarchical structure of the discipline. Where there is hierarchy there is homogeneity, and where there is homogeneity, change is slow or even non-existent. The pot needs to be stirred.
Back to my simple suggestion, that we support one another however we can. We live in a world in which everything is a game, and everyone is striving to win by out-doing all the others. It’s a competitive world out there, and, seemingly, the only way to get ahead is to get an early start. The problem isn’t that it’s a game – everything is a game, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But what if, instead of seeing it as a game of trying to get ahead, we think of it as a game where the objective is to work together to make the field as good for everyone as it could be? In that sense, no one can win unless everyone does, and the people who are trying to push their way ahead – or who are already way ahead and unwilling to slow down to lend a hand – are only making it so that nobody – not even themselves – can win.
If we started supporting each other, what would that mean? What would it look like? I can think of a number of acts both small and large: faculty can help ensure that their students are able to make a decent living without having to take on large amounts of debt; senior faculty can pay closer attention to their hiring biases and give greater consideration to candidates from underrepresented groups and to those who are not necessarily from elite universities; those with experience writing successful grants can offer advice and guidance to those who are new to the grant writing process; we can all give financial support to projects that aren’t able to get funding in traditional ways; we can donate to open access publications; we can even retweet, like, or share articles or blog posts that highlight work that might otherwise go unnoticed. The point here isn’t to dictate what people should do, but to offer a way of thinking that suggests things that people could do if they are really committed to making the best discipline for everyone. Anything you can do to give a little push up to someone who otherwise might be kept down – that’s how we need to be thinking about making the future of anthropology. If enough of us do this often enough, the pot might just start bubbling as people who weren’t getting noticed before start to take on more influential positions within the discipline, and that’s when change will start to take place.
But maybe I’m getting too light-hearted and utopian for some people. Of course there are a lot of people who do win without helping others – at least on the short-term, and often for most of their lives so that the long-term seems irrelevant. They get their cozy tenure positions and then spend the rest of their careers building a name for themselves off of the labor of graduate students and adjuncts, all the while churning out more and more graduates who won’t be able to find cozy jobs as easily and espousing “radical” ideas without really doing anything to make life easier for the people they work with. I say fuck them. We don’t need them. Let’s work together to build a new, better discipline, and leave them behind to wallow in the old, dying structures of academia. But maybe I’m just being bitter. In any case, I think we can build a more interesting – rowdy – discipline, but it will take work, time, and a lot of mutual support.