What’s an Anthropologist to do?

The past couple of weeks have sparked in me a lot of reflection. After the failure to indict the killers of both Mike Brown and Eric Garner (and the general failure of the US justice system) and as a result of the strange, schizophrenic experience of attending the American Anthropological Association conference and at the same time attempting to support the local protests, I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning and purpose of anthropology – and upward anthropology in particular. I clearly don’t have all of the answers, but I think this is an opportunity for us to build a different kind of anthropology. A different kind of anthropology means one that recognizes its place amongst the people rather than as disinterested observers, or, almost as bad, as radical academic commentators. Our radical academics do not excuse our conservative personal opinions, nor justify our inaction in the face of injustice.

With this in mind, I want to refigure our way of thinking about what it is we do. We wear many hats in the course of our careers, but, at least since the 1980s, writing has been the major focus of the discipline. We are writers, we tell stories, we “give voice,” and so on. But to whom do we write? Largely to ourselves, of course. We struggle to figure out how to write for a “larger audience” or how to “bring anthropology to the public,” but we are trained to write for a particular audience – in many cases, we undergo a decade or more of discipline that trains us to write academic papers for an academic audience and little else. So very often we simply cannot write for anyone else, and, even when we can, writing is a very safe way of addressing injustice – particularly in a world where individuals can pick-and-choose the stories they want to hear. Writing isn’t revolutionary anymore.

So what else do we have to offer? What else can we do? Research. We focus so much on writing these days that we often forget about what it takes to get to the writing – the methods, practices, building rapport, and so on that is required for us to even begin to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, more likely). Research is what we do – what we are all trained to do. And in every methods course, we tell our students that anthropology is unique because for us – unlike other social science disciplines – our bodies are our instruments. We put our bodies out there amongst other bodies, talk to them, work with them, play with them, rest with them, and, at times, fight with them. This, more than writing, is the public – I would even say human – side of anthropology.

Furthermore, this is what we have in common with activists. An activist is – among other things – a person who puts her body out there in the thick of things in order to make a political or social statement, whether it’s occupying a park, blocking traffic on a freeway or major intersection, sitting in a forbidden space, or laying down in silence in a public space to honor the dead and dying bodies left laying on the ground for hours after a confrontation with police. Then there are the more extreme cases like the self-immolations that continue in Tibet and that ignited the Arab Spring. It is the act of putting her body on the line that makes the statement, that draws attention to injustice, and the compels others to act.

This is not to say that research is inherently activist, it is only to draw a connection between research and activism as practices, and to push anthropologists to think of the ways that we might put our bodies in the thick of things amongst the people – not only to collect data in order to write our stories, but to work with others to build a better world. What could research become if it, instead of writing, was the central identifying feature of anthropology instead of writing? What would anthropological activism look like if it was less about our words and our voices and more about our bodies and our actions?

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