EASA, 2006: EASA06: Europe and the world

Bristol, UK, 18/09/2006 – 21/09/2006


A WCAA debate: the public image of anthropology

Location Victoria LT
Date and Start Time 21 Sep, 2006 at 11:30


Junji Koizumi (NIHU and Osaka University) email
Joao Pina-Cabral (University of Kent) email
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Short Abstract

Anthropology has emerged from the crisis of the post-colonial era. Our theoretical debates are lively; our methodology is creative; we focus on issues of serious human concern. Why does there seem to be a problem with the public understanding of what anthropology is all about? This debate is part of the activities of the World Council of Anthropological Associations.

Long Abstract

In January 2006, the international community of anthropologists was confronted with a surprising piece of news: Frances principal funding body (CNRS) contemplated giving up on anthropology, re-attributing to it a subsidiary role within the field of contemporary history. Ultimately, confronted with international outcry, the decision was dropped. Many of us, however, remained preoccupied by the event, feeling that a misunderstanding on that scale should not be treated as an isolated event. Similarly, when covering large anthropological meetings, such as AAA meetings, journalists characteristically ignore the vast majority of the sessions, where anthropologists debate contemporary human problems, focusing exclusively on sessions in archaeology and evolutionary anthropology. Finally, we continue to find among other social scientists and historians the disturbing practice of using the word anthropology in its dictionary sense rather than by reference to our discipline and its already long history. Today, anthropology is emerging out of the crisis of self-doubt from which it ailed during the post-colonial era. Theoretically, our debates are lively and continue to spill over into other areas of scientific endeavour as a source of inspiration; methodologically, we remain in the forefront of the exploration of new methods of research in the social sciences; empirically, anthropologists are today, as they have always been, at the centre of most contemporary issues of serious human concern. How, then, can we understand this failure to communicate? This workshop promoted by the World Council of Anthropological Associations debates the issue of the public image of anthropology by considering different national and international scenarios.

Chair: João de Pina-Cabral and Junji Koizumi
Discussant: Jerry Eades and Thomas Reuter


Fateful legacies and the burdens of academic excellence: UK anthropology and the public sphere

Author: John Gledhill (Manchester University)  email
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Long Abstract

UK anthropology retains a reputation for academic excellence but has a declining public profile. Public images and media representations still associate us with strongly with “the savage slot” and anthropologists are rarely invited to contribute to public debates even on the kinds of controversies over multiculturalism and immigration into which the profession is drawn in some other European countries. Our contemporary significance as public intellectuals is minimal. The death of the public intellectual is one arguably a consequence of the neoliberal culture of audit which has served as the vehicle for the restructuring of the publicly funded British Higher Education and is increasingly serving as a model for similar endeavours elsewhere. Yet other branches of UK academia do still produce public intellectuals. This cannot be the sole explanation of our image problems. This paper examines how the discipline dug itself into a bunker of academic self-preservation historically and missed vital opportunities for reinventing itself, in order to consider contemporary options for avoiding further marginalisation as an academic jewel’ on the margins of a university system whose employees are in danger of talking only to each other. I argue that anthropologists today have more scope than ever to challenge conventional assumptions about the world and communicate knowledge that is both distinctive and readily perceived as ‘relevant’ and significant’ by the public, but that in Britain this means adopting a more aggressive, pro-active stance towards intervention in public debate and abandoning ways of thinking that disqualify any clear normative stance.

Trancending identities and othernesses: a challenge for public anthropology

Author: Vassiliki Lalioti (National and Kapodistrian University of Athens)  email
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Long Abstract

Anthropology has emerged as a translator of ways of life beyond the borders of its readers' experiences, challenging ethnocentrism, media stereotypes, denouncing discrimination and prejudice. One of its main purposes has been to call into question the established, offering distinct perspectives on the larger social dilemmas and fields of national and transnational power. All these have created the image of a discipline that cannot be carried out solely 'behind closed doors'. For achieving its purposes anthropology, at least in its recent history, has focused almost exclusively on the celebration of human diversity alone, through studies of the politics of identity and difference, of cultural difference within the context of history of power relations. In an increasingly globalised world, however, anthropological knowledge will be irrelevant as long as it does not provoke universal despair, if it does not offer feelings of security and solutions to social problems, if it does not help people understand their place in the world (natural and cultural) as a whole. Even within the context of recent developments in other disciplines (e.g. biological sciences - cloning, organ transplantation, etc.) nature is becoming artificial and culture is becoming natural while both categories are called into question. Anthropology could thus create a higher public profile by transcending the dipole 'contextualization or human universals' and help individuals place themselves more effectively in a connected and able to communicate world.

Popularising anthropology: the problems with 'culture' and 'ethnic groups'

Author: Christoph Antweiler (FB IV- Ethnologie)  email
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Long Abstract

This paper reports results of recent German research project on the popularization of themes of cultural resp. social anthropology resp. of "ethnic issues". Books as well as journals and visual media were analyzed. What´s hot and what´s not hot for laypersons? The paper delves into the question of the very differentiated audiences nowadays. Some of the overarching themes and issues of interest are summarized and analyzed. It also discusses the gap between deterritorialized and deconstructed scientific notions of culture and the public understanding of cultures as "containers". Furthermore, the potentials and limits of popularizig anthropology are related to debates about public anthropology and to recent issues of the ethics of anthropological teaching and research.

Norway: an anthropologist's paradise?

Author: Thomas Hylland Eriksen (University of Oslo)  email
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Long Abstract

Norwegian anthropology is unusual in two respects: It has a very large number of practitioners and enormous student numbers; and it is highly visible in the public sphere, domestic anthropologists contributing actively to all the constituent parts of it - cultural journals, newspapers, books and magazines, radio, television, internet and public meetings. When the newspaper Dagbladet presented its list of the ten most important public intellectuals in Norway in 2005, three of them were anthropologists.

The paper attempts to explain the unusual public visibility of Norwegian anthropology, but it also traces the relationship between anthropological research and participation in the public sphere, investigating to what extent the two forms of activity are separate or integrated. Its relationship to other academic pursuits, the professional identity of anthropologists, its local reputation as a maverick, idiosyncratic discipline and the possible consequences for research funding are among the topics addressed.

Negotiating the traditions: the public roles of anthropology in Italy and Czechoslovakia in historical perspective

Author: Davide Torsello (Central European University)  email
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Long Abstract

The paper explores the public positions of anthropology in three different national contexts: Italy, the Czech and Slovak Republics. The basic assumption is that, although under different intellectual traditions, in these three contexts anthropology has long strived to establish a recognized public role. The main difficulty derives from the local traditions of anthropology more linked to folklore and ethnological studies rather than to the Anglo-American schools. In Italy, anthropology has only started to gain a public position among the social and human sciences by seeking a painful divorce from the longstanding historical and philosophical traditions. Such a divorce is far from being unproblematic. Present day Italian anthropologists face a continuous process of negotiating the disciplinary identity with the far more established sociological school.

In the two republics of the former Czechoslovakia anthropology has even a harder fate. Here also, the powerful 'folklore legacy' has constructed barriers to prevent the establishing of an individual field of study. Unlike in Italy, however, the postsocialist reforms are pushing fast towards an internationalisation of academic educational standards. The discourse over the consolidation of a public role of anthropology in these three countries is tightly connected to the role of the state as a reformer one the one hand, and the intellectual involvement of the single anthropologists on the other.

Stereotypes and the changing image of anthropology in Brazil

Author: Gustavo Lins Ribeiro (University of Brasilia)  email
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Long Abstract

Two main issues inform what Brazilians think about anthropology. Both are related to the myth of racial democracy, the hegemonic interethnic ideology in Brazil. First, the fact that anthropologists are seen as specialists on Indians gives them a lot of visibility. Although Indians are a tiny minority and the most vulnerable people in this country, they are seen as one of the three main contributors, together with "Whites" and "Africans", to the making of the Brazilian nation and culture. Indians are also seen as a problem. For instance, Indian lands are considered as a hindrance to the development of the country and, when located in border areas, as a "national security problem." Therefore, to be able to count on "specialists" on Indians is an asset for the state and the media. The relationships between "Whites" and "Afro-Brazilians" comprise the second issue, a rather visible one since "affirmative action" became a political banner of the Brazilian black movement. Anthropologists got engaged in this ongoing political struggle with two different positions. There are those who view affirmative action in the Brazilian university system as an import from the U.S. that will generate new types of racial conflicts. There are those who think that affirmative action is a mechanism that will help to diminish the huge inequalities between "Whites" and "Afro-Brazilians". The Brazilian Association of Anthropology (ABA) is a major player regarding the public image of anthropology in Brazil. The preferred self-image of Brazilian anthropologists is one of professionals who struggle for human rights and defend minorities. The Brazilian state has long-standing relationships with Brazilian anthropologists, either via ABA or by making use of their expertise in different state apparatuses. There are several public images of Brazilian anthropologists. The more traditional one is that of the university professor and public intellectual. Another image relates to a professional engaged in sociocultural, environmental, ethnic and land conflicts as an expert working for the state or for a NGO. As the number of graduates in anthropology increases, the public image of anthropology will certainly become more complex.

Transformation of the public image of anthropology: the case of Japan

Author: Junji Koizumi (NIHU and Osaka University)  email
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Long Abstract

"Public image" of anything is a historic construct and an interactive product. The image of anthropology is being produced not only by the act and discourse of academics but also by the perceptions and expectations surrounding them. This paper reviews and examines the public image of anthropology and its surroundings in the historical and contemporary contexts of Japan. Anthropology here started as a new obscure discipline around the middle of the last century and it has gathered and released various images later on. It has been closely associated with archaeological romance of ancient civilizations, perhaps due to the success in Andean archaeological projects by a leading university. It also has had a close association with exotic customs and extraordinary beliefs, perhaps as an antonym of the supposedly uniform and centripetal nature of Japanese culture. It has been deeply affected by the existence of a huge ethnological museum which has been emanating the image of ethnology and variability of world cultures. Through its course, anthropology has been conceived as non-practical, particularly because some influential scholars emphasized the "uselessness" of the discipline, although there were some who wrote about Japanese culture and society and became intellectual leaders in the eyes of the mass media, perhaps due to a strong public interest in Japanese culture whose intensity itself is a feature of Japanese culture. Now anthropology here seems to be taking a "practical" turn. More people have started to explore the possibility of working in practical fields, such as development, public health, social research and education. This does not necessarily come from tighter job markets, although the number of anthropologists is steadily growing and yet academic positions in universities are limited in number. It rather comes from changing environments for those who work in universities. One indication is that a recent change in Japanese Academy of Arts and Sciences subjugated anthropology under "area studies." More important is the ongoing university reform which has made all national universities non-national, creating a strong orientation towards immediate practical results. A still more serious fact is that anthropology has not comprised formal part of secondary education and most of the college students have no previous exposure to anthropological knowledge. In this situation it is essential for anthropologists to modify its discourse and penetrate into the public domain. Anthropology's essential power comes not from exoticism or romanticism, or even from relativism, but from its field methods, ethnographic approach to the reality and its ability at the same time to take a certain distance from it. If anthropology lacks "rigorous and scientific methods" and its "theories" are obscure and unstable, it is because it is a "mule" (Geertz) born between science and literature.