Editor's note: this article originally appeared in Minding the Campus on May 2, 2016.
The knock against anthropologists used to be that they were all relativists. Not anymore. Many anthropologists today are hardcore moral absolutists. The members of the American Anthropological Association are busy voting (until May 31) on a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The proposed resolution jumps off in its first sentence in universalist language, claiming that Israel has denied Palestinians “their fundamental rights of freedom, equality, and self-determination.”
I have voted against the resolution, because I oppose the politicization of an academic discipline. I also disagree with it on substantive grounds, but that’s beside the point.
The AAA’s anti-Israel resolution, of course, hasn’t materialized out of thin air. It is part of the larger BDS campaign against Israel—Boycott, Divest, and Sanction. Other academic associations, starting with the American Studies Association in December 2014, have gone down this road. And the AAA has been politicizing itself for several decades. Its virulent attack on the reputation of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon in 2002 was a forerunner of what was to come.
And as the new resolution points out, in 1999 AAA adopted a Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights that committed the body to “promotion and protection of the right of people and peoples everywhere to the full realization of their humanity.” That Declaration is a perfect springboard for all sorts of partisan action on behalf of one group and against another.
The “promotion and protection” sentence sounds so benign that it is worth pausing to see exactly where the mischief lies. Anthropology is, in principle, the study of humanity. It attempts to sort out what is fundamentally human and therefore shared by all, what varies from group to group, and how those variations can be explained. In that perspective, the 1999 Declaration’s phrase “full realization of their humanity” is a puzzle. Anthropologists used to regard “humanity” as the question to be asked, not the answer that is already in hand. Does the “full realization” of some people’s “humanity” mean that we should make room for some tribe’s deeply felt need for child sacrifice, widow-burning, torture of captives, head-hunting, or numerous other customs well-attested in the ethnographic record?
Our “humanity” is, as anthropologists well know, an extremely flexible thing, and one that can be and often has been stretched to encompass some behavior that most of us would regard as far from humane. But that doesn’t seem to be the idea offered up in the Declaration. Rather, “the full realization of their humanity” turns out to involve things like “the right to education and academic freedom, for peoples around the world.”
To anyone acquainted with world ethnography that is a pretty strange conception. What did the Trobriand Islanders of Malinowski’s day know of “academic freedom?” What was the “right to education” among herders of the Central Asian Steppe? Or hunters in the Amazon rain forest? If these are the desiderata of a “full realization” of humanity, did anthropology decide once and for all that only people who have universities can be human? Perhaps the “right to education” can encompass learning how to herd sheep or blowgun monkeys from the forest canopy, but that’s probably not what the Declaration meant.
The Declaration reflects a sentimental view of humanity, as though in our essence we are a tribe of suburban Californians dabbling in the human potential movement of the 1990s, eager to get our kids into good local schools and send them on to Berkeley or Reed.
That this could turn in 2016 to the thinly veiled anti-Semitism of a BDS-style resolution should not be too much of a surprise. Anti-Semitism is back in fashion. It is this year’s Merlot. And academics whose minds are shaped mostly by intellectual fashion were bound to arrive there.
This is, however, quite a journey for the field of anthropology. Not so many years ago, anthropologists were in a kind of arms race to see who could carry cultural relativism to the greatest extreme. Everyone knows roughly what cultural relativism is. If we can look at the world through X’s eyes, we can understand why X does what he does. If you just looked at the world through the cannibal’s eyes, you could see cannibalism was a sensible cultural choice.
No Generalizing about Humanity
Anthropologists circa 1980 seemed to come equipped with an internal alarm that went off any time someone generalized about humanity. If you said, “But all parents love their children,” an anthropologist of the era would be sure to say something like, “Not so! Among the Mundugamor of the Sepik River in New Guinea, parents consider their children a vile nuisance.” Generalizing about humanity based on the ideals of your own culture was “ethnocentrism,” of which there was no more terrible thing. To be ethnocentric was to be intellectually shallow and uninformed about the sheer variety of ways humans can go about being human.
But then anthropology touched its relativistic bottom. In the 1980s it collectively decided that anthropology itself was ethnocentric. The things anthropologists studied such as marriage, family, and kinship were deemed no more than projections of the anthropologist’s own culture. This was in many ways absurd, but it caught on and many anthropologists decided their only option was start staring into the mirror. They wrote subjective stories about how they felt when confronted with “the other.” They studied their own communities. And increasingly they embraced ideologies that turned them into “post-colonial” activists, environmental activists, feminist activists, and so on. The discipline of anthropology un-disciplined itself in favor of political action.
Anthropology Becomes Ideology
I wrote an essay on this for Minding the Campus January a year ago, “Ferguson and the Decline of Anthropology.” My perspective was considered sufficiently unusual that the AAA Newsletter picked it up and reprinted it, and this in turn set off a firestorm of criticism of the AAA editors for publishing such a disgraceful thing. One anthropologist took the trouble to post a declaration of his own: “Why you shouldn’t take Peter Wood (or Anthropology News) seriously.”
But I’m far from alone in regarding anthropology’s descent into ideology as an intellectual disaster. My colleague Glynn Custred recently posted a similar essay, “Turning Anthropology from Science into Political Activism.”
This is not to say that politicized anthropology is a single ideology. What has emerged in the place of the old discipline is a many-sided feud over which ideology should dominate. The lead article in the newest issue of Current Anthropology, for example, pitches the importance of the “decolonizing” project carried forward by “Black scholars,” and argues that decolonizing has wrongly lost ground to the postmodern “ontological project” in anthropology. What is all that about?
You can read Jafari Sinclaire Allen and Ryan Cecil Jobson’s “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology Since the Eighties.” But be prepared for explanations like this: “While the ontological turn contents itself with the assertion of multiple ontologies as a corrective to enduring North Atlantic universals, the decolonizing project insists that even in multiple ontologies, the work of dismantling a hegemonic Western ontology—and its adjunct systems of colonials and racial capitalism—remains.”
Busy Attacking the West
Translation: Many anthropologists busy themselves attacking Western ideas about objective knowledge, but they don’t go far enough. You need radical Black anthropologists to finish the job of destroying the West.
Allen and Jobson are perfectly explicit about their larger goal. Their essay, though turgid, is clear enough in its lament for the fall of Soviet communism: “The fall of the Soviet Union was of interest—and destabilizing—to anthropology.” That’s because the end of “state socialist projects […] foreclosed a moment of revolutionary optimism.”
This essay, given prominent treatment in a mainstream academic journal, is nothing unusual in the field as it now stands. If you wonder how and why the BDS movement could gain a sizable following among academic anthropologists in 2016, consider Allen and Jobson as a benchmark of where the discipline is.
This is anthropology in the mode of saying more and more about less and less. Most of the anthropologists I know and respect have long since left the American Anthropological Association. A small but determined faction hangs on in the hope that real anthropological scholarship will somehow survive this decades-long descent into intellectual drivel. My own view is that the written record of good ethnography written before the 1980s will endure because it is readable and important. And there are solitary monuments in the 1990s and after, as the boulders left behind by retreating glaciers, which attest to a now vanished form of rigorous academic inquiry.
Scholarship requires a community of scholars who actively learn from and challenge one another. That community is fast disappearing. Anthropology departments today typically include a few people who know about DNA and evolution, and a whole lot of people committed to “social justice” by celebrating one or another kind of victimhood. Calls for papers go out to those writing “anthropology fiction,” “lies that tell the truth,” and “gender-responsive implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” Those are items pulled from the top of the Anthropology News calendar. They capture the everyday business of a field that is busy talking itself into irrelevance to any serious intellectual endeavor.
What do anthropologists talk about when they talk about Africa? “The relationships between the colonial/apartheid and the post-colonial/post-apartheid,” is on the docket at the African Critical Inquiry Programme. This is the echo in that empty auditorium. Africa like the rest of the world still has a great deal to teach us about what is fundamentally human and what varies from group to group. But “postcolonial” theorizing is what we get after the serious questions go to bed. It is post-anthropology. And it is part of the fog, along with the proposed Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, the Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights, and the skirmishes between neo-decolonialists, postmodern ontologists. Anthropology today is dominated by hatred of science and civilization. Some of its practitioners express that hatred proudly; others try to muffle it a bit; and a few gray members of the old tradition hang on. How does an academic discipline die? Like this.