By Emma Louise Backe
They are an unusual tribe: gathering in small, clandestine clusters, hugging or kissing over common cohorts and academic rituals, speaking in a discourse particular to the profession, yet full of insider jokes, misgivings and idiosyncracies. As I wended my way through the throngs of anthropologists swaddled in shawls and theoretical quandaries, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed, thinking about all the panels and presentations I wanted to attend. Although I missed out on presentations by Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das, Emily Martin, Lila Abu-Lughod, Vincent Crapanzano, Thomas Csordas, Mary-Jo Delvecchio Good, and Didier Fassin, I did get to see Summerson Carr, Charles L. Briggs, Judith Farquhar and have a minor fan-girl moment over Nancy Scheper-Hughes. I was summarily impressed with the variety of panels that put different groups in dialogue with one another, attended to incipient digital communities and methodological strategies, and confronted the new political and public roles that anthropologists are increasingly adopting. AAA was even handing out Anthro Geek ribbons, so naturally I took an Anthro Geek selfie.
While protests and marches erupted around Chinatown and DuPont Circle, groups like the Association of Black Anthropologists helped stage a “die in” on Friday, December 4, in response to the Ferguson ruling. Other groups circulated information about the conflict in Palestine and Israel, police brutality, the politics of violence, and the prison industrial complex. I was privy to impassioned speeches demonstrating a level of emotionality you don’t often see in “academic” settings and watched as anthropology professors, professionals and students alike debated moral relativity and justice, a praxis of activism, and a personal commitment to the politics of the people they studied and served. As an individual who works on gender-based violence research, intervention and prevention, I was thrilled to attend panels like “Anthropology and Sexual Violence in Marriage,” “Gender, Sexuality and (Dis)-placement,” and “Navigating Representation: Producing Ethnographies of Gender-Based Violence Organizing,” where presenters grappled with the contingencies of transitional justice, culturally coded attitudes toward rape, applications of anthropology to public policy, and the stories anthropologists have the “authority” to tell. Although the presentations on engaged anthropology and coordination with humanitarian organizations for social justice all point to a paradigm shift in observation versus responsibility, I still felt like the panels I saw veered sometimes impractically toward theory rather than pragmatism. Whereas cultural relativity and a heterogeneous approach to legal policy may be more salient and palatable within the discipline of anthropology, I would argue that anthropologists need to be willing to make compromises, engage with the public in a way that is both accessible and easily digestible (rather than intimidating and sometimes, frankly, alienating), and think practically about whether certain ethnographic methodologies could hurt more than they help.
Considering that I’ve been out of school now for a year and a half, though, the conference reminded me how much I truly love anthropology. Anthropologists have the incredible capability to rhapsodize about the most banal, prosaic occurrences and practices, rendering them into exquisite, meaningful experiences with far-reaching consequences. The theoretical, explanatory power of anthropology remains, to my mind, truly transformative and revolutionary, simultaneously poetic and keen, perceptive and lyrical to a point of almost intellectual conversion. They are a curious tribe precisely for their curiosity and their incredible interpretive acumen. As an anthropological convert and sometimes effusive proselytizer, however, I wish that there had been more opportunities to network with young anthropologists like myself. While I was able to strike up conversations in the brief moments before panels, the American Anthropological Association did not provide a space or event for nascent, aspiring anthropologists. Much as the community seems outwardly concerned with anthropological education, legacy and disciplinary futures, practicing anthropologists today could put more concerted effort into cultivating the community of fledgling anthropologists like myself and nurturing their passion in the field. Even though our practice is oriented around social interaction, the discipline can often feel lonely and insular. We were all, in our own way, geeking out about anthropology and yet we retreat to our villages, campuses and own private ontologies, with the perniciously vague sense that we should be doing anthropology yet are still uncertain with what we want to get done.