Mattering Anthropology, Anthropology Matters

By Emma Louise Backe

Anthropology Matters! was the exhortation of the 116th American Anthropological Association Annual meeting this year in Washington, D.C. The frenetic energy of the 115th meeting, marked by the recent 2016 election of now president Donald J. Trump, has instead hardened around an overt and concentrated attempt to historicize the sociopolitical events of the present and prognisticate directions for the future. Yet the exclamatory nature of Anthropology Matters feels ineffectual. Are we trying to signal to the broader intellectual community and American public that anthropology does indeed matter? Or are we instead convincing ourselves that our choice of discipline was legitimate, necessary?

Conferences such as the AAA comprised primarily of practitioners who have already bought into the trappings of the academy and invested in the ethnographic work of the discipline have a tendency to seem redundant. We are already speaking to the converted. Particularly given the meeting’s temporal and geographical situation in the nation’s capital—while the Senate voted on a new Tax Bill embedded with prohibitive clauses for graduate students, women’s health, chronic illness, and environmental degradation—the insularity of the event was notable. During the 2014 AAA annual meeting also held in Washington, DC, the Marriott Lobby became the stage for a “Die In,” conducted in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. While many of the panels and presentations this year dealt explicitly or indirectly with political issues, domestic or otherwise, there were few outward displays of our political orientation as an academic community. In making anthropology matter, then, what is the matter with our matter? And what is the mattering of our theoretical interventions and academic contributions? As Donna Haraway reminds us, “It matters what we use to think other matters with” (2016, 12).

First to the subject of matter. Since November 2016, America has been grappling with the slippery dimensions of a nationalist movement, one in part motivated by notions of a white identity envisioned to be at odds with the rights of communities considered to be the “Other,” despite the demographic dimensions of belonging and immigration. The repercussions of the election seemed emblematic of the tensions of American culture and identity, those imponderabilia suddenly solidified into wide margins of political representation and disenfranchisement. Journalists over the past year have attempted to contextualize “what happened,” struggling to understand the Alt Right, the rise of Naziism, and the ethnic enclaves who called for such a political reckoning. The recent exposes by publications like The New York Times have only revealed the trouble of such representative projects, projects is driven by a positivist impulse exhibited in many journalistic outlets. We want to find a singular answer for why “this” happened, point to a moment in time or an incident in the lives of individuals hailing themselves as white nationalists that provides a tidy explanation. This positivism is essentially trying to matter culture, turn it into a singular ontological object with homogenous inputs and outputs. That way, we can blame it on the economy, an abusive childhood, experiences with bullying, poor education. Something tangible which can ostensibly be identified and fixed.

When we talk about anthropology matters, then, we need to consider how culture has been “mattered” in critical commentaries and public media, how the intangible and immaterial elements of culture are explained and taken up outside the discipline. Undoubtedly, part of our frustration as an academic community is the sudden interest in the concept of culture, while at the same time contending with the disregard of ethnographic research on the very enclaves where Trump draws his support. Why was Hillbilly Elegy such a success, instead of Kathleen’s Stewart more complicated analysis of the hollers in A Space on the Side of the Road? How is it that Renato Rosaldo’s complex analysis of affect among the Ilongot of the Philippines in “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage” featured in season two of NPR’s Invisibilia was instead transformed into a neat psychological concept by hosts Rosin, Spiegel and Miller? On several panels I attended, the discussion section inevitably turned to the problem of public anthropology—how to get anthropology and anthropological concepts out in wider circulation as an expalanatory and analytic framework.

Having spent most of the meeting with a group of other anthropology bloggers—those of us who have invested in the work of bringing anthropological concepts to bear in accessible and interesting formats—I found this refrain disappointing. Whether it’s through the circulation of Sapiens articles to broader platforms like Pacific Standard Magazine and The Atlantic, or devising classroom activities that actively respond to the “human problems” of the moment in engaging and inventive ways, we make anthropology matter by actually investing in public anthropology. That means considering including blog posts as publications submitted for academic tenure. That means providing funding opportunities for students who want to produce a web series from the field, pursue internships with journalist publications, or fellowships for anthropologists experimenting with what it means to “write” ethnography.

Investing in public anthropology also means deconstructing the divide between academic and applied anthropology. During a panel on “Speaking Justice to Power” hosted by the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology (APLA) and PoLAR: Political & Legal Anthropology Review, Laura Nader chided attendees for thinking of ourselves as activists without putting in the real advocacy work. Panels dealing with reproductive justice, the Muslim Ban, the Mexican Border Wall, Charlottesville, and gun violence were all invested in the project of applied, engaged anthropology, but the idea of a militant, barefoot anthropologist first coined by Nancy Scheper-Hughes—where the footprint of the anthropologist matters, where the physical presence of the anthropologist is not only acknowledged but endorsed as a praxis for action—remains fraught. As the insider-outsider, we are both here and not here. To be doing the work is not recognized or rewarded in the same way within the Ivory Tower. The same pronouncement was echoed by Paul Farmer during his discussion of public health and social justice. Valorized as the dual practitioner and physician, however, Farmer has become something of the ideal archetype of the activist anthropologist, one that rarely maps onto the academic, professional and personal lives of aspiring anthropologists on the ground today. As Orisanmi Burton reminded us at the same PoLAR panel, activism is a privilege. There are many bodies imperiled by the call to march and stand on the front lines. The vulnerability of the academic working in such contentious political spaces should not be forgotten, particularly when judged against the hetero, white, cis male figure that historically dominated anthropological ranks.

Making anthropology matter, this year, also seemed to occur by tapping into the cultural zeitgeists of the moment. In addition to late breaking panels emerging in time with presidential interdictions and administrative admonitions, attendees could wear “Me Too” and “Believe Survivors” ribbons on their membership bibs. Did the designers of these ribbons consider the perils of identifying as a survivor within such a high-stakes academic environment? Or the fact that the discipline still has yet to address its own issues with harassment and assault, both in the field and the classroom? Believing survivors first depends on creating accountability mechanisms for perpetrators, recognizing prevailing spirals of power and silence between mentors and students, and recognizing that it should not depend upon narratives of victimization to justify a response and institutional policy. Sexual violence, too, is an anthropological matter. But seeing the violence and asking the violence to reveal itself are two very different things.

Many panelists this year strove to historicize the precipice upon which we find ourselves, mapping out the complex network of nodes, hidden scripts, and events leading to this critical moment in history, while at the same time demonstrating the ways that similar sociopolitical movements came about in other countries. The fine polish of 2016 has worn off, instead replaced by the sentiment that we should have seen this coming, we should have done more. And in the doing, several anthropologists turned to speculative futures, considering not only the potential impacts of a pronatalist Christian government, but also called upon science fiction to experiment with form and postulate stories of futures yet to come. Jason De León, who recently won the MacArthur Genius Grant for his work on undocumented immigrants, considered what an anthropology of resistance from within the academy would look like retrospectively, the archives of 2017 having been destroyed by an authoritarian government. The likes of Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin emerged from time to time, enmeshed in the buzzword of entanglement conceptually connecting panels throughout the weekend. The possibilities of imagination here were critical, accompanied by the dialogical relationship between optimism and pessimism. What kinds of worlds are we capable of cultivating? One solution was to consider how to recenter or decenter the margin—“Cite Black Women” could be seen on the shirts of many in attendance, a reminder that our words and the words of those we enjoin also matters. Yet again, Haraway chides us, saying, “staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvic futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings” (2016, 1).

So how do we come out of the annual AAA so intimately entwined, entangled in the meaning making processes snarled in the knots of discovery, occlusion and evasion? The path forward may present itself through “ethopoietical liveliness” (De La Bellacasa 2015), the material and the metaphorical. Indeed, the geopolitical reverberations of President Trump’s tweets are renewed evidence of the material heft of our language, the physical weight that hate speech can have upon a body—the body politic and the individual body. It is not enough anymore to situate the story around the humans to which the narrative belongs. De León’s book, The Land of Open Graves, is uncomfortably material at times—the pig’s blood, the artifacts abandoned on the migrant trail—while the 2017 winner of the Margaret Mead Award, The Violence of Care by Sameena Mulla, is a book dedicated to technologies of the body, the modes of examination used to materially judged when and how a rape occurred. Both were written by ethnographers invested in being engaged at their sites, using their bodies on behalf of their interlocutors, sometimes in perilous ways. Their books respond to the anxieties of the present, exploring ethnographic worlds anthropologists of the 20th century may have considered too close to home. Therein lies their prescience and their power. That which is made by us, the substance of our analysis and considered to be a legitimate object of inquiry, has always and will continue to matter to those who have lived it. So let us continue to matter our work, always balancing the “thingness” with the theory.

Works Cited

Header image courtesy of Anthropology News. 

De La Bellacasa, Maria Puig. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

De Leon, Jason. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015.

Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Mulla, Sameena. Rape Victims, Forensic Nurses, and Sexual Assault Investigation. New York: NYU Press, 2014.







About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

There are 6 comments

  1. Anthro Reckoning and Reconnaissance | The Geek Anthropologist

    […] Our status on the periphery (whether real or imagined) has meant that we have long leaned into disruption of the discipline under the radar. We’ve chosen to forego sponsored posts—we do not accept money from corporations or organizations seeking to advertise with us. When last approached for such a venture, we instead used it as an opportunity to highlight the problems ofcapitalism in the geek community. We strive to work with new students and advanced academics to devise new pedagogical strategies, updated learning models, and advice on making it on a college campus (virtual or otherwise). We use anthropology to call out instances of neo-colonialism, xenophobia, and appropriation through the guise of science fiction, fantasy, the extraterrestrial. We also hold toxic systems of power to account—whether through geek or academic gatekeeping. The call was always coming from inside the house. […]


  2. Toying with Our Teleologies: Reflections on What SF Can Do for Anthropology | The Geek Anthropologist

    […] At the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association in late 2017, a group of anthropologists came clean about their science and speculative fiction fandoms. We weren’t the only ones. Our panel was one of three devoted to critically exploring the intersections of anthropology and science or speculative fiction (SF), in addition to the first annual AnthropologyCon, which gathered together anthropologists and game designers. There’s a long history, of course, to encounters between anthropology and SF; readers of the Geek Anthropologist will have no need of the reminder. We called our panel “Toying with Our Teleologies: Anthropologists Read SF.” The title references a line in China Miéville’s novel Embassytown. “Just then,” Miéville writes of an alien conurbation, “looking down streets with angles not as we’d have built them, which terminated or twisted in ways that still seemed almost playfully alien, toying with our teleologies […]”—and we took Miéville’s evocation as a kind of mission statement for thinking again about what SF might do for anthropology. If, as Samuel Collins has suggested, an earlier détente between SF and anthropology grew from a particular understanding of difference—holistic, homogenous, homeostatic—then we sought to jumpstart a conversation about how might we reimagine and remake the interface between the two in and for a contemporary moment that calls on anthropology to “matter” again, in new ways? […]


  3. Daniel Boggs

    That was a thoughtful piece. As someone who could never afford to travel to a AAA, I always appreciate reports like this. It troubles me, that anthropology as a discipline seems increasingly to be doing its own othering, jumping one sided on issues, assuming negativity and hate, with disdain for any couterviews. Anthropology, as a discipline, has more to offer humanity perhaps than any other branch of the social sciences, but if we become increasingly politically homogeneous, hyper-technical, and intolerant within our own ranks, we can only expect to be increasingly marginalized by the society at large.


  4. Anonymous

    Loved this piece. I find it to be a thoughtful review and unraveling of the complexities of our discipline at a time of self reflection.


  5. SeriousRachel

    Thank you for writing this overview of the AAA’s. As someone unable to attend, I so appreciate your creating a window into the various threads of the conference and interrogating them at the same time. Inspiring stuff!


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