Is There Hope for Anthropology?

By Sanders, Todd | Anthropologica, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Is There Hope for Anthropology?


Sanders, Todd, Anthropologica


Is There Hope for Anthropology? Holger Jebens and Karl-Heinz Kohl, Eds. The End of Anthropology? Oxon, UK: Sean Kingston Publishing, 2011, 262 pages.

Anthropology will soon be closed for business. So, at least, have said Romantics, Anthony Giddens, and a host of anthropological greats - Mead, Lévi-Strauss, Worsley, Sahlins, Geertz among others - who have variously ventured into disciplinary divination. Such prognostications have come in many forms. Some hinge on the idea that anthropology's object of study, the traditional Other in faraway lands, is vanishing or is already gone. Without this object, the reasoning goes, anthropology has nothing left to do. Others prophecise the discipline's demise based on the ethical, epistemological and political critiques levelled against the discipline from the mid-1980s. In this vision anthropology's theories, concepts, methods and ethical positions are bankrupt, and utterly irrelevant to today's fast-moving, postcolonial, global and globalizing world. Here, too, the discipline's end is nigh, due this time to our changing world and to the novel forms of academic autocannibalism that characterize it.

Jebens' and Kohl's (2011) The End of Anthropology? provides a powerful riposte to such pessimisms - the title's interrogative form is a giveaway - through an engaging set of reflections on the state of anthropology today and its future promise. While contributors are not uniformly optimistic, nor do all agree on what anthropology is, what it should do, where it should go, or how it should get there, none is prepared to administer anthropology's Last Rites. There is plenty of hope among these anthropologists about anthropology's future. Indeed, as Jebens' chapter suggests, the fact that anthropologists have long spun gloomy tales of anthropology's imminent demise is itself grounds for hope, not hopelessness, about our end.

This book contains not just one end but many possible ends, and in different senses. These include both demise and goal, as Crapanzano discusses in his splendid chapter: as in "the demise of anthropology" and also "the goal of anthropology." As it happens, for most contributors these twin "ends" are tightly intertwined: the reason anthropology is not nearing its end is precisely due to its promising disciplinary ends (Comaroff, Spyer, Kuper, Godelier). Others agree, adding that anthropologists must actively merge and market their discipline to ensure its survival in our rapidly-changing world (Gingrich, Hannerz). A few contributors, conversely, imply that the relation between anthropology's ends and end is less straightforward, and are more vexed by external forces that shape the discipline (Howell, Crapanzano). For these (relative) pessimists, these are troubling times for anthropology.

But make no mistake. This is a book of hope, underscored by Kohl's introduction and the editors' decision to sandwich the few less celebratory contributions between the many anthropological optimisms. And insofar as it is, the volume successfully captures and conveys a sense of optimism that many, perhaps most anthropologists share today about their discipline, a sense that (to borrow Godelier's chapter title) "In today's world, anthropology is more important than ever." To ensure the discipline's longevity, we just have to keep doing anthropology, and doing it well; we must consolidate and communicate more effectively our ideas and practices to the worldat-large. Vive l'anthropologie!

The book as a whole is a delightful reminder of the range of positions, possibilities and promise our discipline holds. There are good reasons to be optimistic - even enthusiastic! - about many of anthropology's new and old ends and the profound insights they offer (see also Moore and Sanders 2006). Yet there are also good reasons to ask whether such optimism and enthusiasm will translate into recognition outside the discipline and ensure anthropology's future. My fear, I must confess, is that they may not, that the end of anthropology and anthropology's ends are not as tightly linked as some might hope.

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