The "Exotic" and the "Domestic": Regions and Representation in Cultural Anthropology

Article excerpt

Regional scholarship is an enduring feature of cultural anthropology. But how does work from different regions compare in terms of published scholarship? This article offers some preliminary answers based on a longitudinal study of ethnographic articles in major English-language journals over the past seven decades. The dominance of North America in the early decades of the 20th century has given way to articles on more "exotic" areas, especially Oceania, Asia, and Africa. A preliminary explanation of this shift involves graduate programs and academic career paths that favor exotic and "pure" research in contrast to "domestic" and applied research.

Key words: regional scholarship, ethnographic representation, graduate programs, applied anthropology, North America

At the beginning of the 21 st century, geographical regions-what used to be called culture areas-seem precariously wedged between the competing claims of the "local" and the "global." In a world of multisited ethnographies and global ethnoscapes, regional expertise and even area studies programs seem somewhat anachronistic. After all, with Hindus in Houston, Tamils in Toronto, Samoans in the Rocky Mountains, and Japanese in Sao Paulo, of what relevance are traditional geographic regions? And yet for most of the last century, regional scholarship was an enduring feature of cultural anthropology. Most regions continue to have their own professional organizations and journals to promote scholarship. Indeed, employment opportunities for and the professional identities of almost all cultural anthropologists are closely linked to particular regions, probably to a greater extent than in any of the other social sciences.

Recently, several anthropologists have called attention to just how important regions have been in the development of cultural anthropology and how their influence has been largely unrecognized and understudied (Appadurai 1986; Thomas 1989; Fardon 1990; Gupta and Ferguson 1997). Regions have acted as boundary markers or "gatekeepers" for the investigation of certain topics like exchange (Melanesia) or segmentary lineages (Africa). There is also a hierarchy of prestige in which fieldwork in some regions and cultures is more valued than in others. In their important edited volume, Anthropological Locations, Gupta and Ferguson (1997:12-15)1 argue that the more foreign and exotic the location, the greater the prestige attached to the fieldwork. Conversely, the closer to home and the more domestic the field site, the less prestige.

If it is true that exotic, "grass hut" fieldwork abroad is viewed as more authentic than "subway" ethnography in North America, questions remain. Which regions are most significant? When did exotic fieldwork outside of North America become so important? And what has happened to those cultural anthropologists who work in North America? These were the questions that animated our research.

We found that in recent decades, Asia, Oceania, and Af rica have become more visible than North America, the best represented region for the first seven decades of the 20th century. Institutional changes in graduate programs and employment opportunities favored this shift. But today, changes in graduate support and employment opportunities are leading to renewed interest in North America and applied work. Current graduate students may be caught between the academic prestige associated with exotic fieldwork and the professional reality of employment in applied anthropology at home or in nonacademic fields. Thus the study of anthropological locations has important implications for where and how fieldwork will be done, where it will be published, and where ethnographers will be employed. This article documents trends in regional scholarship and discusses some of their implications for exotic versus domestic research in cultural anthropology.


Our inquiry began as the result of questions initially raised by one of the authors of the present study (Ehlers 1990), who examined the proportional representation of articles on Central America by cultural anthropologists in anthropology's general readership journals. …