Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The Passion of Anthropology in the U.S., Circa 2004

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The Passion of Anthropology in the U.S., Circa 2004

Article excerpt

For me, the distinctive event in the recent history of social and cultural anthropology in the United States has been, since the 1980s, a profound cutting of the discipline (or rather of this influential component of the four-field disciplinary organization of general anthropology) from its moorings that defined it through much of the twentieth century. Certainly the discipline is still wedded functionally to certain aspects of the institutional model which has shaped the identity of social and cultural anthropologists, as pioneered through the works of such figures as Bronislaw Malinowski in England and Franz Boas in the United States. Most anthropologists still begin their careers with a geographical area specialization outside the U.S. (although few receive the intensive areas studies education that was available and encouraged in the U.S. during the 1950s through the 1970s when in the atmosphere of the Cold War and development studies there was a huge investment in such interdisciplinary programs that has since waned; also Europe itself has become a much more legitimate foreign area for U.S. anthropologists, and certain specializations like science and technology studies have gained a prestige and legitimacy equivalent to traditional foreign area specialization). And at least for their initiatory, dissertation research, most anthropologists still participate within the bounds of the method of fieldwork and ethnography, the ethos and pedagogical mythologies of which have been set by the tradition established by the founding figures. However, the ways that careers evolve, and even now are increasingly conceived; the actual nature of the experience of fieldwork and how fieldwork stories are told and passed on professionally as a means of learning its norms; how objects of study are conceptualized; and whose anthropology's primary interdisciplinary partners are-all of these matters crucial to the professional reproduction of anthropology-have changed dramatically.

When I became a professional anthropologist in the mid-1970s, I prepared at Harvard through the usual apprentice model. I became identified as a specialist on Oceania, and I did longterm fieldwork in western Polynesia (mainly in the Tongan islands). My fieldwork was shaped categorically through basic concerns with kinship, ritual, politics, and religion by means of resident inquiry in local communities. While, by this time, at least in the graduate student culture, the influence of such French poststructuralists as Foucault and Barthes, the work of feminist scholars, the relevance of British cultural studies, the attempt to create a structuralist history (as against reigning Marxist alternatives), and a sensitivity to the politics of fieldwork (an effect of the short-lived turbulence of the 60's in the US) were all in the atmosphere, so to speak,if not in the class room, I and my colleagues could still be understood to be doing basic "peoples and places" ethnographic research. While we might have come to see, even then, different theoretical and topical outlines for our apprentice work, it still participated by its very form in adding to the global ethnographic archive, as comparative material or puzzles, for the historic, unfulfilled, and one could say, interrupted, but still ideologically hegemonic grand project of a general science of humans, the special task of social and cultural anthropology being to describe and analyze forms of life that were, if not pre-modern, then non-modern.

While many younger anthropologists,especially in the elite graduate programs, did not in their convictions or perceptions subscribe fully to this program, participating in the discipline meant following it anyhow, through the form of the ethnography and the expectations of fieldwork,which were indeed often the major attraction in undertaking training in anthropology. Even then, and certainly before and now, the research projects of anthropologists in the U.S. were quite diverse. …

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