ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field

The 'disappearing' of anthropology in a surfeit of 'the social'

Panel convenors: Jeanette Edwards, University of Manchester, Andrea Stockl, Goldsmiths College, University of London, & Marilyn Strathern, University of Cambridge

Panel abstract

The recent success of the social sciences in bringing 'society' to the attention of a variety of publics including clinicians, research funding bodies and policy makers has been profound. Science and Society, Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI), 'interdisciplinary' research programmes all reveal a push towards marrying 'social' and 'scientific' perspectives. There appears to be (at least in the UK) a willingness from traditionally uninterested quarters to embrace social scientific perspectives. Yet in the rush to 'the social', the specific or distinctive expertise of anthropology disappears. Anthropology readily becomes 'embedded' in other 'expert' agendas but its own distinctive 'expert' perspective is screened out. Indeed asserting its particular expertise in a world of 'experts', runs the danger of being read as merely prissy or elitist.

Topics for consideration might include:

  • the bowdlerisation of anthropological research methods
  • language of anthropology not seen as technique (dismissed as jargon)
  • status of anthropological expertise in a world of 'experts'
  • how is anthropology heard?

The trivialisation of social anthropology

Monica Bonaccorso, University of Cambridge

This paper explores the trivialisation of social anthropology in a variety of contexts. Drawing on current ethnographic explorations in the field of science communication amongst the media and interest groups in the UK the paper addresses how anthropology as a discipline, and as a way to see and interpret the social world is deployed to the point of being trivialised and transformed into a theory of banality. Surprisingly, this is not just perpetrated by non-anthropologists such as journalists, scientists and the 'public' but is internal to the discipline itself. In such cases, trivialisation occurs in relation to (and I would argue is limited to) subjects of study that mediate understandings of knowledge, and particularly 'social' knowledge. The media as a subject of study constitutes a perfect example as it triggers over-simplification amongst anthropologists themselves. I am not arguing that trivialisation from outside or inside the discipline is equivalent; on the contrary what makes it worth investigating is precisely its wide and differentiated spectrum. In all cases, processes of trivialisation and theories of banality are highly informative as they vividly expose certain entrenched folk conceptions of, for instance, what constitutes the 'social' and how it should be conceptualised.

Anthropology Incorporated

Maryon McDonald, University of Cambridge

Some anthropologists feel tired of not being listened to. This paper should give them new hope. It tells the story of anthropology in what might appear to be three different contexts - contexts peopled by French terrorists, by medical doctors and by EU officials. This paper describes some of the reactions of these people to my work amongst them. It also suggests that the way in which anthropology is discursively incorporated is institutionalised in the very way in which our lives are governed in Europe. This is not merely a question of the priority of hard facts and numbers over qualitative insights, and we do not have to change our methodology to be heard. We may, however, have to mind our language.

The anthropologist: ‘intellectual’ or ‘expert’?

Andrea Stöckl, Goldsmiths College, University of London

As anthropologists working in medical and clinical settings, we are asked to cross the boundaries between the notorious ‘two cultures’ (C.P. Snow). This causes problems because anthropologists see themselves as ‘intellectuals’, i.e. commentators and interpreters on social matters. However, a debate about what constitutes ‘social expertise’ has recently started within anthropology. Our assigned role is that of the ‘expert’, when it comes to communicating with representatives of the hard sciences, a comment of an ‘intellectual observer’ is not desired. This leads to a confusion of the meaning of ‘expertise’ on both sides.

I will thus try to look at the historical development of the notion of ‘the intellectual’ and ‘the expert’ within diverse academic traditions and international backgrounds such as the French (Michel Foucault) and the Middle-European (Zygmunt Bauman, Theodor Adorno).

This should contribute to a disentanglement of ideas about epistemological differences. How much knowledge and expertise do we have to have in the researched discipline? What should be regarded as ethnographic data or seen as scientific knowledge/expertise? Should we present ourselves as ‘experts on social matters’? We could risk being partners in crime of a culture in which expertise is defined as a ‘superior’ kind of knowledge, which goes against some anthropological ideas on belief vs. knowledge. Should we, instead, raise awareness for the necessity of the social role of the anthropologist as ‘commentator and interpreter’?

Laudable aims and problematic consequences

Marilyn Strathern, University of Cambridge

Is it an idiosyncratic perception of mine, or of more general import, that one bureaucratic form of interdisciplinarity seems already -- quietly and unremarked -- to be shaping the discipline of social anthropology? If it is of general import, then it is compounded by an interdisciplinary migration of which most anthropologist are aware but ignore -- yet which, bureaucratically speaking, can be quite problematic. Of particular note are seemingly laudable attempts to bring 'society' into all kinds of endeavours.