ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Anthropology, politics and truth

Contact Convenor: Yael Navaro-Yashin

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge
Cambridge, CB2 3RF

Tel: 01223 334 599 

Co-Convenor: Iris Jean-Klein  

Panel abstract

This panel addresses issues in the anthropology of politics within the framework of the broader conference theme, anthropology and science. In conversation with anthropologists of science, who have questioned scientific claims to singular or universal "truth," we intend to address the comparable positivism in anthropology's ethical stances vis-à-vis politics. Our guiding question is: how do anthropologists decide/situate their "moral truths" in the study of politics? Our intention is to turn anthropologists' new positionalities vis-a-vis politics into an object of analysis, along with other positionalities in the broader domain of discourses on human rights, non-violence, etc. Contemporary discourses about and performances of "morality" in the domain of politics employ a language of "science," as well as imitating rationalised "scientific" practices in their institutional arrangements. We propose that anthropologists have been generally complicit in this process, working their own politics along the accepted politics of "morality" and "truth." But as ethnographers, we have access to complex and diverse material which one would expect to challenge institutionalized systems of value. The aim of this panel is to tackle anthropological and political approaches to "justice" which have passed without saying. Paper contributions to this panel will be both ethnographic and theoretical, addressing the question of politics and truth in the domains of human rights discourses, activism, ethnic conflict, law and the illegal, violence and non-violence, etc.

Speaking truth to power? Politics and positionalities among the anthropologists in the controversy over Macedonian identities and rights in Greece

Dr Jane Cowan, University of Sussex

In the late 1990’s anthropologists began to report on activities of groups and individuals in northern Greece related to the acquisition of human (and other kinds of) rights and the recognition of new identities with respect to a part of the population of Macedonia, variously called ‘the Macedonians of Greece’, ‘the Macedonian minority’, or ‘the Macedonian ethnic (or national) minority’. In a context of heightened sensitivity around the topic, particularly in Greece and among Greeks as well as Macedonians in diaspora, anthropologists were pushed, from many different quarters, to take sides. Some did so willingly and assertively, while others had more ambivalent or negative responses; many were drawn, unwillingly or unwittingly, into a highly polarised field, framed in terms they themselves wished to critique. The most dramatic and best known instance concerned the anthropologist, Anastasia Karakasidou, whose work and self became the object of an intense public controversy within Greece, the result of which was the withdrawal of an agreement by Cambridge University Press to publish her monograph, followed by a public campaign calling for a boycott of CUP if it did not reconsider its decision. There were, however, many other moments in the controversies around Macedonia where a variety of different anthropologists were asked to take positions, and sometimes, as a result, found themselves in conflict with each other. These disagreements were often discussed extensively—though in some cases they were dealt with through ‘avoidance’—amongst the anthropologists concerned (including myself) in private and public encounters, as well as conveyed more subtly in published articles. They normally centered around different interpretations of the situation, its complexity and its politics, and of the obligations of the anthropologist, e.g., to certain parties or to ‘telling the truth’. They arose, too, from different views on the meanings and uses of ‘rights’ and on the implications of identity politics. Underlying these disagreements was a ‘moral’ discourse, whose assumptions were sometimes, though not always, made explicit and opened to scrutiny and discussion. In this paper I will explore some of these issues and conflicts, anthropologists’ varied political ‘positions’ and their relation to the anthropologists’ overall (complex) ‘positionalities’. By so doing, I intend to reconsider the question of anthropologists’ engagement in ‘enlightened’ political projects (such as the struggle for rights) in worlds and situations that, as they themselves realise to varying degrees, are messy, complicated and often morally ambiguous.

Fighters, martyrs, victims: memories of the past, political and moral ambivalence and modes of governance in contemporary Spain

Susana Narotzky, Universitat de Barcelona and Paz Moreno, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, Madrid

The paper will compare violent political repression during the Francoist regime with present-day political violence in Spain, in particular refered to the Basque Country conflict around nationalist sovereignty. We will analyse diverse practices and discourses concerning both these realities. In particular we will stress the use of  socially constructed memories of the past, in the production of conflictive moral domains. Finally we will highlight the dialectics between the creation of “regimes of truth” and “regimes of terror” and the politics of diffuse forms of totalitarian governance.

Himalayan justice: confronting legal truths and individual rights

Dr. Fernanda Pirie, Max-Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle

Several anthropologists were involved in the colonial expansion of western legal systems and their successors can now explore the continuing exportation of culturally-specific notions of law and justice through post-colonial national and international legal systems. The rights-based structures of many such systems stem from post-Enlightenment ideas of the abstract, private individual existing within an atomised society (Lukes 1973). Some legal anthropologists (Epstein 1967; Gulliver 1969; Abel 1973) propose a similarly rights-based definition of disputes: as universally involving alleged infringements of individual entitlements or personal rights.

Villagers in Ladakh (in the Indian Himalayas), however, effectively resolve disputes without any concept of individual rights. Conflict is mediated and order restored without judgments on truth or individual interests. Ladakhi practices are based on a particular concept of order and the consequences of disorder, which are related to social constructions of community, the local moral universe and shaped by structures of power and authority. The recently-introduced panchayat system of village justice, based on Indias British-derived legal structures, however, requires literate judges to make determinative judgments on conflicting claims. I argue that this form of justice, founded on an individualistic view of the person within society, radically conflicts with the indigenous approach to conflict, truth and justice.

The desire for truth: competing discourses in anthropology and the truth and reconciliation commission in post-conflict Peru

Wendy Coxshall, University of Manchester

This paper is based on recent research in the highlands of Huanta, Ayacucho in the southern Peruvian Andes, where political violence between Shining Path guerrillas and the Peruvian military armed forces (1980- mid1990’s), was intense.  Out of this violence, there has arisen a political and moral compulsion to find out the real ‘truth’ and with this a plethora of self-evidently competing discourses primarily concerned with notions of ‘reconciliation’, ‘reconstruction’ and ‘justice’.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2002-2003) provides an interesting lens through which to analyse these competing discourses and to consider the validity of ‘truth’ as a research aim; in an effort to be more representative, the state chose 12 commissioners with diverse religious, political and academic affiliations.  I consider anthropology’s complicity in such ‘truth-seeking’, which influenced me in my own research about widows from a highland community that returned from displacement because of the political violence.  I suggest my own and certain other ‘truth(s)’ within the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, assume an importance that, simultaneously, silences the ‘truth(s)’ of others.  Moreover, I discuss how I, and other commissioners, have been compelled to impose ‘truths’ where there are silences; speaking for certain people who do not and/or cannot speak.

Immanent forms: the location of truth in a Japanese bureaucratic machine

Dr. Yasushi Uchiyamada, University of Tsukuba

Within the universe of the ever expanding bureaucratic field, state provided and guaranteed forms proliferate as we use them to think about public policies or about the state that sponsors them. As agents in the bureaucratic field, we are the form, rather than we use the form. How can we, then, write an ethnography of public sector institutions without reproducing the schemata, and hence, the relations of power? I describe the process (as trial and process) which I experienced as a native insider of a public sector organisation specialising in research and education in development. As a ‘cog’ of the bureaucratic machine, I had difficulty in writing about the process, for I participated in the process heavily, but did not have the autonomy to anthropologies the experience reflexively. I therefore use an oneiric mode to imitate the modus operandi of processes that bureaucratic forms systematically fail to recognise. The schemes, that constitute both cognitive processes and quotidian practices in the field, are copied by agents and transferred to and fro between documents, seminars, forums and the office space – between conceptual and physical schemes. In the final analysis, it is argued that in this bureaucratic machine nothing is remembered but the buzzing repetition of the schemes transfer. Where is the location of truth in this machine?

Discussant: Prof Paul Rabinow