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Anthropology Today: a Result of Postmodern Critique, Ecological Crises, and Re-framing Power

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Anthropology today is not only moving towards new ways of operating past decades of postmodern and postcolonial criticism, but also, according to the authors of this course’s reading list, away from outdated terminology and approach. Where classical anthropology, in the spirit of Durkheim, Boas, and Lévi-Strauss, was more interested in adding ethnographic examples and data to established terms and concepts, contemporary anthropologists often set out to move away from conventional categories in their attempts at explaining something.

Looking at the course literature’s authors chosen research topics, the design of their project, and their justifications for a divorce from the traditional theoretical framework, a picture of what kind of debates influence the scope of anthropological knowledge today can be made out. A picture that has been painted with attention to postmodernist critique, multiplicity through global ecological concerns, and a reframed focus on power and influence. This is most explicitly evident in the closing chapter of Lisa Björkman’s book Pipe Politics, Contested Waters: Embedded Infrastructures of Millennial Mumbai (2015) where she states that she was actively moving away from the notion of treating situations or concepts as empirically given starting points. Instead arguing that this reframing was needed in order to reach a new understanding of said phenomenon. The essay will be separated into a section discussing the effects the three previously stated debates have had on the anthropological discipline and how some of the course literature has grown out of it or been at the forefront of driving it. These sections are then followed by brief summaries and reflections on the work’s most related to these debates and their approach and mode of inquiry. Finally, it will conclude with a reflection on Monica L. Smith’s notion of stable-yet-fluid boundaries and what it contributes to anthropology today.

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Postmodernism and postcolonial critique aided in the debate of the anthropologist as a universalist and relativist, objectivist and subjectivist, as well as addressing the many politics of the discipline, such as the relationship anthropology has had with imperialism, colonialism, and sexism, among others. While postmodern criticism and reflection on the anthropologist’s role and influence, as well as challenging their status as objective scientists, may have caused a somewhat epistemic crisis within the discipline, the questions raised linger on in anthropology works today. The postmodern critique of fieldwork and the emphasis on reciprocity when conducting it can be seen in Anna Tsing’s writing in her book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibilities of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015), as the people she is working with is given the title of “participant” or “collaborator”.

The notion of multiplicity, a term loosely disentangled from its philosophical origin in the works of Edmund Husserl and Henri Bergson and hereon out used to describe the embrace of multitudes of realities as envisioned by Bruno Latour through the words of Edmund Kohn in his article Anthropology of Ontologies (2015). Multiplicity, in this sense, is recognizing multiple modes of existence in order to make humans and nonhumans a part of the same analytical framework, as both of these categories is argued to see themselves, and exist, in distinctly unique and different modes. One might see this move towards an ontological approach in anthropology as a response to debates around reflexivity and intersubjectivity, looking at how something, in this context both the anthropologist and the theoretical framework they apply, is both the locus and the product of a process of interpretation and interaction. This mindset is applied in Kohn and a handful of other researchers who’s attempt to introduce an “ontological turn” into the discipline of anthropology was meant to spearhead a brand-new set of conceptual tools to combat contemporary global and mainly ecological discourses. Kohn sets out to revel conceptual assumptions in the language used by anthropologists to make their analyses, and in order to accomplish this he proposes that by studying how humans communicate with nonhuman kind one can reach an insight into what is intrinsically communicative but not symbolic. In an interview with a Finnish anthropology newspaper in October 2015, Tsing states that as she returned from her doctoral fieldwork anthropology was starting to emphasize on “reflexive styles” of writing ethnographies. Her work that started out as research into the commodity chain structure of a certain mushroom species grew bigger into encompassing interspecies relations and being a great example of the specific global issues that Kohn suggested that an ontological approach could offer new insight into.

In Kohn’s article the anthropologist is seen as a diplomat that moves among and through worlds, therefor is needed to adapt an analytical framework that assists in this endeavor. Tsing’s way of narrating and structure her ethnography is entangled, messy, but evocative. It follows the ontological proposed scheme of human and non-human interconnectivity and champions the notion of anthropological research gaining from being collaborative. Tsing is upfront about outlining her work after a theory before her fieldwork, thus looking for empirical data to support it.

Kohn’s second article, How Dogs Dream: Amazonian Natures and the Politics of Transspecies Engagement (2007), was published before his article outlining the ontological approach to anthropology yet show his desire to include interspecies relations as a research subject and move away from traditional analytical frameworks. The text delves deep into the complex relation and attitude the Ávila Runa people have with their dogs. Through looking at their communicative strategies applies to their dogs and their place as “selves” in a shared reality, Kohn argues that anthropology can learn to adapt to a transspecies ecology and move away from exclusively human analytical frameworks. This is very much in line with the current debates in society concerning animal rights and cruelty, and each text can be read through the lens of a far more shared and empathic future between human and non-humans, be it mushrooms or dogs. However, Kohn’s article is far more concerned with detailing the changes to anthropological approach that he sees as valuable than specifying the limits and scope of the data he presents. This can be gauged from his short conclusion many discussing the approach he advocates, and the highly ethic and philosophical language he applies to the Runa people’s understanding of their own practices. Less explicitly so is Tsing’s book, yet her prologue paints a bleak picture of the state the world is in and in the interview states that anthropology should be more concerned about the loss waves of extinction has had. Tsing has purposefully moved away from the structure of most scholarly works and instead wanted her short, open-ended, patchwork-like chapters to be like the mushrooms that she researched. Regardless of how refreshing or evocative this style of writing is, it poses the notion that Tsing has no intentions on relaying the data objectively, as has been the norm in scholarly works, and instead is encouraging subjective reading of her work.

Moving on to debates on power in practice, not as a specifically contemporary anthropological issue as analyses of power have been published before, but today in a post Michel Foucault world there is a focus on how power is produced and reproduced by social interactions and and is more often seen as contingent on sociocultural relations. Janine Wedel’s book Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market (2009) and Björkman’s 2015 book are mainly concerned with the empirically observable practices of power and how they may differ from preconceived notions or formally outlined boundaries. This in contrast to how Kohn’s 2015 article and Tsing’s book take a stance on, and mainly focuses on, the power the anthropologist has as observer, collaborator, translator, and ultimately author of describing the phenomenon or subject being researched. Wedel and Björkman’s books focus on remodeling terminology to fit their research topics. Wedel’s distinction between the theoretical delineated power structures and the way these are sidestepped or bent in practice is not unlike Björkman’s separation between formal power and informal holders of said power’s practical utilization.The theme and premise of Wedel’s book is the modus operandi and unequivocal existence of a new set of power and influence holders she calls “flexians”. The signifiers of a flexian is their ability to juggle different personas, roles, or positions, at the same time, making their perceived allegiance or loyalties harder to decipher. They are stated as to favor appearing as their most appealing role in any given circumstance, a role that is usually described as objective and lacking any signs of self-interests. Money may be an incentive for the flexian yet being able to hold enough influence to promote their own views are stated as being equally as important to this actor. To be able to reach this level of influence they are argued to be aiding a transformation of the governing system into one that does not have as clear boundaries between state and private sectors, giving flexians the undisturbed opportunity to test the breadth of their power.

Where denoting an individual as a “true flexian” does not work, Wedel fashions the terms “flex activity” and “flex nets” in order to note flex-like actions and features as being passively accepted is society today, resulting in a political bureaucracy that is more informal, improvised, and susceptible to personalistic networks. Her inquiries into “truthiness”, a satirical term coined by the comedian Stephen Colbert, is also surprisingly relevant in political debates today, especially in United States, who are struggling with it as a concept now being a part of their public sphere. In reading this book one can reach an understanding that in applying an anthropological lens, new and interesting insights might appear to how power is socially legitimized and contested through a continued transformation of the global notion and boundaries of democracy.

Björkman’s leading inquiry is a quantitative one: how do the people of Mumbai get their water? And in order to answer this question she argues that one need to consider knowledge of the entangled web of power and influence, local as well as global, and their effect on infrastructural and water distribution practices in Mumbai. She outlines how global cities theorists give us the idea that national economic fortunes are dependent on the extent of which a country’s economy is linked, through its cities, to global finance and commerce networks. This has, in turn, inspired policymakers and planners to formulate strategies for making cities, exemplified by Mumbai, attractive to transnational firms and for global marketplace investment. In-between the 1990s and well into the 2000s, and during years of heated privatization debates, staffing of jobs within the Bombay Municipal Corporation did not increase at all despite the water supply itself growing by 30% and the official city population by 20%. Due to the issues caused by staffing shortages engineers themselves started looking into the possibility for subcontracting various aspects of water distribution. The complex system of valves in the pipe network and lack of official data leads to that the formal responsibility of deciding on valve choreography has devolved into the informal responsibility of ward-level offices. However, even these offices suffer from understaffing and lack of proper documentation and thus the practical knowledge of the valve operations lie with each ward’s handful group of laborers. During a union strike this situation quickly snowballed into a full-on chaotic incident. This strike incident seems to have paved the way for a more positive response to the idea of expanding private-sector involvement into infrastructural progress in Mumbai. However, this involvement is not without its problems as it created an ideological battleground where the lines between formal claims of rights to water are met with informal processes that the rightless resorts to in order to get their fill of the water that sustains them. Björkman concludes her work with this: that categories of identity – like class, community, rights, or rules – are argued to be contingent on the effects of infrastructural practice rather than representing distinct delineated infrastructure or sociolegal configurations. In her opinion, the categories like legal and illegal, formal and informal, world-class and slum, has had profound implications on their objects and in practice produce rather than describe them.

In her article Boundaries in Action: The Past and Present of Delimitation (2012), Monica L. Smith argues that boundaries are not contingent on our perception of them. They may be symbolic rather than empirically observable, dynamically stable-yet-fluid due to multiple factors inherent to human interaction with the world. Delineated boundaries, Smith concludes, are far more flexible and dynamic than we give them credit for. Our national borders are implied to be less immutable and instead more of a suggestion of belonging, establishing and enforcing certain privileges to those within those boundaries whilst denying the same to those outside. Stylistic boundaries are firmer as they are maintained and influenced by individuals who deliberately select a style, which in turn re-establishes stylistic boundaries. Albeit not universally applicable, I found Smith’s point of view to be reflective and surprisingly indicative of the current debates in anthropology. How we are presented with two works focusing on explicit production and reproduction of power in practice, and three texts that are saturated with reflections on the anthropologist’s power when approaching, researching, and describing a phenomenon.

All authors write about how they distanced themselves from the traditional framework, or discarded analytical tools they considered obsolete, or analyzed their research in a new mode. They are not impervious to criticism in these endeavors, as can be seen in their tendency to work in a structure of prioritizing theory and generalizations, before moving onto the empirical data and observations that make it so, rather than the other way around. Signifying a change in anthropology being more concerned about explaining already perceived phenomenon rather than expanding the discipline with specific ethnographies. These authors distinct styles and approaches to their research topic can be viewed as an attempt to shift or stretch the stylistic boundary of anthropology today.


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