Loaded Prepositions

A history lecturer once asked our class a question which disturbed me. Processing this question took some time.

Why, the lecturer asked, are we always learning about India and never learning from India?

I’ll preface with a qualification. The course was part of an interdisciplinary area studies program, associated with ANU’s South Asia Research Institute. So ‘India’ here could variously refer to ideas currently emanating from Indian citizens, ideas from canonical texts like the Bhagavad Gita, or ideas around political organisation, and so on.

The premise of this ‘learning from’ question may offend people for many reasons. University learning is pitched in terms of accumulating knowledge and ‘critical thinking’ skills. We learn about people. We learn from lecturers.

And learning from India in particular seems culturally and politically problematic: New Age spiritualists and other wealthy white people have a tendency to fetishize India. You might be thinking of Julia Roberts self-discovering herself via ‘India’ in the film Eat Pray Love, in a colonial and imperial way (Chandra 2015).

But a little historical research will reveal that not-learning-from can be equally troublesome. British colonisation of India was justified in part by pushing the idea that Europeans indeed had nothing to learn from ‘India’ (Nandy 2003 p. 15).

Julia Roberts and Swarmi Dharmdev.

A key tactic in British colonisation was convincing the population across the globe that Europeans were more ‘progressed’, and thus morally compelled to rule (Ibid.). India presented an exceptional case, however. The British had to reconcile with thousands of years of ‘civic living, a well-developed-literati tradition… and alternative traditions of philosophy, art and science’ (Ibid. 16-17) So the British claimed the subcontinent was degraded, having fallen from a prior superiority (Ibid. p. 22). In short, British superiority was declared through establishing there was nothing to be learnt from India.

Reframing the Question

So Julia Roberts is learning from India in a way that carries a colonial history, and yet not-learning-from was key to colonisation? What should we do?

Prepositions (from, with, about etc.) come loaded, so we can be more thoughtful about which ones we use. We can also reframe the question.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2009, p. 194) asks ‘what happens when one takes indigenous thought seriously’? Though he is discussing the radical alterity presented to us by indigenous worlds, his argument can be applied to peoples anthropology studies in general.

For Viveiros de Castro, there are several tendencies which preclude anthropologists from taking indigenous thought seriously. Explaining indigenous thought in terms of ‘belief’ and ‘systems of belief’ is especially detrimental. ‘Belief’ tends towards taking indigenous thought as an opinion or a proposition (Ibid. p. 194-5). Thinking in these terms leads in two directions: people are rendered either irrational, or as voicing ‘some inborn esoteric science divining the inner, ultimate essence of things’ (Ibid. p. 195).

Instead we can allow the philosophies of others to disturb our own thinking. We can allow indigenous thought to deprive our own concepts – like temporality, design, or emic/etic – of their universality (Skafish 2014, p. 18). Adopting this stance can help working towards decolonisation, because it undermines academia’s ability to claim ultimate intellectual authority (Ibid.).

Let those categories be thrown into disarray!

We can now return to the question raised at the beginning of the post, accompanied by Vivieros de Castro. Learning from India can be problematic if we get caught up in legitimating or valorising ideas, even if this seems like an ethical move. Instead, we can let go of the intellectual authority to validate or invalidate the philosophies of others, and allow the ideas of others to undermine the concepts we take for granted. 


References:

Chandra, S 2015, ”India Will Change You Forever’: Hinduism, Islam, and Whiteness in the American Empire’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 40, no. 2, pp. 487-512.

Nandy, A 2003, The Intimate Enemy, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Skafish, P 2014, ‘Introduction’, in E Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp. 9-33.

Viveiros de Castro, E 2009, Cannibal Metaphysics, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

See Also:

Check out Lani’s critique of self-discovery. She describes Eat Pray Love as great for an anthropology student to watch ‘for all the wrong reasons’. Lani has also contributed a post on cultural appropriation.

Reflexivity can also offer us better understanding of how we learn. You can read Anatol’s post here.

Allowing our concepts to be undermined can be disorientating and disconcerting. I write about this in another post, ‘Being Disconcerted’.


So What’s the Point of it All?

In one of our final seminars of undergrad last year, Monica (Minnegal, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UniMelb) turned to the class and asked: so what is the point of anthropology? What is its purpose? The most obvious answers were of course that the discipline allows you to walk in the shoes of others and understand how your world could also be an Other.

But, she said, those answers won’t change the world or put money on the table.

And in amongst all of the jokes along the lines of ‘an Arts degree won’t get you a job’ (untrue), and ’the social sciences are useless’ (who are they to determine the worth of a discipline?), what does anthropology, then, serve to teach you? Imogen has written about where anthropology can take you in a more practical sense, but what is the point of taking it as a major over something more “useful”? It’s an answer you will be constantly searching for throughout your time in the discipline, but to begin to find it, we need to strip anthropology down to its bare bones.

Anthropology and ethnography begin with a concern with sameness and difference; ethnocentrism and relativism; or the Other. This difference becomes the focus of study, yet it is simultaneously also grounded in an awareness of commonality on the basis of a shared humanity (Wardle & y Blasco 2006).

Many argue that anthropology has two main, if not contradictory, aims: to document and valorise the richness and diversity of human ways of life, and to expose, analyse and critique structures of human inequality; they are not always equally balanced (Robbins 2013).

David Graeber (2007), in the conclusion of his ethnography Lost People, analyses  the purpose of the anthropology and what he thinks it should achieve. He states that in his writing he tries to emphasise that we do inhabit the same world and sees no issue in subjectivity. To him the “desire to seem objective… has largely been responsible for creating the impression that the people we study are some exotic, alien, and ultimately unknowable Other” (Graeber 2007, p. 381). As an anthropologist and ethnographer, Graeber sees it as his duty to represent the people he studies in such a way that a reader “can recognise them as a human being who they might not know, but they could know” (Graeber 2007, p. 387). Anthropology to Graeber is ultimately a medium (however incomplete), that if utilised well is the best basis on which to build a broader sense of human commonality (Graeber 2007).

Part of determining the discipline’s worth then is on you, as intelligent adults who have come from and participate in a particular experience of this world and are more-likely-than-not just beginning to figure out who you want to be in it. How can anthropology and the skills it teaches you serve you for what you want to achieve in this life?

Anthropology is undeniably entangled with an unethical and dehumanising past that we as a discipline are still trying to navigate and work past. Nevertheless, the skills of anthropology are first and foremost best for working with people from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, and for negotiating and engaging with change and diversity.

How do you use those skills for good?

Well, that’s up to you to figure out.


References:

Graeber, D 2007, Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Robbins, J 2013, ‘Beyond the suffering subject: toward an anthropology of the good’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological institute, vol. 19, pp. 447-462.

Wardle, H. and y Blasco P.G. 2006, How to Read Ethnography, Routledge, London.

See Also:

Imogen’s articles on Anthropology’s past; and where the discipline can take you

Earl, C 2017, ‘The researcher as cognitive activist and the mutually useful conversation’, Power Education, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 129-144.

Scheper-Hughes, N 1995, ‘The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology’, Current Anthropology, vol. 36, pp. 409–440.

Strang, V 2009, What Anthropologists Do, Berghahn Books, Oxford.

Anthropology and Mediumship: Should anthropologists access spaces beyond the Earth realm?

Pictured above is the “Arthur Findlay College” located in Stansted, the UK. The college is a spiritualist residential centre where some of the best mediums and psychics from around the world gather to study and deepen their natural abilities.
Arthur Findlay

Elderly couples sat in the rows behind me, all dispersed throughout the back rows. A few elderly gentlemen were scattered in between. I, sitting eagerly in the front row, was accompanied by an elderly woman – who I later discovered had been attending the church for close to fifty years. The whispers and chatter of others in the audience slowly began to fade away as my mum stood forth for platform and began to connect with spirit. Directing her attention to an elderly gentleman in the crowd, she began to bring evidence through and asked for confirmation of a little boy in the spirit world, with long white socks and sandy hair, that she could see running excitedly around her in circles. She continued on to describe and confirm his cause of death to the gentleman and brought through the little boy’s message…

What I have described above is a common ritual practice amongst spiritualist communities both in Australia and around the world. Often on a Sunday afternoon or evening, the community gathers for a ‘church’ service that often includes a philosophical talk on spiritualism, a meditation, singing and a demonstration of mediumship (‘platform’). During the demonstration of mediumship, the medium is connecting to the spirit world and may either bring through evidence of deceased loved ones – now ‘spirits’ in the ‘spirit world’ – or channel a philosophical message from a spirit, entity or other consciousness.

For the members of this community (including myself), our loved ones and the spirit world are always accessible to us and always present in our day-to-day lives. This world, in many respects, forms part of what Deborah Dixon (2007) termed ‘extra-geographies’ – spaces of experience that we do not necessarily see with our physical eyes or truly understand, yet have a significant influence on the ways we experience the world. Many individuals attending the services will come to hear from their loved ones in the spirit world; many may speak of their ‘spirit guides’ who in meditation provide them with wisdom for their problems. Some may even ask their angels to reserve a parking spot for them in an otherwise packed carpark. For me and many others in this community, these are the ‘normal’ day-to-day practices of our lives. However, I imagine that the multiple aspects of this ‘spirit world’ may prompt many ‘outsiders’ to wonder where on earth it is and how do you access it?

Asking a spiritual medium (my mum) to locate the spirit world, she described:

“This spirit world is all around us. Most people can’t see it and generally we can’t see it with our real eyes. To me, it’s like walking through an invisible door and there’s the spirit world (some people call it heaven). It’s a different dimension, if you like. It’s all around us…the spirit world is a form of energy, so it’s everywhere. It’s not like heaven is up in the sky like Catholics are taught – it can be in your heart, it can be in your aura, it can be anywhere and everywhere.”

The spirit world is, therefore, part of our modern social landscape. It is a world, a space and a ‘cultural site’ existing in the everyday lives of many individuals. If this world is so real for so many people, in all its physical, spiritual and mental domains, why does it remain such as under-investigated ‘field’ in anthropology? Why aren’t ethnographers venturing into this space? From an anthropological perspective, should exploring the cultural and symbolic complexities within these unearthly worlds be “off limits”?

If you were engaging with more traditional ethnographers, perhaps the answer would be ‘yes’. From a historical perspective, the ‘field’ in anthropology has been described as a physical location that includes a specific group of people, language and culture that are bounded to one area (e.g. think Margaret Mead’s research in Samoa). As a result, ethnographic material has often been retrieved from participant observation that relies heavily on information from the ethnographer’s five senses: taste, touch, sight, sound, smell. This grounded evidence is what has often made anthropology unique from other disciplines, enabling many anthropologists to claim ‘authority’ from their personal experiences within a cultural field.

This old-hat way of approaching ethnographic research restrains our ability to explore ideological (e.g. ideas of spirituality) and phenomenological (e.g. experiences of a subject/object) fields, which consequently limits the “philosophical scope of anthropology”. Zygmunt Bauman (2000) briefly touches on this in his conceptualisation of ‘fluid modernity’, whereby individuals around the world now engage in constantly changing locations, relationships, identities and cultures. As Bauman (2000) describes, our understandings and sensations of space are now rapidly changing and becoming irrelevant in a world where our socio-cultural relations are being experienced in virtual realities, online interactive spaces and multi-located cultures. In many ways, we have already moved beyond material places and into a domain where the ‘field’ is defined by communities of shared interests and ‘virtual’ or ‘imagined’ worlds (e.g. World of Warcraft or the Spiritual World).

Maybe it’s time now for us, as young anthropologists, to start dipping our toes in these unfamiliar worlds that transcend the earthy realms we have become so comfortable within!


References:

Baumann, Z 2007, Liquid times: Living in an age of uncertainty, Polity, Cambridge, Cambridge: Polity.

Dixon, D 2007, ‘A benevolent and sceptical inquiry: exploring Fortean Geographies’ with the Mothman, Cultural geographies, vol. 4, no., pp.189-210.

See Also (for more on spirituality and religion): Lionel’s article Tio Gong Tao: Using Witchcraft to Rationalise Sexual Objectification in Singapore; Lani’s article Do you believe in ‘Magic’?; and Sarah’s article Ursula Le Guin and the ethnography of future worlds

Beyond Academia: what else can you do with your anthropology degree?

The notion of what ‘the field’ is in anthropology has been expanding over the last few decades. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz is famously quoted saying: ‘The locus of study is not the object of study. Anthropologists don’t study villages (tribes, towns, neighborhoods…); they study in villages.’ (1973, p. 22). Even studying in villages is a bit antiquated in anthropology these days—many anthropologists study communities of practice that occur in many locations or studying the webs that link people and non-human beings across many locations.

But what do anthropologists do if they aren’t researchers in academia…? Not surprisingly, the work that anthropologists do is similarly diverse and expanding.

I interviewed (with Lani’s help) four anthropology graduates and asked them what kind of work they are doing now and how their anthropology degrees have helped them. Maybe it was just a coincidence, or maybe it says something about job opportunities available to anthropologists but two of the five people interviewed worked in user experience and two of the four worked in product design. Meet the interviewees:

Katie

Studied: a Masters in design anthropology (applied anthropology)

Works as: a consultant at a small consultancy Elabor8 on internal employee culture and engagement and product design.

Previously worked: doing user experience at Australia Post

Pasquale

Studied: Anthropology (Honours) and a post grad diploma in IT.

Works as: a user experience consultant at an IT company

Previously worked: in television

Isabella

Studied: Anthropology and Media & Communications

Works as: a freelance digital marketer doing marketing and product design

Paulina

Studied: Anthropology and Social Theory

Works as: a journalist, writer, university journalism teacher and a researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences working on an argument about contemporary food culture

Previously worked: as an ESL teacher and freelance journalist and as a reporter for Fairfax Media (before it was taken over by Nine), the Polish Press Agency and the Guardian

A side note: I realise this is a bit of a long article, but the following are answers from each interview (either in audio format, transcribed, or notes that I took from a conversation that wasn’t recorded) and edited by myself to answer some broad questions that any job seeker may have. Feel free to skip through and follow the thread of a particular person who you find relatable to your interests, or read all the answers to a particular question that interests you! I hope you enjoy and feel a bit more comfy in your outlook for the future–I know it can be scary wondering what you will do after you finish your degree.

Why is anthropology useful in your work?

Overview: Generally anthropology was seen as useful to people’s work because it has taught them to listen and empathise with other people, to try to understand their behaviour and their lives. This understanding enables the interviewees to solve problems that their customers or clients identify themselves.

Katie:

Pasquale: ‘Anthropology is really about learning how to understand people, how to understand behaviour, how to understand what’s happening. And more and more organisations now really want to know what’s going on, because they realise now that they haven’t been listening, that they haven’t understood about their clients, their customers, their users. They haven’t even really understood their business all that well. And the great thing about anthropology is it gives you tools like ethnography, and, you know, the way you think about bias and what you are bringing to the work, which I think actually helps companies a lot.’

‘The first step in a design thinking model is you’ve got to empathise with the people who are the target of your project. Well, how do you do that? That’s what people learn when you do anthropology: is how to empathise, how to understand what’s going on, how to make sure you’re not bringing your biases to your work, how to make sure you can get information even when you may not have proper access to people. All of that, they’re all things that anthropologists learn to do and work out on a regular basis…It’s also important at other points in the model when you are trying to define the problem. You want to define the problem with the people, not just make it up as you are going along. When you try to come up with other ideas, you want to bring the people along, so that you can brainstorm those ideas. When you are actually prototyping things, you want to make sure you are including them so they can give you a sense that this thing is going to work or not. So throughout that whole design thinking methodology there’s just anthropology at various points, as far as I’m concerned.

Isabella:

Paulina: ‘I think what anthropology taught me was to always analyse the categories we take for granted. Not everybody lives the same, not everybody eats the same and not everybody dies the same. I see over and over again how normative some journalism/writing/academia can be — constantly reaffirming the same structures and the same processes without looking for the differences and contradictions. I grew up bicultural and bilingual, so I already knew this on some level, but anthropology gave me the necessary disciplinary training to analyse it.’

Are there many other anthropologists in your field?

Overview: As anthropology graduates, the interviewees generally felt like they were quite unique in their fields, with the exception of user experience, IT, and marketing being growing fields for anthropologists because companies are seeking them out for the skills and knowledge that they bring. People with social work, legal, psychology, sociology, politics, and history backgrounds often do similar types of work to anthropologists. An anthropology degree can bring an advantageous edge that others don’t have because anthropologists ask different kinds of questions, use different sorts of methods and get different results.

Katie:

Pasquale: ‘Early on I would have said there weren’t that many, but I think what’s happening now particularly in areas like IT, people are looking at anthropology and ethnography and they actually like what they see, because they want people that can be comfortable in planning and in going in and investigating what’s going on somewhere, or what people are thinking…There is a fast growing area of user research…or UX research (which is slightly different)’

Isabella:

Paulina: ‘I think most people writing about Poland for English-language publications — if I restrict it to this example — are politics or history majors. Many of them seem to have done PPE-style degrees at OxBridge-type institutions. They do really good work, but again, some of them seem to reaffirm structures instead of questioning them (reporting on the state and its institutions as if liberal democracy is the only thing to have ever existed), which during this period of political meltdown is more than a little problematic. Anthropologists ask different questions and I think the more they participate in public discourse, the better we will all be. So get to it!’

What are some thoughts and advice for finding the right work using your anthropology degree?

Pasquale: ‘In the mean time you may have to take up jobs that aren’t that funky. But I think once you’ve realised you want to go in a certain direction then you just keep trying to get into that area.’

Paulina: ‘While I was freelancing, I worked as an ESL teacher in Poland and Australia, which was a great fall-back job (actually, teaching is probably the most useful thing I have ever done). And what better place to flex your anthropological muscles than in another country, in a cross-cultural context.’

A note on writing from Paulina: ‘Writing, on the other hand is a lifelong pursuit with no certain outcome. Being instrumental about it can kill it, being too idealistic about it can kill it too — you shouldn’t do it unless it’s something you feel you need to do. Definitely don’t do it if you want people to like you — they won’t.’

Some final advice from Katie


See more:

Geertz, C 1973, The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books.

[Images my own from my travels around this continent – I hope they make you feel as calm as they make me feel.]