Back to School: More Notes from the Academic Underground

There is always a buzz in the air when university students return to campuses to begin their spring semester courses.  In these troubled times, what can they expect from our institutions of higher education?  Will new programs, systems, and plans improve the quality of academic life?

Wither the American University? Photo by Paul Stoller

As many scholars have argued, public higher education has become more and more politicized, which means that officials—some elected, many appointed—have starved academic budgets, and eliminated courses of study (music, philosophy, foreign languages, literature) that they consider marginal to the pursuit of a “good job.”  These same experts, many of whom know little about the dynamics of face-to-face teaching, employ business models to streamline the university.  Students become consumers who are supposed evaluate a product—their education—the way a buyer evaluates something he or she has bought at a store.  In this “brave new world” administrators busy themselves with five-year plans, structural re-organizations, course outcomes, mission statements, and never-ending assessment exercises, all of which mire faculty in time-consuming busy work that does little to improve scholarly expertise, intellectual innovation or teaching. 

What are the results of these “pragmatic” moves?  Public universities now have larger and larger classes, fewer full-time tenure and tenure-track faculty, more “efficient” budgets, and an ever-growing cadre of administrators and staff who design more and more programs that have little to do with the intellectual mission of higher education—to safeguard the future by teaching our students how to think and how to write so they might become creative, inventive and engaged citizens of the world.

The spread of university corporatization is by no means unique to American higher education. In the United Kingdom, scholars have to adjust their scholarship to the redesign plans and the “ratings” competition of “audit culture,” which has transformed—not for the better—higher education in England.  In Norway, the venerable and excellent Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo is being merged with Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture, two scholarly units that have little in common.  In an important blog Professors Keir Martin and Thomas Hylland Eriksen, both of whom teach anthropology at the University of Oslo, recently wrote:

“A university is not a car factory.  And our students are not components to be assembled and processed on a production line in the most technocratically efficient manner without a thought for the culture or working environment in which they learn and develop. What we produce is unique, not standardized. This is a point so obvious that one could imagine or hope that it wouldn’t need pointing out.  Unfortunately, on occasion it does, such as on those occasions when a tendency to view the world as a problem to be fixed with spreadsheets leads to the prioritisation of hitting the numbers over the nurturance and development of the human environments that those numbers were intended to measure. It is a tendency that if left unchecked can cause immense problems.  As the anthropologist and financial journalist Gillian Tett observes, this – often unquestioned – logic was one of the major factors behind the Great Financial Crisis that threatened to collapse the world economy ten years ago. Banks, which had become increasingly distant from their customers, trusted instead in numerical data and engaged in a race to repackage their customers’ in ever more profitable, yet ultimately unsustainable forms.

Despite such repeated disasters, the habit of pushing a bean counting managerial style too far at the expense of the original purpose of the institutions that it is supposed to curate is a hard one to break.  Our public services, including universities, are increasingly the victims of an obsessive managerial focus on hitting targets or numerically driven reorganisations that cause great disruption, often lead to increasingly tense and inharmonious work environments and ultimately threaten the very provision of the services that we are supposed to provide.  It might appear obvious that closing down or merging successful units in order to make marginal short-term savings is the very definition of a false economy, but once the reorganisation fever takes hold it is easily forgotten. History tells us that such reorganisations rarely work.  The balance sheet-savings that they provide are almost always more than offset by the damage to morale and productivity that ensue.”

The university is neither a car factory nor a corporation. Professors are not corporate employees. Students are not consumers buying a product. Despite professorial objection and student dissatisfaction, university corporatization persists.

Working in the depths of the academic underground, what can scholars to do to preserve the integrity of higher education?  It would be foolish to turn our backs on technology and social media, ignore the persistent wrongheadedness of assessment exercises or the Deja-vu of yet another system redesign.  But we can remember that despite the bureaucratic obstacles placed on our path, our primary mission is to teach our students how to think, create, and invent.   That mission is stronger than any assessment program, big data analysis, or five-year plan. That mission defines the “future of us all.”

Weaving the World: Workshops on Evocative Ethnographic Writing

For several years I have had the pleasure of teaching three to four-day workshops on ethnographic writing. I have found the workshops to be rewarding and satisfying. They offer me the opportunity to share my experience as an ethnographer and writer and extend my commitment to inter-generational mentoring.


The Ethnographer’s Study. Photo by Paul Stoller

The aim of the three to four-day workshop, “Weaving the World,” is to introduce participants to the fundamental features and essential practices of ethnography, ethnographic writing and blogging. During the workshop participants will learn what distinguishes ethnography from other forms of academic and nonfiction representation. The technique of “Weaving the World,” a seamless linkage of ethnographic description to social analysis will be presented. Participants will be asked to read examples from the work of ethnographers who have, in various ways, attempted to use this technique to describe social worlds through the evocation of space/place, character, and dialogue. These are strategies that ethnographic writers can use to ensure that readers come to know a people who live in a particular place

Scene from the Berlin Writing Workshop, February 2017 Photo by Nasima Selim

The workshop is designed for anyone interested in ethnographic writing, particularly advanced graduate students and junior scholars. It is intended to give practitioners the tools to extend their scholarly insights to a wide audience of readers. Participants will engage in writing exercises to learn how to evoke space/place, how to write dialogue, and how to construct character. By the end of the workshop each participant produces a polished piece of ethnographic writing that “weaves the world” by combining descriptions of place/space, demonstrating the power of dialogue, and presenting portraits of character. Workshop writing projects have resulted in published ethnographic essays and blogs.

Testimonials:.

“Thanks Fiona and Evi for organizing this amazing workshop and thanks to Paul for amazing teaching! I am so glad to have this opportunity to participate. I learned so much from others research and writing.” –Participant in the Queen’s University Workshop

“Thank you so much for a great week of stories and story writing. I feel I have traveled some more in the world” -Participant in the Queen’s University Workshop

“A big thanks to all of you for being such a creative and lovely group!
Special thanks to Fiona and Evi for the effort, stamina and delivery of a wonderful workshop. And of course to Paul for a truly transformative experience!”–a participant in the Queen’s University Workshop.

“In Berlin, for sure, you managed to inspire a bunch of PhD candidates to experiment with sensuous descriptions in their ethnographic writing.” –Participant in the Free University of Berlin Writing Workshop 2017

…a huge huge thank you for doing this…the students have all sent glowing reports…You have probably changed quite a few young people’s lives–organizer of the University of Helsinki Writing Workshop 2015

“Last week I…attended an intensive four-day workshop called “Weaving the World…The course inspired me to craft new answers and respond to the usual questions, but I also learned how to re-evaluate my own position as an anthropologist…”–a participant in the University of Amsterdam Writing Workshop 2018

“Thank you again for a great workshop. I think I can say I’ve learned more about evocative writing in these four days than in my entire career combined. And, importantly, I regained pleasure in the writing so thank you so much for that!”– a participant in the University of Amsterdam Writing Workshop 2018

Paul Stoller at the Free University of Berlin Writer’s Workshop, February 2017 Photo by Nasima Selim

Paul Stoller is Professor of Anthropology at West Chester University and has been conducting ethnographic research for more than 30 years. He is the author 15 books including ethnographies, memoirs, a biography, and three novels. In 2013 King Carl XVI Gustav awarded him the Anders Retzius Gold Medal in Anthropology. In 2015 the American Anthropological Association awarded him the Anthropology in Media Award. Since 2010 he has published more than 150 blogs most of which appeared in The Huffington Post.

If interested in offering a Weaving the World Workshop in 2019 please contact me at pstoller@wcupa.edu to discuss where and when we might organize it.

Edith Turner and the Anthropology of Collective Joy

Edith Turner Visiting with my students Shane Metivier, Erica Walters and Sarah Sutton at the AAA Annual Meetings in Washington DC 2014 Photo by Erica Walters

Note: Earlier this month I traveled to London to participate in a three- day workshop, The Ritual Process: An Anthropology of New Beginnings, during which a diverse group of anthropologists, male and female, older and younger reflected on the monumental scholarship of Victor and Edith Turner.  Organized by Marina Gold, Bruce Kapferer and Julia Sauma (University of Bergen), the workshop enabled us to revisit, reflect, and debate such important anthropological concepts as liminality (being betwixt and between) and communitas (the ineffable feeling of collective joy) that the Turners first introduced 50 years ago.  During our discussions, we discovered that despite the passage of time, these fundamental concepts still stimulate lively and inventive intellectual debate about the whys and wherefores of the human condition–the true test of a concept’s worth.

I never met Victor Turner, but like any graduate student in the 1970s I had read his important work on ritual, symbolic expression and performance.  It met Edie Turner when she published Experiencing Ritual as a title in a book series that I co-edited at the University of Pennsylvania Press.  After that we became friends and remained so until her death.  Having learned so much during the workshop, I wanted to pay tribute to the scholarly legacy of the Turners by re-posting a blog I published in The Huffington Post shortly after Edie’s death in 2017.  It has been updated and slightly revised.

In these days of social, political, and ecological gloom, it’s easy to become cynical. Every day we are bombarded with news of racial prejudice, religious intolerance, economic inequality and xenophobia. Donald Trump, a man who is unabashedly racist, homophobic and misogynistic has been President of the United States for two years. In the UK, British voters opted to leave the European Union. Many of them appear to be unaware of the economic and social consequences of their vote and no one appears to know what will transpire in a future shaped by a Hard or Soft Brexit.

As scholars it’s hard to know how to confront these dismal events. How do we discuss ongoing problems that threaten to shred the global social fabric and bring widespread social, political and economic chaos?

Is there a measure of well being to be found in the world? Is there space for wonder?

In cynical moments when I need to ponder the wonders of human existence, I think about the work of Edith Turner, a monumental anthropologist who died on June 18, 2017, one day after her 95th birthday. In all of her work Edie, as her friends, students, and colleagues knew her, succeeded in describing what is special about the human condition.

In 1985 Edie Turner returned to Zambia in South Central Africa to continue the ethnographic research she had shared with her husband, the late Victor Turner, one of the great anthropologists of the 20th century. During a curing ceremony among the Ndembu people, the religious rituals of whom the Turners described in a series of classic books, Edie learned about the importance of understanding Ndembu rituals in Ndembu terms. In her book Experiencing Ritual Edie wrote about opening herself to the sensibilities of the Ndembu world. Witnessing that curing ceremony Edie wrote about being able to see…” a six-inch blob — a kind of plasma or gray spherical ghost — emerging from the patient’s back”. The spiritual extraction of what the Ndembu call Ihamba, a dead hunter’s tooth, healed the Ndembu patient. For us, the passage takes us to the edge of the possible and challenges our sense of reality. It compels us to think deeply about the human condition, about what is important in our lives and in our work.

Following the publication of Experiencing Ritual in 1992, Edie began to study healing rituals among a variety of peoples, publishing important works on the reality of spirits, on the nature of spirituality and on healers among the Iñupiat people in Northern Alaska.

For me her most important ideas are found in her final book Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy, which she published in 2011. In the first paragraph of this book, Edie deftly tackled the unenviable task of defining something as elusive as communitas, a silent and sudden sense of social bonding. She wrote:

 “…The characteristics of communitas show it to be almost beyond strict definition, with almost endless variations. Communitas often appears unexpectedly. It has to do with a sense felt by a group of people when their life together takes on full meaning….Communitas can only be conveyed through stories…”

Here Edie tapped into something extraordinarily significant: the power of narrative to connect writers to readers, the power of narrative, in the words of the psychologist Jerome Bruner, to construct realities — a narrative construction of a reality that is irreducible to formulae to or a set of abstract theoretical principles.

There is something about narrative that can convey to readers the mystery of the ineffable or the wonder of, as Edie would put it, collective joy. Even so, anthropologists, like most scholars, are trained to tell and not to show, to denote rather to evoke. Edie’s work compels us to wonder what is missed through such academic socialization. As teachers and writers many of us are hesitant to take thematic or representational risks. In this domain Edie’s life work is a beacon of inspirational light. Evoking the specter of communitas, Edie wrote:

“… This book… tackles communitas, togetherness itself, taking the reader to the edge of the precipice of knowledge — and beyond, over the barrier of the scientists’ analysis and into experience itself. Light dawns on what the real thing is, and we feel lucky it exists. Then we can make discoveries.”

The stories of communitas that Edie recounted in her writing not only defined a place of togetherness but also the nebulous space between things. As such communitas shows us the way to an arena in which we can sometimes experience a rare feeling: collective joy.

When I discuss Edie’s life work, I don’t think about reviews, or critiques, or citations. Unlike most academic work, Edie Turner’s contributions to anthropology and to humanistic scholarship provide us a framework for thinking about well-being-in-the-world. Her clear prose and conceptual daring have inspired many of us to stretch our imagination and extend our sensibilities to the outer limits of the possible. In so doing, Edie’s work moves us to explore the unknown, the indefinable, the indeterminate, a path that is not always easy to follow. Despite the difficulties we encounter on this path, Edie Turner has shown us a way forward. In her life and work she marshaled the courage to explore the powerful indeterminacy that you find in the silence between two notes of music, or in the creative incomprehension you find between two cultures, or in the conceptual turbulence you find between spirit and reality. Indeed, Edie Turner’s celebration of social life guides us to a place that has deepened our professional and personal well-being-in-the world.

In the end, Edie’s notion of collective joy is a tonic for contemporary social life. It is a model for reaching our students and extending to the public our important insights about social life. Her joy of living the anthropological life is a model for being well in the world — a model that can bring us a measure of comfort as we confront the imponderables of our turbulent times.

To Jared From Uncle Paul, the Anthropologist

Dear Jared,

So, it’s been some time since I last wrote you.  You’re a busy and important person, so maybe you don’t remember that we may be related.  I grew up with Kushners in and around Washington DC and my family would often gather at Kushner’s Restaurant for celebratory meals.   Who knew that you would grow up to work in your Father-in-Law’s (FiL) White House and I would become an anthropologist?

It would be nice to hear from you sometime.

The last time I wrote I was worried about you.  You had so much to do. My God, it can’t be easy to reform the entire Federal Government.  And how difficult it must be for a Jew—Orthodox no less—to bring peace to the Middle East.  Oy, it’s a burden that must keep you up at night!

In that letter, if you remember, I wrote about the perils of ethnocentrism, about how treacherous it is for you—or anybody—to use a business model to resolve the considerable and complex social and cultural problems that plague our contemporary world.  As you may have realized by now, business models don’t work very well in international politics. I also suggested in my previous letter that you would feel much better if you and your lovely family moved back to New York City.

Please forgive me, boychik, but your Uncle Paul digresses.  When I think back to all those tasty dinners at Kushner’s Restaurant I am compelled to talk too much.  Sorry.

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Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin Ireland  Photo by Paul Stoller

You see, I am very worried about you.  Given the grim realities of the Mueller investigation, things don’t look good. You might get indicted.  You might have to go to jail.  Given his history, your mumser FiL might just throw you under the bus.  In the world of family relations, as any good anthropologist knows, consanguineals (blood relatives) take precedence over affines (in-laws).

Kiddo, you should prepare for the worst, no?

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Hanukkah Candles, 8th Night 2018 Photo by Paul Stoller

As bad as your legal exposure might be, I am much more worried about the culture of hate.  How do you feel about your FiL’s ignorant comments about Jews in the Diaspora.  You must have been at the recent White House Hanukkah ceremony.  Yes, your FiL praised his Jewish American supporters, but then, when talking about Israel, he referred to the Jewish State as “your country.”  The robotic Vice-President, who also spoke to the same room of American Jewish presidential supporters, also referred to Israel as “your country.”

Were you not offended?

Were you not mortified?

This kind of discourse, of course, is part of the culture of hate that, thanks in large measure to the ignorant and hateful rhetoric that spews from the mouth of your FiL, is sweeping across America.  Hate crimes are increasing, including now, of course, antisemitic acts.  Acts of antisemitic hate have spiked during the past two years, including the massacre in Pittsburgh.

Coming back to the White House Hanukkah celebration, when someone says that American Jews owe their allegiance to “their” country (Israel) and not the United States, he or she also suggests that Jews have divided loyalties, that Jews can’t be trusted, that Jews will cheat you—all longstanding antisemitic canards.  I, for one, am offended that your FiL would suggest that Israel is “my country.”  My dad fought in the Pacific during World War II.  He was a proud member of the Jewish War Veterans.  Did he or the thousands of other American Jews who fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam have divided loyalties?  Just because a person happens to be Jewish, doesn’t mean that she or he blindly supports Israel.

In the culture of hate people who want to preserve their power attempt to divide an increasingly diverse population.  Those who want to divide a society say that difference is dangerous.  Those who look different, have divided loyalties, eat exotic foods, speak a different language, or practice a different religion are “others.” The social and cultural practices of these “others” threaten the purity of established norms—in America, the ethos of being white, male and Christian.  Others are “you people,” some of whom owe their allegiance to another country. These “others” must be denigrated and humiliated.  In cases like Charleston, Ferguson, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, they are killed.

What an ugly reality to confront!

One way to make this ugly reality more palatable is to spin false narratives and practice what Jean-Paul Sartre called “bad faith,” which is believing in the illusions you create. Your FiL does it all the time.  He lives in a dangerous fantasy world

Do you as well, Jared?

Do you really think that your personal relationship with the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, the murderous MbS, will bear fruit and bring about peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors?  Do you really think that you and MbS have a special relationship?  What do you think he says about you when he speaks Arabic to his family?  What do you know of the Saudis and their ways?

Do you speak Arabic?

Have you studied the history of the Middle East?

Do you have any idea what the Saudis think of Jewish people like you and me?

You may think you’re safe, but you’re not.  In your FiL’s dysfunctional America, Muslims, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, LGBTQ people, and Jews are non-white, which, as any anthropologist can tell you, is a social and not a biological category. Boychik, you may work in a West Wing office, but you are still “other,” Don’t think “they’ll” never come for you.

They will.

So, if you ever feel like you need a avuncular visit, just let me know.  I’d be happy to see you–even in prison–to chat, talk a little anthropology and suggest some books that will transform the quality of your life.

Happy Holidays from your Uncle Paul, the Anthropologist

An Anthropologist Confronts the Culture of Hate

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The Wall of Terror in Berlin, Gestapo and SS Headquarters (Photo by Paul Stoller)

Even though I was long ago the object of anti-Semitic scorn and abuse, I have steadfastly remained an optimist about my personal and professional life in America.  The memories of people calling me “kike” or a “dirty Jew,” or sale juif (in the Paris Metro) have drifted deep into the background of my consciousness.  I hardly ever think about a gang of young boys sticking my head in the junior high school toilet, flushing it, and saying, “you Christ killing dirty Jew.”  In the 1950s and early 1960s such events were not exceptional and rarely reported. I, for one, was too afraid to report these anti-Semitic acts to the school principal.  I thought that no one would punish their behavior.  Whenever those boys saw me, they laughed or gave me threatening stares—all because I happened to be Jewish.

I was lucky, though.  Unlike my African American, Latino, Native American, LGBTQ and Muslim friends and colleagues, I didn’t have to long endure the ugly everyday presence of racism, ethnic prejudice, homophobia or Islamophobia.  Unlike my female friends and colleagues, I didn’t have to confront a daily barrage of gender bias. Instead, I tried to hide my Jewishness and pretend that I was white.

Passing for white made it easier for me to get over the anti-Semitism I had experienced as a child and teenager. I went to high school, college, and graduate school where I studied linguistics and anthropology. I lived in West Africa where I conducted research in rural villages in the Republic of Niger. I learned to speak French and an African language.  I became a university professor and have been teaching college students for more than 30 years.  I’ve written books and won some awards.  I have a nice house and a beautiful family.  You might say I have a lovely life. Why would I think about those past events?  Why would I worry about hate in America?

The events of the past week, though, have brought those worries to the surface.  A racist anti-Semitic Trump-loving loner sends pipe bombs to the most prominent people on Trump’s “enemies list,” including two former presidents, a former vice-president, a former secretary of state, former directors of the CIA and of national intelligence, two Jewish billionaire activists, and several members of Congress—all highly visible critics of the current president. In Kentucky an armed white man unsuccessfully tries to enter an African American church in an effort to kill black folk. Determined to carry out his mission, he goes to a Kroger grocery store and executes an elderly African American man. Still not satisfied, he exits the store and executes an elderly African American woman. His work completed, he passes a shocked onlooker, who is white, and says: “Whites don’t kill whites.”  In Pittsburgh a white man armed with and AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and several hand guns enters a synagogue on the sabbath, a day of peace and announces that “all Jews must die.” He then brutally kills eight men and three women—the worse incident of anti-Semitic violence in American history.

In Trump’s “nationalist” America, can Jews like me, or for that matter Jared Kushner, still pass for white?  Consider the perceptive words of anthropologist Karen Brodkin in an essay “How Jews Became White Folks and May Become Non-white Under Trump” published in the Jewish Daily Forward, December 06, 2016.

In the wake of World War II, the horrors of Nazism were becoming public and publicly repudiated. Eugenics and political forms of institutional anti-Semitism lost much of their hold. A good economy and a progressive political climate enabled America to dismantle some aspects of legal discrimination and segregation. One result was that Ashkenazi Jews became white; for a while, in the ’50s, we even became a best-selling flavor of American popular culture. Those benefits weren’t extended to African Americans, Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans. Racism itself didn’t take a hit. The category of white just expanded to include Southern and Eastern Europeans. I figured it was permanent.

Now, Trump’s election and the closet of bigotry it has opened raise a question. Have the decades of whiteness we’ve enjoyed affected American Jews and Jewishness permanently, so that Jews would still be considered white, in the sense of still being included among the racially privileged, those safe from persecution?

Or is it possible that the new Trump regime will “unwhiten” and mark Jews racially on a national scale?

Following Trump’s election, of course, hate crimes, according to the FBI, spiked significantly.  According to a June 26, 2018 report published in the online journal, The Conversation: Academic Rigor and Journalistic Flair, a team of sociologists and criminal justice scholars who study hate crimes considered the increases in US hate crimes:

We see three factors behind the moderate overall increases in 2016. First, there was a precipitous spike around the election. Second, on top of sustained levels of hate crimes against African-Americans, and a small increase against Jews, were larger percentage increases against other groups. Third, hate crimes increased by double-digit percentages in several large states, including New York, California, Florida and Illinois.

In 2017, our data show that hate crimes rose 12 percent over 2016 levels in 38 of the largest cities. There were 1,038 hate crimes in the nation’s 10 largest cities – the highest in more than a decade.

Trump’s direct and indirect affirmation of hate through continuous public vilification of women, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, LGBTQ people, Muslims and Jews has clearly opened the floodgates of hate in America. As the disturbingly deadly events of the past week indicate, many “nationalists”, a designation that Trump assigns to himself, think it is now okay for white people to openly hate, vilify and in some cases kill African Americans, Muslims, Native Americans, LGBTQ people, Latinos, Jews, and even politicians who are Democrats) –all to “purify” America and prevent white genocide.

In Trump’s America I’m afraid Jews are no longer white folks.  We now join all the stigmatized Others who in this culture of hate must vigilantly look over their shoulders and wonder why the white dudes in the pickup truck are staring at us as we walk our dogs or when we stroll with our children and grandchildren in our neighborhoods. Is   the white man lingering outside the synagogue or Mosque packing?  Would he kill Jews attending a bris (male circumcision ceremony) or Muslims praying during the Friday Jumu’ah prayer?

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Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.  Photo by Paul Stoller

Have we reached an deadly impasse in American social life?

In the short term, we live in tragic and troubling times.  The hate crimes of the past week have probably made made many of us angry and less optimistic about the here and now. Those crimes have reminded me of troubling incidents from my past. They have made me reflect deeply about my Jewish identity. They have also compelled me to worry about America’s unraveling social fabric.  As an anthropologist I know that social bonds are fragile. I know that senseless violence can erupt at a moment’s notice. Even so, hateful domestic terrorists have not sapped my spirit.

During my time as an anthropologist, my mentors in West Africa always advised me to take the long view of things  I have learned from them that human beings are resilient. Even in times of tragic sadness, there is space for hope.  Indeed, the students I’ve met in my classes and the young professionals I’ve met on my travels in the US and Europe have given me hope for the future.  They are passionately committed to a more perfect union in which we work together for social justice, in which we demand respect human difference, in which we take care of those who cannot take care of themselves.

Taking the long view, the contemporary culture of hate looks like a bright fire that will eventually burn out.  On the long road to social recovery, it will take some time for us to wake up and force the “rats,” as depicted in Albert Camus’s The Plague, back into their holes. Considering the impressive qualities of the next generation I am confident that despair and hopelessness will slowly dissipate and be replaced with hope and resolution–a prediction that reinforces my optimism–even in this tragic and troubling moment of American history.

 

Are We All Going Crazy?

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The Peace Wall, Belfast  (Photo by Paul Stoller)

Belfast, Northern Ireland.  I have a confession:  I’m not sleeping well these days.  I used to sleep well, but recently I wake up in the middle of the night feeling anxious.  Objectively speaking, I shouldn’t feel anxious.  I have a nice house, a stable well-paying job that I like, a lovely family, a fine set of supportive friends and colleagues.  I eat well, travel widely and feel appreciated at work and at home.  So why can’t I sleep well?

Some people suggest that it might be an undiagnosed medical condition. Other people say that erratic sleep comes with age.  But when I discuss this seemingly inexplicable problem with my friends and colleagues, who also have good jobs and stable family lives, they, too, have experienced many nights of tossing and turning.  Like me, they have dreams about devastating floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, nuclear holocausts.  Like me, their worries about expanding poverty, the open display of racism, ethnic discrimination, Islamophobia and misogyny, the spread of hateful speech and explosion of violence against minorities, have  added a new dimension of stress to their busy lives—resulting in sleepless nights.

I admit that my small circle of friends and family cannot be a representative sample of the current population in America, but are our stories of unrest isolated examples of what seems to be widespread social mania?

I think not.

To be blunt, the chaos of our social and political relations has shaken the American social foundation.  Even in the recent past we took for granted some fundamental, bedrock American principles:

  1. We are a good people who help the downtrodden at home and abroad;
  2. We value decency and respect for one another and for the rule of law;
  3. We value the search for truth and respect the inviolable processes of science, even when scientists uncover inconvenient truths; and
  4. We applaud excellence and denigrate ignorance.

There are probably other bedrock principles that I have overlooked, but you get the idea.  We live in world of alternative reality in which expedient lying and unseemly behavior are not only accepted but applauded–in the exercise of brute power.  The speedy denigration of core values, extended through the rapid spread of social media, has ripped apart our social fabric and brought on, for many of us, a succession of sleep disturbed nights.

As an anthropologist who thinks often about the dangers of an unraveling social fabric, I worry about the future.  What kind of life awaits our children and grandchildren?  In the here and now, I lose sleep.  Even so, when I interact with scholars in their 20s and 30s—the next generation of professionals, including, of course, anthropologists—I am filled with hope.  These young scholars lead precarious lives.  Their prospects for academic employment are bleak.  When they do find employment, they are overworked and underpaid.  Senior scholars sometimes disrespect them– privately and publicly. Somehow, they persevere continuing to conduct research and write essays and monographs that convey much-needed engaged anthropological insight in the public sphere.

I have witnessed this impressive talent firsthand in writing workshops I have facilitated during the past four years.  During these workshops, we work on developing an evocative way of writing ethnography, of communicating anthropological insight to the general public, of not shying away from employing anthropological ideas in public discussions about racism, religious intolerance, income inequality, gender bias, political conflict, not to forget the ever-important debate on climate change.  During these workshops, the knowledge, depth, and expressive skill of the participants, most of whom are precariously employed, has overwhelmed me.  When I listen to them sensuously describe the people and places where they have conducted their research, their words and images often take my breath away.

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Mural on the Peace Wall, West Belfast (Photo by Paul Stoller)

They are creative.

They are skilled writers and image-makers.

They are persistent.

They are politically engaged.

They have important stories to tell.

They are our future.

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Mural Near Falls Road, West Belfast (Photo by Paul Stoller)

In Europe and in North America, we live in crazy times, which means that many of us are not sleeping as well as we might.  Having just concluded one of the aforementioned writing workshops in Belfast, Northern Ireland (a socially and politically troubled city) among an inspirational and resilient group of international scholars, I am finally looking forward to a good night’s sleep.

If we pay attention to the committed and refined scholarship of the next generation, we can be confident of better days ahead.

 

 

 

Looking South Toward Granada

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The Alhambra (Photo by Paul Stoller)

There has been much recent discussion about structural inequalities in the academy—especially in anthropology.  In European and North American anthropology there has long been a center-periphery issue.  There are a set of elite metropolitan institutions the prestige of which has shaped disciplinary discourse—what is considered fundamental and publishable and who is worthy of being hired.  There are also center-periphery issues in publishing.  Publishing an essay in an “important” journal or a monograph with a “prestigious” press has given a work a certain disciplinary pedigree.  Gender, of course, is also at issue.  There is much evidence of gendered pay gaps in the academy and in anthropology.  There are also generational inequities.  Younger anthropologists find themselves with little prospect for academic employment and those who manage to secure a visiting or part time position find themselves in precarious circumstances. In the wake of the Me-Too devolution of HAU, Journal of Anthropological Theory and HAU Publishing, both thoroughly metropolitan entities, and the evolution of the #hautalk, a movement on the academic periphery, there is an increasingly energetic move to decolonize anthropology, a concerted attempt to make the discipline more inclusive and less exclusively the bastion of white male privilege.

The strong articulation of these unsettling themes of entrenched elitism and lingering colonization is a much needed wake-up call. There is, however, another domain of latent colonialism in anthropology—the north-south divide—which is sometimes mentioned, but not often discussed in great depth.  Yes, there are currently spaces in which the notion of “world anthropology” is showcased and debated.  But how much do metropolitan anthropologists like me know about the important anthropological work that our colleagues in the south have long been conducting.  How many of us read the latest research in Spanish or Portuguese language journals or books? How many texts published in the south become part of the anthropological canon?

What do we miss when we pay too little attention to our southern colleagues?

We miss a great deal.

Recently I had the chance to attend academic conferences in Mexico and Spain—two exciting, energetic, innovative and inventive spaces of contemporary anthropological research.  In Mexico I attended Ambulante, a traveling documentary film festival. There I had the chance to talk about the work of Jean Rouch and discuss a rather “thin” ethnographic film about a wide variety of Brazilian religious rituals.  My hosts graciously invited me to present a lecture on public anthropology. In another setting we exchanged ideas on the anthropology of the senses.  My newfound Mexican colleagues deeply impressed me with their commitment to social justice, the breadth of their research interests, the depth of their anthropological knowledge not to forget their enthusiasm for the anthropological future. Many of them seemed to know something about my work, but I shamefully admit that I was ignorant of theirs.  This metropolitan anthropologist hadn’t read about a growing body of cutting-edge research in Mexico that constitutes a very exciting and important program of ethnographic research.

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Casa del Tiempo,  Mexico City, a site of important anthropological debate. (Photo by Paul Stoller)

My Mexican hosts shrugged their shoulders—an old story.  On my particular path the road to fluency in Spanish is a slow one, but I will continue to learn and will make a point to read anthropological articles and books published in Spain and Latin America. En este momento soy incapaz de presentar una conferencia en espanol. Talvez el proximo ano?

In Granada Spain I experienced an even fuller exposure to the wonders of anthropology in Spanish. I had the good fortune to attend the Fourth International Congress of Ibero-American Anthropologists (AIBR)  At the Congress there was an opening keynote (Nigel Barley) on the cultural parameters of museum exhibits, a special lecture (Maria Paula Meneses) on anti-colonialism and history in Southern Africa, a special interview event featuring two pioneering anthropological feminists (Teresa del Valle and Monica Tarducci) in the Spanish-speaking world, and a closing keynote on doing slow anthropology in a fast world.

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Professor Teresa del Valle anthropologist and feminista extraordinaire in Granada, Spain (Photo by Ayo Cabrera AIBR)

Although those special events attracted large audiences of AIBR delegates, an even more powerful intellectual energy could be sensed in the breakout sessions, all of which were jam-packed with tuned-in anthropologists.  At each session that I attended, I witnessed lively debates that convinced me that AIBR in Grenada had become fertile ground for the refinement of anthropological practices and concepts.  AIBR delegates presented papers on a wide variety of topics (mass migration, political anthropology, the anthropology of youth, the dynamics of the Anthropocene, the condition of sex workers, bio-politics and wellbeing, digital anthropology, medical anthropology, the anthropology of food and nutrition, cultural heritage, and many others which, given the privations of space, are too numerous to mention)  The AIBR Congress also featured workshops on anthropological methods and audio-visual practices (nine distinct subjects) as well as the 26 book launches and eight film showings.

I met fascinating and impressive scholars, some of whom had been activists, some of whom had been jailed during the time of Franco.  Based on my many conversations, it seems to me that Ibero-American anthropologists are profoundly dedicated to applying anthropological insights to the resolution of social problems, especially among immigrants, but also among poor rural migrants who, in search of a better life, have moved to large cities.  At each event there was a sense of celebration—of research, of writing, of the contemporary mission of anthropology.

We miss a lot when we bypass the rich intellectual traditions of our colleagues in the south.

When I look south, I see the future of anthropology.