A Guerilla Anthropologist Looks to the Future

We live in a world filled with seemingly insoluble problems.  Carbon emissions have increased at such alarming rates that climate experts have had to push forward their dire predictions of ecological devastation.  In the face of climate change denial, feckless politicians, especially in the United States, do nothing to confront the most important issue of our times.  Instead, they roll back previously insufficient environmental regulations.  Our air is getting dirtier.  Our water, which is in increasingly short supply, is less safe to drink.  Droughts and floods disrupt our supply of food, which, given decreased health regulation, is increasingly unsafe to eat.  The future looks even bleaker if you add to this list an ever-expanding income inequality that is in large measure linked to widespread political dysfunction.  From the vantage of the seemingly powerless present, what can we do, if anything, to change a pattern that leads us toward eventual extinction?

If we pay attention to our surroundings, glimmers of hope emerge from the epistemic murk. Although the excessive heat and humidity of August in the Middle Atlantic region of the United States makes many people listless and depressed, I find myself remarkably optimistic about future.  On a afternoon walk yesterday I came upon a yard sign extolling the virtues of American love, immigration and diversity.


A lawn poster in Wilmington, Delaware

Photo by Paul Stoller

The sign was welcome relief from a stredy stream of bad news. Our challenges, however, require much more than placing a sign, however, inspirational, on our lawns.  Maybe my optimism persists because I like to take a long view of things.  The times may appear bleak today, but with patience and forbearance, positive change can occur.  My teacher Adamu Jenitongo, an elder among the Songhay people of Niger and Mali, liked to say that the long path is always worth taking for it usually leads to a better life in a better world.  My professional optimism persists because a younger generation of anthropologists whom I’ve encountered in recent years, has been wonderfully impressive.

Like me, they are fast becoming guerilla anthropologists.  My friend and colleague anthropologist Bruce Kapferer of the University of Bergen, coined the term, “guerilla anthropology,” at the outset of his ongoing cross-cultural project on human inequality. In an interview in the University of Bergen Magazine 2018/2019 Kapferer said:

To me, in a sense, guerilla anthropology is anthropology.  Anthropology stands outside all of disciplines. To put it crudely, most of the disciplines practiced at universities have been born in the Nineteenth Century and in the history of nationalism, which began the modern state…Many unexamined assumptions regarding the nature and possibility of human beings were present that required challenge.  Western philosophy offered a radical critique but it, nonetheless, could not escape the limitation of many assumptions that were culturally and historically embedded it it…But anthropology also took seriously other systems.  These other systems were not necessarily bound by the same principles or frameworks of understanding that our own worlds were.  Anthropology is a guerilla discipline in the sense that it comes from outside a largely Western comprehension of things and challenges ruling assumptions…The critical guerilla anthropological perspective will lead to important reassessments of conceptual and theoretical perspectives that are still dominating discussions on problems associated with inequality.

Most of the guerilla anthropologists I’ve met understand, I think, that the old colonialist way of solving social problems or understanding the world doesn’t work anymore.  Our various systems of politics, economics and scholarship have become ineffectual and counter-productive.  In this context, the guerilla approach to anthropology is perfectly suited to living in, coping with and understanding contemporary social worlds. In my work as public blogger I attempt to present an anthropological perspective on contemporary social and political issues. In that work I often extend the wisdom of the aforementioned Songhay people (an exercise in guerilla anthropology) to the pragmatic analysis of our social, political, and existential issues.

In the work of younger scholars, who will shape our future, there is ample evidence of an emergent guerilla anthropology.  Indeed, their work is filled with passionate expression.  Their guerilla insights, for example, about urban gardeners in Havana, gold miners in Colombia, artist activists in Argentina, or local currency operators in the UK have been revelatory and breathtaking.  This work brings into relief a largely unseen picture of locally-contoured social and political innovation and invention–an ethnographic portrait of a developing future.

During the past three years, I’ve had the opportunity to organize writing workshops for doctoral students most of whom are anthropologists.  At each four-day workshop, I have been profoundly impressed by the participants’ passionate commitment to social and economic justice.  Indeed, their dedication to guerilla anthropology is inspiring–especially in difficult institutional times during which they usually work in precarious circumstances.  Guerilla practices, of course, emerge in the margins of institutional anthropology, which means that guerilla anthropologists also tend to cast a radically critical gaze on ongoing institutional attitudes and behaviors (elitism, Eurocentric privilege, misogyny, colonial assumptions) that are still, as Bruce Kapferer suggests, wedded to outmoded 19th Century assumptions about the human condition.

The times call for radical change in our politics, our economic practices, and our assumptions about how the world works.  In a world that is increasingly shaped by social media, guerilla anthropology enables us to practice an other-inspired slow scholarship in a digitized fast world.  That is a prescription for increased ground-level awareness.  It is a path to the future of social science.  For me, it is a tonic that infuses me with hope for the future–even on a hot and humid day in August.









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