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.
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.
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.