Anthropology: knowledge and politics

Reception: March 22, 2017

Acceptance: March 28, 2017

I appreciate the invitation of the journal Encartes to participate in its first issue with a comment on the article by Gustavo Lins Ribeiro, because I share the concern of my colleague and friend about the return of authoritarian regimes in many parts of the world (not only in formal politics). of all countries, but also in many of their institutions, including academic ones) that had been considered already outdated and whose expressions are frequently linked to strategies of ethnic-cultural, gender and class discrimination. It seems significant to me that your call to question the current role of anthropology in society is in good company with the call made recently by the Editorial Board of Nueva Antropología (Editorial Board, 2016: 9-10) to initiate a review depth of our discipline in view of the general social situation and that of the social and human disciplines in charge of its study; For their part, the magazines Relations (El Colegio de Michoacán) and Estudios sobre las Culturas Contemporáneas (Cultural Program, University Center of Social Sciences, University of Colima) have recently taken advantage of their respective anniversaries to promote and contribute to such a review that is always necessary again. of the Mexican social sciences, in which anthropology has occupied a significant place. 1

In the first of my three comments I board and deepen some of Gustavo's statements about the visibility and public presence of current anthropology in Mexico. In the second, I link this situation with the transformation in process of the science and technology system, which combines the re-functionalization and commercialization of the university institution with profound changes in the type of knowledge called science, and which I think Gustavo has in his sights when speaks of the current de-intellectualization. The subject of the third and last comment takes up an idea of his about the ethics of anthropology and analyzes it in a somewhat different way.2

a) On the lack of relevance of current anthropology

It has often been lamented that "anthropology" - in the sense of pronouncements by unions, departments, anthropologists, the circulation of study results and (counter) proposals, the presence of anthropologists in the media - seems less visible today. and influential in the country than in other times. Among the reasons for this unfavorable comparison may be the growth of the national population and the university system, the transformation of the general and specialized media, and the increase in the number of anthropological institutions and also of social disciplines in the country.3 Still, it is true that anthropological science in the broad sense and sociocultural anthropology in particular do not seem to have the place that they could and should have.

However, this observation is valid mainly at the national level, because at the state and regional levels and in some cities the presence of these anthropological elements is sometimes much more appreciated. It should also be considered that the participation of anthropologists as such - although sometimes outside their affiliation institutions and not infrequently in an honorary way and in free hours - in social movements, popular organizations and in recent times as frequent as ineffective crystallizations of public citizen protest are not usually highly publicized.4

In addition, it must be considered that the aforementioned situation contrasts in a paradoxical way with the growing presence of anthropology in academic institutions: in the last ten years there has been practically no semester meeting of the Redmifa without the news of a new university study program (undergraduate or graduate) in Mexico. For all of Latin America, a constant growth in academic institutions and study programs has to be recognized since the 1980s and, as in Mexico, in the number of congresses and other meetings.

Separate mention deserves the exponential increase in anthropological magazines and books (in other social sciences the same is observed) during the last two decades, that is, precisely from the date that Gustavo records as the end of the golden age.5 It is clear that these publications are directed first and foremost to the other members of the anthropological community, undergraduate and graduate students and colleagues from other social disciplines, since they present and discuss results of scientific research that only other specialists from the same branch of knowledge and of the same academic level can evaluate and use for other specialized knowledge generation processes. But it is obvious that many of our magazines hope to find readers as well among non-specialized citizens interested in issues of society, history and culture, and even among officials and decision makers in public and private institutions. Even so, it is suspected that the constant increase in the number of magazines is due more to the interests of those who write in them than to the actual or estimated demand of potential readers. On the other hand, how many of these magazines published in the country, in Latin America and in other parts of the world does an ordinary anthropologist review and with what regularity does it every month or year? And what can be said about the circulation and usefulness of several dozen anthropology books published every year (some of them belonging to the category of "Promep books", as in some evaluation instance the authors have come to be called? collections of texts of varied quality converted into chapters by grace of surplus budgets and introduced not infrequently by acrobatic attempts to claim some organic link between the parts that make up the book)?

This enormous mass of publications is in sharp contrast to the existence of only two - yes: excellent - anthropological journals aimed at a wider audience: Mexican Archeology and Ojarasca, the first for sale in many cities of the country and the second, although formally no longer belonging to the anthropological community proper,6 present everywhere as a monthly supplement to the digital version of the newspaper The Day.

It is also necessary to mention in this context the large number of museums in which not only the results of anthropological work are exhibited (in the broad sense of the "four fields", always linked to ethnohistory-history), but also for many children Mexicans the space of their first direct encounter with important material and graphic testimonies about their social and cultural background, far or near. Therefore, wouldn't our anthropology and history museums deserve more attention from training and outreach bodies and their consideration in their school programs?

The creation of numerous blogs and internet sites belonging to the so-called digital “social networks” has not, until now, meant a solution to communication problems, not even within the anthropological community (whose members are also usually connected and interested in other related scientific disciplines). with their research topics), nor with broader non-specialized audiences, but rather increase them. On the one hand, more and more efforts and mechanisms are needed to attract the attention of Internet users to these electronic sites (not a few of which are outdated) and, on the other hand, for the most part they do not constitute anything new, but only transfer to the digital sphere forms of communication and printed publication (often copying texts and images as is).

In this context, it calls for reflection that despite the fact that anthropological science has enormous collections of problems, data, debates and proposals on topics such as family and kinship, nature and culture, sex and gender, there has been almost no significant participation of the union or Mexican anthropological groups or institutions from anthropology in recent national polemics on equal marriage or on bioethics issues. The same is true for the omnipresent theme of globalization, with which our discipline began its "golden age", and where the abandonment of diffusionist aspects in anthropological teaching and of the forms of cultural change traditionally examined as combinations has been particularly striking. of independent innovation and transmission.7 Likewise, the experiences and links of the large number of Mexican anthropologists who have academic training or long or repeated stays in the United States have not been reflected in the public debate. And is not all this true equally for the considerable amount of recent Mexican anthropological studies on topics so crucial and frequently discussed in press, radio and television such as migration, society-environment relations (including the opposition between anthropocene and capitalocene mentioned by Gustavo), public violence or unemployment recently exacerbated by the so-called energy and educational reforms, to mention just a few of the most relevant examples?

However, it must also be recognized that such lack of presence of anthropology is not only due to problems of a technical-communicational nature such as those mentioned and attributable to professionals, the union and its institutions. It must also be borne in mind that the nature of anthropological knowledge is in itself problematic and often makes its diffusion and dissemination difficult. The "eminently subversive character" of anthropology, as Gustavo calls it, is certainly a feature that distinguishes beforehand the expectation that is held in large sectors of the population with respect to the statements of anthropologists. Unlike statements coming from, for example, doctors or astronomers, which are usually valued spontaneously and in advance as useful or at least without threat to the opinions, values or norms of behavior customary and even respected as "natural", Anthropological statements are often feared as uncomfortable or in some sense challenging (Krotz, 2009: 96-99).

In any case - in the third and last comment I will return to the subject - we are faced with a situation that requires reviewing the real criteria for the selection of research topics in public academic institutions, the real criteria for the allocation of resources to studies and publications and the corresponding decision processes, the gap between so much publication (and something similar could also be said with respect to the striking increase in seminars, congresses and other academic and professional meetings) and their reduced public impact (specialized and general), and also, the options available and desirable to convey the results of our inquiries to which recipients and possible users.

b) On the predominance of an academic anthropology that is not (sufficiently) reflective

Is one of the reasons for the situation described a predominance of academic anthropology in Mexico so excessive that it practically hides the anthropology of the older segment of professional anthropologists, that is, of those who work in other public and private institutions? In fact, this second type of anthropology hardly appears in the numerous anthropological publications in the country, it does not have a presence in training programs at undergraduate and postgraduate levels (where sometimes it is not even used when creating or reorganizing study plans). study aimed at “training” such professionals), and it is represented only in a very marginal way in congresses (almost always organized by academic institutions and depending on the operating and communication modalities of these) and in union institutions. More recently, the College of Ethnologists and Social Anthropologists (ceas) and the College of Anthropologists of Yucatán (cayac), union institutions that despite their androcentric names group anthropologists and anthropologists, have shown signs of wanting to deal more with this professional sector .8 It is worth noting that this happens precisely at a time when the gap between academic anthropology and the anthropology of most graduates of anthropology degrees seems to widen:

The transformation of anthropological teaching programs in light of the criteria imposed by higher education evaluation bodies has been clearly adjusted to the lack of employment and the lack of support for science and technology in contemporary public policies of our country. The result of this process entails, among many other social phenomena, the restriction of access to university programs, the simplification of academic training and the elimination of the critical spirit of graduates (Krotz and De Teresa, 2012: 54).9

A critical aspect of this simplification became apparent twenty years ago in volume 2 of the yearbook. Anthropological Inventory (1996: 405; see the same expanded information in volume 3, 1997: 495), where the first degree in social anthropology appeared that allowed the degree without thesis or other final written work. Seen from today, shouldn't that moment be understood as a symptom of the advance of what shortly after Pablo González Casanova (2000) called the arrival of “the new university”? Despite the fact that it provoked the long student strike of 1999 at the National Autonomous University of Mexico against the so-called Barnés Plan, the university transformation strategy apparently shaped by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), was imposed anyway in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

In Mexico, as in the entire Latin American subcontinent, one can also observe the more or less peaceful coexistence of two tendencies in the anthropological community. One is based on the commitment above all to the most recent debates, approaches, terms and publications that emerged in the original countries of anthropology and still hegemonic in the world discipline, while the other seems more concerned with practical-political and theoretical problems. of the "own" sociocultural situation, that is, "of the South". The fact that the so-called "academic evaluations" - actually coercive models of planning, research and communication of knowledge traced to northern institutions assumed as universal - increasingly induce to follow the first mentioned trend, discourages, of course, the reflection on the situation itself, on the southern expressions of the transformations in process10 and on the theoretical contribution since the South (Comaroff and Comaroff 2012).

Another root of what Gustavo points out as “anti-intellectualism” seems to me to be found in the so-called postmodern anthropology, which since the 1990s has had a disastrous influence. Although at first it generated interesting starting points for the examination of anthropological methodology, it soon developed into a fashion for which “there are no privileged paradigms. Science is no closer to the truth than any other "reading" of an unknowable and undecidable world. The truth is relative, local, plural, indefinite and interpretive. Therefore, the attempt to arrive at objective ethnographic data must be abandoned ”(Harris, 1995: 63). One must realize what it means for the academic discipline and for the professional world a graduate of a social anthropology degree who, in his first paid job, achieved with difficulty, delivers the study commissioned on the causes of some phenomenon (migration, discrimination, agrarian conflict, unemployment, political culture, etc.) to the employer with the observation that his work does not represent reality, but only his personal truth, one truth among many other possible ones ...

Is there not a relationship between the wide diffusion of this type of ideas - highlighted, by the way, also by the famous “affair Sokal ”in 1996–11 and the large number of inaccuracies and easily detectable falsehoods in the political debate prior to the referendum on the so-called “Brexit” and during the US electoral campaign? Such situations, prolonged later by the repeated denunciation of the supposed "fake news" by the current US president, led to the Oxford English Dictionary to choose last November the expression post-truth –Sometimes translated as postfactual– as the English word of the year 2016.

Apart from open lies and simple errors, of which many political speeches are plagued (as well as many information disseminated through the network), are we not here before a new level of the problematic of ideology as part and cause? of the promotion of unscientific and even antiscientific thinking and, with it, of the anti-intellectualism that Gustavo laments?12

However, the issue has a deeper dimension. “The web doesn't just passively provide information; now it also alerts people to information that might be of interest to them, gives them recommendations, and encourages them to establish collaborative relationships with other people who have similar points of view ", says cybernetics specialist Francis Heylighen (2011: 274), who has called this process the emergence of "global brain, which is the metaphor of this emerging network, endowed with collective intelligence that is made up of the inhabitants of this planet and their computers, their knowledge banks and the communication links that connect them ”. Regardless of whether one accepts this hypothesis in all its details, or adheres better to the Gaia theory, or prefers the Teilhardian concept of "noosphere" to understand the current evolutionary stage of the human species, is it not striking that precisely in the The precise moment in which this truly planetary communicational network emerges as a potential of the human species never before seen to examine and confront common problems on a planetary scale, the aforementioned transformation of the university is imposed, the mechanisms abound to induce the trivialization of communication on the Internet, the modes of operation of the main networks and search engines are kept hidden and gigantic amounts of personal information are collected without citizen control in private hands?13

All of the above is, evidently, a call for the one-person and collegiate decision-making and representation bodies in our university institutions (in which framework it is carried out, jointly with the National Institute of Anthropology and History and some other instances of the new Ministry of Culture , almost all of the anthropological dissemination and dissemination activities in the country) develop effective mechanisms for the study and self-study of the processes and conditioning factors of the generation, intergenerational transmission and dissemination of anthropological knowledge.14

c) On ethics and episteme

In view of the general situation, Gustavo's call to "resume our political role" does not need further justification, considering, furthermore, that the anthropologists of the first generation, the evolutionists of the 19th century, were widely convinced of the usefulness of his new science to improve the existing society, and that not a few of them participated, although far from the impetus of the utopian socialists whom they had eliminated from the generation of socio-anthropological knowledge, in various strategies oriented towards this end. However, then as today, the question of what to improve and how has several possible rational answers. And it is that the call to political action constitutes a challenge to make decisions within or outside of certain channels established for this purpose in a given society and at a given historical moment, and the criteria and practical details of said action cannot be derived directly of anthropological knowledge itself, but also depend on more general ethical, political, philosophical or religious choices. Of course, no one will be able to object that anthropologists associate with other anthropologists in companies, cooperatives, civil associations, movements, etc., to put their knowledge at the service of combating authoritarianism, racism and discrimination and the promotion of democracy and indigenous rights. But, in an institution of teaching or scientific research (which is the only case that I can deal with with some knowledge)?

In order not to remain in general statements and despite possible misunderstandings, I am going to dare in the framework of this small comment to outline four concrete courses of action, which would be justified in a university-type institution precisely not by the invocation of the values of academics and students (considering, furthermore, that the inequality of power between one and the other makes the latter relatively easily political "clients"), but rather by reference to the properties of the process of generating anthropological knowledge itself. Coincidentally, in the four tracks the issue of the instrumentalization of anthropological knowledge is eclipsed, and the very generation of anthropological knowledge remains at the center, which by its nature usually involves questioning the customary way of seeing and understanding social phenomena.15

The first clue is the investigation not only on otherwise in collaboration with certain sectors of society that are victims of the prevailing social disorder, or with organizations that are acting in favor of the defense and promotion of the former. Such research is taking place in many parts of Latin America, as the voluminous work compiled by Xóchitl Leyva (2015) has recently demonstrated. However, such a procedure is often not feasible for various reasons. In addition, the possible loss of credibility must always be considered when collaborators realize that the benefits of collaboration they receive are less or less obvious than those received by their academic counterparts.16 or when investigations of the opposite sign are also being carried out in the same institution, even contracted and paid under unclear conditions by public or private companies, foundations or government entities more oriented towards the exploitation of human labor, the depredation of the environment and the reproduction of social inequality.

A second clue is the reaction to certain extremely critical economic, social, political or cultural situations, where it can be shown that strictly investigative action - and, consequently, the social obligation of such investigative action - has to respond directly to the need. to protect fundamental human rights, especially the right to life and physical and mental integrity, of certain human beings, by the way, all current or possible objects of social research. The collective volume Raising your voice for Ayotzinapa (Juárez and Aduna, 2015) can be seen as an example of this type of action, which perhaps due to the difficulty of denying it legitimacy has a greater potential than has been recognized up to now.

The third clue is in the examination of the organization of our schools and research centers. The key question regarding teaching can easily be adapted to the relationship between academics, their representatives and their superiors: Are these institutions organized and operate in such a way that without many words, but through their day-to-day operation and the call hidden curriculum Is critical thinking really encouraged, creative exploration of social alternatives without exploitation, discrimination or domination is stimulated, learning and the free exercise of sharp and respectful argumentation are encouraged at the same time? These questions can be unfolded: Do the solemn programmatic statements correspond to the observable reality or cannot they hide the fact that from the first year of the degree it is understood that it is better not to contradict the teachers or to cite authors or ask questions that "they do not like" and not insist on proposals once they are denied? Is ethnic-cultural and gender discrimination eradicated only at the verbal level or also in daily actions and the implementation of institutional policies? Are the election and conduct of the representatives, the transparency in the budgetary exercise, and the treatment of subordinates at work collegiate, participatory and democratic, or do they repeat the customary stereotypes?

The fourth track links several of the elements mentioned in this third comment with elements mentioned in the previous two. The concern to "give back" to the social groups on which our studies of society and culture are based at least part of the results of such studies is common and has a long tradition. Wouldn't it be better to try to make it understandable for citizens who have not had a specialized education in social sciences what they are and what meaning they have for one, and how the phenomena belonging to the sociocultural dimension of reality can be studied and how one can think with this based on alternatives to the reigning social disorder? That is, wouldn't it be better, instead of trying to translate the "conclusions" of our research, to use them to induce and introduce socio-scientific thought itself? Could this not be a "popularization" (Krotz, 2016: 62-63) of anthropology that would not constitute its flat simplification, but rather its conversion into an instrument of the anti-ideological struggle - and from the point of view of the Anthropologies of the South, decolonizing - in the various spheres of the generation, dissemination and dissemination of knowledge about the human being in society?17 Perhaps a new "golden age" is at hand, when - without being able to eliminate the division of labor in the sphere of knowledge - anthropology helps to understand Better than now to citizens what it is, why it is the way it is, and how the currently unequal society could be transformed into the home of all people.


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