Anthropological knowledge in times of "post-truth"

Reception: February 13, 2017

Acceptance: February 23, 2017

In my opinion, the diagnosis of our situation offered by Gustavo is very timely. Perhaps the voices of professional anthropologists are a little more prominent in the world of "expert knowledge" tied to multilateral and international organizations and advisory committees of governmental and non-governmental organizations, but in general I think we have to accept what he says about the weakness of our current professional public profile and our apparent inability to produce analyzes of the “great challenges” of our time that manage to attract the interest of the general public and gain political weight. I also agree with his statements about the negative impacts of the so-called theoretical "twists" of the last decades and epistemological positions that left us in the absurd position of denying our ability to produce any type of knowledge. Equally important is his critique of the impacts of the neoliberal transformation of public universities and of individual assessment cultures in a commodified environment.

Although Gustavo is right to emphasize that the situations are not exactly the same all over the world, and that we should not speak of the crisis in the anthropology of the Anglo-Saxon world as if it were global, I am concerned that many of these problems are increasingly visible in Latin America. Latin Americans can give a potentially more emancipatory and decolonizing reading of public policies aimed at respecting, rather than controlling, ethnic diversity, by speaking of "interculturality" rather than "multiculturalism," but the Mexican experience does not make me think of it. It encourages us to think that this conceptual difference by itself guarantees better results in practice within the framework of existing power structures. In Argentina and Brazil, the “turn to the right” is producing a regression in the matter of indigenous rights towards a historical epoch that we thought was over. The neoliberalization of public higher education administration and commercial privatization impulses are also increasingly present, in an especially regrettable way in Brazil after the coup, in light of previous attempts to strengthen public universities and make them more socially. inclusive. Although American companies are very involved in this business, they do not lack local allies, both political and business, since more and more "representatives of the people" profit by acting as "lobbyists" on the part of foreign capital.

In light not only of the excellent statement of our Polish colleagues cited by Gustavo, but also of the general formulation of the reasons for considering anthropology "relevant" to the problems of our time recently adopted by the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA , 2015), I believe that the positive proposals that Gustavo has made will be well received. However, in what follows I want to add some observations about the implications of living in a world in which democratic life is being undermined by profound changes despite movements that seek to deepen it.

From a European perspective, it seems that current economic and political trends are pushing us once again towards the kind of scenario of competitive nation states and exclusionary nationalisms that was the historical context of the original steps towards the professionalization of anthropology as an academic discipline within university institutions (Hart, 2003). Motives linked to this desire to build disciplines worthy of intellectual "respect" within established universities and advance the professionalization of the guild help us to understand, for example, the collaboration of some of the leading social anthropologists of the German-speaking world with the regime Nazi (Gingrich, 2010) and the complicated relationships between British anthropology and British colonialism (Mills, 2002). However, despite the existence of echoes of the past in the current situation, history does not repeat itself. The transformation of the university into another type of institution could continue to be elaborated despite the global failure of neoliberal austerity policies and the possibility of a reversal in terms of some aspects of economic globalization. Perhaps China, still a defender of globalization and the fastest moving country in the world both in the rankings of university quality and in terms of its level of provision, could follow a different course, but the election of Trump, founder of a private university so fraudulent that he was forced to close it (Helderman, 2016), does not encourage us to think that the future of American public universities is secure. Furthermore, China has its own problems in dealing with ethnic-racial differences. Both in Europe and on the other side of the Atlantic, states controlled by right-wing and xenophobic groups are not going to promote the type of anthropological thinking that Gustavo is advocating, nor do they welcome the valuable attempts of some universities to defend human rights. of his students who are children of immigrants. Even more worrisome is the likelihood that social democratic parties will continue to move towards a "center" increasingly to the right, especially when it comes to immigration issues, for fear of losing more votes to the populist parties of the right. that they are conquering both the working classes and the middle classes weakened by the decline of neoliberal capitalism as a social project that could alleviate the political impact of their inequalities to produce an adequate quota of "winners."

We have reached a point where past distinctions between right and left no longer work to define the structure of the political field. The shift to the right takes advantage of a diffuse social resentment that is producing political effects in different social classes and even contradictions between, and also within, different segments of the “ethnic minorities” produced by historical immigration, quite clear in the case of the American "Latino" population. Neither multiculturalism nor interculturalism have eliminated the legacies of Western imperialism and colonialism and their invention of "the white race." Violent reactions (backlash) against such policies, especially when recognition is combined with a certain degree of redistribution, they were always predictable and recognized (Fraser, 1995; Hale, 2006). However, under aggravated conditions of structural crisis, the resentful feel authorized not only to say "politically incorrect" things but also to express themselves about their favorite "other" with violence and hatred. We are living in a time of expanded intolerance, expanded not only by political demagogy but also by the real difficulties that different segments of society face in their daily lives, in some cases problems of mere survival, in other cases problems to reproduce a style of life that people are already used to. Combating, through reasoned arguments, this type of resentment presents us with a more difficult challenge than refuting the type of petty resentment that led some of the better-off elements of the white middle class to support the coup in Brazil because of his disgust for the still ephemeral social ascension of members of social strata whose phenotypic characteristics differ from those of the owners of the Casa Grande.

However, the case of Brazil also shows us that, despite the existence of extreme right movements both among young people and among members of older generations and the implantation by the illegitimate government of a repressive state of exception, the universities (together with secondary schools) can still serve as important foundations for resisting social exclusion, intolerance, and the cultivation of ignorance and prejudice. It seems to me that anthropologists as professionals will only prove to be "relevant" when we are willing to act both outside and inside our classrooms and as long as we have something worth saying, something that attracts the attention of students analytically and politically, and that we can express in an intelligible way to people who are not from our tribe. In this sense, our current goal perhaps should be to show ourselves a little less "disciplinary", advocating more universal and less ethnocentric perspectives in all the social and historical sciences.

This leads me to disagree a little with Gustavo (and Claudio Lomnitz) on the centrality of ethnographic methods. From the epistemological point of view, and supporting the perspective that Gustavo adopts on the virtues, despite their limitations, of the evolutionists, I agree with Keith Hart (2004) and Tim Ingold (2007), who insist that it should not be define the anthropological project in terms of ethnography, without denying the enormous virtues of this method as regards the study of certain types of processes and human relationships, at certain scales of analysis. In practical terms, at least in Europe, attempts to sell our discipline to the state and to international and non-governmental organizations, in terms of our use of ethnographic methods, have failed to guarantee our future as an academic discipline, although they have probably extended the job market outside of academia for our doctors. I believe that we can achieve much more by highlighting the virtues of a human science that uses multiple methods depending on the question to be investigated, but that always adopts a comparative perspective that questions ethnocentrism and highlights a broader range of possibilities human.

Although I have doubts about this element of Gustavo's argument, I believe that our shared admiration for the type of anthropology practiced by Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz leads us to the same conclusion about what type of academic project could help us escape from our life. crisis of current relevance. It is a matter of showing the public that the human world and its history can be seen in a rigorously different and more universal way, from perspectives that put the West in its proper place and that demonstrate the falsehood of some of its constitutive myths, the myths that they are the basis of modern Western ideas about race and the other modern codes of discrimination and xenophobia. But there is another problem that we need to face.

We already live in what have been called "post-truth" times. Today we not only have to deal with the dominance of large media corporations, noted for their propaganda work in favor of the elites, to which their own owners belong, and interested, for commercial reasons, in keeping anthropologists in the field. "Locker of the savage" selling themselves as experts on exotic otherness. We also have to deal with what Gustavo calls the "hyperdemocratization" of a virtual public space "in which everyone apparently has the same weight and value." I want to extend your discussion by taking two recent examples from reports in the English media. The BBC reported that if a Google search is made using the question "Are blacks intelligent?", The current Google algorithm will return a series of internet pages that privileges arguments in favor of a hierarchy of races (Baraniuk, 2016) . Google has committed to modifying its algorithm, but the proportion of young people in the UK who express total confidence in the authority of the information they find on Google is increasing, although to date it has still not exceeded thirty percent of young people. surveyed. It is true that the internet can also be a reliable source of data on issues such as immigration, for example. However, in an extended analysis published by the newspaper The Guardian, the sociologist William Davis (2016) not only warned about the threat posed to democracy by the control of mass data (Big data) by private companies, but also on the results of studies both in the United States, on the eve of Trump's election, and in the United Kingdom, on the eve of the vote in favor of the country's exit from the European Union, which showed high levels of public mistrust of the validity of official immigration statistics. One study showed that respondents believed the government was lying about the true number of immigrants in the country and the social and economic consequences of their presence, but responded more positively to qualitative data that told the stories of individual migrants and to photographic material that showed positive aspects of cultural diversity. Once again, we might think that there would be an opportunity here for anthropologists and their ethnographic studies, both visual and textual. However, particular exceptionalism - "he's nice people, but I can't stand most of [insert name of ethnic minority of your choice]" - has always been an integral part of racial discrimination, and we know that "the public ”can receive a photo of a refugee child with charity and affection while their position denies the same humanity (and rights to asylum) to their older siblings and their parents.

Therefore, a broader, holistic and historical perspective remains essential in our arguments, including, despite its potential biases, a degree of respect for quantitative analyzes, indispensable to show that the characteristics of populations in general are not understood. conform to the stereotypes that can be constructed based on qualitative data on the behavior of a handful of “representative” figures isolated from their context or misinterpreted, as happened, for example, in the case of “the culture of poverty” of Oscar Lewis, a concept that was quickly appropriated by the political right despite the author's intentions and the popularity of his rich stories of the lives of his subjects outside of academia, both in Mexico and in the United States.

Anthropologists not only have the material to rethink the past (something that many have already done with distinction) but also to think about the future to which current trends are leading us. It seems that the global hegemony of the United States is coming to an end, but the empires of other times did not have the military capacity to destroy the planet. Robots and artificial intelligence could in the not too distant future alter the world of work more radically than any previous change, including many forms of intellectual work that currently requires a university education, although the social consequences of these technological changes will be , as always, determined by the social and political struggles to come. These topics offer many possibilities for anthropologists, since they are about what it means to be human and to live a human life. The same can be said about the impacts of climate change that threaten to occur faster than anticipated, even leaving aside the problem of Donald Trump. However, as Gustavo emphasizes, we are being quite shy about embracing the new opportunities that our age presents us.

I think there is wide recognition that anthropologists can make important contributions to debates about how to manage climate change, simply because there is also wide recognition that questions of culture are relevant. However, both here and in the case of issues that have to do with the creation of artificial intelligence or biotechnologies, we reach the limits of disciplinary autonomy. It is not enough to say that everything is a social construction: even Bruno Latour has apologized a bit about this matter (Latour, 2004). We not only have to talk with other types of scientists and understand the information that natural sciences can provide us, but also behave as scientists capable of reaching conclusions, even if they are partial and provisional. What matters most is not the survival of anthropology as an institutionalized discipline, but the survival and extension of the anthropological project, understood as the study of the possibilities of the human being as a social animal that reproduces itself in a world whose "naturalness" is indeed a sociocultural construction, but which is also subject to other orders of causality. Since our world will soon be populated by “artificial people” of our own making, but we are only just beginning to participate in the scientific debates about the Anthropocene, there is much to do.


Baraniuk, Chris (2016) “Google Responds on Skewed Holocaust Search Results”,, acceso 20 de diciembre de 2016.

Davies, William (2016) “How Statistics Lost Their Power – And Why We Should Fear What Comes Next”,, acceso 18 de enero de 2017.

easa (2015) ¿Por qué es importante la antropología?,, acceso 12 de diciembre de 2016.

Fraser, Nancy (1995). “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a ‘Post-Socialist’ Age”. New Left Review 212: 68-93.

Gingrich, Andre (2010). “The German-Speaking Countries”, en Fredrik Barth, Andre Gingrich, Robert Parkin y Sydel Silverman, One Discipline, Four Ways: British, German, French, and American Anthropology. The Halle Lectures, pp. 61-153. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hale, Charles R. (2006). Más que un indio: Racial Ambivalence and Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Guatemala. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Hart, Keith (2003). “British Social Anthropology’s Nationalist Project”. Anthropology Today 19(6): 1-2.

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Helderman, Rosalind S. (2016) “Trump Agrees to $25 Million Settlement in Trump University fraud cases”,, acceso 15 de enero de 2017.

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