1998, 5th Biennial Conference, Frankfurt am Main

The Politics of Anthropology: Conditions for Thought and Practice

The pursuit of social science is always a political pursuit: from its funding to its reception, and from its training goals to its career structures, anthropology depends upon large-scale socio-political institutions and general patterns of expectation. These external conditions change but slowly; or so we thought.

The past two decades have seen a momentous shift in the public and political priorities under which anthropological practitioners work, Trenchant political questions of a new kind are now being asked. Informants, as we used to call them, have turned into interlocutors, readers, and 'user groups’, and all of them ask, in their different ways, what political uses anthropology fulfils or should fulfil. One need only think here of the uses of ethnography in the revival of traditions, in the political forcefield of 'anthropology at home', and in ethnic and nationalist movements.

At the same time, there have been dramatic changes imposed from above. In many countries the liberal patronage of public research bodies has turned into a regime of result-related sponsorship, and performance-related assessment and auditing. In a political field oriented by the language of the market, anthropologists must demonstrate the marketability of their discipline. Yet this new managerial 'culture‘, as it is called, is but a reflection of many academic values: how can one be against accountability or standards? In the context of a cult of audits and mission statements these same values now seem opposed to the pursuit of open-ended fieldwork, holistic enquiry and unpredictable insight distinctive of the discipline. Is this a global phenomenon that affects anthropology everywhere in Europe?

The resulting questions go to the core of our practice. When we ask these questions we are reminded of the long history to the relationship between politics and anthropology. What of the role that anthropological knowledge played for colonial rule? What has been the relationship of anthropology to fascism and other totalitarian regimes? What use are ethnic, regionalist and nationalist movements making of ethnographic texts? Who is legjtimated to research whom, and on whose funding and whose standards of usefulness? Are there political goals that anthropologists know they can seek or refuse, and if so on whose criteria of the common good? In all this, what is the future of the ethnographic enterprise? The contradictory political processes that contest the future of the discipline are in need of a concerted effort at anthropological analysis.