Activist Anthropology

Thoughts on Charles Hale, Linda Green, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Edmund Gordon, Philippe Bourgois, Faye Harrison and Alex Khasnabish

What is Activist Research? by Charles Hale (2001) was a friendly reminder that scholarly work and activist research can strike a harmonious relationship, ultimately allowing activist ethnography to utilize the tools and techniques of Anthropology to better understand the issues within our communities of study. Granted, when such research is challenged there arises an opportunity for dialogue to improve upon activist methodologies that would not have been established without such alternative experimentation. Of one thing Hale can be sure, change is the only promise of tomorrow; shouldn’t we then approach community struggles with a sense of adaptability? Certainly, there is always room for improvement, adjustment, and re-evaluation, especially in applied ethnographic research.

Hale thoughtfully outlines the role of “activist” as one who addresses uncomfortable issues of suffering, inequality, and violence in a manner that includes collaborating with community residents and key participants, to collectively shape research that is applicable to their needs (2001,13). But the visions for anthropological activism are far from united, showcasing the variety of opinion and practices within the field. Linda Green discusses her version of the “agent of social change” in Fear as a Way of Life (1994,230), in which the anthropologist becomes a “scribe” committed to faithfully capturing the personal narratives of the oppressed. In The Primacy of Ethical (1995) Nancy Scheper-Hughes advocates for the anthropological “witness” (419) who’s active role is to “take sides” and openly aid the powerless as “comrades” (420). Like Scheper-Hughes, Edmund Gordon in Anthropology and Liberation (1991) makes a persuasive argument for decolonizing anthropology not only through anti-colonial critique but also with severing (individual) ties with the Western pocketbook that keeps our liberation at bay. Bridled by funding, we inhibit our unfiltered critiques and edit our research to appease our employers, and remain in their good graces. Subsequently, we serve altered truths that are easily modified for the right price. This by no mistake, is a disgrace to the true nature of anthropology.

Yet I wonder, as Philippe Bourgois does, “Can we analyze the urgent problems faced by our research projects and still obey our disciplines interpretation of methodological ethics?” a poignant question posed in Confronting the Ethics of Ethnography (1991,113) which admirably tackles the nuances of the anthropological conscience. In his final remarks, he establishes “Anthropologist’s do not have to convert themselves into human rights activist and political cadre for ‘worthy’ causes in order to remain ethical persons”(123). A fair point that honors an individual assessment of performed activism, taking into account the varying constraints that affect us differently. On a similar note, Gordon’s remarks on individual praxis (1991,149), are closely tied to Jacques Rancière’s ideas in the Ignorant Schoolmaster, in which he counsels us to abandon any hope for sudden systemic change, but instead focus on individual subversion and ideological emancipation (1991,98). Though a hard pill to swallow, I share the idea of adopting individual responsibility on a daily basis and taming my impatience for a world not yet changed.

Nevertheless, as anthropologists we do have a weighted responsibility to our communities of study to use our advantages for the betterment of our companheiras (Scheper-Hughes 1995,411) and the discipline itself. As Faye Harrison puts it in Ethnography as Politics, we must be “committed to a new science of humankind, and a new world order must form pacts with their oppressed “brethren and sistren,” and these pacts must take precedence over many conventional professional expectations”  (1991,105). What Alex Khasnabish’s Zones of Conflict: Exploring the Ethics of Anthropology in Dangerous Spaces (2004) attempts is to review the arguments of Green, Bourgois, Harrison, Gordon, Scheper-Hughes, and others, but fails to create a space that welcomes them all. Ironically, he sets the stage for a battle of perspectives; nuanced versus clear-cut realities, something he reprimands Scheper-Hughes and others for propagating (2004,85). Do right and wrong exist? Good and evil? Yes. But, so does everything else on that pesky pendulum of morality. There are instances of apparent wrongdoing and those of a grayer nature, but we need methodologies for every circumstance. Taking up permanent residence in either camp, blinds us from the intricacies that make up life itself. Despite their differences, one particular commonality that stood out was the need to share our collaborative research and findings with those outside our academic sphere. In this way, our failures and successes can do more than collect dust on our shelves. Whether you accompany them, is entirely your choice.  

Personally, I believe in the subversive approach of a “negative worker” (Scheper-Hughes 2003,420) which allows us to facilitate change from the inside out. As an indigenous anthropologist and activist, reconciling the sorted past of the field I love has been challenging. Anthropology has a past, but I am its present, working to change its future. My commitment to my field is overshadowed by my commitment to my community; because anthropology is a tool to serve the people. Utilizing this tool, I bring to light to the true struggles of my community, I take a political stance when others may not, decolonizing from within. This new era of activist anthropology exposes ‘objectivism’ for what it is, an impossibility that feeds the ego of scientists. With direct confrontation of the status quo, community collaboration, rejecting the scientist/informant paradigm and maintaining a critical relationship with academia we pave the way for responsible fieldwork and ethical anthropological practice. For me, the only anthropology that matters is a post-colonial, post-modern, activist one that seeks to empower communities it may have once wronged. But if we want to continue to decolonize anthropology, we need to make it available for indigenous and marginalized scholars.

But the realities remain; not all will fight against censorship and oppression, and those that do will pursue different methodologies. But that doesn’t make our struggle any less passionate, valid or successful. In truth, it’s about doing what you can, with the tools available, with respect to the situation at hand. Ultimately, I take comfort in knowing that we fight at all.

Who’s to judge what real activism is? How should we measure who best exemplifies liberation? Should we judge all activism equally, or situationally? Who benefits from our internal squabbles over the right kind of anthropological intervention? I have a sneaking suspicion it’s not us, or our collaborators.

I am not responsible for how anthropologist relate to the field, if they follow an activist methodology or not. But I am responsible for myself, my community, and my embodied cultural history of indigenous-Mexican struggle. Anthropology in my hands, is not the anthropology of the past.

Leave a Reply