Reflections on the AAA, Part 1: On Speculative Anthropology

Editor’s note: This year, two of our people (the Linguistic One and the Cultural One) went to the American Anthropology Association’s Annual Meeting in San Jose, California. This is an optimistically titled “Part 1″ of their reflections on the conference, since they are undoubtedly returning to their ‘”real” lives as we speak and staring at the pile of grading that did not magically diminish while they were otherwise occupied learning new things, sharing their own work, and meeting with old and new colleagues and collaborators. 

A few days before I left for San Jose, members of the AAA got what was honestly a very surprising email announcing a special guest lecture that about five hundred people would be able to attend. Tickets were free, but were scooped up within a few hours of this announcement, because while we are used to getting excited about academic rock stars, it is pretty rare for someone who is truly famous in the rest of the world to connect to such an event.

The guest was George Lucas, and the near universal reaction to this announcement was…wait, what? What does Lucas have to do with anthropology? (An alternative

A less-than-spectacular photo proving that George Lucas did indeed have a conversation with Deborah Thomas, editor of American Anthropologist, and that I watched from a balcony seat.

reaction was recounted to me by a colleague, who had a graduate student ask her about the famous anthropologist George Lucas and what he worked on, because the only George Lucas he could think of was “the Star Wars guy”, and that didn’t make any sense). Well, Lucas studied anthropology in college, before finding his way into filmmaking somewhat, as he tells it, by accident. The themes he explores in his films are, in some ways, rooted in what he learned in that context – most famously, the theory of mythical journeys associated with Joseph Campbell, and the imagining of the archaeologist as hero-adventurer, but also the ethnographic lens that he took in American Graffiti, which documents what he then saw as a disappearing rite-of-passage in American life. The event was billed as a way of thinking about storytelling in anthropology in discussion with a “Master Storyteller”.

So how did that turn out? Well….not great, honestly. Lucas was never trying to be an anthropologist, or to be rigorous in thinking through anthropological ideas, or, of course, to stay current within anthropology. He made quite a few references to “primitive” cultures, and invoked a general view of the “universal journey” that was a) highly masculine (as Campbell is known to be) and b) …not actually universal at all. While some praised the moderator, Deborah Thomas, for navigating his problematic highly offensive statements (seriously, there were audible winces a few times), I myself felt a bit frustrated as she continually turned the discussion back to asking him to comment on anthropology. The thing is, no one in that audience had anything to learn about anthropology from George Lucas. He was in his element talking about stories, and about his educational outreach initiatives with the new Museum of Narrative Arts. For me, the most interesting recurring theme was about the twelve-year-old as the site of imaginative potential. There was a thoughtfulness about the idea of coming-of-age (though not at all based on actual knowledge of coming of age rituals around the world), human creative potential, and hope, that was quite beautiful. But even that was undermined by his “encouragement'” of anthropology as, essentially, a really good way to learn to do market research (which, ok, it can be), and eye-rolling at “ivory tower” academics who refuse to admit that the “real world” is all about capitalist wealth accumulation. It is quite something, as a group that includes many people who try, however imperfectly, to walk with and understand a huge range of human experiences, including severe economic and political marginalization, to be lectured by a kajillionaire about being “out of touch”. Applauding when Lucas was given a lifetime membership in the AAA – when an annual one is difficult to afford for many active, passionate, graduate student and precariously employed anthropologists – left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

At the conference itself, I attended a panel that presented an interesting counterpoint to the talk by Lucas. After the death of author Ursula K. LeGuin earlier this year, linguistic anthropologist Bernard Perley organized a series of talks reflecting on her work and its anthropological legacy/roots. LeGuin was the daughter of Alfred Kroeber, a foundational figure in North American anthropology (which, as one of the panelists noted, is not necessarily reported as a compliment, given the colonial roots of our discipline), and she was raised in a world steeped in anthropology. The speakers on this panel were diverse, both in terms of their identities and their anthropological specialties. They talked about different aspects of LeGuin’s stories, sometimes positively, sometimes critically, but always with an eye to how she used her fiction as a kind of (what she called) speculative anthropology. How do we understand our own world through the lens of another one? How do we move as ethnographers through characters like Genly Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness, or the narrator in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas? How do we understand ourselves as sharing responsibility for the stories that shape our world, and what do we owe to the peoples whose stories have been colonized by others?

There were reflections, through these lenses, of both the limitations of LeGuin’s imagined worlds (rereading The Left Hand of Darkness in the context of teaching Language & Gender, Jocelyn Ahlers analyzed how gender markings actually crept in, in ways she hadn’t seen previously – as LeGuin herself also conceded a few decades after writing it, at least with respect to the “generic he” pronoun) and of anthropology (archaeologist Lee Bloch used the journey of The Dispossessed to ask provocative questions about the techno-scape of the temporal paradigms on which the field relies, and the colonial logic of these frames in themselves). There was engagement with the contemporary political moment and how examination of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas – always a challenging story – resonates in a time and country in which children in cages is not even a little bit metaphorical.

It was interesting to me to contrast these two different genre of anthropological conversation with two different creative minds’ uses of an anthropological imaginary. At its best, anthropology allows us to see universality refracted across radical difference. At its worst it tries to reduce that difference into a universalizing narrative of progress and improvement. I left California with a desire to imagine more, and in their own way, both these discussions are helping me to do that.


The Underlying Hope of Anthropology: Reflecting on the Work of Jane Hill

This past week, the world of linguistic anthropology – and the world in general, though that world is presumably less conscious of the loss – lost a giant with the death of Jane H. Hill, Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Arizona. It is an odd thing in academia when a person whose ideas loom large over a field of thought passes away, much like the death of a more popularly influential artist makes some of us return to their work with a renewed sense of its meaning and impact on the world. I never met Jane personally, though my academic lineage traces back to her in a very short line (she was the PhD supervisor of my PhD supervisor). By all accounts I’ve ever heard, in addition to being a brilliant scholar, she was a wonderful human and mentor, and I can only imagine how that loss is felt by the people closest to her. At the time of this writing, her faculty page at the University of Arizona is still active, and on it, she invites students to “join [her] on the tightrope”, where, as she puts it

I attempt a precarious balancing act among diverse commitments: to the detailed documentation of languages and cultures and specialized expertise in technical tools such as comparative linguistic analysis, to the understanding of the scope and diversity of human history that is the glory of anthropology, and to using what I learn to advance social justice and mutual respect among human beings.

In a case of social media producing something right, anthropologist Anthony K. Webster (@ethnopoetics) suggested to the American Anthropological Association on Twitter that, in light of Hill’s death, the organization could provide access to her publications for free – and they did! For six months, any of Hill’s articles from the considerable library of publications housed at AnthroSource are available to access free of charge. Anyone interested in the broad areas of language, culture, and social justice should absolutely take advantage of this opportunity.

This blog is not really the best place for me to even try to highlight the value of these contributions (the upcoming AAA meetings in San Jose are sure to include many such reflections), but I will make a few recommendations about what to read, from that list, as well as additional work.

  1. The Everyday Language of White Racism – I am starting immediately with a book, which is not, of course, made accessible through AnthroSource, but which is too significant not to lead with. This is the book I always go to whenever anyone asks for the one recommendation from my field that I think everyone should read. Hill wrote this book late in her career, based on analysis of online discourses and commentary about various racial issues manifested in language, including slurs, appropriation, and “gaffes”. The title of the book makes clear what this is about – whiteness, and the quotidian ways in which a white racist social order is maintained. Now ten years old, it is dated only in some of the technological details, and I have found that the tools she uses with reference to US contexts are equally relevant for understanding racism in Canada.
  2. “Language, Race, and White Public Space” – American Anthropologist, 1999. This article previews some of the analysis presented in the book above, and fortunately is available for free online. Here, Hill focuses on how language is used not only to construct a negative racial view of non-whites, but also “whiteness as an unmarked normative order”. The discussion of “Mock Spanish” that originates here has become a staple of linguistic anthropology courses, especially in the US, because it so powerfully demonstrates the multifaceted political and social underpinnings of what is initially easy to dismiss as an offhand, casual joke.
  3. “‘Expert Rhetorics’ in Advocacy for Endangered Languages: Who is Listening, and What Do They Hear?” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 2002. This is the article that I refer to most in my own work – without checking, I would put money on it being probably the only piece of writing that I have cited in literally everything I’ve ever published. Hill started her career working with speakers of Mexicano (Nahuatl), and continued her work with Indigenous language advocacy in the Southern US and Mexico throughout her life. In this article, she takes a critical eye on how we talk about Indigenous languages, and how in our efforts to convince people that they should care about this sometimes difficult-to-articulate issue, we inadvertently reinforce colonial power structures and the very marginalization that we aim to counteract. This is an example of the best kind of anthropological critique, to my mind: while we can often become cynical or righteous in ‘tearing down’ the efforts of well meaning folks around us, a call to re-examine how we do our work, from a place of love and valuing of the goals of our advocacy effort, is often needed.
  4. “The Grammar of Consciousness and the Consciousness of Grammar” American Ethnologist, 1985. This one is for those of you who are fully on board the linguistic anthropology train already, as it includes a lot of theoretical discussion of how to think in relation to both structural grammar and political economy. It is, however, definitely one that is worth engaging with in order to gain a more advanced understanding of these interrelated systems of power, and it’s a reminder for those of us who are students of language, in whatever form (linguistic, anthropological, or otherwise), that our object of study is one that is deeply intertwined with a political world.

Hill’s writing is definitely with an academic tradition, but it’s relatively accessible. I’ve used all but the last of the above articles in my undergraduate classes, and even included chapters from The Everyday Language of White Racism in a first year course. Revisiting her work reminds me of why I do what I do, and to keep in mind the “balancing act” that she highlights, with a commitment to creating a more just world acting as the centre of gravity that orients my study of both linguistics and anthropology. The echo and imprint of her time in the world is a great one, and it gives me something to aspire to.

Should you major in Cultural Anthropology?

A first-year student in my Anthropology 101 course emailed to let me know that they found the class readings intriguing and that they loved to learn about cultural values, stories, and traditions from around the world. Their email ended with a question: Can you tell me what kind of jobs there are for graduates of (cultural) anthropology?

This isn’t the first time I’ve had a student ask me this and I thought my first post on this blog (see the editor’s post about bringing a cultural anthropologist to the group) might address this question for anyone thinking of majoring in cultural anthropology.

There are lots of great resources out there that discuss careers for Anthropologists: such as the American Anthropological Association’s page on advancing one’s career, but few discuss tangible skills gained by students graduating with an Anthropology BA.

As a cultural anthropologist, I think anthropology graduates can do any job that requires  someone trained in the social sciences; that is, an anthropology graduate can think critically, wade through lots of data and identify the important information, they can communicate, they can problem solve, and have had experience working toward time/project deadlines. While cultural anthropologists study similar topics and fields to sociologists, we tend to receive more qualitative data analysis training, with a focus on ethnography, rather than quantitative training.

From my work experience in for- and non-profit organizations, I find anthropology graduates have the unique ability to appreciate difference (they can identify and acknowledge that there are different ways of living, leading, and learning, etc.) and, they have learned how to be self-reflexive – both skills are features of ethnographic methodology.

These skills have been discussed elsewhere as facets of a ‘Tolerance of Ambiguity’ (TOA). Psychologists DeRoma, Martin and Kessler (2003) define TOA according to Budner as “an individual’s propensity to view ambiguous situations as either threatening or desirable” (105). Put simply, if you have a low tolerance for ambiguity, you will not be comfortable with situations or people who are different that you. Likewise, sociologist Donald Levine argues that tolerance, and intolerance, are learned, context-dependent and something experienced ‘between people’. These theories signal the importance of being open to difference and acknowledging one’s own cultural context.

Important for our anthropology graduates, employers have identified the benefits of flexibility and adaptivity in their quest to hire university graduates with transferable skills. Minocha, Hristov, and Leahy-Harland 2018 argued that acquiring such traits create a global-ready workforce. In the recent study by Fewster and O’Connor, the authors found that “individuals who ha(d) a higher tolerance of ambiguity (would) be more productive and responsive in the volatile, uncertain and complex world of work, and experience increased job satisfaction, and overall well being” (2017: 2). In this report, the authors identify ‘cultivating curiosity’ as a trait individuals could focus on to develop their level of TOA. Cultivating curiosity is defined as:

“Cultivating curiosity in the workplace was also found to be a trait that people could focus on to develop their TOA. These behaviours centre around interacting with others and include effectively communicating and listening to co-workers; when problems arise, asking questions that encourage curiosity and if confronted with resistance from others, asking questions that lead to identifying possible solutions rather than dwelling on the past. Collaboration is also important including behaviours such as encouraging  participation from others, posing questions, creating strong professional relationships and networks for diversity of thought, sharing ideas and being open to connect the ideas of different people” (Fewster and O’Connor 2017: 9).

Anthropology graduates have spent their entire undergraduate careers cultivating such curiosity in their search to understand the ways in which human beings live their lives similarly and differently around the globe. Taking a holistic and comparative perspective comes naturally for our graduates, as these skills have been honed over time.

In The Teaching of Anthropology, Cora Du Bois argues that TOA is one of the attitudes that anthropologists as teachers need to foster in their  students (1963:37). She describes this attitude as “a capacity to entertain uncertainty, to cope with paradox, to allow for the indeterminate” (Du Bois 1963: 37).  There are many opportunities for anthropology instructors to facilitate and develop such skills in their students through in-class activities (e.g. through discussions that entice self-reflection) and through both summative and formative assessment strategies (e.g. comparative analysis, field prep tasks, etc.) throughout students’ undergraduate careers.

So what do Anthropology graduates have that other undergraduates might not? In addition to all those skills gained from a university degree, they have the unique ability recognize and appreciate difference, to critically reflect on internal logic (systems in place) and, to adapt to situations that are different from what they or their company may be used to.

But there is one caveat.

Cultural anthropology as a sub-discipline is pretty terrible at its Public Relations and it suffers from a bit of self-doubt among other established social science disciplines. Applied anthropologists (a group that I also identify with) tend to run in separate circles from cultural anthropologists (although I believe there is more of an overlap between applied and archaeology and biological anthropology) and therefore, not all cultural anthropologists working in academia are skilled at telling their students what their transferable skills are and how they can capitalize on an anthropology degree.

Employers want their next employee to have a university degree, and our graduates will need to tell them why a degree in anthropology has made them the better/best candidate.

Editor’s Comment: The Cultural One, Jennifer Long will write a future reflection on her experiences as an applied anthropologist in the areas of program evaluation, market research, and as a qualitative researcher-for-hire.

If any reader wants to know more about what applied anthropologists do, they could visit these websites:

These links provide a brief overview into the work of various applied anthropologists.