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Take care of the different national traditions of anthropology

2007-12-27

"Take care of the different national traditions of anthropology"
In attempts to globalize anthropology, it is a good thing to translate into Chinese textbooks such as William Haviland’s Anthropology, but it is also desirable to hold on to what is distinctive in local disciplinary history, Chris Hann suggests in Anthropology Today (December 2007).

“It would be a shame if the evolved expertise concerning local minorities were to be undermined in the aftermath of this exposure to global debates", he writes and calls for a “reconciliation of anthropologies” and more interdisciplinarity.

Although anthropologists discuss similar topics at large conferences in Europe and the US, there do exist many different national traditions within anthropology.

In many countries (for example in Germany) there is a distinction between the study of “ones own culture” (Volkskunde - national ethnology) and those who study variation on a global level (Völkerkunde - cultural anthropology). And in Eastern Europe, social anthropology hardly does exist - the focus is mainly national ethnography. In China (as in many other places) anthropology at home is widely understood to refer primarily to the study of indigenous minorities.

While it might be obvious that national ethnology has much to learn from social anthropology (broader perspective), the same is true the other way round: Social anthropology als needs the more maginalized traditions of national ethnology or even folklore, Hann argues:

According to a caricature that still seems widespread, while the West refined anthropology into a rigorous comparative social science, and later into hermeneutic deconstruction on a global scale, the East produced only descriptive collectors of local butterflies. If there was ever some truth in such stereotypes, they hardly hold today, at any rate to judge from the work on Eastern Europe that comes my way.

Many ethnographers and folklorists nowadays range far outside their traditional territory and draw on the same bodies of theory as their Western counterparts in socio-cultural anthropology. Meanwhile, few of the latter nowadays aspire to rigorous comparison in the manner of a positivistic social science, and many engage very seriously with the historical record. In short, there is a lot of diversity in both camps and also a significant degree of convergence between them.

But to the extent that the national ethnographers retain some intellectual roots in the study of the traditions and customs of their country, it seems to me that this element could potentially enrich teaching and research in ‘general anthropology’, complementing the interests of those colleagues who develop other regional interests and who work in fields not covered at all in the national canon.

Such a combination of local and cosmopolitan interests, a confluence of the Volkskunde and Völkerkunde streams, could lead to a more balanced discipline, one which is neither the celebration of one’s own people nor the exoticization of ‘the Other’. It is a question of ‘overcoming the definitional straitjacket… which wedged anthropology between nationalism and primitivism’, to quote the recent words of João de Pina-Cabral (2006: 665).

This divison of labour has historic origins and is particularly striking in Germany:

In Germany, where I have been living and working for the last decade, one contrast is particularly striking. Here the distinction distinction between those who studied ‘primitives’ in the colonies and those who studied the Volk at home was institutionalized in the 19th century, and it persists to the present day. Völkerkunde (nowadays more commonly termed Ethnologie) was a discipline whose record of achievement compares well with that of comparative social anthropology in Britain and France in the generations preceding the Nazi catastrophe (Gingrich 2005).

Volkskunde, the home variant, was even more seriously compromised under National Socialism. However, under names such as ‘European ethnology’ or ‘empirical cultural studies’, it has survived. It is to these departments that the student wishing to carry out a project in Germany or elsewhere in Europe is expected to turn. The established departments of Völkerkunde for the most part view such projects as an unwelcome contamination of their discipline, even if the theories and research methods proposed are one and the same.

Thus, while Mediterranean specialists could make a substantial impact on social anthropology in Britain in the second half of the last century, they have been largely excluded from Völkerkunde. Studies of new immigrant communities at home have been similarly slow to gain acceptance in the German discipline.

In Central and Eastern Europe the anthropology that became institutionalized (in absence of oversea colonies) was primarily the Volkskunde variant. But with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and better opportunities to read Western literature and to move westwards for their degrees, the younger generation has generally been attracted to Anglophone anthropology. But on the other hand, the tradition of national ethnography is still strong as it is easier to get funding: “Few politicians would risk sacrificing departments and institutes that were so closely identified with the identity of the nation", Hann writes.

Nevertheless, these boundaries are increasingly being transgressed. Not only in Europe, but also in China, ethnologists and anthropologists arrange conferences together. The International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES), will hold its 16th congress in Kunming, China, under the title ‘Humanity, Development, and Cultural Diversity’.

But why stop here, Hann asks and calls for more interdisciplinarity:

After all, given all the contingencies which have shaped contemporary academic boundaries, why make the presence or absence of terms such as ‘ethno’, ‘anthro’ or ‘folk’ the litmus test? Should anthropology not be just as open to sociology, to political economy, and to cultural studies? The claims of archaeology and the biological sciences are especially strong, not because there was a common agenda in Frazer’s time but in the light of contemporary interdisciplinary interests in evolution which we should not be ignoring.
(…)
Reconciliation of the strands on which I have focused here would help to overcome the paradoxical parochialism of the post-Frazerian discipline in Britain. It would also be a modest prelude to major theoretical refurbishment, vital if we are to engage more effectively with the other disciplines that have encroached on space that should be ours.

The whole article in Anthropology Today is only accessible for subscribers. For more information the state of anthropology in Eastern Europe, see my interview with Vytis Ciubrinskas: “Anthropology Is Badly Needed In Eastern Europe”
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