Distraction Free Reading

Hopeful Anthropology

Years ago a colleague commented that the AAA meetings were becoming, well, a bit predictable. There would probably be scores of papers on social injustice expressed through ethnicity, race, gender, nationalism, class, and other familiar socio-cultural variables. I have spoken in my own work about how we must begin including, in a more systematic way, notions of injustices based on technological affiliations and values. But even if our recognizable list were expanded further, it still leaves anthropology operating within a particular paradigm of investigation. This paradigm might be conceptualized, as Lyon-Callo (2013) puts it, as a project of “critical thinking,” in which anthropologists as educators engage in “critically [problematizing] common sense things like race, class, gender, sexuality, family structures, migration and trade policies.” He writes quite insightfully about these patterns in his article, “Teaching for Hope?” which appeared in Anthropology News (January/February, 2013). I will extrapolate on these ideas and refer to this model as the “critical thinking paradigm.” (If you don’t like the word “paradigm” you can substitute the word, “orientation”).

Lyon-Callo argues that the critical thinking paradigm in pedagogy comes close to presuming ignorance of these issues on the part of all students. In anthropology, this paradigm is often treated as a form of “secret knowledge” that only we as experts can see. It is up to us to reveal this knowledge as well as the cultural and political conditions under which it becomes hidden. However, he argues that today’s students are different. Many of them are personally familiar with injustices such as class exploitation and racism. In the western Michigan area where Lyon-Callo teaches, students have direct experience with class and poverty issues. Even when the critical thinking paradigm remains powerful, Lyon-Callo observes many students leaving his classroom with a sense of hopelessness and a “what do we do now?” feeling. Lyon-Callo is concerned that this orientation will just produce a legion of pessimists.

This article obviously made an impact on me, as my colleague and I also observed anthropology’s patterned pessimism. Certainly many studies show that if you seek negative patterns you will find them—and only them. Books such as The Happiness Advantage (2010), which one of my students recommended, argue that it is important to seek out positive ideas and messages, even if they are not immediately visible. The exercise should not be done in a vacuous, Pollyanna way, but in a way that helps create tangible change, instead of focusing one’s entire lens on problems that initially feel intractable.

Similarly, Lyon-Callo looks to inspiration from JK Gibson Graham and Stephen Healy, who recommend rejecting the idea that exploitation is inevitable and “work instead toward producing a politics of possibilities.” Some might read in this the resurrection of an age-old debate between applied and basic research. Do we have the right to interfere in other people’s lives on this level? But the better question is, can we continue to morally ignore all the things we might do to help people move beyond their situation?

For Lyon-Callo’s students at Western Michigan University, ideas about exploitation and the failure of capitalism are all too real. Do they really need a continued stream of pedagogy filled with the attitude adjustment of critical thinking? Maybe some do, but many others are experiencing it first hand. For many students, problems are so chronic that, according to Lyon-Callo, “The fantasy of the American Dream has been replaced with a fantasy of the loss of the middle class as inevitable.” There is really no need to upend these students’ common sense—they are not the children of privilege that need a new world view. In response, he has turned his pedagogical focus toward imagining tangible change in his students’ lives through creative solutions, such as cooperativism, and other problem-solving, novel approaches.

I like the way he advocates for a “politics of possibilities,” and I too am interested in how imagination and visions of the future might pave the way for alternative approaches to doing anthropology. The vision described here goes beyond the simple debate about applied versus basic anthropology. At their core, these ideas speak more broadly to the orientation of an entire discipline, one which advocates moving beyond observing problems to turn its lens toward collecting data about what is going right in the world.

Could it be that my colleague and I recognized the pessimistic panels at AAA because that is what we were primed to see? We are quite well aware that anthropology is a huge discipline with many projects that are obviously complex and involve more than reiterating a list of patterned injustices. But it feels as though there are, at least, “hot buttons” that tend to get pressed more than others on particular topics when viewed through an anthropological lens. Perhaps it is time to change the paradigm away from only “critical thinking” and analysis.

The idea is not that we are abandoning basic research on social injustice; clearly these projects will and must continue. Just because people are sensitive to one thing, such as economic injustices, does not mean they understand all the other means of discrimination. The economically oppressed, for example, may not understand issues of sex and gender, or what it might mean to feel prejudice as a transgendered individual. Anthropology deals with an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of issues. Further, injustices continue to happen all over the world in places that dominant populations continue to ignore.

Critical thinking and exposure of hidden problems are not going away. Nevertheless, the suggestion here is that it is time also to embrace and incorporate a new orientation toward a future that hasn’t yet occurred—and doesn’t have to. It is time to turn our orientation in part toward a future anthropology that is a hopeful anthropology.

I look forward to having my own orientation expanded through the stories and research projects that will hopefully appear on The CASTAC Blog in the coming months.

1 Comment

  • Cincinnatus says:

    This is an excellent post!

    As critical as it is to teach students to understand oppressed groups, and there are many, it is equally critical to equip them to do something about it!

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