I’ve said before that, for me, the purpose of anthropology is to build a better world, but that’s not enough. It’s so vague as to be tautology. Of course anthropologists are working to make a better world, who isn’t? We all have visions of a better world in our minds – for some, a more just and sustainable world, for others, a world that provides for their personal desires. I don’t believe that there are people out there who simply want to watch the world burn (to paraphrase a line from Batman), but if there are, then I imagine they do so because, in some twisted way, they think the world would be better for it. It’s really not enough, then, to say that anthropology is about building a better world, we have to ask “How?” What is it that anthropology does differently? What does anthropology have to offer?
The traditional role of anthropologists is to do research in order to produce knowledge. Even the applied/academic axis revolves around the production of knowledge for different ends – knowledge for the sake of knowledge (academic) and knowledge for the sake of change (applied). And to be sure, the knowledge that anthropologists produce is extremely valuable. Anthropology has a wealth of knowledge about humans – their behavior, their biology, their social systems, etc. – and this knowledge cuts across cultures and across history. This kind of knowledge is indispensable to the project of making a better world. However, I would argue that, by limiting our focus to knowledge production whether of the academic or applied sort, we fail to grasp the full value of anthropology as a practice.
Instead, we have to be attentive to the full range of practices and products of anthropological research. We have to ask ourselves, what is it that we do? What effects do these actions have on the world? And, how can we put those actions to work to make the better world? Knowledge is one of the products of our research, and it has it’s own effects, but we also do a number of other things in the process of producing that knowledge. We tend to call these methods – participant observation, interviews, focus groups, surveys, etc. There has always been a certain amount of reflexivity in anthropology with regard to methods, but this has been directed primarily at producing a certain kind of knowledge. However, methods have other effects as well. For example, the practice of interviewing some one can create a connection between the interviewer and the interviewee – it could result in friendship, or it could create animosity. Participant-observation could have the effect of making people more conscious of the way they carry out a ritual or practice – it could add new elements or change the practice in some way. We have to be attentive to these consequences, not to attempt to eliminate them (the only way to do so would be to stop using them altogether) but to do our best to make sure that the effects are not harmful or destructive. Furthermore, once we recognize that methods themselves make a difference, then we can begin to consider ways that we might use our methods strategically to create change. But it extends beyong methods too. There are many things we do besides methods, and producing knowledge – we build rapport, we seek funding, we collaborate with other disciplines, we attend events, we publicize, etc. All of these things are practices that make a difference in the world, and contribute to its composition.
We’ve looked at what we do – considered the full range of practices that make up anthropological research, and we’ve thought about what effects those practices do have. Now we need to consider the ways that we could use these practices to make a difference – to make a better world. I think there are a lot of answers to this, and I don’t pretend to have the definitive one – I merely want to raise the discussion and propose some ideas. In my opinion, though, one of the things that anthropology is good at, one of the things that it has always done, and one of the things that it can contribute to the making of a better world is what Samuel Delany refers to as “contact.” According to Delany:
“Contact is the conversation that starts in the line at the grocery counter with the person behind you while the clerk is changing the paper roll in the cash register. It is the pleasantries exchanged with a neighbor who has brought her chair out to take some air on the stoop. It is the discussion that begins with the person next to you at a bar. It can be the conversation that starts with any number of semiofficials or service persons… As well, it can be two men watching each other masturbating together in adjacent urinals of a public john – an encouter that, later, may or may not become a conversation.”
In other words, contact is the direct encounter between individuals or groups outside of one’s usual set of relationships. Delany talks of “class” here and contact is differentiated from “networking” by being inter-class rather than intra-class (both, he argues, are valuable for different reasons, but networking is often mistaken for contact, and this is problematic he suggests). I take the word “class” to indicate not a socio-economic standing (i.e. upper class, middle class, lower class), but a generic term for various social and cultural identities.
What does this have to do with anthropology? I would argue that one of the things that anthropology – in all of it’s various practices – is able to produce (in addition to knowledge) is a kind of contact. In some cases, this contact can be direct. For example, when I was in Nevada working with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Shoshone tribes, far more important than the knowledge I produced while I was there (which was essentially a reiteration of what was already known) were the opportunities I created (inadvertently, I admit) for the people at the BLM and the Shoshone Tribe members to come together and talk. The talk wasn’t always about the traditional-cultural properties (TCPs) that we were studying, but about a variety of topics such as horses, guns, children, and everyday life in rural Nevada. When it did turn to the TCPs, the talk was far more casual than had ever been done before – due in part to the restrictions of “Government to Government” negotiation in which the individuals are no longer constituted as individuals but as figures representing a larger body of interests. I don’t know what the tangible results of these contact events were, and, perhaps if I could have been there longer or set up more opportunities, then the difference might have been more substantial (or less, who knows?). I did see in those instances, though, a certain possibility that had not existed before, and I brought it about by means of what was essentially participant-observation. As another example, I see the work I’ve done recently bringing together biologists studying invasive species and bloodworm harvesters as a form of contact.
In other cases, the contact is not so direct – and I’m not sure that Delany would call it contact at all. Instead, it’s a kind of mediated contact where a certain class of people comes into contact with another by means of anthropology texts. This is where knowledge production can play a large role (though I realize this isn’t the only role knowledge can play). The production of ethnographies has made it possible for Westerners to learn about and encounter other cultures around the world. As a result, it has caused us to think critically about many of the practices we’ve held to be given or natural. Today the opportunities for that kind of exotic contact are diminished, but there are still innumerable opportunities for creating inter-class contact in a variety of ways. For example, the work many anthropologists have done to bring attention to the complex lives of marginalized peoples is a kind of mediated contact that causes us to consider the way our actions affect them.
Contact is only one of many possible ways that anthropologists can use their practices to build a better world. However, by focusing on the production of knowledge as we tend to do, we diminish our ability to see these potential avenues for making a difference. A large part of my goal as an anthropologist is to encourage us to look at the effects of all of our practices, and to make us attentive to the ways we might use those practices to better ends.