David Graeber coined the phrase “anarchist anthropology” to designate an anthropology that was focused on the study of stateless societies with the goal of understanding the mechanisms by which these groups propagate themselves over time, even in the face of global colonization by state-based systems. This would counter the common argument that an anarchist society isn’t possible by documenting and detailing cases where it is actually being done. It would also provide some insight into how we might move towards a more anarchist system ourselves, despite the obstacles associated with overcoming our existing state system. These are both very valuable and worthwhile ends, and I fully support the project. However, I wonder if this is the real anarchist anthropology we might be seeking.
It seems to me that what the above summary describes is an anthropology of anarchism and not necessarily an anarchist anthropology. What would an anarchist anthropology be then? I think it’s an open question, but, to me, an anarchist anthropology would be one that takes the principles of anarchism and applies them to anthropological practice. In other words, it would be an anthropology that seeks to minimize or eliminate discrepancies in power relations, one that seeks mutual aid, and voluntary association. What would that look like specifically? I don’t know. I think it would involve the anthropological study of power as much as it would the anthropological study of marginal, stateless societies. I think it would also involve a change in methodology – not a change in methods, but a change in the way we conceptualize methods and what it is that we do as anthropologists. Finally, I think it would involve a change in the institutions in and by which anthropology is practiced. Could a truly anarchist anthropology exist in the Academy? I suspect not in the long run, but in the world we live in today, the academic structure may prove useful in countering the excesses of power in other institutions (financial, political, military, etc.).
Those are my thoughts, and now I’m posing the question to you – what would an anarchist anthropology look like? How would anarchist principles force us to reconceptualize the way we do anthropology, whether it’s with stateless societies, marginal groups within state systems, or bureaucrats and scientists? Is that something we can/should work towards? Please, share your thoughts.