[URBANTH-L]Necessary Abstractions

M Wolf-Meyer wolf0358 at umn.edu
Sat Apr 30 18:50:19 EDT 2005

Urban Anthropologists:

I, for one, think it utterly necessary that anthropologists think more 
theoretically about what they attempt to capture ethnographically, hence the 
need for more abstractions, not fewer.

My impression is that in the past 30 years anthropology has become 
increasingly insular (in part due to the discipline's own self-critique), 
and there is nothing more "navel-gazing" in my mind than producing library 
dissertations and books that no one will read (especially scholars outside 
of anthropology).  And I think that very pragmatic, non-theoretical, 
"applied" anthropology is more prone to this critique than anything remotely 
"postmodern."  "Applied" anthropology often smacks of anti-intellectualism, 
engaging in the production of "facts" rather than engagements, and only 
helping to produce in applied anthropologists feelings of intellectual 
alienation (both from the people they attempt to help and from the 
discipline).  Compare the average contents in Cultural Anthropology to the 
average contents of Medical Anthropology Quarterly (a very pragmatic 
journal): The latter suffers from material that engages in no debates, and 
comforts itself through a myopic empiricism that assumes the lone 
anthropologist publishing in a scholarly journal can make a difference in 
the world.  The former, however, even when authors are focused 
geographically or topically, at least attempt to engage in the sort of 
abstractions that allow a conversation to occur (within the discipine and 

If anthropologists want to make a difference in the world, the first thing 
they need to do is enter into debates with the people they attempt to 
understand and effect.  Facts rarely produce engagements; abstractions, 
metaphors and theories often do.

Best wishes,

Matthew Wolf-Meyer
Department of Anthropology
University of Minnesota 

More information about the URBANTH-L mailing list