[URBANTH-L]Response to Wolf-Meyer

Andrew Gardner gardner at email.arizona.edu
Sun May 1 14:12:03 EDT 2005

Matthew Wolf-Meyer,

I agree with Galey's recent email. Personally, I found your rebuttal as
worrisome as the message that kicked off this debate. Like Joe, you use
caricature to make your point; in his case that caricature concerned the
"postmodern" scholarship; in yours it concerns "applied" anthropology. In my
view, the problematic underpinnings of Joe's contentions have been well
articulated by Mark Peterson and Virginia Cornue, both of whom made their
points without disparaging the work of "applied" anthropologists. In your
argument, however, you seem content to plow ahead with the invectives
against applied anthropologists, and the caricature you use fits few of the
applied anthropologists I've come to know over the past eight years--most of
whom have strong records of theoretical contributions and durable
(un-"alienated") relations with the communities in which they work. 

There is certainly some debate about what "applied" anthropology exactly
means or comprises--and this debate is particularly lively with those who
operate under that banner. But whether one is reasonably comfortable with
the moniker of "applied" anthropology or, alternatively, prefers one of the
related titles described in Sam Beck's email, I'm sure there are others out
there who, like me, feel that the simple bifurcation through which you view
anthropology poorly characterizes our work in the discipline. As Galey
suggests, I'm interested in applying my work (and comfortable with the wide
ambit of that verb). I'm equally interested in using that same work to
contribute to social theory.

>From my perspective, the dichotomy you propose is more a "fact" produced as
part of the articulation of an academic discipline than a useful map of
anthropology as it is actually practiced. I'd urge you to revisit the work
of some portion of the thousands of applied/practicing/engaged/etc.
anthropologists before you write them off as anti-intellectual, alienated,
and theoretically disengaged. Hopefully, you can find some space for those,
like me, wish to straddle the divide you perceive.

Andrew Gardner
Department of Anthropology
University of Arizona

-----Original Message-----
From: urbanth-l-bounces at lists.ysu.edu
[mailto:urbanth-l-bounces at lists.ysu.edu] On Behalf Of M Wolf-Meyer
Sent: Saturday, April 30, 2005 3:50 PM
To: urbanth-l at lists.ysu.edu
Subject: [URBANTH-L]Necessary Abstractions

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 

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