[URBANTH-L]Response to Ellman: theory, practice/ pragmatics

Allen Feldman af31 at nyu.edu
Sun May 1 17:11:50 EDT 2005

As an anthropologist who has since 1992 engaged intensively in action,
advocacy, and policy related research and program development for
homeless people living with HIV/AIDS in New York City, and as a theorist
who draws inspiration from European critical theory in the human science
( which is a much wider framework than the American literary and
strawdog receptions of "pomo,") I am compelled to question some of the
assumptions behind Ellman's appeal to the lost virtues of practicality 
and applicability in urban anthropology and some of the follow-up responses.

Such appeals to practicality never examine the history of practicality
and applicability in anthropology, thus reflecting a larger myopia that
artificially separates theory from practice, assuming that latter does
not have to be theorized ( including the practice of doing
policy-related research). Consider those historical periods in which
anthropology found itself most valued for its practical application,
such as the furtherence of British indirect rule in Africa and India,
the scholarly legitimation of cold-war era  US goverment sponsored rural
 development in Southern Europe. Latin America and Southern Asia, the
role of anthropologist in the Strategic Hamlet Program in Vietnam, and
the current  engagement of anthropologists in the  Department of
Homeland Security to name a few.  Of course there are other examples of
anthropology benefiting the people it studies, but the moral and
epistemological complexity of the history of practical application begs
theorization. Theory is never more present and pervasive than when it is
being repressed in the name of pragmatics and action.  

In the last five years, smug in the conceit that anthropology has
become, if not postmodern, at least post-imperial and post-colonial, the
AAA has rung the bells for so-called Public Anthropology, which in part
seems to be inspired by  the central AAA office's proximity to policy
making centers in Washington D.C. The promotion of public anthropology
by the AAA, (which has to be distinguished from the actual work of many
anthropologist engaged in action and advocacy related research) has been
incredibly naive in its  lack of engagement with both a sociology and
politics of knowledge, that would subject practical and policy 
applications of anthropological technique  to theoretical and normative
critique. Policy related  research, including my own. is filtered
research, filtered by funding requirements, by the cultural literacy of
the funders and other auditors of such commissioned research, by overall
institutional governance frameworks which always regulate/censor the
circulation of available knowledge, and by overarching government
mandates and political agendas such as Homeland Security. How to promote
beneficial policy that cuts across the grains of these structures and
tendencies is not easy and many times is never achieved. But to realize
beneficial change based on ethnographic research one must perform an
ethnography of  the institutional filters that will not admit to, or act
on certain facts on the ground.   This requires a politics of knowledge
and an ethics of translation and on occasions an ethics of abstention
and confidentiality.

Yet, the AAA sees policy related public anthropology,  as comprised
largely of legitimation obstacles and strategies in the world of
real-politik i.e. " how do we get the centers of power to pay attention
to what we have to offer or sell on the expert knowledge commodity
market."That is how do we as a discipline become digestible to the
centers of  policy making. (The contemporary system of expert knowledge
practices and epistemologies remains the most under-analyzed social fact
in the AAA's Public Anthropology agenda, simply because they want to buy
into this  world of influence and interests).  Yes ethical issues are
recognized but largely in the framework of human subjects protection,
and not in terms of a political economy of knowledge.

I am not advocating a rejectionist position towards so-called practical
research or policy related work. But the division between the socalled
practical and the so-called theoretical needs to be subjected to the
type of epistemological critique that Geertz applied to common-sense as
a cultural system but with a good deal more political edge.  Nor, am I
saying that anthropologists should not engage in funded research
sponsored by policy making agencies, but to do so without  a  sociology
and political economy of knowledge in specific fields of policy making,
such an engagement will both  repeat a negative political history of
practical engagement as well as forget it. One may not dissuade
anthropologists from engaging  in  in politically skewed research 
harmful to its subjects, but at least we would be in a position to
assess its status within the wider disciplinary project and its history.

Economic Addendum:

Ellman correctly points out the economic/policy trends leading to the
casualization of employment in the academy and the creation of
economically marginalized agents of expert knowledge in anthropology.
But rather than remedy this situation, the  practical  coupling of
anthropology and policy related research, will simply ratchet up the use
of  part-time contract anthropologists, who will move back and forth
between project-specific/ time-limited contracted research and part-time
adjunct teaching. This is indeed a serious problem, and the AAA's skill
in  recent dealings with mobile labor issues in the hospitality industry
 does not give me great confidence that the causualization of
anthropological labor will be coherently addressed.

Nota Bene; The notion of tourist performance  proposes that tourists are
not just external and passive voyeurs of socio-cultural sites, but, as 
culturally and economically fashioned spectators, import  techniques of
the observer , techniques of the body, language practices, and a
politics of location from their own habitus into the tourist site;
thereby constructing a trans-cultural heterogeneous socio-economic 
affective space, that requires analysis. It is a project that has much
in common with the understanding  and cultural contextualization of
ethnographers' performance in the field.

Allen Feldman
Department of Culture and Communication
New York University

>From  	View message header detail FromYosee at aol.com 
Sent  	Thursday, April 28, 2005 12:32 pm
To  	urbanth-l at lists.ysu.edu 
Subject  	Re: [URBANTH-L] conferences........

Thanks for keeping the list updated to conferences in our subfield (such as 
this post and the other about the German conference).  I must wonder, 
however, whether I made an incorrect assumption when subscribing to this
division.  I thought urban anthropology was one of the more practical 
arms of our
discipline.  Either I was incorrect or we are turning  the clock back a few
years to when post-mo became the standard  "scholar-ese," unapproachable
to all
not well versed in the esoteric world of  literary criticism. 
I have to wonder how this is going to be helpful to our discipline  with
budget crunches in Higher Ed and tenured positions of  retirees turning into
multiple part-time adjunct pools.  Do we  not need to show our
colleagues and
administrators how anthropology is *more*  rather than *less* applicable
to today's
difficult economic times in  education?
Please think about trading in the seemingly self-important naval gazing for 
more fruitful, applicable and future-reaching approaches.
Joe Ellman, Ph.D.
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----- Original Message -----
From: Art Hansen <art.hansen at mindspring.com>
Date: Sunday, May 1, 2005 10:06 am
Subject: [URBANTH-L]Reply to need for useful urban anthropology

> To my anthropological colleagues:
> There are many ways for applied anthropologists to engage in 
> ?meaningful? applied anthropology. Admittedly, some projects and 
> interests seem more esoteric than others that appear to be 
> immediately applicable to urban engagement.
> Let me draw your attention to a project that is immediately 
> applicable in the US and has been ongoing in a number of urban (and 
> rural) areas in the US for several years. This study is spearheaded 
> by Elzbieta Gozdziak and Susan Martin at the Institute for the 
> Study of International Migration at Georgetown and looks at 
> international immigration into ?new? settlement sites and the 
> responses of residents, communities, CBOs, NGOs, and authorities in 
> the sites. 
> This is a clear expression of globalization in terms of increasing 
> international migration and is having significant impacts in many 
> areas of the US that were previously little impacted by 
> international-multicultural issues. The study has been presented at 
> different SfAA conferences as well as at international conferences 
> and has resulted in one book with more publications forthcoming.
> This is really interesting intellectually because of its relevance 
> to many debates and puzzles: the enclave debate, how immigrants 
> reestablish livelihoods, networks, refugee resettlement, 
> differences and similarities in responses among different types of 
> immigrants (refugees, legal, and undocumented), local versus 
> national and community versus agency control of siting new 
> arrivals, etc. This immigration is also of immediate social and 
> political concern. 
> In terms of immediate applicability, let me speak only from my 
> personal involvement in this study. I have been the principal 
> investigator for the metropolitan Atlanta region, a place where 
> historically (and still to a great extent) issues of integration 
> are clearly in terms of black and white. However, the terms have 
> shifted and expanded to include a wide variety of other 
> nationalities and languages (especially Spanish), a change that 
> confronts many communities, agencies, and authorities with the 
> necessity to rethink historic precedents. I became involved in this 
> because it became known that I was someone who was actually 
> studying this phenomenon and had statistics and other useful 
> information. Aside from being asked to participate in town meetings 
> and workshops addressing the concerns arising from an increasingly 
> international population, different local and state authorities 
> have been asking me for information and to help them personally 
> prepare to participate in debates a!
> nd decision-making. 
> Art Hansen
> Clark Atlanta University
> Atlanta GA
> art.hansen at mindspring.com
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