[URBANTH-L]NEWS: the week Paris burned

Audrey Steiner asteiner at mail.utexas.edu
Mon Nov 7 13:57:44 EST 2005

>I agree with Paul that applying information gleaned from 
>empirically-founded anthropological research could be highly 
>fruitful in raging conflicts.  Although, as Adeola Enigbokan points 
>out, the people who are battling in Paris are responding 
>"viscerally," "systems the Parisians are trying to burn down" cannot 
>be burnt down.  Rather than material, the action is intrinsically 
>symbollic, flailing at symbollic "systems," and is the kind of 
>action that governments have lots of experience in controlling.  I 
>don't hold much hope for its success in fomenting real change on the 
>level needed.

On the other hand, the qualitative properties of diligent 
anthropology lend themselves to uncovering effective strategies of 
assertion on multiple scales and on multiple planes.  The 
possibilities for anthropologists to contribute to alleviation of 
suffering due to class conflict are endless.  For example, as 
Hartigan illustrates in Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of 
Whiteness in Detroit, discourse analysis can divulge the fact that 
there are contests in which, although there is a common language, 
there is "no neutral language, short of saying nothing at all, 
through which ... differences and interests could be framed and 
discussed" (246).  If there is no way to speak, communication is all 
but severed.  Anthropologists can seek to first recognize and uncover 
societally-imposed limitations then locate examples of people's 
creative solutions to these.

Researching how a people has successfully translated scalar 
differences, such as between a large international bureaucracy, 
public or private, and a group of individuals is another contribution 
with potential for direct application.  When Dr. Martin Luther King, 
Jr. carried out non-violent civil disobedience, it was an effective 
tool, but now peaceful protests and even armed skirmishes are 
virtually ignored by those in power.  What other strategy has worked 
to throw off oppressors?  To what degree can terrorism succeed?  How 
specifically do mortal enemies join to become allied in a larger 
fight?  What is the role of a charismatic leader now?  If any, what 
kinds of symbols affect oppressors now?  Etc.

>Adeola Enigbokan states, "Assuming that anthropologists can do more 
>than 'argue the finer points of postmodernism,' is to misunderstand 
>one's own position within a
powerful institution, and to disregard the importance of 'arguing 
finer points.' Arguing amongst ourselves is what we do best, and to 
greatest effect.  Anthropologists, as is true for most academics, 
WRITE. The power of the academy lies in its support for the 
activities of reading,talking and most of all, writing."  This 
generalizing definition of what anthropologists are and do does not 
address the fact that the academy is not the only site of 
anthropologists, nor does it recognize the strong and vibrant 
movement of activist anthropology.  More fundamentally, it does not 
address the relevance of sharing knowledge with those outside the 
ivied ivory towers, and it ignores the activity "the power of the 
academy" is traditionally rumored to support most of all - free 

Audrey Steiner
Anthropology Graduate Student
University of Texas at Austin

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