To be or not to be an anthropologist

To be or not to be an anthropologist

Since I trained as a social anthropologist at Edinburgh University in the early 1980s I have been wrestling with whether I wish to be defined by that disciplinary orientation. Whatever work I was doing, the label seemed to stick in my mind – often with me joking about being a recovering anthropologist even when I was trying to be a social development worker, policy wonk or manager.

At last I have concluded that like so many binary choices, a yes or no question is the wrong approach. It is possible to be both an anthropologist and a manager at the same time – just as you can be both white and British – as well as pursuing a form of anthropology that is permanently in conversation with other disciplines. In fact anthropology’s extraordinary value comes with our habit of collaborating with the ideas of economists, political scientists, historians, geographers rather than going it alone, as Gillian Tett points out in her new book AnthroVision.

What you are is not just determined by what you produce but what thought collective you mingle within (Fleck 1935). Just as politicians can not be understood simply by measuring their outputs, so too anthropologists are more than their publications. Whether you manage to research and write inter-disciplinarily depends on relationships and networks. I just wrote an article about how ethnographers of parliaments – anthropologists but also political scientists, linguists and now architects and even psychotherapists – have managed to develop innovative approaches in part by being in conversation with each other. My work on the Westminster Parliament vastly expanded its imaginative scope by teaming up with a psychotherapist, Nicholas Sarra, for example, and writing about emotion in committees and constituencies. This is the first step towards an ethnography of ethnographers of parliaments.

At the same time, I want to protect my membership of the anthropological thought collective. This is partly why I wrote a book summarising all the anthropological work on parliaments that I could find. In this I aim to deepen understanding of the complexity of political institutions. I write about how elected politicians navigate relationships by forging alliances and thwarting opponents; how parliamentary buildings are constructed as sites of work, debate and the nation in miniature; and how politicians and officials cope with with hierarchies, continuity and change.

Anthropological research on parliaments over the last 40 years, based on research completed under the Global Research Network on Parliaments and People, funded by the AHRC, GCRF and ERC, found as an open access book on Routledge

I also propose how to study parliaments through an anthropological lens while in conversation with other disciplines. The dive into ethnographies from 34 countries across Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific Region demolishes hackneyed geo-political categories and culminates in a new comparative theory about the contradictions in everyday political work. It reveals the tracking of riffs, rhythms and rituals in parliament as a systematic way to study patterns of interaction.

The question is not so much whether to be loyal or disloyal to anthropology but rather how to be and not be an anthropologist at the same time. Inter-disciplinary is sewn into our discipline. If we embrace it by enriching our own philosophy rather than being stamped on, then it will benefit everyone.

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