Why ‘Anthropology Yesterday’

After taking a break from social media for a year, I’ve finally settled on a suite of projects I want to pursue for the next couple of years. I’ve decided to name this new set of projects ‘Anthropology Yesterday’. There are four reasons.

First, the name is an homage to George Stocking, the famous historian of anthropology. Although I had come to Chicago with a keen interest in academic genealogy and intellectual history, it was really Stocking’s seminar in the history of anthropology that helped me see I was interested in the history of ideas and not ‘theory’ (if you can see the difference). When I met Stocking he had already had a remarkable career. He started writing the history of anthropology at its beginning, in the early 19th century, and had steadily worked his way forward. When I took his seminar, it was entitled ‘anthropology yesterday’ because he had written so much of the discipline’s history the only topic left to study was… himself! Well, not technically himself. But colleagues and contemporaries like Sol Tax. Labelling my work ‘anthropology yesterday’ is both a sly reference for insiders as well an homage. It also recognises that most histories of anthropology break down in the 1960s or 1980s… so there is a lot of recent history to do.

That said, I don’t want to lionize Stocking or claim to have taken his mantle. Stocking was a remarkably successful academic entrepreneur, but he was hardly the only person to do history of anthropology. Also, frankly, I was not particularly close to him. Moreover, he had feet of clay. His head was a complicated place (his autobiography documents this at length) and he could be difficult with people. Stocking deserves a lot of credit — and he’s gotten it. I want to acknowledge my connection and indebtedness to him, but that’s about it.

Second, I decided to name these projects ‘Anthropology Yesterday’ because I’m now a mid-career, middle aged professor. As you get older you can find the silver lining in ageing or you can rage against mortality. I thought I’d get started early on the former by embracing my new non-relevance, lack of a cutting edge, and love of outmoded technologies like blogging. When I look at anthropology today, I ask myself: what can I offer that fifteen thousand twitter bots can’t? The answer is: context. Historical perspective. Not just from my own personal history, but also from the history of our discipline. And of course, the nice thing about a name like ‘anthropology yesterday’ is that it gets truer every year! So when I celebrate my fiftieth blogversary in my dottage, I won’t have to come up with a new name for my blog.

Third: only fools try to shape the future by changing the present. At the moment our discipline is seriously rethinking itself, especially on the mainland. When people ask ‘what is anthropology’ they are always also asking ‘what was anthropology’? Decolonizing involves having a story of a previous, more colonized past. We tell these stories about our past to justify our attempts to remake our future. I’d like to be part of this process by help reminding our discipline what it was — what it actually was, not a simple narrative of a rise from the muck of Pure Concentrated Evil. The past was always more than just PCE, and the present is not perfect either. I’d like to help us see the complexity and variety in our discipline’s history so we can find anchor points for new genealogies. When it comes to the history of anthropology, what is the opposite of ethnographic refusal? Ethnographic acceptance? Admittance? Consent? Sign me up for those.

Finally, beyond the politics of our genealogies, there is one more reason to remember anthropology ‘yesterday’: to remember what we have already figured out. Somehow we don’t have textbooks which summarise what we’ve figured out the way biology does, especially not beyond the introductory level. When we ask ‘what is anthropology and what could it become’ we need to remember the intellectual substance of our discipline, not just its racial politics or political economy. When we ask what makes anthropology a distinct discipline we can find the answer in our history. I’m a big fan of distinctness. Not because of a need to purify the discipline or police its boundaries, but because interdisciplinarity (which I like) requires disciplines. We can recognize the plurality and blurred edges of our tradition while still discerning its distinctiveness. If I can keep even one person from reinventing the wheel, intellectually speaking, then I’ll have made a contribution.

In sum, I like the title ‘anthropology yesterday’ because of its connection to my genealogy, the arc of my biography, and the importance of history of changing the discipline while recognizing its intellectual contribution. Now all I need is a fancy icon and a mission statement and I’m ready to go…!