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Lessons from the history of anthropology

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | July 4, 2020

I am trained as an anthropologist and believe deeply in the future of my discipline.

But if we are going to be able to move forward into the future I want to see happen– a future being shaped by my students, who come from much more diverse communities than ever before — we have to approach our disciplinary history with humility, so we can learn from it.

Over the course of my profession of this discipline, I have been taught to acknowledge that anthropology was born in a colonialist moment, that many of its founders embraced beliefs in inherent differences among human populations that led to some groups of people being described as less advanced, and caused real harm. I learned that many of the ways our disciplinary fore-fathers wrote were exploitative and destructive. (There wasn’t a lot of talk about our fore-mothers when I was coming up; but I eventually learned that they, too, could make the same terribly wrong steps.)

Two specific lessons of history were drummed into those in my generation. We learned to be wary of exoticizing others, instead being urged to turn the knowledge gained by trying to understand another social world into a basis to question what was taken for granted in the worlds we came from. Anthropology needed to stop being a discipline that claimed the right to divide the world between the advanced “west” and a backward other.

I also learned that we needed to counter a history of anthropologists speaking for others by making it clear where we were positioned, reflecting on our invisibility in texts written as if they were objective accounts of reality, and making it clear that there were limits on our knowledge and insight. Anthropology needed to stop being a discipline that claimed to be able to recognize which cultures and histories were authentic and how they should be represented.

From these lessons, I drew the conclusion that as an anthropologist it was my job to question when anyone tried to grant me authority to speak for others, to have the humility to speak only for myself, to acknowledge that I learned from others.

All those lessons from acknowledging our disciplinary history make it imperative now that we listen to those who tell us that today, in 2020, our veneration of ancestors is causing them pain. It makes it imperative that we not continue the mistake of speaking for others, of telling others what they should and should not think or feel.

That may lead us to question why a discipline that skeptically scrutinizes the creation of ideologies to naturalize power, and the embedding of those naturalized ideologies in durable constructions that give them additional weight, should want to have any of its own flawed members commemorated in larger than life fashion.

I am not speaking for others here. I wouldn’t dare to speak for all anthropologists, for something called “Berkeley anthropology”. I am speaking only for and as myself.

But what I learned as an anthropologist is that we have a history that needs to be acknowledged, that requires active work every single day to try to capture what we have to offer– a way of attending to the particular, the local, the everyday, and the multiplicity of ways people make their way in worlds– and keep it from drifting into the arrogance of a view that we know better than those who our history has harmed, and who our present practice can continue to harm if we insist that we are worthy of praise and refuse to listen to critique.

I am glad to say that the University of California, Berkeley, has begun the important work of confronting its history– including the parts that involve anthropology– with respect to Native American people.

Anthropology needs to be a partner in those necessary steps, not an obstacle. We need to learn the lessons of our own history.