Category Archives: Analysis

Anthropoliteia in Anthropology news

“Fault Lines in an Anthropology of Police, Both Public and Global” in Anthropology News

Another commentary by yours truly at Anthropology News.  AN format forbids in-text citations and footnotes, but if you’ll follow the links you’ll find a dense web of Anthropoliteia contributors’ work!


Some thoughts on the French protests against gay marriage

Opponents of the same-sex marriage demonstrate against the government’s draft law to legalise marriage and adoption for same-sex couples in Paris, November 18, 2012. The sign at right reads “No to Homosexual marriage”, the one behind it says “The family is sacred.” REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

There’s been quite a bit of media confusion and consternation about the astonishingly large French protests against gay marriage and adoption that occurred the other day.  In the end, I feel just about as confused as anybody, but I would like to point out a couple of things here:

  1. One of my constant refrains in translating French politics to Americans has been that the version of France that we get here, the New York Times and Washington Post version, is only a very limited perspective on what France is today.  It’s only based on this narrow vision that something like these protests (or, in my own work*, the popularity of Nicolas Sarkozy) seem surprising.  there’s a vast, working class, disenfranchised and non-Parisian French population that most Americans have almost no sense of.
  2. But it’s not only left-leaning American academics who seem to have no sense of the sector of societé, it’s the French technocratic elite as well.  Whether or not Hollande is right about this issue (which he unquestionably is), every account of what’s happens suggests that he and his government were completely taken aback by the reaction–this was supposed to be an easy no-brainer that would slide through.  The very fact that they “didn’t see it coming” is both instructive and indicative of a larger pathology in French political culture: even in my own, limited, anthropologist-as-bumbling-neophyte way, and even while hanging out with (mostly) libertine-esque Parisian artists and leftists, I knew there were strange undercurrents of homophobia; blockages from unexpected people towards thinking about homosexuality as a human lifestyle.  Whether or not I agree with Hollande (and, again, I find it impossible not to), or share many of the same basic assumption about the world (which I probably do), these protests point once again to the fact that France’s technocratic elite are pathologically detached and unaccountable from the people in whose name they govern.  I’m not the first to make that argument–Bourdieu and many others beat me to it–but I have tried to emphasize how this disconnect offers a challenge for French political life while also opening the door to the kind of right-wing populism utilized by Nicolas Sarkozy and his supporters.  You can seen it in the less-than-earnest response by Sarkozy protege Jean Francois Cope, but also in the insistance by Hollande and crew that things will move forward as planned no matter what.
  3. This utter failure by social scientists and politicians to understand a large sector of French (and, I think, American) public life is a shame.  It’s a shame because i think there are real lessons to be learned here about something i really don’t understand.  And I really don’t get it; I really don’t get the affect nor the target.  On either side of the Atlantic (although one thing I do get is labeling it an American conspiracy gets us close to nowhere).  For example: one thing that should be thrown into stark relief about the American version of these debates by the French ones is that whatever this is about (and, again, i have no real clue) it is not merely adherence to a religious tradition.  Since the French have spent the last 10+ years stoking fears of “Islamists” importing religion into the public sphere, the gay marriage debate has largely avoided the issue.  but yet the target and the stance is the same.  Doesn’t tghis make us question how much the U.S. debate is “really” about religion and how much religion is merely the idiom through which the debate happens?  i think it does.  Although i don’t know if this gets us any closer to explaining what’s going on, it sure helps in knowing what kinds of explanations to avoid.

*This article is behind a paywall.  If you have access to it, i prefer you use the above link.  if not, you can find it available here

Universal Moral Grammar?

I imagine that most of the people who read blogs such as this one have developed their own ways of consuming digital media. One of the things that I like to do is listen to podcasts while walking to campus each morning. One of the podcasts I usually like very much is called Philosophy Bites, but the episode that came up in my playlist today left me somewhere between chaffed and flabbergasted.

It featured a scholar named John Mikhail who, modeling his approach after Chomsky’s work on universal grammar (because, you know, it was so successful) suggests that there’s a sort of pre-political, innate moral grammar that all humans share.

Now, the “chaffed” part comes from all the work that he does not discuss in making this claim: Foucault’s work on the emergence of “the human” out of a very particular political formulation, Alasdair MacIntyre’s work on the history of moral philosophy, Lynn Hunt’s (among many many others) work on the history of human rights, in fact most anthropologistswork on human rights discourse that I’m aware of–most of which illustrates not only the degree to which such notions depend on particular conceptions of what it means to be human, but also the ways in which these notions of human-ness are themselves tied to particular discursive and economic structures that are quite clearly “political” and less than “universal”.

Fine.  Scholars rely on different bodies of knowledge.  That’s part of what make contemporary universities so interesting. But the flabbergasted part comes from what he does discuss as evidence: namely, the fact that “everybody seems to agree more or less agree on human rights” (again, what can this truth claim even mean in the era of Guantanamo Bay?!  What mode of life and thought makes it even utterable?) as well as “growing anthropological evidence”. What is he talking about here? I literally have no clue. I would be surprised if someone could point out to be any member of the American Anthropological Association whose work would support the existence of a universal human grammar. I will offer a free dinner to anyone who can show me even one domain where the preponderance of anthropological evidence would support the idea.  In fact the American Anthropological Association’s Committee for Human Rights issued an official proclamation in 1999 which reads:

Human rights is not a static concept. Our understanding of human rights is constantly evolving as we come to know more about the human condition.

So there’s that, for what it’s worth. I actually think that’s it’s probably a more fruitful question to ask just what in the heck he means by “anthropological” because, whatever he does mean by it doesn’t seem to include, you know, the work of anthropologists.

Again, I just found out about this guy, so I haven’t yet been able to see what he cites for such a claim (or if, for that matter). I suppose if I were a real scholar that’s what I’d do next…

A List of Scholarly Citations Linked To in this Post (really, this is only the tip of the iceberg)

Thomas J. Csordas (2009). Growing up Charismatic: Morality and Spirituality among Children in a Religious Community Ethos, 37 (4), 414-440 D

Michael Dunn,, Simon J. Greenhill,, Stephen C. Levinson, & Russell D. Gray (2011). Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals Nature, 473, 79-82 DOI: 10.1038/nature09923

Didier Fassin (2008). Beyond good and evil? Questioning the anthropological discomfort with morals Anthropological Theory, 8 (4), 333-344 DOI: 10.1177/1463499608096642

MARK GOODALE (2006). Ethical Theory as Social Practice American Anthropologist, 108 (1), 25-37 DOI: 10.1525/aa.2006.108.1.25

Sally Engle Merry (2003). Human Rights Law and the Demonization of Culture (And Anthropology Along the Way) PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 26 (1), 55-76 DOI: 10.1525/pol.2003.26.1.55

Michael Lambek (2008). Value and virtue Anthropological Theory, 8 (2) DOI: 10.1177/1463499608090788

Saba Mahmood (2001). Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival Cultural Anthropology, 16 (2), 202-236 DOI: 10.1525/can.2001.16.2.202

ANNELISE RILES (2006). Anthropology, Human Rights, and Legal Knowledge: Culture in the Iron Cage American Anthropologist, 108 (1), 52-65 DOI: 10.1525/aa.2006.108.1.52

DAROMIR RUDNYCKYJ (2009). SPIRITUAL ECONOMIES: Islam and Neoliberalism in Contemporary Indonesia Cultural Anthropology, 24 (1), 104-141 DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2009.00028.x


The Progressive Roots of American Anthropology (versus the Tea Party last time)

Two seemingly unrelated evens have occurred in my life the last two days which have caused me to think. I spent the day yesterday helping out with the campaigns of some of the local candidates here in Southeastern Michigan. Obviously the overall effect was not as successful as I would have liked. I can’t say, really, how much the election results had to do with the “Tea Party” phenomenon–compared with some of my experiences last year in Central Massachusetts I have to say I ran into relatively few of those types. What I have run into, though, is the idea that, especially in America, things do not get better; and, usually voiced as a more general principle, that any attempt to make things better on the general level (versus on the level of individuals or nuclear families) is impossible.  The immediate effect of these ideas on political will, for example, is that projects like building bridges, formulating a system of universal health care, or, you know, creating and protecting agencies that might help regulate food, education, safety or financial standards for the collective good–all of these are seen as at best misguided fantasies spouting phony accomplishments, at worst infringements of individual liberties.

The other thing that happened was that I sat down, perhaps for the first time, to really read (as opppossed to do the grad seminar preparation for) Lewis Henry Morgan‘s Ancient Society. I had no real reason why, besides it was the first book on my iBook shelf (so thank my iPad and The Gutenberg Project, or was it Google Books?). Now, I’ve taught LHM several times in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology courses, usually using him as a foil that sets up Boasian Anthropology and, later Malinowskian fieldwork.  But what I don’t think I ever fully appreciatted was both the context in which Morgan’s work was written, and specifically what it was written against.

The first part, the context, is made explicit in the very first words:

The great antiquity of mankind upon the earth has been conclusively established. It seems singular that the proofs should have been discovered as recently as within the last thirty years, and that the present generation should be the first called upon to recognize so important a fact.

Wrap your head around that.  What must have it been like to understand oneself as among the first generation to realize the enormous antiquity of homo sapiens?  There are at least two directions one can move out of that fundamental fact: either you could view that long history as one of gradual decline–a Biblical Fall–or you can take the tack that Morgan believed was supported by the evidence.  In fact, Morgan frames his preface with two epigrams, the first from Whitney’s Oriental and Linguistic Studies:

“Modern science claims to be proving, by the most careful and exhaustive study of man and his works, that our race began its existence on earth at the bottom of the scale, Instead of at the top, and has been gradually working upward; that human powers have had a history of development; that all the elements of culture—as the arts of life, art, science, language, religion, philosophy—have been wrought out by slow and painful efforts, in the conflict between the soul and the mind of man on the one hand, and external nature on the other.”

The second from Kaines’ Antkropciogia:

“These communities reflect the spiritual conduct of our ancestors thousands of times removed… Our wondrous civilization Is the result of the silent efforts of millions of unknown men, as the chalk cliffs of England are formed of the contributions of myriads of foraminifera.”

The point here, and of Morgan’s anthropology, is a certain optimistic vision of humanity, of what makes us human: that bit by bit, generation after generation, together, humans can, and do, inevitably (if only eventually and through purposive  human action), make the world better for themselves.  He is, in other words, a Progressive.

Now, there are of course many things wrong with Morgan’s approach (which any graduate student in anthropology, or attentive undergraduate, will be able to tell you): the surety and singularity of his vision of what is “good” turns out to be both ethnocentric myopia and racist exclusion; his faith in the inevitability of unilateral progress over the long term seems questionable at best (although I’m beginning to wonder how much of that was rhetorical fireworks, marking out his position vis-a-vis the opposite).  But what I appreciate is his fervent insistence on its possibility.

And that’s why when I said earlier that I never fully “appreciated” what Morgan was writing against, I chose that word carefully.  “Known” would too strong a word here–I would have been able to recite most of those theoretical and political nuances before– but now I appreciate it.  And that suggests to me also, a potential place to quarry for answers to  to our current Progressive perplexities: what now?

Some further readings:

Hersey, M. (1993). Lewis Henry Morgan and the anthropological critique of civilization Dialectical Anthropology, 18 (1), 53-70 DOI: 10.1007/BF01301671

White, L. (1960). : Lewis Henry Morgan: American Scholar . Carl Resek. American Anthropologist, 62 (6), 1073-1074 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1960.62.6.02a00220

Michael A. Elliott, . (2008). Other Times: Herman Melville, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Ethnographic Writing in the Antebellum United States Criticism, 49 (4), 481-503 DOI: 10.1353/crt.0.0041

Service, E. (1988). : Lewis Henry Morgan and the Invention of Kinship . Thomas R. Trautmann. American Anthropologist, 90 (2), 443-444 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1988.90.2.02a00410


Ne touche pas à mon moto!

One of Le‘s affiliated blogs has a cute story about trying to compare the motorcycles of French versus American police… but he can’t get the permission Frenchside to look at one, for no good reason other than “non”.  I feel that

Flic Story…

Quelle différence peut -il y avoir entre une moto de la police nationale et celle d’un flic américain ? Réponse ci-dessous…

HD Police

via Flic Story… – Roues Libres – Le blog 2 ROUES par Jean Marc Navarro –


Dominic Boyer (and others) on neoliberalism and “neosocialism” at Savage Minds

Just thought I’d give a shout out to what’s turning into an interesting conversation over at Savage  Guest blogger Dominic Boyer argues for greater anthropological attention be paid to “neosocialism” because:

If you look back on the entanglement of liberalism and socialism in modern European social theory and political philosophy, it makes no sense whatsoever to talk about the one without the other. If we think there’s something neoliberal out there then by goodness (!) there’s bound to be something neosocialist loose in the world as well. I admit that this is counterintuitive. We’ve all been schooled (not least by liberal and socialist theorists) to assume that liberalism and socialism are antithetical to one another. And, at some level, of course, there’s oppositionality there. But I’d argue there is also a strong relationship of complementarity between the two.

via Why not neosocialism? | Savage Minds.

Now this is an interesting enough kind of argument, and one I definitely agree with, but the discussion has also been particularly interesting, with Chris Kelty suggesting that perhaps the greatest example of the strength of this neosocialism might in fact be Walmart and (with a little provocation from your truly) Boyer making the claim that Bruno Latour, author of Reassembling the Social, is not in fact a social theorist (I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one to figure out if I agree or disagree).


Mass Incarceration, Higher Education and the Legitimacy of Violence

I’ve got a post over at Anthropoliteia in reaction to some provocative commentary by Jonathan Simon on the current UC Strike.  Here’s a tidbit:

What Jonathan’s work in Governing through Crime has shown, however, is that one of the few remaining–maybe the only remaining–domain in which the violence of governance seems legitimate to American voters is in the domain of crime control and punishment. It therefore has become the trope through which all American governance is filtered.

What we’re left with is, on the one hand, a massively inflated, impractical and unjust incarceration system and–importantly–on the the other hand, no way of conceiving any other legitimate form of governance.

This is not a question of corporate greed versus educational egalitarianism, or even good guys versus bad guys (as much as I’d like to hate on Mark Yudof along with everyone else), but of finding a way–literally–of justifying the very real kinds of violence involved in supporting education; of including higher education into the political calculus of life and death.

via Jonathan Simon’s provocative thoughts on the UC Strike « Anthropoliteia: the anthropology of policing.


Is the “culture of results” bad for life?

The last couple of weeks I’ve been teaching kids in my Intro to Anthropology class about one of the classic uses of the “culture” concept for anthropologists–to set off a domain of human life at least partially distinct from biology (think Margaret Mead in Coming of Age in Samoa or Alfred Kroeber‘s “superorganic” or any number of later examples).

My dissertation, on the other hand, looked at a different kind of “culture”: that which Nicolas Sarkozy, then head of the Police nationale, called “the culture of results”.  By this he meant a fundamental shift in not only the way government agencies conducted their affairs, but in the value orientations and work ethic of the French people writ large.

Needless to say, this was and remains a controversial agenda.  The latest issue du jour concerns a rash of suicides at France Telecom, which are being blamed on the aggressive “culture of results” style restructuring the former public service has been experiencing.  The Telegraph UK writes:

“In a nutshell, it’s gone from a public service culture to a cash machine,” said Ivan du Roy, author of Stressed Orange, a book about the company’s angst.

Union leaders blame the suicides on a brutal, target-obsessed company culture in which, they say, formerly well-qualified and adjusted employees – most in their 40s and 50s – are pushed around like pawns with the unofficial aim of “breaking” them so they will leave.

Some 22,000 have left in the last four years. But many remain and have been shifted into high-pressure call centres where individuals compete for monthly results-based bonuses.

via France Telecom deputy chief executive Louis-Pierre Wenes resigns over 24 staff suicides – Telegraph.

The “culture of results,” it seems, is not only distinguishable from, but incompatible with, life itself as it understood by many of the employees of France Telecom.


What is neoliberalism and how can we tell?

I just came across a neat blog called Decasia: critique of academic culture run by Eli Thorkelson, a graduate student in the anthropology department at the University of Chicago.  I started to offer a response to his though-provoking post on neoliberalism in the academy when I realized that really I was running on so long that my thoughts should be a post of their own.

In essence, Eli is trying to work through how to ask questions about neoliberalism from an ethnographic perspective–in other words, how to think through the contingencies and particularities of an object that itself traverses many such contexts.

This, of course, is one of the great anthropological questions of the past 30 years, and has been played out in everything from Eric Wolf to Arjun Appadurai to Aihwa Ong and Anna Tsing; from everything from the anthropology of globalization and modernity to the anthropology of the state to the anthropology of humanitarianism.

Appropriately, I think, Eli and friends are trying to tackle this problem through the specific case of universities: how can we make sense of what seem to be linked issues–shared problems, if not exactly shared responses–in the very nature of academic practice today?  I ran into a similar issue when developing my dissertation project on police reform in France: so much of what was going on with Nicolas Sarkozy’s reform of the Police nationale seemed to follow a set script, but it wasn’t long into my time there that i realized that the issues at stake in his “culture of results” were different than, say, what was going on in Berkeley, or London.

How to make sense of this?

For starters, Foucault’s suggestion– in “What is Critique?” and elsewhere— has suggested that “liberalism” is best understood as a form of governance which seeks its own principle of limitation and therefore its corresponding form of critique–liberal critique– is to ask the question: do we have too much government?  In other words, continual and reflexive self-limitation on the power and scope of governance is the characteristic feature of liberalism across its various manifestations.  Beyond that, however, the particular mechanism of this self-limitation is variable.

If the first part of Foucault’s formulation (liberalism as form of self-limitation by government of governance) can be buttressed by the work of everyone from Albert Hirchman to Max Weber, the second part (thinking through the various mechanisms of liberal governance) is most fruitfuly approached, i think, by a group of scholars who follow the work of Nikolas Rose.

For example, rose argues that the distinguishing characteristic of neoliberalism is not “lack of governance,” “accumulation of wealth,” “excess of greed,” or even “privatization” (all popular definitions of the term).  rather the difference between “classical” liberalism and “neoliberalism” is that whereas the former sought a principle whereby the role of government could be limited through the cordoning off of separate “public” and “private” spheres, the latter attempts to use a set of techniques developed in the Market–located, for classic liberalism within the “private” sphere–to better regulate a variety of domains–including those classically relegated to the “public sphere”.

Now, several anthropologists–Aihwa Ong and Jim Ferguson being chief among them, I think– have taken up Rose’s work here in order to focus on the myriad ways neoliberal techniques have been taken up for purposes not predicted by grander theories of economic transformation.  Their point here is, I think, that neoliberalism is  a technical toolkit that can be used in the service of a whole array of political projects.

Now, having said that, in my own dissertation I argued that, while the police reform that I was ethnographizing was indeed a form of liberalism which made use of some of the management techniques usually associated with neoliberalism in the Rose/Ong/Ferguson post-Foucaultian understanding of the term, I’m not sure that it was the sole mechanism of self-limitation.

On the one hand, I think I’m “not sure” mostly because neither were the people I was studying.  in a very tangible sense, they were trying to figure out how to delimit the legitimate violence they were entrusted with.  On the other hand, this very fact seems to suggest that there was at least some kind of experimentation with another, yet emergent, form of liberalism.

Dr. Ong and I have been going back and forth a bit about this ever since: what, for example, I ask her, would a new form of liberalism look like, if it were neither “classical” nor “neo” liberalism?  Can we see any evidence of such a thing in the world around us?  For example, in the post-economic collapse U.S. where there at least circulates the idea that market techniques are not in themselves sufficient “regulation”?

This is the terrain I think Eli & co. are on as they try to think through everything from the University of California’s current economic crisis to Mexican student protests of the 1990’s to ethnic violence at Cameroonian universities.  It is exciting territory, and I’ll be interested to see what they find…

Further reading

Appadurai, A. (2000). Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination Public Culture, 12 (1), 1-19 DOI: 10.1215/08992363-12-1-1

Fassin, D. (2007). Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life Public Culture, 19 (3), 499-520 DOI: 10.1215/08992363-2007-007

Ferguson, J., & Gupta, A. (2002). Spatializing States: Toward an Ethnography of Neoliberal Governmentality American Ethnologist, 29 (4), 981-1002 DOI: 10.1525/ae.2002.29.4.981

Foucault, M., Faubion, J. D., Rabinow, P., & Hurley, R. (2000). “Omnes et Singulatim”: toward a critique of political reason (Vol. 3, pp. 298-325). New York: New Press.

Foucault, M., Schmidt, J., & Geiman, K. P. (1996). What Is Critique? (pp. 382-398). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kearney, M. (1995). The Local and the Global: The Anthropology of Globalization and Transnationalism Annual Review of Anthropology, 24 (1), 547-565 DOI: 10.1146/

Ong, A. (2000). Graduated Sovereignty in South-East Asia Theory, Culture & Society, 17 (4), 55-75 DOI: 10.1177/02632760022051310

Ong, A. (2006). Neoliberalism as exception : mutations in citizenship and sovereignty. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press.

Rose, N. (1999) Powers of freedom: reframing political thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Tsing, A. (2000). The Global Situation Cultural Anthropology, 15 (3), 327-360 DOI: 10.1525/can.2000.15.3.327

WOLF, E. (1999). Anthropology among the powers Social Anthropology, 7 (2), 121-134 DOI: 10.1017/S0964028299000117


How many anthropologists work in the Security Industry?

I was checking out this new fancy search engine that everyone’s talking about, and i came across this

Which made me ask myself “WTF??!?!  Why did both the number and salary of U.S. anthropologists shoot up right around 2002/03?” The only thing I could think of is Human Terrain Systems, but could that really be the case?  (By the way, for those of you who don’t know what HTS is, you can get a taste of the hub-bub in anthropology about it here)

So I checked the Bureau of Labor Statistics and, sure enough, in 2008 almost half of all Anthropologists worked for the Federal Executive branch.  What gives?

Well, I think part of the answer is increased employment by anthropologists in the Bush-era federal security apparatus (of which the HTS), but also part of the issue is that most people who I would recognize as “anthropologists” are in fact “Educators” according to the BLS…  So we have a reversal of the traditional American Anthropological Association Meetings status hierarchy: “applied” anthropologists are the “real” ones and Professors are merely postsecondary education specialists in the field…

Maybe this is old news to some people, but it does probably require that we pause for a moment and think about what we mean by an “anthropologist” in the, at times quite heated, debate about the ethical implications of such anthro-security collaborations… or at least the bureaucratic content of the category being mobilized within such collaborations