A badge of honour

March 19, 2004

The annual mass gathering of anthropologists - with its fights over status, territorial disputes and rituals of belonging - is little different from other clannish assemblies, and that's why Susan Brin Hyatt loves it.

In David Lodge's wonderful, farcical send-up of academic life, Small World , literary scholars from around the world come together at conferences, held at regular intervals in a variety of venues, where they form liaisons, spread gossip, debate new theoretical paradigms and unleash their most venal competitive impulses. As Lodge puts it in his prologue to the novel: "The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement."

And so it is for anthropologists. Like natives of a village that is both particularly fractious and extraordinarily intellectual, we undertake regular pilgrimages to these events, where we gather ostensibly to debate issues such as Marxism versus poststructuralism, but as we anthropologists are, like novelists, students of social life, we secretly know that it is in the parallel conference of personal networks that the real dramas take place.

One of the largest assemblies of anthropologists anywhere in the world is the annual conference of the American Anthropological Association, which regularly brings together about 5,000 delegates for activities ranging from the overtly social to the rampantly cerebral.

The AAA is our yearly attempt to join together adjacent chiefdoms from different departments and universities into a loose and temporary federation that resembles nothing so much as it does the political organisation of the African tribe, the Nuer. As the anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard noted of the Nuer, the internal social organisation of disputing tribes can be understood only in terms of their mutual oppositions to one another. Likewise, in the context of academic conferences, it is through the medium of intellectual orations and arguments that liaisons are arranged, boundaries are established, turf is laid claim to and territories are disputed.

Every year at the AAA, there are complaints about the "star" panels sessions scheduled in primetime at which the most well-known scholars in our discipline congregate in elite coteries to present their work. But why should we anthropologists, of all people, complain about this apparent clannishness? After all, we should know that there is no society anywhere, whatever its claims may be about itself, that is truly a meritocracy, and a critical element of our contribution to world knowledge hinges on our abilities to uncover the real power structures that underlie surface appearances. The star panels are just our most public acknowledgement of the networks of influence that roil the underbelly of any public grouping.

Our village elders and their disciples share their wisdom in competing sessions that also mimic the political organisation of the Nuer. Battling lineages sometimes bring their controversies into the larger social space of the conference, illustrating another one of the principles advanced by Evans-Pritchard: "The function of the feud is, therefore, to maintain the structural equilibrium between opposed tribal segments which are, nevertheless, politically fused in relation to larger units."

In other words, no matter how much we as anthropologists may quarrel among ourselves, we stand firm before the incursions of infidel sociologists, economists and political scientists.

Although we might make disparaging remarks and complain regularly about the rites and rituals of the AAA, all of us know that next year we will make yet another pilgrimage. For novices, the AAA is the place where they will undergo their initiation rites, through presenting their first scientific papers and searching for employment. For senior members of the profession, it is where they seek and find validation in the evidence of their intellectual and personal legacies. For those of us in the middle of our careers, it is primarily an opportunity to reaffirm our connection to others, to begin mentoring the new initiates and to stake claim to our own professional trajectories.

As for me, I love the life of the village - the hustle and bustle of the exchanges made, the alliances formed, the ruptures made indelible. That's why you'll always find me at any conference, proudly wearing the badge that marks my social status and sitting in the most public of spaces, sipping a latté and enjoying my own rather animated kindred. See you there next year - the first drink is on me.

Susan Brin Hyatt is an anthropologist at Temple University, Philadelphia.

In my own words
Sally Brown, director of member services, Institute for Learning and Teaching in HE
Conferences throw people into a closeted world where they lose the ability to make decisions for themselves.

Conferences, Issue No.1
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