Keeping watch on the seats of power

June 21, 2002

Modern anthropology, the study of power in all its forms, is focusing on how elites and institutions affect individual lives and how the alienated can be empowered. Anthropologists are more committed than ever to investigating contemporary social problems and to studying them wherever they occur in the world, says Jeremy MacClancy

A BBC broadcaster recently asked people for their image of anthropologists. Some did not know what anthropology was. Others replied: "Bearded, long-haired men", and "serious people, but sometimes a bit dotty". The examples could be funny, if they were not so representative.

For most of the British public, anthropology is either unknown or unloved. If it is known, it is usually stereotyped as hunting the exotic: a pursuit now with as much chance of success as chasing a rainbow. There are no more "undiscovered" peoples (were there ever any?) and no more out-of-the-way places (cheap air tickets saw to that). TV networks no longer commission ethnographic programmes in sun-bleached settings because, as one director put it to me: "What's the point, when viewers and backpackers can get there on charter flights?"

The science-fiction writer Robert Silverberg foresaw the problem 30 years ago. In "Schwartz between the galaxies", his story about an anthropologist in the late 21st century trying to cope with the rise of a global culture, his lead character cries: "We have only one worldwide culture now, with local variants but no basic divergences: there's nothing primitive left on EarthI One day I woke up and saw there were no alien cultures left. Hah! Crushing revelation! My occupation is gone!"

Silverberg was prescient, but still wrong. The rise of globalisation and the end of colonialism did not do away with anthropology, they just transformed it - radically. Partly because of the cuts in funds and the exigencies of a changing world, anthropologists today are committed, more than ever before, to investigating contemporary social problems and to studying them wherever they occur in the world. An anthropologist doing fieldwork is now more likely to study crack dealing in Harlem than the conundrums of Amazonian kinship, to be more interested in the problems of applying intellectual property rights across cultures than in circumcision ritual among the Big Nambas. Nancy Scheper-Hughes's investigations into the international trade in transplant organs and Alex De Waal's studies of the definition and management of disaster relief (see articles opposite) exemplify the sort of work many of today's anthropologists practise.

Anthropologists are sometimes chided for expending great effort on researching tiny groups of people. Yet though the groups they work with may be small, the issues they deal with and the ramifications of analysing them can be enormous. A political scientist may talk about the nature of socialism, but it can be equally educative to see how different peoples have adapted this ideology to their own contexts. Why has the idea of socialism been taken up locally in so many different places? What are the near-universal values espoused by its preachers, which have chimed so well with local values, and made it appealing to so many?

An anthropologist today may still focus on a particular group of people, but she has to be prepared to follow them wherever they go, whether as migrant labourers, tourists, asylum seekers or soldiers. Karen Hough, a part-time lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, is tracking Albanian refugees from Tirana to Italy to Oxford. And because peoples' predicaments cannot be understood without looking at broader frames, she is also examining how European Union law both confines and enables their movement.

Traditionally most anthropologists have "studied down", working on those in a less powerful or prestigious position than themselves. But many have realised how restrictive that focus is and now concentrate on investigating elites, whether in high-tech labs, TV studios, giant aid agencies or state bureaucracies. These organisations are as valid an object of study as the people they are meant to serve. After all, they have the power to define the situation in which the subservient find themselves. Also, each has its own distinctive culture, style and agenda.

One doctoral student of mine is studying homelessness in Oxford. To do that, she has spent time both with those on the streets and with the agencies set up to assist them. A key component of her work is examining the mismatch of expectations, values, dialects and behaviours between the two groups. Another student of mine studied what happens when EU development money arrives in Donegal. He tracked the way this money enabled the emergence of new "bottom-up" power groups that challenged the hegemony of the county's traditional elite by creating their own channels of access to these grants.

These examples provide the clue to a central role anthropology can play today. In the colonial period, many anthropologists sided with those they studied and were critical of their expatriate overlords. That constructively subversive stance is still maintained, but these days it is applied to the operation of superordinate organisations. Case after case in contemporary anthropology underscores how anthropologists can help to empower the alienated and give voice to the otherwise unvoiced.

While on fieldwork or assignments for non-governmental organisations, anthropologists can monitor compliance with codes of human rights and publicly criticise violations or abuses. The more activist anthropologist may also help to establish channels through which abused indigenous peoples can make effective protests and demand protection. Anthropologists may act as advocates and enablers for those unused to the special languages of international conventions or the intricacies of formal legal codes. Such work is potentially dangerous, as there are always some ready to stifle opposition to their aggressive anti-indigene plans. Advocacy has very real risks - deportation, imprisonment, assassination - as some anthropologists have learnt to their personal cost.

When dealing with global concerns, the questions may be big and the problems huge, but the most effective answers may be surprisingly low-level. A series of small-scale initiatives, sensitive to local approaches, can prove to be much more productive than one large one, even if it has the loftiest of aims.

All this suggests that, unlike almost any other discipline, anthropology can humanise institutional process, the effects of politics and the work of nations. Anthropologists, by listening to and then transmitting the words of the marginalised and the ignored, can bring high-flying approaches back down to ground and reintroduce the concerns of ordinary people into the equations of policy-makers. It is a discipline for our times.

Of course, one worry about this apparent rush to relevancy is that work whose "social relevance" is not immediately evident will be sidelined or neglected. Important then to remember that "social relevance" is a thoroughly constructed idea, constantly shifting, in tune with changing circumstances. What may appear one day as abstruse scholarship may become material of great political import the next day. For instance, ethnographic work on Aboriginal conceptions of person and place is now key in a range of court cases brought by indigenes against the appropriations of the Australian state.

More than 60 years ago, Aldous Huxley had already got the point of "relevance". In Eyeless in Gaza , the anthropologist character says:

"Europeans? They're not worse than savages. They've just been badly handled - need a bit of anthropology, that's all."

Jeremy MacClancy is professor of anthropology at Oxford Brookes University and editor of Exotic No More . Anthropology on the Front Lines , an initiative of the Royal Anthropological Institute, published by University of Chicago Press on July 1, £15.95.

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