It’s anthropologies, not anthropology

By Daniel Tubb, University of New Brunswick

A little auto-ethnography. Writing this, I look east over the white crested waves of the Saint John River through the girders of a bridge, once a railway now a footpath, and on towards the hillside campus of the University of New Brunswick Fredericton. Amongst the ubiquitous brick, there is a lone wooden building, also red. Once, rumour has it, the building housed prisoners during the Second World War. Now, it houses the Department of Anthropology and my office. All of this is a far cry from the bustling city of Santiago de Cuba and the annual meetings of the Canadian Anthropology Society in May 2018. Not least because the Saint John River was colder than the Caribbean, but also because there are far fewer anthropologists. And yet, I’m convinced my department is a microcosm for the part of a CASCA meeting I enjoy the most.

Our department is small and three-field: archeologists, biological anthropologists, and sociocultural anthropologists. I am probably one of a handful of faculty in New Brunswick who identifies as a sociocultural anthropologist. In my department, we each do anthropology, but we do it in different ways.

In Cuba, there was a concentration of anthropologists—faculty and students and practitioners—from across Canada, Cuba, and the Americas. Many doing anthropology differently, in their own ways. On the campus of the Universidad del Oriente, I regularly felt myself a humble eavesdropper on conversations new to me. Conversations about what anthropology is in Cuba, about what anthropology is in Latin America, and about what different anthropologists are doing for their research. The conversations were in Spanish and English and French.

I once thought such a large national conference was a place where everyone was participating in the same conversation. Conferences bring people together, after all. In our case, people with a commitment to this thing we call anthropology, and a peculiar way of understanding, thinking, researching, and writing about the world as anthropologists. While I suspect many of us have a shared commitment—fraught and conflicted as it may be—to this thing we call Anthropology, we do not share one vision of what anthropology is. And yet, still, we talk of ourselves in the singular: anthropology. A case can be made that it should be anthropologies.

What is anthropology, anyway? We debate it, we critique it, we deconstruct it, and sometimes we try to redefine it. Sometimes, we police our disciplinary boundaries of interlopers, or we lay claim to central concepts or methodological approaches. “They’re not really doing anthropology properly, all they do is ask questions?” I think to myself. In my department, we tell students that Anthropology is a holistic study of humanity across time and place. Yet, how we teach that, the questions we ask, and the answers and methods we accept as truth are different. I think this plurality is a good thing.

Even the way I self-identify as a sociocultural anthropologist is a plurality. The name has resonance in Canada, influenced both by British social anthropology and American cultural anthropology. In Quebec, where I trained as an undergrad briefly, the influences were the French school. In Colombia, where I do fieldwork, the influences are wider still. Indeed, Colombian anthropology has its own thriving history. All of this, of course, was a brought up by the debates around World Anthropologies. Yet, going to CASCA in Cuba, reminded me that there are many anthropologies, even within the settler state some call Canada. Cuba was humbling and exciting precisely because there were many good ideas to think with and about.

As I contemplate how to teach a theory course next semester, I’m struck at how difficult the task is. It can’t be enough to dwell on Western anthropology from elite US and British schools, too often white men from prestigious places have dominated those conversations over the last hundred years. That anthropology is tied up with colonial histories. That it is complicated and exacerbated by a tradition of writing about marginalized communities in non-Western (and now Western) contexts, is of course true. Conversations about anthropology as a handmaiden of colonialism and a discipline in need of decolonizing are vital conversation to keep having. In Santiago de Cuba, I was struck by the many other vibrant and urgent conversations already going on. This is the plurality that I found exciting.

There were challenges, of course. One is the academic class system, which was entirely on display—a cup of coffee at the conference hotel was almost a month’s wages for a Cuban worker. The lingua franca was, too often, English. None of this is unique to an anthropology conference, Canadian or otherwise, as attendees and organizers of all conferences face these challenges. I congratulate the organizers of CASCA in Santiago de Cuba for shifting the locales of conversation and opening up new spaces for discussion, even as money and language and prestige were elephants in the room.

There is a politics to who gets to define anthropology, of course. A jockeying for position. The attempt to define a discipline, can be a good move. “Anthropology should be this.” “It should be that.” Being in Santiago de Cuba reminded me there are so many conversations already going on in many places, and that such that is exciting. In broad left organizing, there are arguments about a “diversity of tactics.” While I do not condone all tactics employed at political demonstrations, I support the right of people to choose which tactics to adopt. I may not find all conversations in anthropology to be equally compelling, but a cacophony is more critical than attempts to discipline the discipline.

Annual conferences like CASCA serve many purposes, not least bringing people together. For me, from a small province and a small city where I am one of a small community, the conference was a much needed chance to recharge, to remind myself what I am doing and why I am doing it by connecting (and reconnecting) with colleagues, by learning to listen to what other people are doing and saying, and by dipping into many conversations. I met people whose work I appreciate, I thought about how to teach better, how to write better, and how to be a better mentor. While I’ve always been most attracted to evocative ethnographic writing and making ideas accessible by doing my best at being readable, this is just how I approach my discipline. There are other approaches. We need more spaces for more voices and for more conversations, as messy and imperfect and as human as these spaces may be. In support of this, we can embrace anthropologies as they are, a plurality in all of its messy glory.