Experiments in Engaged Anthropology
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Experiments in Engaged Anthropology

Engaged anthropology. Anthropology as advocacy. Ethnography-as-activism. Collaborative anthropology. Militant anthropology. Public anthropology. Despite their differences, all of these projects share a commitment to mobilizing anthropology for constructive interventions into politics. Prior understandings of anthropology as objective science might be seen as giving way to new concerns about social justice. However, the notion of science is also undergoing a transformation in which science and society are increasingly intertwined (Nowotny et al. 2001). Scientific funding agencies increasingly require projects to include mechanisms for making research results available to the public and sometimes request identification of the project's social benefits. Science is no longer seen as estranged from social problems, which both expands and normalizes the relationship between research and its potential applications. Within anthropology this has resulted in the proliferation of new conceptual categories and practices, which might be described as a series of experiments in how to make anthropology politically relevant and useful.1

Recent transformations in social movement politics have also influenced these new anthropological projects. The protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s culminated in mass marches through the streets of urban capitals in Europe and the Americas. These influential political spectacles exhibited the capacity of ritual to spill beyond its conventional frame of reference and precipitate lasting structural change. Some of these protests were successful in achieving their goals, such as the civil rights movement in the United States. However, today one might ask whether collective protests have lost their novelty, thereby diminishing [End Page 69] their political efficacy. Organizations from both the left and the right continue to march on Washington, DC, protesting for and against the same causes. Politicians have come to expect public protests and may even claim virtue in ignoring them by demonstrating their willingness to rise above popular opinion and make difficult choices.

Contemporary civil society is also less united by political causes or social problems that galvanized previous generations of activists and social movements, such as class politics or opposition to war. In Europe and North America opposition politics rarely rises to the level of collective action. Political sentiments are increasingly converted into nonpolitical modes of action, as when environmental critique is subverted into new forms of green consumerism, or when the inequalities produced by global capitalism are partially remediated through the fair trade movement, making the world safe for shopping as usual.

Feelings of powerlessness and the inability to effect meaningful political change are also pervasive in contemporary civil society. Corporations actively promote and benefit from these sentiments through such strategies as appropriating the discourse of their critics, co-opting their more moderate critics, and promoting corporate oxymorons that conceal important contradictions (Benson and Kirsch 2010a). An example of a recent corporate oxymoron is the advertising campaign for "clean coal," which invokes a technology to capture greenhouse gases that does not yet exist (Kirsch 2010). BP's 1997 effort to rebrand itself as "Beyond Petroleum" (Beder 2002) is a particularly ironic example of a corporate oxymoron given the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. These corporate responses to critique contribute to the widespread structure of feeling Benson and Kirsch (2010b) call the "politics of resignation."

Scholars also note the contemporary fragmentation of social movement politics. Alain Touraine (2007) attributes this trend to the rise of identity politics and what he calls the new social movements. Identity-based movements organized around gender, sexuality, ethnic difference, and indigeneity may be seen as dividing interests rather than reproducing the solidarities of older social movements based on class.2 Touraine concludes that rendering politics in terms of identities means that social movement politics may ultimately be limited to projects of individual actualization and self-realization.

However, the decline of collective forms of politics may also permit [End Page 70] individuals to participate in new kinds of political projects that are not based on ascribed status. In the formation of these new political coalitions, the participants may only partially endorse one another's agendas and strategies, constraining the possibilities for collective action. But the resulting alliances may be enhanced by the multiple and complementary positionalities of the participants in relation to particular causes...