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Anthropological Quarterly 77.2 (2004) 323-330

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The Submerged Promise:

Strategies for Ethnographic Writing in a Time of War

Duke University
"Yet because what we propose to study is above all reality, it does not follow that we should give up the idea of improving it."
Emile Durkheim, Preface to the First Edition,
The Division of Labor in Society.

Like many anthropologists working in conflict zones, I find myself writing the story of one war in the context of another. The fieldwork on which my research is based was conducted in war-time Sierra Leone and Liberia, working with irregular combatants involved in the decade long Mano River war. The context for writing that research is the United States in the aftermath of September 11, US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the debate over American intervention in Liberia. Unable to dissociate these two halves of the ethnographic project, I have begun to think more about what Marcus and Fischer called the "submerged" promise of anthropology: cultural critique.1 Beyond the advocacy we as anthropologists undertake in conjunction with those we study, this seems an important moment to ask what other political connections ethnography might facilitate. In what follows, I outline three possible strategies for writing engaged anthropology at a time of war. [End Page 323]

Let me begin, though, with what I assume to be true. First, that anthropologists working in volatile environments, amidst marginalized communities, or in active conflict zones—the conglomeration of spaces that we might refer to as "unstable worlds"2 —have largely abandoned the fiction of the disinterested observer. Second, I take for granted that those of us who have made the study of conflict and the effects of power the subject of our professional lives have something to say at this historical moment when conflict, the prerogatives and responsibilities of power, and the relationship between culture and violence are so much in the air. A now constant state of war and war readiness have radically minimized the potency of traditional venues of alternative discourse, notably the media. The result is a critical vacuum that anthropologists are well placed to fill.3 Finally, I assume that scholars should not have to choose between scholarship that is theoretically challenging and imaginative, and research that is useful and accessible to a variety of interested communities.

It is worth stating the obvious: the call for anthropology as cultural critique is not new. To a degree, sociocultural anthropology begins with the critical impulse; certainly it has motivated anthropologists throughout the history of the discipline. This has not made it any easier to do, nor does it obviate the need to continuously revisit the issue in concrete ways and in light of the changing world circumstances to which anthropologists hope to respond. We appear to have entered a period in which even some of the academy's most prominent figures doubt the relevance of scholarship to the realpolitik of power. While no one benefits from simply repeating abstract summons for a more engaged anthropology, we should not assume the last word has been said about how that impulse translates into ethnographic practice in any particular moment or context. Certainly, as all forms of dissent are today being called into question, it is worth returning to the problem of how to make even the conventional wisdom relevant to this particular moment and this historical context. And so I propose the following strategies.

Strategy number one. We need to think more creatively about parallels across time and space. One of anthropology's most important contributions has been a thorough critique of the political valences in the concept of time, and the implications for how we do or do not write history. More recently, anthropologists have given similar treatment to the concepts of space and place, suggesting that these become naturalized in a way that masks the "topography of power," or the processes by which difference is constituted and inscribed in places "elsewhere" even as all spaces become increasingly inter-connected.4 As a result, anthropologists have been...


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