Talk held at event ‘Why the world needs anthropologists‘, Olso, October 25-27, 2019
It is a great pleasure to be here today to represent the European Association of Social Anthropologists and to share these reflections on the future of European anthropology and EASA. Warm thanks for the invitation.
In my 15-minute talk, I will address both challenges and perils to the future of European anthropology, as well as reflect on new possibilities and openings.
To begin, I want to congratulate the organisers for doing a fantastic job to very tangibly concretize many of these promises.
However, let us first look at the gloomy side of things. It is no understatement to note that both anthropology and independent scholarship, more generally, are currently under multifaceted threats.
This has been visible in our first six months of office as the EASA’s new executive committee: scarcely a week has gone by without emails being shared, or petitions being drafted and circulated, about new threats to scholarly autonomy in various parts of Europe and the world.
The root causes of these attacks are sadly familiar:
The rise of populism and the far right, often accompanied by attacks on experts and academia; the intensifying crisis in universities embodied by a dramatic rise in precarious employment, combined with the general projectivization of scholarly work; the increasing challenges toward the integral worth of independent scholarship, as opposed to research that is geared toward having an impact, for example, in policymaking.
Simultaneously, the environment in which scholarly pursuits are carried out and research outcomes are published have changed, perhaps more rapidly than the scholarly community at times realizes or is willing to accept.
Chains of information exchange have been revolutionized, allowing for content to be instantly available across the globe. Social media has created a seemingly infinite proliferation of voices participating in ongoing societal debates.
These changes have resulted in the expectation of swift, almost instantaneous reactions to events, while simultaneously eroding the role of scholars as uniquely situated experts, capable of delivering unparalleled knowledge – if we ever had such a role to begin with.
Whereas there are pioneering scholars who have embraced these new circumstances, many others are ill at ease with these expectations. The latter choose not to even attempt joining debates with such a hectic pace, rather barricading themselves in the ivory towers of academia.
Yet this sanctuary may be less solid than we might hope. We are seeing multifaceted attacks against the very disciplines that long defined our scholarly homes and identities.
At the beginning of this year, Keir Martin and Thomas Eriksen drew attention to plans to merge the Department of Social Anthropology (SAI) at the University of Oslo with the Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture (TIK).
This planned merger, so they outlined, was opposed by staff at both of these internationally renown research centers due to the incompatibility of their operational modes and overarching visions.
However, it was supported and forwarded by university management – a sector with increasing power – with arguments that portrayed universities in light of managerial logic including concerns for cost-efficiency and ‘synergy’.
Instead of an isolated initiative, this proposed merger appears to be part of a larger trend of abolishing disciplinary departments and study units, while rearranging research under broader ‘synergic units’, or thematic umbrellas, such as sustainability.
These initiatives may be profoundly important to the future of research as a whole. As a concrete example, categories of research funding may likewise be remodelled or clustered together.
As we speak, our anthropology colleagues in Portugal are engaged in a battle with the disciplinary headings under which projects are classified. The situation is quite complex and I won’t attempt to capture all the nuances – except by sharing that it traces back to how the stipulations of something called the ‘Frascatti Manual’ by the OECD are interpreted.
Beneath the complexity and subtle technical-sounding detail accompanying the current plight lies a sever issue: whether all anthropological research – both proposals for new projects and reports for completed ones – would be slotted as a sub-category of sociology, thus effectively erasing anthropology as an autonomous discipline from existence.
Talk of dire times indeed.
Yet there is a silver lining: even with all these threats, we are simultaneously seeing new openings with extraordinary possibilities for anthropology.
One such instance is the popularity of ethnography, the methodology du jour commonly added to inter-discplinary research projects and increasingly to the development of products and services, in both the public and private sectors.
Of course, anthropology is not synonymous with ethnography – nor does it ‘own’ the methodology (that is, if we also find agreement on what ‘ethnography’ means – a topical theme as has been highlighted by numerous talks at this event).
Yet, I will take the liberty of interpreting interest in the kind of knowledge that can be produced with ethnography as having broader relevance: it appears as an antidote to many current ‘trends’, such as the infatuation with big data and algorithms, steered by the desire for fast and objective truths.
Fast, objective truths are not what ethnography and anthropology are about. They instead produce slow knowledge of an unquantifiable calibre – they are about recording nuances in the diverse experiences of mankind and drawing ‘fuzzy’ conclusions therefrom.
Yes, often particularly projects in the private sector expect fast results. I know that the question on how to balance these incompatible temporal modes forms a persistent challenge for many applied anthropologists – and I salute you in your determination and skill to find working solutions.
Simultaneously I argue that this very turn toward ethnography speaks of a certain infatuation with our modes of knowledge production – that anthropology has a certain sex appeal, even if many outside the discipline may still not be quite sure as to what it is all about.
And this is certainly a good moment for others to examine our discipline: despite all these challenges and perils, anthropological research is – almost surprisingly – doing extremely well.
Over the past decade, anthropology’s portfolio of research themes has continued to expand, testified, for example, by the continued proliferation of thematic Networks under the EASA: currently, there are already more than 40 such networks.
Anthropologists have stretched themselves effortlessly into such areas as the study of bureaucracy, documents, expertise, audits, and employment. Together they have revealed anthropology’s relevance for the study of governance, as well as employment and the economy.
Another thriving area is the study of migration. We have made significant contributions to ongoing societal debates within and beyond Europe, casting light on the problems of prevailing regulatory regimes as well as the root causes of migration and its everyday consequences.
Anthropologists are also increasingly turning their eye on such questions as sustainability, alternative economies, and urban development. As this event signifies, links to other societal sectors are evident, with vast potential for the future.
Yet another beam of light emerges from the fact that many anthropologists have embraced the possibilities of social media. Over the past decade, a significant number of vibrant anthropology blogs have emerged, some addressing a more scholarly audience, some making highly respectable efforts to engage with lay audiences.
Considering all this, it is not an overstatement to say that public anthropology is enjoying something of a renaissance moment right now.
Yet, this leaves one final issue to address: what is the role of the European Association of Social Anthropology in particular and scholarly associations more generally in all this?
Many large disciplinary associations in existence today have already reached a mature age – even the relative newcomer of the EASA will turn 30 next year. Inevitably, this means that these associations need to balance the expectations of organizational traditions and adaptation to broader changes, both in their disciplinary fields and the world around them.
This balancing is apparent in the work of the EASA’s executive committee. Sometimes, the EASA reacts more calmly to changes than others might like – in numerous other instances, it has proven capable of remarkably swift action.
One of these instances has been the establishing of a working group for precarious anthropologists, which was introduced following an initiative in 2016.
The introduction of this working group concretizes a role of potential enormity that scholarly associations will play in the future of the discipline: with ‘traditional’ scholarly career paths in universities becoming continually more unpredictable, the need for novel solutions and other entities to provide predictability, professional identity, and a sense of collectivity is bound to grow.
Another potential role of future importance lies in setting ethical guidelines and codes of conduct for this new professional reality. This is also an area where the EASA may pat itself on the back since it has already taken significant steps to do so.
To add one final area of relevance, lobbying and awareness-raising particularly toward research funders and policy makers on the importance of anthropological insights hold likewise significant potential. Again these are areas where the EASA has already become active.
Coincidentally, I will travel from Oslo to Brussels, where we will have an EASA seminar titled ‘Europe, knowledge politics and bureaucracy: anthropological perspectives’. The event has reached out representatives of diverse EU agencies to learn and discuss future directions for research and research management.
To conclude, despite very real and serious challenges, both the future of European anthropology and the EASA look bright.
The EASA finds itself growing steadily, which each of its biennial conferences – next July in Lisbon (all are welcome!) – receiving a record number of panel and paper proposals.
Simultaneously, anthropologists are venturing into different kinds of ‘exotics’ – including the spaces outlined by this event. Such ventures will undoubtedly generate novel questions, such as ones concerning data ownership in collaborations among research projects, universities and private actors.
Many of these questions will be of a kind that nobody has encountered before, meaning that we that we need sustained and collective reflections on them to find working solutions.
The EASA network on Applied Anthropology embodies one such sustained effort, for which we are very grateful.
Particularly via such active engagement of its members, the EASA as a whole holds the potential to become a crucial companion in these new encounters, helping us to figure out what are the next phases for anthropology, both in Europe and the world, inside and outside universities.
On behalf of the EASA, I look forward to joining in these debates – warm thanks to the conveners of the Applied Anthropology Network, as well as to the organizers of Why the World Needs Anthropologists, for these explorations.