Once upon a time, in the late 19th century, anthropology was popular, but it wasn’t necessarily a good thing. From pseudo-scientific justifications of racial hierarchies to the displays of so-called primitive people at ethnographic expositions, anthropology satisfied an ever growing public yearning for the exotic thrill. This thrill for the exotic, for the occult, for the uncivilized, was fueled on the one hand by an assumption that gazing at exotic peoples was like traveling back in time, like staring at your own primitive reflection. On the other hand, and quite paradoxically, this nostalgia for an imagined past was fueled by a modern desire to eliminate the “primitive” aspects of modern, civilized society. In contrast to anthropological evolutionism with its origins in European colonization and natural history, the American anthropologist, Franz Boas, considered by many to be the father of American cultural anthropology, felt that anthropology had an obligation to counter incorrect assumptions about the superiority of the West. While Working on ethnographic exhibits at museums and “Pre-Colombian Expositions,” Boas believed in these early days of his career that, by making anthropological knowledge from long-term research with so-called “primitive cultures” publicly available, he could ingrain in average citizens certain ideas of cultural relativism – that while all cultures are different, none is better or worse, more “civilized” or less. He argued that anthropology had an important role to play in providing the public with beneficial examples of cultural differences and similarities that they might then use for self-reflection.
I think of Boas as I write this first post of Anthropology Now‘s Betwixt and Between, because just like Boas, our goal here is founded on a possibly naïve assumption that when presented with anthropological perspectives on contemporary events, the public will learn to think beyond simple “white” vs. “black,” “us” vs. “them” or “West” vs. “rest” ways of understanding cultural differences and similarities. Instead of connecting to the public through public displays like Boas, we will use the World Wide Web. Instead of looking for the exotic in history or in distant locations, we look for the exotic in our own home fields and look for the familiar in faraway places. Instead of invoking science to legitimize our ideas, we aim to encourage critical anthropological thought, of science too. In short, we hope that we can help make anthropological insights more popular and accessible without being superficial.
If it were not for the sudden explosion of excitement caused by Kony2012 and the accompanying viral video, I would not think back to Boas right now. Within one week of being posted on YouTube by San Diego-based creators Invisible Children, Inc. The 25-minute video profiling Central African warlord Joseph Kony and his recruitment of child soldiers had received more than 80 million views, prompting a wave of youth mobilization in American high schools and furious critiques of Invisible Children, Inc. Having taught about Joseph Kony and his Lords Liberation Army in my Anthropology of Africa classes at Rutgers University, I was intrigued by any discussion of Kony. However, and quite to my own disappointment, I could see the same problems encountered by Boas in the late 19th century emerging from Kony2012. I cannot help but wonder if Invisible Children are not trying to achieve something similar to a 19th century Popular Anthropology through the use of videos like that profiling Joseph Kony. Like the “exotic” and evolutionary-oriented anthropological exhibitions of the past, they allow us to gaze at a “primitive” reality (who would dare to argue that child soldiers represent progress?) at some far away exotic land from the comforts of our own familiar environment. And like the ethnographic expositions of the past, their popular message distorts more than it reveals. However, unlike the ethnographic expositions of the past, Kony2012 is free for everybody with high speed internet. Now, press “like” to make a change!
Since the early days of the industrial revolution, intellectuals have been warning of the dangerous myth of technology as an emancipatory force. First, because it is exactly what many of those in positions of power want us to think, and second, because it blinds us to the violent sides of so-called progress. We, as a new generation of anthropologists that have both the access and the understanding of new media, face the challenge of provoking the public to think beyond taken-for-granted notions of right and wrong in the face of widespread social injustice.
So we return to Boas. By the eve of the First World War, Boas had left the museums for the classrooms at Columbia University and began to train a new generation of American cultural anthropologists. His attempts to make the American public more aware of cultural differences and similarities had not worked as planned. His confidence in the mobilization of the public, of popular anthropology, or of how the public would respond to anthropological knowledge presented through popular displays was shaken, especially after the Spanish American War and a continued rise in American imperialism throughout the early 20th century. In 1916, Boas wrote that “the number of people in [the United States] who are willing and able to enter into modes of thought of other nations is altogether too small … The American who is cognizant only of his own standpoint sets himself up as arbiter of the world.” These words are just as true 100 years later, especially in light of the naiveté accompanying Kony2012. How can Anthropology Now’s guest blogger venue take on this new challenge of disseminating and translating anthropological knowledge, while learning from Franz Boas, Kony2012, and so many others who have attempted to bridge the gap between social knowledge and social action? We are not completely sure, but this uncertainty implies numerous possibilities, and possibility is a wonderful place to start.
Dillon Mahoney teaches cultural and linguistic anthropology at Rutgers University. His research focuses on the politics of telecommunications and tourism development in East Africa. He has done research in Mombasa, Kenya since 2001.
Betwixt and Between is Anthropology Now’s guest blogger venue. We welcome posts that engage the public with contemporary issues and anthropological thought. Betwixt and Between lies between the material and the virtual; between the local and the global; between the text and the hyper-text; between the real and the imagined; between academic-speak and daily-speak. It refers to a state of being in several worlds at once, to a state of being neither here nor there, while being here and there at the same time. It is a state of uncertainty, of insecurity and of numerous possibilities.