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About this seminar
Welcome to Contemporary theory and anthropology, a senior seminar that surveys the present state of cultural anthropology. This class was developed to serve as a required capstone to an anthropology major, and is a requirement for honours. It is now an in-depth exploration of several current debates within the field about the nature of anthropology, and its main goal is to help you discover what you believe is valuable in anthropology, and what defines it as a discipline. As anthropology majors, you are all becoming acquainted with anthropology as a discipline and a way of thinking. In this class, we talk explicitly about what that means and where each of us stands as thinkers within the discipline of anthropology.
What does it mean to say anthropology is a discipline?
The organization of scholarly inquiry into disciplines is more than simple specialization. What people in one discipline study—in anthropology, for example, human societies, social behavior, ways of life, and ways of thinking—might also be studied by many other disciplines. Scholars working within one discipline, however, speak in a common language and participate in a conversation among themselves about a shared set of questions. They approach their object of study with a particular perspective which is informed by the history of debates within the field on these shared questions. Their disciplinary perspective is moreover linked to a particular methodology which leads them to collect certain kinds of empirical information. In anthropology in particular, disciplinary knowledge is also strongly linked to the practice of writing ethnography as a distinctive genre of description, analysis, and intepretation. But in the end disciplines are all branches of the same single body of knowledge, and disciplines each make distinct yet also complementary contributions to larger debates across many fields.
This division of labor among disciplines is a product of the institutional and social history of scholarship, and in some ways could be said to be a historical accident. As we will discuss in this class, there is nothing inherent or necessary about the boundaries of disciplinary fields. For instance, the discipline of ethnology is found in many European universities but not in American universities, which might instead have departments of anthropology, sociology, and folklore. Anthropologists in Western academic institutions tend to research so-called foreign cultures (usually within postcolonial societies), but when anthropology has established itself within China and Brazil, for instance, it has been practiced as a study of minority and indigenous cultures within these societies. The disciplinarity of knowledge is always changing depending on the larger context. In order to contribute to greater understanding on the questions that really matter, we have to be aware of the limits of a discipline and understand how particular ways of seeing relate to other perspectives.
As a discipline, anthropology has historically been very eclectic. Anthropologists are more willing to cross boundaries between fields and draw on perspectives outside of the canons of anthropology. Marshall Sahlins, Jean Comaroff, and John Comaroff, for example, are equally at home in both anthropology and history (and indeed John Comaroff is a historian by training). Mary Douglas, whose work we will not read in this class, began her career as a social anthropologist who studied African societies, but today is one of the most widely read cultural sociologists and probably best known for her work on bureaucracy as a social form. Perhaps for that reason, then, identifying anthropology as a discipline is very tricky and possibly futile. It is always been an open question what counts as anthropological knowledge (and anthropologists like it that way).
This creates a big problem for us as anthropologists: who cares about anthropology? If there aren’t really any distinctive perspectives that define anthropological knowledge, why should anyone listen to anthropologists? Anthropology’s eclecticism and its lack of a single, clearly defined paradigm gives practitioners in the field a great field a deal of freedom, but it comes with the obligation to be able to defend one’s perspective and its relevance to other fields and to scholars at large. I believe that this is actually a strength of anthropology. Anthropologists aren’t allowed to take anything for granted about how they choose to see the world, and so we also have the sharpest and most critical insights into the nature of knowledge. We exist to keep other disciplines on their toes.
What will we do in a seminar on anthropology?
What this means for us, though, is that we have a lot to discuss, and each of you, as students of anthropology can each make your own contribution to everyone’s understanding of what is valuable about anthropology as a discipline. There are no right answers in this class. Each one of you has as your job to develop your own relationship to anthropology and its history, and to say why you adopt your stance on anthropology. For that reason, this class is organized as a seminar in which each person takes a turn leading the discussion. Every week, we will know if we have done a good job if:
- students have done most of the talking, and
- everyone in the class has had a chance to ask questions and contribute their ideas.
Your participation in discussion is, in that sense, something you do for your fellow students. By offering your views, especially to people who disagree with you, you help them to reflect critically on their own reasoning. Likewise, when you seek out the perspectives of other people, you are able to become aware of your own thought processes. This is ultimately what you will take away from this class: an understanding of your own perspective, rather than familiarity with the ideas of major theories.
I will not give any lectures in this class, although I can take the floor and give a brief overview of background information relevant to understanding a particular topic or reading.1) My job in the seminar is to facilitate an open discussion in which everyone makes a contribution and is heard. Each week we will come together to help each other understand a set of readings better. Each week’s readings represent the work of one important scholar who is making a contribution to a debate about how to answer deep questions about the nature of human societies and their diversity. Our job is to find out all the different ways that these ideas can be interpreted, and to continue the debate that we will see among the authors. This means we all have to contribute something to the discussion each week, so that we discover as many different perspectives as possible.
Many students are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with speaking in public, or with participating in a class discussion. Discussion is important to this class, and it is a part of your grade, but I am not assuming that it will come easy to everyone. What I expect is that each person try their best, and keep trying.
What you can expect from me and from your fellow students is that we will all help make the class comfortable and welcoming to everyone's participation. One way we can achieve this is by using various formats for class discussion, including small work groups, discussion with a partner, and in-class writing. If your active verbal class participation is not possible, you can also talk to me about other ways you can participate in class.
One way we will make it easier for people to participate is by giving students specific roles to play in every seminar. Students will be assigned to one of four small groups for the semester. Each week, one group of students will take a turn setting the agenda for the class discussion. Other groups will be assigned other roles they will play so that the discussion flows smoothly and the seminar is productive. Midway through the semester, we will have an in-class debate on an issue that has defined anthropology for the last several decades, and which we will be discussing in the first half of the semester. Two groups will be assigned to advocate for one side on this debate, and the other two will form the other side. Everyone will prepare arguments, challenges, and responses they can offer in the debate in class. Afterwards, each student will then write a briefing paper for the side of the debate that they personally agree with.
Your work with your group to lead class discussions in class will also help prepare you to develop arguments about cultural theory and the nature of anthropology. This will help you with your other major assignment. In the final essay, you will make an argument in which you present the recent literature in anthropology on a topic of your choice as a debate among scholars. This will be due at the end of the semester.