The right way to do political anthropology

I leave you all alone for a few months and you go and nominate Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.  Bless your hearts.  

But seriously, now that I’ve got my life–or at least my master’s degree and a transatlantic move–wrapped up for a while, it seems like I’ve missed the party.  However!  The battle of books has not ceased, and I will write an update on events in the literary sphere soon.  Also, one of the things I’ve been working on is a dissertation on the post-presidential writings of Richard Nixon.  That project uncovered some surprising parallels between Nixon and our two nominees, literarily speaking, so I’ll have a few posts on Nixon, Clinton, and Trump soon.  In the mean time, several months ago I wrote something in response to this article on the Huffington Post by Dr. Paul Stoller on anthropology and the presidential race.  While I never got around to sending it anywhere, I think it still has a few points that I would like to see made about anthropology, public commentary, and politics, so I’ll leave it here.  More from me soon!


Dear Professor Stoller:

I’m going to respectfully disagree with your article, but before I begin, let me say this.  You’re not alone!

As an anthropology student, a watcher of politics, and definitely as an American, I have also been mightily discouraged by the 2016 presidential election.  But your article raises some ethical questions about how anthropologists should engage in political discourse and what anthropology can actually contribute, and I think these questions deserve a second look.

For those who haven’t read it yet, Professor Stoller’s article basically goes as follows: this campaign is long, discouraging, and impossible to make sense of.  However, we can take a trick from anthropological fieldwork methods, and look closely at the relationship between what people say and what they do.  Looking at the field from this point of view, we see that Bernie Sanders is the only candidate where these match up.  Hooray!  We’ve found our guy.

But what makes this approach anthropological?  Looking at the discrepancy between what people say and what they do is just part of being a human in society.  Mystifying this ordinary skill as ‘anthropological,’ implying that it is the product of long study and difficult fieldwork and professional training, puts more authority into Professor Stoller’s observation and recommendation than it would have if he’d never mentioned anthropology.  What’s more, that means that Stoller’s commendation of Bernie Sanders carries a weight that it would not have if Stoller was a politician, or a bricklayer, or a secretary.

This is one of the great ethical binds at the heart of public anthropology.  I believe that anthropologists do have perspectives and insight that can benefit our public political discourse.  But I also believe that we have a responsibility to only use the authority of that education, training and experience if we have something new to offer—and if we are careful to offer it in a way that does not abuse our disciplinary authority.

At the risk of sounding like Reviewer #2, in my own blog over the past several months, I’ve had a great deal of fun trying to explore what anthropological approaches can tell us about this political cycle.  To me, the value and the fun of this work have been in how anthropology prods us to ask more interesting questions than we would otherwise.

For example, my blog focuses on a particular type of speech in this presidential campaign.  Writing a book isn’t necessarily the first thing we think of as a requirement for a successful campaign; however, it’s apparently convention enough that almost every 2016 presidential candidate has written one in the past five years.  Are they all great and enduring works of literature?  No.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.

The first thing I’m usually asked when people hear about my blog is “yeah, but how many of them actually wrote their own books?”  This goes back to Professor Stoller’s concern with authenticity: we believe that there is a real person, a real self somewhere under the political performance, and we want access to it.  Conversely, there is a whole spectrum of behavior that counts as ‘inauthentic’ to us, including publishing a book someone else wrote under your own name.  But the interesting thing about these books is that they are some of the most controlled places for candidates to present themselves and their messages—so in fact, these books are sometimes truer to who the candidates want to be and think they are than an unrehearsed off-the-cuff remark.  So which is the ‘authentic’ mode of speech?  Which is more informative to us as voters?

If we unlink ‘authenticity’ from actions and look at it as a performance, some other interesting things come out.  Our collective wariness of the rehearsed political automaton (poor Rubio) means that campaigns often go to great lengths to show you how ‘authentic’ they are—but ‘authentic’ in this context means spontaneous, plain-spoken, off-the-cuff, and somehow, then, sincere.  The fact that ‘authenticity’ connotes such a particular mode of performance, rather than Professor Stoller’s idea of word/deed coherence, might start to account for the success of a candidate like Trump, who perfectly matches the performative ideal of authenticity with his unfiltered remarks.

But that brings us to the fact that the rest of the field—including Trump—slips suspiciously under the radar of Stoller’s analysis.  It seems to me that on some issues, Trump’s words and deeds achieve perfect coherence—like the way Trump talks to and about women and his record of treating them, from his ex-wife to Megyn Kelly to the women on his TV shows.  The fact that Sanders might not be the only candidate meeting Stoller’s criteria for authenticity highlights the selectivity of Stoller’s article, and its conclusions.

In short, I’m not saying that authenticity isn’t or shouldn’t be a measure for our politicians—but I do want to say that it is a much more complicated measure than Professor Stoller suggests.  Using an anthropological lens to say “yes, but it’s more complicated than that” to our political system and presidential circus won’t tell anyone how to vote—and I don’t think it should.  Representing a notion as banal and unexamined as ‘we should look for an authentic candidate’ as authoritative because it’s ‘anthropological’, and then using that authority to shill for a particular candidate, is a poor representation of the discipline and a poor communication of its potential place in American political discourse.  Anthropology should raise questions, and should raise questions that make us think differently about the system we live in.  It’s up to us as voters to answer them.

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