The Upward Within

This past Wednesday, we hosted another workshop session , this time at the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) annual meeting. It was not well attended, possibly due to a failure on my part to promote it effectively, but there was a core group of participants and a couple of new faces. The discussion, as usual, was interesting and fruitful.

One of the things that I realized is that we often turn to discussions about reflexivity and the racial and gender problems within the discipline. These were not the issues that Laura Nader had in mind when she wrote her piece on studying up nearly 50 years ago, but they come up in almost every session that we do and I think it’s important to think about why that is and how these issues relate to the more general view of upward anthropology. 

Every anthropologist knows – or should know by now – that our discipline is rooted in a colonial past. Anthropologists were often on the front lines of colonialism along with missionaries and soldiers. They worked for colonial administrations and the methods and tools they developed to “know” others were primarily developed as ways of controlling them more effectively – with a velvet fist. We continue to live with this legacy in a discipline that is prediminantly white which makes its image by going off to study exotic and indigenous peoples around the world. Despite an increased critical gaze and awareness of the politics of representation, there are still significant problems with these activities that often go unrecognized precisely because they are done with a spirit of good intentions and critical reflexivity. Tied in to this are the ongoing racial and gender politics within the discipline that perpetuate and are perpetuated by this dominant form of fieldwork. 

The question is what does this have to do with upward anthropology – specifically the act of studying powerful institutions and people. One might argue that an extensive focus on the problems within the discipline distracts us from the revolutionary possibility of studying up. Instead of understanding and breaking down structures of power, we spend our time navel gazing and avoiding the “real” struggles. 

Obviously, I don’t see it that way, and I’m happy to have these discussions be a part of the upward anthropology workshops. I think that there is something about the concept of upward anthropology that brings these issues to the fore – the idea of the upward within. Furthermore, I think that these issues raise the interest in something like upward anthropology. There is a synergy between them where the more we think about studying up the more we will talk about and attempt to address the problematic history and present of our discipline and the more we do that the more we will be inclined to and capable of working on the project of upward anthropology. 

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4 thoughts on “The Upward Within

  1. Are you planning another session? would love to attend (wasn’t aware it was open last SfAA). I am attending with a few students who are all interested on this subject because of its applications to our work in Guatemala.

    • Hi Alehandra, I’m not doing a session on upward anthropology this SfAA, unfortunately. Perhaps we can organize some kind of informal gathering, though – the sessions tend to be pretty informal anyway. I would love to hear more about your work – please keep me posted!

      • Would love to! I just finished a document on business elites perceptions on development. It was comissioned by a member of that group, another CEO who wanted an anthro’s view of their sub-culture.

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