03 October 2016

Is it good enough to think like an Anthropologist?

In recent weeks we've been posting about the use of anthropological tenets and ethnographic practices beyond traditional field sites. This topic was addressed from author Elizabeth Durham's perspective in a recent article post on Somatosphere (a collaborative website covering the intersections of medical anthropology, science and technology studies, cultural psychiatry, psychology and bioethics), called  "The Good Enough Anthropologist"

In it, Durham speaks about the anthropological response to the recent Ebola outbreak and the push by diverse responders for anthropologists to take a culturalist perspective - e.g. what cultural practices might be undermining the Ebola response process - to help fight the epidemic.

Below is a pertinent quote from Durham's article although it doesn't include Durham's definition of the "good enough Anthropologist" or her conclusion:
As such, it suggests that anthropologists ought to expand our academic practice to encompass both research and better public relations: non-anthropological actors become good-enough anthropologists when we ourselves are not good enough at self-promotion, at clearly defining and communicating what it is we do, how we do it, and why we do it this way.
The issue of what constitutes “good anthropology” is, of course, controversial within anthropology: this is part of the issue, albeit an inevitable one. Moreover, while good-enough anthropology easily veers into culturalism, I can also admittedly see where it has the potential to foster a more democratic anthropology (though this is not the direction it has largely taken thus far), raising and/or reopening key questions similar to the one above. Who controls public anthropology, if anyone? What can or should “real” anthropologists do when faced with a public anthropology they may find dismaying? Is public anthropology an anthropology with a public presence, an anthropology practiced by publics, or both? Do attempts to trace such public afterlives aid the democratization of anthropology, or do they border on a way for scholars to reassert authority over the works they write? These are questions whose value lies more in discussion than in simple answers. 
Their article is worth a read as are the comments section. For example, Daniel Lendie writes:
But I think you are on the right track when you ask about our role as public anthropologists. For me, that can mean an effort to overcome our own focus on research and critical engagement to start to address questions that are relevant and immediate for others. We teach publicly all the time; we can apply that same anthropological approach that we use in the classroom to other arenas. But that means getting out of our comfort zones (our areas of deep expertise), and also having the institutional support for doing such work.
Finally, I’d push anthropologists to look closely at what we’d want instead of culturalism. We need a theory for this type of academic practice and engagement; just critiquing “culturalism” doesn’t do much to develop a viable way to add anthropology into the work around Ebola (and other public issues/problems) in a viable and satisfactory way. “Quick ethnography” might be a methodological way to do that, but we need a conceptual tool set for this type of work as well, one as much oriented to public and applied issues, to “How to?” sorts of questions.
Anthropology really seems everywhere these days - so where, if anywhere, are its limits?