19 June 2017

The Relationship between Social Justice & Anthropology

2017 on a whole has been a deadly year. This post was spurred by the terrorist attacks that we've seen in Western media but on a whole, many people - directly involved in conflict or not - have lost their lives or have been hurt by those labelled as terrorists. For a list of global terrorist incidents (which include those incidents not featured in North American media), you can follow this link.

The relationship between social justice and anthropology has been a topic of scholarly discussion and division within the anthropological community.

As scientists, anthropologists of the past were told to remain as neutral observers in the belief that their presence, if minimized, would not affect the goings-on around them. Yet, anthropologists have long since realized that their presence in the field and with their interlocutors impacts their work. Anthropologists themselves are instruments by which data are collected; as such, we necessarily influence and affect our surroundings and our research.

In addition to this scientific perspective, many anthropologists have been involved with issues of social justice and universal human rights as these topics were and are quite often the fodder for anthropological investigation (i.e. what sparked our research questions and interest). For example, in Deeb and Winegar's dissection of the outcome of the American Anthropological Association vote to boycott Israeli institutions on Savage Minds, they write:
Many anthropologists think that their discipline champions (or should champion) the voices and perspectives of the marginalized, yet some of its practitioners have colluded with colonial and state power. Anthropology has become a heavily feminized discipline since the second wave feminist movement and attracts many non-elite scholars, yet it remains largely white, like academia in general. Anthropology is the most resolutely international of the social sciences in its breadth of research sites and privileging of fieldwork done “elsewhere,” yet anthropologists based in the U.S. mainly cite their colleagues working in U.S. institutions. And anthropologists frequently identify as politically left leaning and critical of capitalism, yet continue to work in increasingly corporatized university environments.
Important themes in this discussion are anthropologists and their role in activism. In a recent discussion, Haley Bryant and Emily Cain provide an Introduction to “Ethnographer as Activist” where they "grapple with ethnography and advocacy in the field". In this piece, the authors discuss ethnography and activism through four lenses: audience, communication, visibility, and care.

When thinking about anthropology being everywhere in the context of recent global events and the increase of media coverage about terror and terrorism in North America and the world, it is at this point that the relationship between social justice, resistance, and the impact of anthropologists in everyday life is a very important discussion to continue.

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