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Some Foundations for Anthropological Praxis

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Mary Alice Scott

In attempting to find inspiration for my summer writing projects, I recently picked up The Vulnerable Observer, a collection of essays by Ruth Behar. Another of Behar’s books, Translated Woman, was the first ethnography I ever read, and I was feeling like going back to the roots of my anthropological journey.

Her first essay, aptly titled “The Vulnerable Observer,” begins with Isabel Allende’s telling of the story of Omaira Sánchez, a thirteen-year-old girl who became trapped in the mud during an avalanche in Colombia in 1985. Although photographers and journalists could do nothing to save her, they did not hesitate to watch her and document the tragedy in front of them. Is this witnessing or exploitation? And do we as anthropologists do anything different? Behar (and many others) argues that too often, we do not.

Lay down in the mud in Colombia. Put your arms around Omaira Sánchez. But when the grant money runs out, or the summer vacation is over, please stand up, dust yourself off, go to your desk, and write down what you saw or heard. Relate it to something you’ve read by Marx, Weber, Gramsci or Geertz and you’re on your way to doing anthropology (p. 5).

Behar’s division between the “field” – where Omaira Sánchez lies drowning in the mud – and the “academy” – where anthropologists write grants, reports, dissertations, articles and other projects that are largely disconnected from the humanity of the fieldwork moment – is perhaps more stark than many of us understand our own work to be. In my discussions with colleagues, it is clear that we understand the social and political implications of the work that we do and the urgency of making connections outside of academia as well as within it.

But recognizing Behar’s division calls attention to the violence structuring the anthropological dilemma. As I teeter on the edges of witnessing and exploitation, I think I have (at least) two choices. I can more or less resign myself to the inherent contradictions of my work doing my best to mitigate the more extreme moments of violence when they arise, or I can bring more attention to my daily practice of anthropology.

I’m leaning towards the latter. Since I returned from fieldwork and wrote my dissertation two years ago, I’ve been trying to reconcile “doing anthropology” with “being an anthropologist,” a process that seems to me to be common among us new professionals and is perhaps a career-long challenge. What’s been most helpful to me lately in my reconciliation with anthropology and my recovery from that first rather violent stripping away of my naïve notion that anthropology in its current form is somehow inherently liberatory and just, is work on critical epistemologies and pedagogies rooted in the work of Paolo Freire, who argued that understanding oppression, while a complex and essential first step, is not enough for those who seek to create a more just world. We need both critical reflection on oppression and justice and action.

So I’ve been thinking about the act of teaching, not just revealing to students the exciting world of anthropology but also working alongside students to develop our capacities, imaginations, and wisdom. I’ve also been thinking about the act of researching, not just documenting and analyzing health issues but also engaging locally to facilitate research-based and locally-informed changes that promote community health. And since I am for the first time in a long time living in a place I think I will be for a while, I’m thinking about what it means to be an active and long-term member of a community.

I know I am far from alone in my struggle to reconcile “academic” anthropology with my visions of a more just world. And I am far from alone in my often only partial attempts to envision what that world might look like. But I’ve mainly stayed in my own head musing on the wisdom of my teachers. So in this series of guest posts, I want to engage with some voices outside my head to think about anthropological praxis through the lenses of critical epistemologies and pedagogies. At this moment, with an entire summer stretching before me, I’m feeling really positive about the possibilities.

Next up in this series, a Freirian framing of knowledge production and collective imagination.

Mary Alice Scott is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at New Mexico State University. She credits her thinking on anthropological praxis to the collective imagination she is developing with her students and colleagues at Elon University, the University of Kentucky and NMSU.


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