How can an anthropologist who teaches at a university work towards helping indigenous people in their efforts to make their lives better? Many turn to publishing as an answer, but Stuart Kirsch in this book explores various strategies by which being an anthropological expert can support indigenous communities in their legal battles against extractive corporations and governments. He describes the paths he took as an activist, and explores the ethical possibilities and pitfalls in becoming an engaged anthropologist. Ilana Gershon sits down with Stuart Kirsch to discuss his new book Engaged Anthropology: Politics Beyond the Text (University of California, 2018).
Ilana Gerhson [IG]: You ask in your book whether engaged research is good for anthropology. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about where this question comes from for you, and some of the paths you took towards making up your own mind about this.
Stuart Kirsch [SK]: The question is provoked in part by the kinds of things you worry people might say when they read your tenure or promotion file, or tell your graduate students when your back is turned. I used to have a dean who always introduced me as “Stuart, our engaged anthropologist,” said in a way that reminded me of the Talking Heads’ Psychokiller (“Qu’est-ce que c’est . . . Run run run run run run run away . . . .”). Or as I mention in the book, when I was still a visiting professor without a tenure track position, I had a colleague who told me that jobs in the academy were reserved for scholars who think great thoughts, not for anthropologists who chase ambulances.
Answering the question poses a challenge. When we become advocates in the field, does this invalidate our research or distort our results? If I’m a supporter of indigenous land rights, can I possibly be fair to New Zealand sheep farmers (Dominy 2000, Dominy and Walford 2001), or to creole gold miners in the interior rain forest of Guyana?
One way to shut down engaged anthropology is to argue that the results are biased, but I think with greater reflexivity you can maneuver your way around that, and the language of bias presumes a concept of objectivity few of us in the social sciences would be comfortable with. Another way to shut down engaged anthropology is to assert that taking a position will limit who you can talk to, although the people actually doing this kind of work have found that doing engaged research provides them with access to a much broader range of people (Kirsch 2002; Sawyer 2004; Loperena 2016), including those who might shut the door on anthropologists who assert their neutrality.
But the other part of the question is whether people who are advocates in their research, who do engaged anthropology, produce “good enough” ethnography (see Scheper-Hughes 1992)? By this I mean research that is valuable beyond the immediate context. And that’s a question that runs throughout the book, and is to some extent its raison d’être. I didn’t want to answer this question via arm-waving or citing French philosophers; I wanted to answer it through concrete, ethnographic examples that show both the challenges and shortcomings of engaged research but also the insights that can emerge in these contexts, ideas that travel beyond the problem at hand. I wanted to provide readers with the evidence needed to answer the question: “Is engaged anthropology good for anthropology?”