by Anna Rohmann (she/her)
MPhil/PhD Anthropology Student at Goldsmiths, University of London
Anthways, 2022 © Anna Rohmann
What does it mean to be an ‘anthropologist’?
I treat the ‘anthropologist’ as a constantly changing figure of personhood and illustrate what impact that shift of perspective has for questioning why the figure exists and who it might serve.
This is influenced through my own transdisciplinary background and entry into the discipline.
I use anthropology to describe what I do, not to describe who I am.
Keywords: linguistics, figure of personhood, identity, anthropology
Am I an Anthropologist if… I don’t identify as one?
I experienced inner resistance when I tried to fill in the blank in the question ‘Am I still an anthropologist if…?’. I realised that this is because I usually do not say I am an ‘anthropologist’. When people ask me what I do, I say I am studying [insert my current project] with the anthropology department. When people ask to what end I am doing my PhD, I say that I luckily have a few years to figure it out. There is no certain professional path students for ‘anthropologists’ since they can work in academia, offices, museums and many more places. Asking the question made me curious about why I do not tend to self-identify as anthropologist but someone doing anthropology, which is what I investigate here.
There is a discrepancy between ideas about anthropologists out there and the anthropologists I know. When asking ‘Am I still an anthropologist if…’ we do not ask about a specific individual we compare ourselves with but with a more abstract idea of being an ‘anthropologist’. It refers to questioning if our perceived and ascribed identity fits within a set of images around behaviours, interests, looks, maybe a specific research methodology or discipline. Therefore, I treat the ‘anthropologist’ as a constantly changing figure of personhood or socio-cultural stereotype (Agha 2007; Blommaert and Varis 2013). These are terms borrowed from sociolinguistics that describe that there are socially constructed personae out there that we enact by embodying and performing certain semiotic relationships. Being and ‘anthropologist’ is not per se behaving like an actual person you know but like the figure and its practices.
That I do not gravitate towards the figure, says a lot about my relationship to it: Coming from a country where the discipline is not very strong or forward-thinking influenced my awareness of it, or lack thereof. There are currently 72 BA opportunities listed on the German study guide website ‘Hochschulkompass’ (2022) – many of these programs seem to spring from the discipline’s flawed history in colonial, exclusionary practices. Names of programmes like ‘Kulturanthropologie’ (Anthropology of Culture), ‘Ethnologie’ (Ethnology, whether that is European, Asian or African) or ‘(vergleichende) Kulturwissenschaft’ (Comparative Cultural Studies) seem to be afflicted with traditions of colonial othering (Smith, 2012) or hark back to what Abu-Lughod (1991) critiques about the culture concept. Because of this focus on other cultures or ethnicities, the German version of the discipline never caught my eye. This is not to say that these practices are not present in other countries too, but to highlight that at this point in time there is an increasingly critical understanding of the discipline present elsewhere.
When I encountered anthropology departments abroad and took my first anthropology course, my mind was blown. I loved it so much that I decided to change course and do an anthropology degree. Before that I had already taken a different route to studying human life – through combined studies in literature and media, linguistics, international relations, and business administration. That I am doing my PhD in anthropology now proves that being an ‘anthropologist’ requires less of a specific degree but a certain skill- and mindset. Working transdisciplinary and never having been at home in a specific department explains why the question ‘Am I still an Anthropologist if …’ took me aback, as I have, so far successfully, refused to choose only one of the various disciplines I have studied.
However, the case could be made that now that I am based in an anthropology department, I am an ‘anthropologist’ per definition. If it is not my education or lacking awareness of the category that makes me hesitant about identifying as ‘anthropologist’, what does?
It is not that the figure of personhood of ‘the anthropologist’ excludes me as cis queer female (and even if it did, I am in the privileged position to have a middle-class background that counterbalances many exclusions). This has more to do with me not being able to think of a good reason to claim that term for myself. Part of that is related to the often-discussed short fallings of anthropology with its colonial roots. Even though I am in a privileged position where I do not feel the need to abolish the entire discipline, I am conscious that serious reworking and negotiating, not just amongst self-proclaimed ‘anthropologists’, is needed. If not associating myself with the discipline because of its history and current practices was the only reason why I struggle with this, I would say it is a reason to avoid responsibility since I am clearly profiting from the exploitation others have installed in the structures of academia, the methods we use, and the images socially accepted as ‘anthropologists’. I fully acknowledge this and try to do better and better the environment around me.
My second reason, while still selfish, is part of that: I feel like being an ‘anthropologist’ doesn’t give me any cloud or advantage in either of the worlds that I am passionate learning about and being a part of. It is rather to my detriment to introduce myself as such. Economists who are also interested in the effects of FinTech presume I understand nothing of markets when I talk about the individuals in them. Queer communities are sceptical to potentially have their lives exploited or looked at one-dimensionally. Linguists frown for not prioritising their precious study subject.
Even if any of the academics working in these disciplines or the average person see being an ‘anthropologist’ as a good thing, to me it is not. There is often an idea of expert knowledge connected to that perception. “Can you tell me how to make more money on this” is something many of the people I interacted with in the FinTech world have asked me. They want me to share my knowledge, not aware that I do not have any secrets to spill, no super-understanding of anything they are doing. Hierarchical expectations from ‘anthropologists’ and participants that imply a big distance between each other can be harmful. New research ontologies like patchwork (Günel et al. 2020) and collaborative ethnography (Marrero-Guillamón 2018) try to address that violence inherent in upholding an expert image.
This is not just true for participants but ‘anthropologists’ too. I must admit that I have talked about something in a conference out of context before. While it was unknowingly and not ill-intentioned, it was still a mistake. The most baffling part was not me making a mistake – I tried to learn from that – it was that everyone took what I said for granted. All the ‘anthropologists’, the experts on the topic, trained to think critically, did not realise what had happened. It was not the first and will not be the last time I make a mistake since I am not an ‘anthropologist’ but a human. Just like they are. However, having that identity to hide behind can make us forget that. We should keep in mind that declaring yourself an ‘anthropologist’ no expert maketh.
I want to be clear that I am not thinking bad about anyone evoking the figure of ‘anthropologists’, nor judging anyone who chooses to identify with it themselves. Some of the coolest people I have met are ‘anthropologists’. Figures and categories can be extremely useful and productive. It provides a sense of safety, belonging to a community, qualification, even a sense of worth. But in the end, figures are always somewhat limiting. In my perception, ‘anthropologists’ tend to limit themselves in what they can discuss and what is expected of them. The uproar that e.g., a quantitative methods class has caused, because we do not see the value and use of these perspectives in exploring the world illustrates that. We are quick to disengage with things that seem un-anthropological, which is the blind-spot of the ‘anthropologist’. While being often the first to complain about binary worldviews and injustices as a by-product (and rightfully so), ‘anthropologists’ are not exempt from that. Affirming what ‘anthropologists’ can and cannot be is part of this. The difficulties people with multidisciplinary backgrounds can face are an example of that. Guidelines we set for ourselves, and institutional structures have become rigid in many ways – in academia, the job market and amongst people in the discipline. The holistic study of human life often makes concessions to disciplinary and figurative comfort zones.
While I do not object if people call me ‘anthropologist’, I would seldomly self-identify as one. This poses two further questions for me: If I do not identify as an anthropologist, who is allowed to label me and what makes me one?
It becomes not just a question of identity, but also power to ascribe that identity to others. For some, I am a proper ‘anthropologist’. These might be people that do not have a clear idea of what that means, like my family. For some within academia, I am not because of my transdisciplinary or digital methodology, my interest in economics that can be perceived as “providing, above all, an ideological prop for capitalism in general and neoliberalism in particular” (Stafford 2011), basically as ‘selling out’. With a changing, diversifying anthropological community, what it means to be an ‘anthropologist’ is changing – I know it is not bound to a certain modality, measuring how far you have travelled from home to encounter something or checking off Borofsky’s (2019) points for engaged anthropology. It is not conforming to a patriarchal heteronormative image of the explorer, nor is it being a hippy in ethnic clothing. It is about the power that comes from figures and the value we ascribe to them.
But of course, for the figure to work as identity there needs to be a unique selling point for the ‘anthropologist’, some distinction between them and other researchers. Blommaert and Varis (2013) argue that there are micro-hegemonies and minimal definitions that make up such an identity and enable us to embody it authentically. Looking at what the comfort zones of ‘anthropologists’ are, can point to what these characteristics are for us. What I have said above in terms of expert expectations, disciplinary limitations and academia’s shortfalls can be applied to most subjects. But anthropology has something they do not have, the reason why I choose to study it despite all of this: it is open and curious. Curious about different life experiences, different ways of understanding the world and different paths to being an ‘anthropologist’. It is allowing people to learn, especially about the things that are out of their comfort zone and experience. Acceptance of a wide range of ontologies enriches anthropological research immensely and is so impactful for shifting perspectives and broadening horizons. To do anthropology authentically does not lie in embodying the figure, but in our commitment to self-reflection and care (something I assume all submissions share, just by virtue of engaging with this topic).
I use anthropology to describe what I do, not to describe who I am. This goes beyond the idea of a figure; it speaks to the idea we have of ourselves. All of what I have said is coloured by my own experience, background in linguistics and my associations with the figure. What it means to be an ‘anthropologist’ is more personal, which is why we should always question ourselves and what we do. Down to the language, images, and stereotypes we use to talk of what we do.
Contributions in this issue grapple with, dismantle, and put together anew the ‘anthropologist’, making visible how this figure changes, what it entails and how it limits and enables us to do what we do. It is hopefully not just creating representations of the diverse way to relate to and embody doing anthropology but also inspires more reflections on what taking on these categories means for us ‘anthropologists’ and others.
With me questioning the value of the category in the first place, I hope to inspire aspiring ‘anthropologists’ joining our constantly changing discipline to also think through if that label is useful for them, what it does, why they need/do not need it, or how they can reconceptualize and diversify it. Instead of asking what is and what should the ‘anthropologist’ be, we can ask the important ‘What does the ‘anthropologist’ mean and why does this figure exist for any of us’.
What makes the figure unique is not a certain method, subject, or profession. It speaks more to a research philosophy. Openness, curiosity, care, and even love, need to be an essential part of what we do to warrant the figure existing at all. In a way, these are commitments that should be key to anyone doing research, beyond the discipline or self-identifications. While I am critical about the use of ‘anthropologist’ as a figure, I am less critical about someone stating they do anthropology (provided they depart from the harmful anthropological traditions). Because using anthropology as a verb, not a noun, relates to a way of acting in and interacting with the world, I think this way of understanding it can offer more. It signals we are actively being ‘anthropologists’ rather than something that passively is. I feel more comfortable saying I do anthropology, because it leaves room for change, corrections, and mistakes. It also does not reduce me to my research but puts doing anthropology next to all the other things that make me me and I like doing. Holding space for the unknowable and exploring the messy-ness is unique and wonderful. It is the strength of everyone doing anthropology. It means we create spaces like this journal to explore what it means to do what we do. This is what makes me wish to be one of the very real and concrete friends, lecturers, mentors, and artists I admire that practice anthropology as a verb, not a noun.
I want to thank everyone who supported me on my academic journey: my family for enouraging me, friends for sharing my excitement about projects, thanks to fellow ‘anthropologists’ for inspiring me with their passion, advice and for the opportunity to get to know and be active in this discipline. A special thanks goes to the entire Anthways Team that I have the pleasure of being a part of. I have seen how hard everyone works on making this a success and giving all of us doing anthropology a platform!
Agha, A. (2007) Language and social relations. New York, Ny: Rowman& Littlefield.
Abu-Lughod, L. (1991) ‘Writing against culture.’ In Fox R.G. (ed.) Recapturing anthropology: Working in the Present. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research, pp. 137-161.
Blommaert, J. and Varis, P. (2013) ‘Enough is enough. The heuristics of authenticity in superdiversity’. In Duarte, J. and Gogolin, I. (eds.) Linguistic superdiversity in urban areas: Research approaches. New York, NY: John Benjamins, pp.143-159.
Borofsky, R. (2019) An Anthropology of Anthropology. Is it time to shift paradigms? Kailua, HA: Center for a public anthropology.
Gal, S. (2016) ‘Sociolinguistic differentiation’. Sociolinguistics: Theoretical Debates, pp.113-136. DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781107449787.006.
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