Talking with Anand Pandian

The professor of anthropology discusses his new book 'A Possible Anthropology,' which takes an expansive look at the field and a world of clashing values unfolding before our eyes

Anand Pandian

Image caption: Anand Pandian is the author of A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times

Credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins anthropology Professor Anand Pandian received the 2019 Infosys Prize for social sciences in November, in recognition of both his fieldwork and his innovative approaches to the discipline in the 21st century. His recent book, A Possible Anthropology, takes a look at anthropology's history to understand how it can shape ideas and actions outside the academy.

Johns Hopkins Magazine sat down with Pandian to talk about anthropology's history, why it's relevant to our ongoing political and cultural discussions, and the walls that surround us as Americans.

Why do you think it's important to ask these difficult questions about how anthropologists do what they do and who is drawn into the field now? What makes those questions worth bringing up, especially in this moment?

It's a challenging time to be an anthropologist, but it's also an exciting time. It's a challenging time because some of the basic things that we take for granted—why anthropology matters, how we ought to work—have met with a lot of pressure in recent years. Anthropologists focus on human beings, and one way to understand what anthropologists do is to celebrate the diversity of human lives, of human cultures, of human advancement. But this is a very strange time to be celebrating people because things look quite dark around the world and closer to home in ever so many ways, politically, culturally, economically. So that horizon of possibility that anthropology has always been interested in seems a little foreclosed now.

A Possible Anthropology book cover

It's also a difficult time to celebrate human attainments because of what many of us have been forced to consider in recent years: the dark side of human advancement, of human prosperity, of human progress. We see the costs in environmental and ecological terms when we read about the number of birds that have disappeared, the number of insects that have disappeared. What place is there for this kind of inquiry that is so committed to broadening the horizons of human possibility, when that possibility itself seems increasingly to be a problem?

Another set of issues has to do with the professional foundations for anthropology as a vocation, especially in the United States and Western Europe. As with many other fields in the humanities and social sciences, the economic troubles of recent years have bottomed out the anthropology job market. People can't enter graduate school with the secure expectation that when they come out, they would have the kind of jobs their teachers had. That intergenerational reproduction of an academic field seems much more uncertain now.

These are some of the reasons, I think, why these questions come into focus. What is anthropology for? What is it really about? What would it take to make it viable? For it is still the case that with ever so many problems that we confront—whether the plight of refugees, the migration crisis at the border, environmental dilemmas, questions around global public health and medicine, or questions of race, gender, sexuality—we find topics that anthropologists are actually well prepared to wrestle with, to tell really interesting stories about, to suggest contrary perspectives for, to give different ways of seeing and understanding, and possibly even resolving.

In your introduction you mention a recent American Anthropological Association survey that looked at the careers that many students were going into—advocacy, human rights, and social justice. That might not have been the career path 25 years ago, but it speaks to how anthropology students are taking their training and thinking out into the world. I get the impression that this book is in some ways wrestling with the responsibility of preparing students for where and how they want to use their expertise.

Most students come into anthropology today with strong social, political, and critical convictions, and they find in anthropology methods to wrestle with complex worldly situations. They want some way to make a living while grappling with those problems. I think part of the challenge for us is to try to widen our own perspective of a field that purports to be academic but is actually deeply caught up in ever so many ways with life in the world and different efforts to wrestle with and change that life.

That is partly why, in the third essay of this book, I wind up in the company of indigenous activists at a global conservation conference, with artists working on the problem of ocean plastic, among fans of the fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin [the daughter of American anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber]. With each of these stories, there are surprising trails that anthropology takes out into the world. What would it mean if we really thought of the field itself through the mirror of these extrapolations, rather than beginning with the assumption that the true, authentic anthropology is the kind that happens within the academy?

Are more students recognizing anthropology's ability to understand the pressing political, cultural, and economic problems people face today?

A Possible Anthropology book cover
Review: 'A Possible Anthropology' by Anand Pandian

Bret McCabe reviews the book of essays

Anthropology was born of the conviction that there are social and cultural problems that one can identify in the Western world and that there is a value to learning how to see such familiar situations from a different standpoint. That critical and political impulse has always been there in the field. At the same time, that impulse has also been domesticated and slotted into all kinds of problematic formations. Anthropology has simultaneously been a vehicle for the critique of Western imperialism as well as a handmaiden of colonialism. Anthropology in the United States has been an important foundation for the critique of American militarism, at the same time that it has served as an essential tool in the American subjugation of other places and their people. These tensions and contradictions have always been there in the field. I call this book A Possible Anthropology because I think we need to retrieve some of this critical potential from a larger canvas in which anthropological ideas have often been put to troubling uses.

You open your first chapter with a Malinowski quote from 1941: "In our democratic unpreparedness, we have failed to mobilize spiritually". It feels so contemporary. You're using it to set up a comparison between Bronislaw Malinowski and Zora Neale Hurston, but it's also a reflection on the ways in which anthropological knowledge is produced. Why is this an important question to ask?

Anthropology is a curious field insofar as it seems to need to reinvent itself, broad cloth, every so often—maybe too often. It often seems to be the case that theoretical or critical advancement in the field requires some repudiation of everything that came before. But things are never as simple as we make them out to be, as we might think when we look back at the past.

"The reason why anthropology matters is because whether we like it or not, we share the world with people unlike ourselves. ... There's no getting around it. This is a moment in our country when a lot of people are living out the fantasy of shutting themselves off, not having to worry about those differences. And it's precisely in these circumstances that we need that spirit of anthropological inquiry."

The effort in this particular chapter is to ask the following question. If it's the case that there's something unusual about anthropology now, which is undoubtedly true, if it's the case that anthropologists often do unusual things in the name of fieldwork, say unusual things in the name of scholarship, is it because we finally got interesting? Is it because we finally learned how to become truly unconventional? Is it because we finally got radical enough? Or, instead, is it the case that the seeds of these differences have been with us for a long time? That the history of the field is actually much more complicated than we might think it is, that these forms of radical thinking, writing, and expression have actually been with us for much longer, even if we haven't always acknowledged their presence and their inspiration?

That's precisely why I wanted to work with this unusual juxtaposition between Bronislaw Malinowski, often thought of as the founding figure of a manifestly scientific anthropology, and Zora Neale Hurston, someone we take as a leading African American writer of fiction rather than a trained anthropologist. What would it actually mean to think, at the level of method, between what these two figures did, and also what they said? The juxtaposition shows that early anthropology was much more interesting than we give it credit for, and that one of the crucial reasons for this has to do with the very idea of reality at stake in this work, the very idea of the empirical world, the very idea of what we expect to encounter when we go out into the field and try to capture its reality.

Think between these two figures and what you find, whether you're looking at a scientist or a novelist, is a world shot through with magic. A world shot through with mythical tales. A world shot through with metaphorical excess. And if that world is shot through with all these things, and if method here has meant grabbing hold of those things and making those things part and parcel of the thinking and learning that you're doing, that's a pretty interesting way of making sense of the world. And if all of this is there even in the very early years of this discipline's history, we ought not to be surprised that anthropologists continue to be a little unusual.

Raising that question reminded me of your own efforts to write in different ways in your ethnographic work. Is there resistance to efforts to produce scholarship that doesn't immediately read and look like scholarship?

I think that our ideas of proper scholarship and good scholarly writing often do fall back on the assumptions that you find in many fields with regard to objectivity, with regard to clarity of exposition, with regard to serious argumentation. That is to say that in this field, as with so many other fields, sharp lines are often drawn between serious academic writing and more literary, avant-garde, creative forms of excess, where the latter is seen sometimes as very subjective or more about the person doing it than about the situation being described.

In fact, it isn't just that the tensions have always been there. It's that these tensions have been there even within the life and work of individual anthropologists themselves.

"I think for a long time I've been drawn to the idea that ordinary, mundane circumstances actually have a lot to them, whether it's what is happening at the arcade down the street or in a hardscrabble post-industrial town in central Massachusetts."

If you really pay attention to the complexities of life and experience and perspective that you might find in figures you think you know quite well, Malinoswki and Hurston, for example, you'll find that they are much more layered than you think. How do you trace the scientific work of the folklorist in Hurston? How do you find that avid reader of fiction in Malinowski's scholarly writing? What I'm trying to do here is to restore those layers of experience.

That's something you address head on in the second chapter, where you pursue fieldwork with other anthropologists as a way to talk about the value of experience in the field. Can you talk a bit about that, this idea of method of experience?

It struck me as a really curious thing, when I realized that there were profound continuities between what happens to anthropologists in the field, in the classroom, at their desks when they write, and in their experience as readers. We know that fieldwork is wild. We know that fieldwork is messy. We know that fieldwork is a certain kind of sustained, almost spiritualized exposure to the unexpected. But when we hang on to an overly scientific picture of what we do as anthropologists, we imagine going into that fieldwork, but then coming out of it and beginning to organize it, domesticate it, button it down, so to speak, such that something that was really kind of wild and uncontainable begins to be worthy of this term "knowledge" when we settle it a bit.

But what I found in doing the kind of fieldwork I did for this chapter, by hanging out with other anthropologists as they worked in the field and in the classroom and even when they were working at writing, is that this buttoning down is never complete. That charge of the unknown persists. In fact, it has to persist, that's the point. Ultimately, then, anthropological knowledge is much more than what you're left with when you've managed to put everything in place. So much of it has to do with the charge and the force of that which will refuse to stay in place, that which remains unknown, that which troubles precisely because you can't put it somewhere. It's that deep, almost existential uncertainty that any vivid encounter with anthropology gives you—that's actually the core of its value and the heart of its method, what comes out of anthropological experience.

How do you incorporate the ideas and issues you raise in this book into your own practice as an ethnographer and scholar? I ask because one of the things I like about your writing is how anecdotal it is. You often start from some seemingly innocuous, mundane moment or observation and work to something weighty.

I didn't take a single anthropology class in college. And I went to graduate school to do environmental studies. I transferred into anthropology after a couple of years because it seemed to be more promising in terms of the methods that I thought I needed to be able to wrestle with the problems that were on my mind.

So I really did wind up an anthropologist by accident, like Michael Jackson, one of the figures that I write about in this book, who has a memoir about his own journey through the field called The Accidental Anthropologist. It's possible that a lot of us fell into anthropology in precisely that way.

Having said that, it is also curious for me to think back and to realize that though I never took an anthropology class in college, I was always doing something like fieldwork. I took an English class about American culture, and I decided to go to an arcade and watch people playing video games. There was a political science class I took about activism, and I decided to write a paper about an activist group in Holyoke, Massachusetts, that I'd been working with. And then, having never done any fieldwork, per se, after college I wound up doing volunteer work in rural South India and working for an NGO. I wound up coming back with all these field diaries, even though I was never trained to keep them.

So I think for a long time I've been drawn to the idea that ordinary, mundane circumstances actually have a lot to them, whether it's what is happening at the arcade down the street or in a hardscrabble post-industrial town in central Massachusetts. And all of these situations are not just interesting empirically; they're also full of people who are thinking about them even as they do what they do, and this thinking of theirs is woven into the experience and understanding of these places. Eventually I realized that there was a method and a discipline that tracked just these things.

What does anthropology gain by embracing or at least acknowledging the different ways that one can express the learning that comes out of fieldwork?

I think it's true that we are in a certain kind of crisis. We have trouble explaining the relevance of anthropological research and anthropological writing. We have trouble articulating the necessity for departments like the one I'm in here at Hopkins, the need to allocate funding for endeavors like the ones we pursue. It's a serious problem. To me, what is at stake here are better ways of making the case that anthropology does, in fact, matter. There are things that we can see and understand by thinking, working, and engaging the world as anthropologists and ethnographers that we really couldn't think, see, or understand as effectively in any other way. I do believe that.

This is what I try to show in the third chapter of this book. The critical potential that we find in the work of these activists at a global conservation congress, or in the work of these contemporary artists in California, or in the speculative fiction of Ursula K. LeGuin: this critical potential that I trace in each of these different situations has so much to do with the anthropological imagination that these other actors have taken on and exercised through their own work. Say it's the case then that our field's curious ways of imagining and expressing things can in fact do this kind of work out and about in the world. There's a profound lesson in this. There may be a lot more value to what we do in the name of anthropology than what we tend to give it credit for.

For a book called A Possible Anthropology, I really appreciate that you don't list 10 things that people should be doing at the end. I do think you're encouraging people to ask some basic questions about why they do what they do and why asking those questions matters. For both people in the field or adjacent to academia, what do you hope they can take away from this book?

"You have to trace out this larger life of the field and its ideas in the wider world. The best way to do this is to work as an observer, an empiricist, paying attention to the details of what happens as this knowledge travels in the world, following the trails of its influence and consequence."

Any discipline of knowledge that has traction in the world is one with a life much bigger than its academic avatar. If you're going to wrestle with the question of whether we really need anthropology, you can't just begin and end with what happens in university hallways like this one. You have to trace out this larger life of the field and its ideas in the wider world. The best way to do this is to work as an observer, an empiricist, paying attention to the details of what happens as this knowledge travels in the world, following the trails of its influence and consequence.

Can you talk a bit about your current manuscript?

In the United States, the fall of 2016 brought us a presidential election with a profoundly unexpected outcome, an outcome quite troubling for many people in cities like this one, many students at universities like this one, many people in professions like my own, many people with backgrounds like my own, people, that is, who are immigrants to this country.

I actually had a sabbatical scheduled and a research project already planned for 2017, one that I scrapped completely in the days after that election. I've been working since then on a manuscript that I've nearly completed, one that has the working title Walled In: The Everyday Borders that Divide America and How to Take Them Down. It's written with a broader public in mind.

The book is based on fieldwork that I've been pursuing in different places around the United States, trying to make sense of the appeal of an idea like the border wall. I argue that this idea appeals to many Americans because it resonates with the everyday walls and boundaries that they've come to live with and take for granted in their daily lives, whether it's the fortress-like homes that so many Americans inhabit or the imposing SUVs that so many Americans drive. I track ideas about the vulnerable boundaries of the body and the walls of mind that shield us from uncomfortable points of view. I trace the outlines of this cascading series of walls that we find ourselves within, as Americans, everyday borders that shape our political and cultural predicament.

I think this is going to be the first time you've written a book based on fieldwork in America. Did you find yourself wanting to rise to the challenges raised by A Possible Anthropology and look at something that needs to be addressed?

I traveled quite a bit for this project—Georgia, Iowa, North Dakota, North Texas. Like many people I knew, at first I, too, had a defensive reaction to the election, How could this be? So the effort was not to ask, What the hell happened? but instead to ask, How did we get here? Can one make sense of that?

I felt that I had to figure it out in part because I'm Indian-American. My wife and I have two young children. That fall of 2016, they were taking lessons at a swimming facility in north Baltimore. My son came out of the locker room in tears one day that November, saying that there were older kids inside who'd taunted him by saying that the place was so much better when they didn't allow "coloreds" to enter.

It was so strange to hear that word. Coloreds. We knew that a pickup truck had gone racing down that main road the day after the election, waving a giant Confederate flag. We knew that this had been a segregated pool until the 1980s. We knew that our own neighborhood was historically white, and that as late as 1988, the first black family that moved into this neighborhood had bricks and rocks thrown through their windows until they moved away.

This was not very long ago. We knew all of this had happened before we got here, but we didn't really face it. Now, after the election, after the spate of racist incidents reported around the country, it felt like I had to try to face it. I'm an American myself. I was born and raised in this country. It was a moment when I had to stop and acknowledge to myself that I hadn't thought enough about what that meant, or tried enough to understand the place where I'd lived most of my life.

And that's just it. The reason why anthropology matters is because whether we like it or not, we share the world with people unlike ourselves. We share the world with people who have commitments unlike our own, attachments unlike our own, who have fears and anxieties but also aspirations and joys and pleasures unlike our own. We have to make our peace with that somehow. There's no getting around it. This is a moment in our country when a lot of people are living out the fantasy of shutting themselves off, not having to worry about those differences. And it's precisely in these circumstances that we need that spirit of anthropological inquiry. We have to be willing to put our own guard down and ask the question, Do I really understand where I am?

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