With a conference finished and my last board of examiners meeting now over it’s now time to move on to the usual summer activity of writing. As I sit down to start contemplating what needs my attention, my anthropological proclivities become clear. Articles and papers are underway covering the spread of collective violence, vigilantism and security, and the role of hearsay in the causation of violence. Serious stuff – and necessarily so. But these sit alongside articles on fictional anthropologists in films and Batman. I’ll also be on a panel next week with Phoenix Jones, Seattle’s real life superhero. While there’s a serious side to these other issues – they are of a very different type. So, not for the first time, I’m having the thought – ‘I’m a two tone anthropologist’.
I think anthropology is at its strongest when its engaging with social problems. I may love functionalist explanations – they are anthropology at it’s most elegant – it makes the world of social interactions seem sensible and tidy. The reason functionalism became a dirty word is because most social systems are messy – inequalities, abuse of power, discrimination, violence and illness are ubiquitous. The world would be better with less of each of these things. While these problems are all too big for anthropologists or anthropology to ‘solve’, the suffering they cause make them the most worthy issues on which to spend our time. Getting to grips with the complexities of the intertwined forces and practices that make up these social problems is of value beyond the boundaries of our discipline. Understanding the causes of inequalities and suffering, or, building on this, understanding the imperfections of the structures set up to minimize these things – that’s what I think the largest amount of socio-cultural attention should be directed towards.
Contrarily anthropology is most fun to play with when the stakes are low. When it’s just pushing anthropological ideas into odd realms. When there are no informants whose safety we have to worry about. When we can just playfully apply anthropological theories to interesting areas. Once you’ve had that anthropological epiphany (that magical moment, generally at some point in your undergraduate degree, when you realise that anthropology has started to make you think differently) you start doing it by accident. Friends will ask you a straightforward question and 10 minutes later you’ll have gone deep into Gell-ian understandings of objects or talking about Geertzian winks. The occasional chance to run with these thoughts a bit further and in print (or in a blog) seems to me the perfect antidote to the depressing nature of reading about suffering, inequality and imperfect systems.
I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this (although I note that many anthropologists deliberately separate their work and play) but I think two tone anthropology is the way forward. Blogs are a very good repository for some of these musings – but wouldn’t it be nice to get our working out for these things properly scrutinised? Wouldn’t it be nice if some of our peer-reviewing was of anthro-fluff that correlates with the fluff we’re interested in? Wouldn’t it be good to have a journal dedicated to anthropological curve-balls? This is something I would like to see – we need a Journal of Frivolous Anthropology!