Prof. Dr. Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Introduction to the Plenary Discussion

- Report by Maarten Onneweer


Thomas Hylland Eriksen (THE) started the plenary session by mentioning some common themes in anthropology and controversy, namely methodological, epistemological and existential. Furthermore, he attributed to anthropologists a self image of being marginal, being at frontier and negotiating boundaries. Part of this self image is the idea of fieldwork as a rite of passage which shapes our collective identity, bringing us a sense of community of anthropologists. It gives us a normative partiality, our work is always incomplete, and our field is irreducibly complex. Because of this, more description is always better. As a student you need to take these things into account, you will face existential questions; otherwise you would be better of finding another discipline.


What are our driving interests? One is technical (challenging nature) and another is practical (understanding). We have an interest in liberating knowledge, in a non positivist critical scientific way. But again, what is the motivation to do fieldwork? So, for instance, why are we going to the Nuer? Usually serendipity, we go unplanned, but that does not mean unprepared. You need to be prepared.


What are recurring themes of the past days? Does anthropology have a role for itself to speak against power? This is a question that can be razed on basis of Keenan’s presentation. But anthropology is more, it comes from the inside out. We can deflect public attention to real life worlds of people in an uncontroversial way. We are also going towards a new holism, not like the older holism of culture but one in which all aspects of systems can be seen. A bit like Mauss: the totality of a social phenomenon. We need to unwrap the metaphor of the gift, of total social phenomena. What we have not discussed, but what we need to discuss is the relation between analytical concepts and normative rules. What are we to do with the ethics of gift giving? How do we compensate, but without becoming romantic about the sort of friendship relations that are required for fieldwork? All research questions are normative; it is the researcher that has to make the distinction between bullshit and relevant truths. There is no other way because there is no such thing as a value free science.


Another question is if we have the moral duty to defend the weak and do good. Are there limits to our empathy? It is easy to be empathetic with people who are oppressed, but it is more difficult to do with people who are considered evil. THE referred to an example of an anthropological documentary about neo-Nazis in Oslo, the problem was that the documentary made the people seem normal, and the voice-over did not start or concluded that even though the people seemed normal, they were still evil. Should anthropologists be on the side of the morally correct? How then about the embedded anthropologists or the anthropologists that are working for the US army? Should we expect that anthropologists are any different from other people, that they are naturally more left wing politically correct? Perhaps not, but you would expect an anthropological training to bring some sensitivity on these issues.


There are of course dicta, like ‘represent others’ and ‘do no harm’. But even though these things look easy, sometimes there is no way to know how your work might be used later on. THE brings in the example of an anthropologist who’s work on Vietnam became of interest the American army in ways he could not have foreseen before the war, but also if you take someone like Colin Turnbull, who completely romanticised the pigmies. He represented them as a human being before the fall from grace, as an ideal person, a hobbesian individual.


What about negative criticism? Giving voice is not enough, but then, what is enough? We can not expect our informants to be interested in our work, but what should we give them? For instance in South Africa there was a conference about non-engagement. Sometimes anthropologists are just avoiding to talk about unpleasant things. About controversy, there is for instance the case of a native anthropologist in Greece who described political sensitive stuff about a certain area in Northern Greece on the border with Macedonia. Analytically he seems detached from his work, but the local community thinks he has betrayed them. Also, anthropologists who do research on immigrants are in a difficult position. Whatever you say about them can be used against them. For example, Marianne Gullestad who worked in Norway, in the small circle of anthropologists her work was always well received. But when she published in the newspaper there was considerable controversy.


In sum, the isolated communities do not exist, now we need to see the global interconnectedness. Global anthropological history of the 20th century is what we need.


Whorf started one for the pre WW 2 period. Now he is ridiculed because of his ideas on the global village, now it is all friction and controversy, but that is also an indication that something is happening in terms of global connections. The more stories we tell with empathy, and the more we describe the exceptions to the rule, the more dangerous we will become.