Prof. Dr. Jeremy Keenan

'The ethics of anthropological engagement in a neoliberal world'

- Report by Annemarie Samuels


Prof. Keenan thanks the WDO for the invitation to this symposium. He recalls that, when discussing the topic of the lecture on the phone, the organizers stressed the ethical and the autobiographical aspects of the lecture. He goes on to introduce his lecture by calling it a personal journey through anthropology. This journey leads us through different ideologies, regions and theoretical perspectives. It is also a journey of resistance to many issues such as post-colonialism and “resistance, seen through the prisms of racism, apartheid, poverty, underdevelopment, marginalization, exclusion, conflict, genocide, imperial over-reach and the ‘war on terror’.” This journey gives him privileged understanding of the world and its people. But, in the same way as Margaret Thatcher once remarked that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’, there are no free journeys for anthropologists. Our insight, given by the ‘other’, requires our engagement in return.


Keenan admits that he only recently started to really give thought to ethics. During a meeting with his literary agent in a bar in London in the early 1990s, the agent urged him to go back to Algeria and asked him what happened to the Tuareg whom he studied in the 1960s. Much of his further career had been built on this early work. Keenan realized he did not know, because he lost contact with them. He had never reciprocated what they had given him and felt ashamed. Because of these feelings of shame, he started thinking about the relationship between anthropologists and their subjects. Ethically, this should be one of reciprocity. It is the basis of a ‘moral contract’ that anthropologists have with the people they work with.


Subsequently, Keenan elaborates on the peoples and communities anthropologists work with. He calls them the ‘anthropological domain’. It is a domain that includes those people who are excluded by the capitalist system: the marginalized, repressed, excluded. To understand this domain and how it has changed, he gives an overview of the emergence of the world capitalist system after the World War II. He argues that the expansion of capitalism in the second half of the 20th century created a crisis of over-production. The capitalist system came up with three solutions to this crisis: neoliberalism, globalization and financialization. Neoliberal restructuring included the well known structural adjustment programs. Globalization forced all areas in the world to become integrated in the capitalist system, while at the same time excluding more and more people from participating as producers or consumers in this system. Concerning the last solution, financialization, the collapse of the system will be catastrophic for the ‘anthropological domain.’ The anthropological domain of excluded and marginalized people is increasing, as is the complexity of its problems.


At this point Keenan returns to his initial question. How can anthropologists reciprocate? What sorts of engagement should we think of? No definitive answer could be given. This engagement presents huge ethical questions. We can ask what our responsibilities are and who we represent. Do we have the right to represent anyone? He goes on to stress that knowing what is right or wrong is another thing than putting what is ‘right’ into practice. He argues that anthropologists are fighting on two fronts. On the first front, anthropologists often engage with conflicts and with injustice. The anthropologist can than act as a witness, for example through writing or film. We can act as a voice and as an agent of communities on behalf of their interests, which can result in policy changes. Furthermore, we can counter wrong information. However, this engagement can bring the anthropologist in conflict with ‘perpetrators’, such as big companies.


Anthropologists also fight on the home front. They can have the reputation as trouble makers and may come under pressure of institutions, also in their home countries. Keenan himself has extensive experience on this front. However, he says, this pressure should not become an excuse to not exercise our responsibilities.


Keenan finishes his lecture with two comments. The first is on transformations in communication technology. The advent of email and satellite phones now makes possible regular contact between anthropologists and their subjects. The second comment is that sometimes the anthropologist is the sole witness, the only voice. He experienced this position and stresses the importance of being able to communicate, to write and most of all to be believed. He ends with stressing that ethical and moral integrity are an important part of our discipline.