"Behind the veil of difference" - Interview with Prof. T. H. Eriksen
Interview with Professor T. H. Eriksen

- By Hugo Knoppert and Lukas van der Heijde




Thomas H. Eriksen is Professor Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo. He is (co-) author of almost thirty books, varying from monographs and introductionary books to commentating essays and a novel. Two of his most well-known books are "Ethnicity and Nationalism" (1993) and "Common Denominators" (1998).


On the 17th of October 2006 the WDO organized a lecture by Prof. T. H. Eriksen. Lukas van der Heijde and Hugo Knoppert interviewed for the ICA, sitting in a warm autumnsun at the terrace near the Burcht. The  enthousiastic Norwegian anthropologist spoke passionately about the importance of our discipline and the future of anthropology.


Everybody who studies anthropology in Leiden has read the book Small Places Large Issues. In this book you indicate that the division between 'them' and 'us' is gone, but don't you feel that with recent developments in the world that these boundaries have been recreated?


That is an issue of great concern, and probably one of the most important areas where anthropologists should try to have a public voice. One of the things that we can do is counter the common thought that one's culture is rational and homogenous by revealing the variations within our own culture. I think that is one of the important insights from anthropology. There is a myth which exists in some cultures, I believe China or India, about a shattered looking glass, the mirror of truth. As each of us only has a little piece, we can attempt patching them together to get the whole image, but it is never going to be perfect. This could be the most important moral message from anthropology that we all own a piece of the mirror, so no one can generalize truth just from their little piece.


But do you think that anthropologists themselves are aware of this?

At a certain level I think most anthropologists are, as we are trained to have this awareness that even if we may not approve of what other people do, they have reasons for doing so.

So, anthropologists can expect to have a big role in the future?

Only if the outside world is willing to listen as there may be other agendas e.g.
those focusing on power which lack human rights and democracy. Take Afghanistan for example, had they asked a journalist, an anthropologist or even someone who had spent time in Afghanistan, they would have known that Afghanis are loyal to their local political leaders. The notion of the state is very weak. The idea of implementing civil society with freedom of the press, where people stop at red traffic lights, is unrealistic. Anthropologists are aware of the fact that although people might be the same on a certain level, societies are very different.

Why do you think anthropology is relevant to non-anthropologists?

I think there must be greater awareness of the diversity within your own group, so that you do not begin to make generalizations based on our values. People have a tendency to say: 'our values are different from their values', like the idea that there is a monolithic Dutch culture opposing an equally monolithic Islamic. That is one of the things I am trying to raise awareness about in Norway, that we have fundamentalist Christians who never drink alcohol, who are against sex before marriage, who awful censorship, and dislike freedom of expression. They also have strong views against gays and female priests. Yet when confronted with them the reaction is 'well they are Christians and they are traditional', whereas when Muslims voice the exact same opinions, the common reaction would be: 'oh look at them, they are so different, they need to be integrated. We need to integrate them into our culture.' It is our job to expose these kinds of contradictions, because there are 1.3 billion people we have to relate to and many are in Europe and are perfectly happy being here. Acceptance of diversity within your own group will make the group more open to outsiders.


"Anthropology is often at its most relevant in a way when it is at its most irrelevant"

The other thing is that we have to reconcile ourselves with pluralism. That is one demand we can make towards Muslims and other minorities. People must be allowed to keep their religion, it is a human right. One should be able to conduct their business, but they must accept and reconcile themselves to living in a pluralist society, where the majority are non-muslims, drink alcohol, eat pork, have a relaxed outlook on sex, and where men can have friendships with women without it implying anything illegal and so on. There are forces in the European Islam who are working towards that, and those are our people. They are the ones we as anthropologists and those with our mindset should relate to. We have to understand one another even if we are different.

You said anthropologists and ' people with our mindset', but what is an anthropologist? And who are ' the people with our mindset'?

Well the short answer is those who realize that things could have been very different. That your own life could have been very different, had you been born elsewhere at a different time as the very same person. Even with the same sort of personality you would have held different convictions, you would have believed in different things, you would have other opportunities. That, I think, is one of the most basic insights: things could have been very different.

When did you come to that mindset?

I think I was born that way. I can remember as a child, I was thinking: 'had I been born in Saudi Arabia, I would have learned different things'

So you had that at a very early age?

Yes, but I think many children have that. My son, who is nine, also problematizes his own identity in a similar way. He knows that there are differences. Had he been born as the very same person in Africa, he would have had a completely different life. And this, in some ways, is the universalism of anthropology. The idea that all human beings are the same everywhere, but we live under such different circumstances that we become different people.

Which fundamental anthropological insights would you like to teach your son of nine?

I think most of all the ability to listen to other people, to give other people a voice. In some societies we have become so rude and impolite, not giving other people a chance or the time to expand a bit, to explain their kind of life. What are their concerns, their worries, their interests? We know far too little I think. I mean everybody knows what it is like to be a rude guest when you visit someone's house. You say nasty things about the furniture, you refuse food, you leave too early, and so on. But what is it like to be a rude host? Personally I think it is not having time for your guests, not showing interest in your guests. There are refugees in Europe who are grateful for having the opportunity to escape from poverty, maybe even from war, from misery as they get some kind of protection, at least temporary protection. These people are grateful and wish to give something back, another fundamental anthropological insight, from Marcel Mauss, the Gift, the return gift. In order to fully realize yourself as a human being you have to be able to offer a return gift. And the acceptance of the return gift is a sign of respect, you respect someone if you accept a gift. It is like accepting food from someone, the rudest thing you can do in every culture is to refuse the gift of food. So that is one thing I would teach my children, that showing a genuine interest in people's background is a sign of respect.

Do you expect your children to be anthropologists too?

No, I don't think so, currently my daughter is seven and my son is nine, so he is aspiring to be a football player and she wishes to be a pop star. But I am not saying becoming an anthropologist is salvation, there are many ways you can function in a positive way in society. Take Geert Mak for example, who wrote a very important pamphlet last year against racism, in which he put forward the message 'look we have to calm down a bit.' in a very straightforward manner.

But do you think that anthropologists should be heard more or that they should profile themselves more? Because you do not see many anthropologists on TV.

That is another big question. In fact I wrote a book about this (Engaging Anthropology, 2006), which discusses this precise query. The 21st century should be the century of anthropology, a century of anthropological thinking as a civilizing force, against orientalism, exoticism, prejudice, in other words a community of humanity. That is why I am saying that you might think of anthropology as an expansion of the Kantian cosmopolitan project. Kant's idea states that others should be understood on their own terms. Only then can you pass judgment and say: 'I dislike this or I disapprove of this.' Then you deal with them as moral subjects.

Sometimes it seems anthropologists do not believe in the discipline, how can we change that?

Our discipline has changed, we can no longer tell stories about the natives, so we have to find another niche in our societies. I just spoke with Ulf Hannerz about this and we agree that diversity is probably our best card.

But diversity is not as concrete as the natives

It also doesn't have the same kind of appeal, but it is much more urgent due to the phenomenon of pluralism. As you know globalization and migration has not led to homogenization and certainly not to a limited identity, quite the contrary. This seems to be the trend, so we have to adjust. We can help making sense of the world in many ways. Think of any internationally significant event, and you'll see that the first answer is usually not the right answer; another basic insight from anthropology

That is a good advice for us students

Exactly, the most obvious answer is probably not the right one. You have to take it a few rounds, consider all the objections, and come up with an answer that will be more resistant.

But does anthropology provides us with answers or only questions?

That is a good question. Well it does, but cautious ones I guess and locally valid ones. We have our universalism, which is about the diversity of humanity. It is sort of the mystery of the humans, how we are all born with the same equipment, all over the world, and how we turn out so different. That is what anthropology is about, we can explain to the outside world why it is that people are so different. For example, you cannot just introduce western democracy in a country like Afghanistan, for different reasons. Afghanis may have other ideas about politics. For them politics might be about loyalty rather than individual choice.


"Whatever you do in life, you will always make good use of the anthropology that you've learned"


You wrote that we should make the world more complex rather than simplifying it. But how can you make the world more complex, whilst at the same time making it easy to understand for say a carpenter. How can we do that as anthropologists?



I think that is one of our challenges, how to complicate the world and at the same time make it simpler. It is demystifying difference, because cultural difference is nothing to be afraid of. Clifford Geertz had this lecture, which became an article some 20 years ago called anti-anti-relativism. It said: 'The fact that people are different is nothing to worry about. Let us stop being missionaries; there are lots of things we cannot do anything about. We can try to do something about it in the small way, but you cannot decide to change an entire society.'

You have already pointed out some interesting anthropological insights, but anthropology has its problematic points to. For example the tendency among anthropologists to turn cultural relativism into moral doctrine, as you wrote. As long as you can justify some notion as cultural, one feels committed to defend it. But the result is that the anthropologists become unable to pass moral judgment on anything at all. What is your reaction?






Cultural translation is one of the most important things we do. Translate from other life-worlds to ours, and say: 'look, if I were a father in Punjab, Pakistan, where there are not many opportunities, where there is poverty, where you have Mullahs, a military dictatorship, high population growth, shortage of land, if I had the opportunity to get one of my children married to someone in the West, of course I would do it.' If you try to put yourself in the place of the Punjab father, what would you have done? And that is not relativism, it is perspectivism. It is just saying that where you stand depends on where you sit. The other part of the answer is that we can see ourselves as participants in a global conversation where lots of people take part. If you look at the politicians and the world leaders we admire nowadays, none of them are Europeans. You think about Nelson Mandela, maybe Kofi Annan and the Dalai Lama and some would even say Gorbatsjov. What is their message to the world? It is that we have to listen to each other, respect each other and try to make the world a better place. Because we, as anthropologists, believe that most people in the world have many of the same existential concerns in their lives. Instinctive concerns that are shared worldwide, but we have different ways of satisfying them and fulfilling them. So that would be my answer to relativism, that we take part in a global conversation where we know that we do not have the final answers. At least we do not have final answers which are valid for everybody.

You once spoke about the common professional neuroses among anthropologists.

It may be part of the answer to the question why it is that so few anthropologists take part in public debates with others. Because they have tried and they have been misunderstood. Or they feel that it is not their task, because they feel that they are not qualified to make that kind of judgment. Lots of anthropologists feel much like a fish out of water when they are confronted with this sort of harsh realities in contemporary Europe.


"It is perfectly possible to be yourself, to keep your values, your prejudices and at the same time understand other people's worlds"


What are your suggestions towards modernizing anthropology?

The first thing is that we must realize that we live in one world. For hundred years anthropology has been obsessed with difference, which was necessary as cultural relativism was necessary.

And why?

Because at the time societies were more discrete than ours, there was a real need in our kind of society to understand that those who lived in a completely different way, were humans like ourselves; they were like you and me. That was the exercise of cultural relativism.

So we have switched from natives to diversity?

Exactly, I think we should focus more on what we, as people, have in common. We have to look behind the veil of difference. Difference becomes something you have to work your way through in order to discover the universality. So that is one mission of anthropology for the future, to stress the one world perspective. And we are in the privileged position to do that.

That is one sort of insight, if anthropology is going to get the relevance it deserves, we will have to join the world to realize that it is one world. We have one sort of communicative field, which includes everybody and our job then is translation. Translation of the others' world, like how is it to be a Somali woman in Amsterdam?

So we as privileged anthropologists have a future, because we see the world as a whole. How can we join the world and make the world join us?

I get more and more sympathy for Geertz as the years go by, he said some very sensible and important things, such as: 'you do not have to be one to know one'. That is a very common misunderstanding among non-anthropologists when they look at us, because they think that we have to go native in order to understand other cultures. It is perfectly possible to be yourself, to keep your values, your prejudices and at the same time understand other people's worlds, and even sympathize with them. Or not, that depends. But you have to realize that it takes time, it seems very odd to be patient. The common experience is that people are flattered if you take an interest in them, because it's so rare. It is like I said about being a rude host. I also think that ethnic minorities are really concerned and have a real interest, both personal and political, in getting their own stories told. Having someone tell their stories, who is able to master the discourses of the dominant society.

Before we end this interview, we are really interested to hear about your first fieldwork experience.

My first fieldwork experience was in Mauritius, in January 1986, more than 20 years ago. I was worried about whether I would get to know anybody at all. I walked around and sort of looked at people, I thought: 'can I approach someone?' and 'where am I going to begin?'

Then you succeeded.

Yes, very quickly. I was invited into people's houses from day one, so it took me about two hours.

What will the future of Prof. Eriksen look like?

Most of all I would want to have more time to do the things I like. Play music, messing around in the garden, reading novels, that sort of thing. And writing books including popular books, non-academic books.

And one last advice for us students?

Well I think whatever you do in life, you will always make good use of the anthropology that you've learned. They always say about people: 'well he is not working as an anthropologist anymore', because he has gone off and he is working in public service or whatever. But that is not true, because you always keep that with you. For me, it is like the history of philosophy, like Plato and Kant and knowing a little bit about the history of European ideas and so on. Knowing a bit about cultural diversity, should be part of our Bildung. I think, especially at this day and age everybody should have a bit of anthropology.


This interview has been published in ICA, a magazine produced by student association Itiwana, in the December 2006 issue. Reproduction of this text is allowed only if preceded by admission from the authors.