Interpretive Review Of ‘Introduction: Auto-Ethnographies of Academic Practices’

Meneley, Anne, and, Young, J. Donna. (2005). “Introduction: Auto-Ethnographies of Academic Practices.” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (1-21). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.

In a rather earnest introduction, Anne Meneley and Donna Young lay bare some of the current realities and hardships of the academy situated in North America. They encourage those invested in intellectual practices to consider the value of thinking ethnographically about various national and international institutional networks of meaning and power. As such, Meneley and Young espouse that an auto-ethnography of academic practices will provide what Marc Augé calls ‘the anthropology of proximity’ – essentially a call to critically analyze the routines and rituals conducted in and amongst academic sites and communities.

Meneley and Young explain the turbulence faced by the academy as both the work of inside and outside forces. Given that political climates change through various movements in history, it is no surprise that the utility of the liberal university has come under fire time and again. Any historical overview of an institution is bound to carry a set of characteristic demons. In the case of universities, this includes politics of classism, colonialism, racism, sexism, and elitism. With such exquisite red stains on their past, the administrators of the social sciences and humanities have had to cope with their fair share of scornful critiques that have resulted in the continuous reshaping of intellectual practice. However entrenched the academy is in its past and present day demons, there remains much to be said for its utilitarian efforts that speak to the progressive tide of improvement and push for a continuous reflexive standpoint. As a measure of good faith or transparency, Meneley and Young have enlisted contributors at different hierarchal stages within the career spectrum: graduate students, part-time and non-tenure-stream faculty, untenured and tenured faculty, editors and publishers, administrators, and even interveners in public debates. In addition to the contributors’ position, Meneley and Young are responding to the issue of dominant voices that subjugate and relegate certain institutions to the periphery. In this case, they identify those working in Canadian institutions as part of a “subaltern class of intellectuals”, which logistically situates those in American institutions as commanding a hegemonic centralized political force.

The subsequent section of the introduction is divided into three parts that address different movements of writing genres, representation and voice, and the social scientist’s moral scope of personal feeling and responsibility.

The first part identifies four particular genres of writing. The first of these genres includes ethnographers who have worked in their own societies, producing emic standpoints. Here we witness an account of two sociologists, Anderson and Bradwin, which marks the beginnings of participant observation as an analytical tool and the value of the insider perspective for providing detailed and meticulous accounts of particular practices. And yet, their lack of academic training to instill an etic standpoint in their writing raised immediate concerns for those inside the academy. Lacking the ability to convey emic knowledge in an objective manner to non-native scholars thus became a focal concern. The translation of local knowledge and practice into a coherent transmission of useful intellectual thought requires more than ‘journalistic’ or ‘storyteller’ modes of writing. In broad terms, this highlights one of the firm markers of distinction to the discipline of the social sciences and humanities.

The second genre of writing discussed is autobiographical reflexivity, which came to fruition in response to critiques of ethnographic objectivity. Much of the critiques stem from anti-colonial and feminist positions of knowledge production, which effectively split self from others, anthropologists from natives. As far as racist and colonial attitudes were attributed to the academy, an arguably useful residue formed in what came to be known generally as the post-colonial or postmodern world. Not without its own set of conundrums and wordy pitfalls, postmodernism gave anthropologists the opportunity to question the nature of identities, thus demystifying the ephemeral quality of the ‘native’ as simply another colonial (or should it be situated as post-colonial?) term. What is certain is that the practice of ethnography became a site of internal debate and reckoning with what separates categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’, which became essential topics of discussion to the articulation of thoughts into text.

The third genre of writing is attributed to the political economies involving the so-called ‘stars’ of the American anthropological world. These elites are lured from institution to institution by high salaries and benefits that offer reduced workloads at the expense of other professors’ salaries, time, and energy. Not only are adjunct professors made to suffer but this pandering to the elite few creates a disadvantage for students, whose overall academic experiences and training become encumbered by the weight of neglect. The spread of ideas thus becomes conversational at a hegemonic scale of interaction. When the notion of scale is invoked, we must also measure space and boundary, which are personified as titles and positions within institutions. Effectively, this practice acts as a limiter to the productivity of non-elites, curtailing the critical necessity to invest time and energy into meaningful work.

The fourth genre of writing is attributed to the celebration of select intellectual minds within the anthropological field. This celebration is expressed through retrospective analysis of texts involving an attempt to access intimate frames of mind. The value associated with these forms of analyses revolves around a certain kind of pomp and circumstance of sentimentally crafted times. Imbuing a ‘need to know’ stamp to this part of academic history complements flashy tales of anointed knighthood and full professorships, but also of issues of gender and class tribulations. The resultant effect of analyzing these snippets of anthropology’s history is somewhat a mixed bag of vanity and admiration – the former for the glory and the latter for its successes.

The second part addresses representation and voice. It is imperative for anthropologists to bear the repercussions of the eventual text that follows any fieldwork. Much of the foundational concerns include typecasting, stereotyping, and romanticizing the native or ‘Other’. Ethnographically speaking, the narrow and rigid method of formulating accessible explanations remains problematic, especially in regards to new students. Conversely, the ability to write Geertzian ‘thick descriptions’ is no simple task. An alternative method is available, although equally as daunting. By building bridges between communities, we can effectively create an ongoing discourse that will undoubtedly rebound a multitude of times. This process speaks to a higher calling of the social sciences, namely of cultural exchange and social change over time. Beyond the purview of self-acquired knowledge of a given cultural terrain, what is more promising is the notion of continuously flowing through a discourse of exchange and harmony between differing points of view. To this end, the accomplishment and burdens do not solely rest on the shoulders of one struggling and morally cumbersome scholar, but on the rate of exchange in which multiple parties are engaged.

The third and final part addresses the social scientist’s moral scope of personal feeling and responsibility. Meneley and Young take a moment here to give us the weight of the feelings and sensibility that are compiled into the selected essays of this volume. As anthropologists, they acknowledge the accomplishments of the discipline thus far, but this does not serve as patting oneself on the back as much as a reminder to remain vigilant. If anything, they put forth this collection of essays as a defense against those (inside and outside of the field) that would undermine anthropology’s methodological efforts, which despite their misgivings and questionable past deeds, is something worth fighting for.

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