Reversed Gaze, Chapter 5: Mega-Anthropology

Ntarangwi, Mwenda. (2010). “Mega-Anthropology.” In Mwenda Ntarangwi, Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology (p.101-125). Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Ntarangwi opens up the chapter with a bold statement that anthropology needs to apply what it has learned “from studying other cultures towards studying themselves and anthropological culture itself” if it is truly to become a cultural critique (2010: 101). A critique, he says, that must approach the study of professional anthropology the same way as it has with the traditional exotic and far away locations that have been its focus of study.  By not assuming that high-status professionals posses a more sophisticated level of social or cultural knowledge than the researcher as it does in para-ethnography, a more systematic analysis of anthropologists in their ‘everyday lives’ can be pursued. The goal of this endeavor would be to enhance our reflexivity and dispel assumptions of this “assumed sophistication of ‘advanced’ societies” (2010: 102). The AAAs (the annual meeting of the American Anthropology Association), he contents, and offer an ideal setting where the performed rituals of this anthropological work can best be observed. Importantly, a study such as this can help to reverse asymmetrical power differentials between anthropologists in the United States and between the North American and European anthropological community and the rest of the world.

He contrasts the AAA against the ASA (the Association of Social Anthropologists) and the PAAA (the Pan-African Anthropological Association) in an attempt to gain further insight into this cultural phenomenon. He argues that a comparison between these conferences can teach us a great deal, however, besides his ethnography of the annual AAAs in New Orleans (2002) and Washington D.C. (2007), he offers little in the sense of a comparative analysis except for the last two pages of the chapter with the ASA. The most striking revelation he says is the difference in the sheer numbers of members of the AAA (approximately 11,000 as of 2005) as compared to the ASA and PAAA, but oddly, offers no membership numbers for the latter two of these associations.  We are either left to imagine these numbers ourselves or simply take his word for it. In fact, this information does not seem to be available online in any form. The only population statistic available was found on the ASA website noting that 400 members attended the conference in India in 2012[1].  The PAAAs membership numbers are equally as difficult to locate. No current membership numbers could be located online regarding these associations. The AAA website proudly claims that there are at present approximately 12,000 active members with its annual meetings drawing over 5,000 members on average[2].  He states that the open membership policy of the AAA for “any person having demonstrable professional or scholarly interest in the science of anthropology” (2010: 124) as opposed to the invitational membership of the ASA that must also be vetted by two existing members of the association might be one reason for this, though he uses this point to justify his reasoning behind why the ASA is more able to host meetings outside of the UK instead.

This issue of the sheer size of the AAA in comparison to the ASA and the PAAA seems to be more of an issue concerning the quality of the work presented and the level of collaborative practice between respective associations or professionals. For instance, the ASAs have no concurrent panels to ensure that all members participating can be included in each discussion while the AAAs have overlapping panels and a myriad of activities taking place during the conference period that makes it impossible to attend every panel or presentation. Besides the ethnographic observations and interpretations he offers of the annual AAA meeting in New Orleans Louisiana in 2002 –which will be discussed presently –this is the only criticism he really offers in his comparison of these associations, and even then, he mentions the PAAA in name only focusing on the ASA only, which leads us to question the purpose of this interrogation in the first place.

Ntarangwi dedicates the majority of the chapter to his ethnographic observations and interpretations of the Annual AAA meeting he attended to in 2002. He provides accounts of his experiences at the airport in New Orleans, the taxi ride into the university, dining, and finally the conference proceedings themselves.  He describes the differences in the wardrobe of participants at the conference; distinguishing the different levels of academics by the way they present themselves at the conference, with a particular note on the “culture of conference bags” (2010: 107) prevalent in American conferences that he is not accustomed to in African conferences. He uses this to further distinguish the PAAAs from the AAAs in terms of “socioeconomic differences in knowledge production and dissemination that exist in these two disparate locations” (2010: 107).  With over a century of history the AAA has built a considerable base of members who all must pay their own way to each conference unlike the PAAA and ASA that provide financial support for their smaller membership bases to do attend conferences if needed.

He draws attention to the language used at many of the panels he attended as being overly complicated to the point of distancing the presenters from their work and making the whole affair seem overly narcissistic and artificial. Moreover, the “recycling of field notes” (2010: 109) added to this distancing as many of the presenters were including data that was obtained many years before.  An attempt, he says, to seemingly remain relevant and impressive by “practicing brilliant accounts” (2010: 110).

The Annual AAAs in Washington D.C. in 2007 was another opportunity for Ntarangwi to apply an ethnographic frame to his attendance and participation. His primary observations are that the AAAs are predominantly (and intimidating it seems)”White”(2010: 112) and extremely noisy with hundreds of members talking and chatting in the main lobby that contrasted against the “many Africans and African Americans working at the hotel” (2010: 113). He also focuses on the placement center –or employment area –of the conference and observes the behaviors and interactions between prospective employees/academics and employers/institutions.

Ntarangwi does mention in the very last paragraph of the chapter that anthropologists need to remain vigilant in the face of growing interdisciplinary work between the social sciences to “remain relevant in our own field, at a time when other disciplines are assuming they can readily and successfully carry out our roles” (2010: 125). He stresses that if anthropologists do not respond accordingly that the profession could be in danger of becoming “irrelevant in a world where neo-liberal economic models have already prevailed, even in higher education” (2010: 125) –especially in the United States.

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One thought on “Reversed Gaze, Chapter 5: Mega-Anthropology

  1. Also a very good article, for being such a sharp synopsis with good questions. I really would have liked more in the way of both comparative detail and analysis regarding the AAA, ASA, and PAAA. On the other hand, this opens up a little avenue for someone else to research in the future.

    As with others, I need to say that you should go back and edit all of the little typographic errors (and I am master of those errors…much easier to spot in the works of others than in my own).

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