Reversed Gaze, Chapter 6: A New Paradigm for Twenty-First Century Anthropology?

Ntarangwi, Mwenda. (2010). “A New Paradigm for Twenty-First Century Anthropology?” In Mwenda Ntarangwi, Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology (p.126-151). Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

By the end of Mwenda Ntarangwi’s book, Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology (2010), the journey towards American anthropology has gone full circle. An investigation into the history, theory, and practice of anthropology and ethnography in America led him back to his home continent, tracking a thread of connection left by imperial histories and contemporary globalization.  He comes to understand how, and why, American anthropology has never been (far) removed from Africa, in objectives and theories of alterity. In this chapter, A New Paradigm for Twenty-First-Century Anthropology?, Ntarangwi explores the geographic, national, political, and epistemological chasms that characterise dynamics between institutions of knowledge production generally, and between anthropologies in particular. He draws from his intimate and rich experience in Kenya and Kenyan educational institutions to problematise the projects of world anthropologies and their lack of pragmatism. This chapter shows that Ntarangwi’s critique on Western Anthropology leads him to a critique of the world, aptly so for the dominating and dictating role of Euro-American culture in the domain of knowledge production. He encourages the development of new forms of collaboration which account for varying realities of anthropologists and their institution, and believes the continuation of the discipline is contingent  on these rearticulated transnational, trans-epistemological, and trans-social ties (151).

Ntarangwi’s ethnography ends with much inconclusiveness, an expected point of arrival for an ethnography which thoroughly complicates a context and wades through the mess. The title of the chapter is in question form and foreshadows the many points he raises for further consideration, those questioning the objectives behind historical and contemporary anthropological action which provoke reflexivity of our ethnographic thoughts and movements and the objectives of the anthropological discipline (American and otherwise . To address these questions Ntarangwi turns to the history of imperialism and anthropology. This helps him, and the reader, make sense of the present circumstances and current disciplinary trajectory which hopes to reorient.

His questions are influenced by Faye Harrison’s (2008) objective for the “’reworking of anthropology in the global age” (Harrison in Ntarangwi 2010:126). He agrees with but problematises the objective of “developing a commitment for decentering Western epistemologies and promoting genuine multicultural dialogue in the study of humanity” (Ibid) which in anthropology, most recently and tangibly, has culminated in world anthropologies projects. The WCAA, IUAES, CWA, and WAN are dominant world anthropology organizations with the objective of creating dialogue between anthropologies, applied and “pure” (sic) (145). It may be argued that they hope to dissolve the status associated with these labels and cultivate equivalent legitimacy across varying forms and contexts of anthropological education and practice. The world anthropology groups have admirable theoretical and ideological goals, but those which hit concrete realities of socio-economic disparities unpreparedly, making the projects as yet wholly unrealisable.

To historically and (geo)politically situate the anthropology and its problematics, Ntarangwi gives a comprehensive survey of the development of African American studies and the Africanist school, and this history illuminates the long and insidious colonial, and post-colonial imperialist relationship between anthropology and Africans in and out of the continent.  The legacy of these dynamics lingers in epistemological and socio-economic divides, and the difference of anthropological practice between West and the rest.

Since the beginning of Anthropology’s institutionalization the discipline has been relegated to the realm of alterity and otherness, but the expertise of the practice outside Euro-American domains has not been made equally legitimate. Ntarangwi explores the disciplinary divides that developed over the decades between anthropology and other disciplines, American and ‘alternative’ anthropology, and particularly the tension between anthropology and Africa, and African studies and Africanist pursuits. In shadow of this discussion is the notion and reality of the subaltern and dominant, center and periphery, and the apparent panacea of decentralization which Ntarangwi problematises. The well-meaning, seemingly innocuous initiatives of anthropology and world anthropology projects, those towards disciplinary inclusivity, are not pan-globally favoured. For one reason, anthropology is a tender subject and complicated presence in Africa, one that is suspect, criticized, and not warmly embraced by all African academies and scholars. This is apparent in, for instance, the structure of Kenyan university departments.

This discordant relationship may be amplified by particular training in and use of anthropology. Ntarangwi critiques the cooptation of anthropological tools by other disciplines. He argues that the reputation of ethnography is degraded by its adoption and uncritical use by non-anthropologists where it cause many of the harms anthropologists have been trained to circumvent and have crafted their methodology to avoid. When adopted by other disciplines ethnography is not always undertaken with the same rigorous reflexivity and critical consciousness as anthropology (not to say all anthropologists are the quintessence of the discipline’s ethical canon). Related to the issue of ethnography’s misuse is the scarcity of anthropology education in many African institutions. Departments supporting anthropology do so to a minimum, and as annex to training in other disciplines. Where anthropological education is offered, Ntarangwi argues it is not an appropriate form of training. The applied component being most suitable for addressing the social realities of Kenya, and African continent in general, and is not prioritized.

Addressing contextual suitability leads us to Ntarangwi’s broader critique of world anthropology projects. Applied anthropology as he has experienced in Kenya addresses the problems associated with local socio-economic conditions, those which also effect the banal but foundational mechanisms of the university institution.  There is very limited access to resources such as as computers and internet connection, journal subscriptions, printing paper, and textbooks. This effects the quality of educational instruction, research pursuits, and engagement in global academic conversations. At once these are quotidian challenges of practising anthropologists and anthropologically concerned social scientists (individuals and departments), and also reflect socio-economic focal point of much local research in African regions. World anthropologies must take these realisms into consideration in the pragmatic component of their collaborate initiatives. The problems being addressed by scholars in Africa, for instance, must be considered by world anthropology projects in order to create (read: enable access to) a realistically inclusive global disciplinary conversation.

Critical and pragmatic consideration of context, that to which anthropology should be attendant beyond the abstractions of discourse, subjectivity, and all things meta, are often absent from educational development plans and intervention into Africa and other non-Euro-American spaces. Education reflects the preoccupations of Western academia (privileging and valuing theory over application), which alone is ineffective. Interventions themselves, when contextually uncritical, can impact the reciprocal relationship characteristic of anthropology. An unbalanced and harmful dynamic which takes more than gives further disreputes anthropology and it’s international presence. These problems are foreseeable, however, given that most world anthropology projects are ironically centralized in Euro-American domains.

Having read Escobar and Restrepo’s “Other Anthropologies and Anthropology Otherwise” (2005) and the online mission statements of the main world anthropology organizations, it would seem that the projects are still bound by the same “abstrusive” (147) language which Ntarangwi and Tejumola Oliniyan critique as the main limitations of Western post-modern anthropology (Ntarangwi 2010:147). Ntarangwi underscores that the Western fixation on discourse and narrative does not translate, or transfer, to all ‘African’ (and non-Euro-American) anthropology. It seems to be the absence of clear, pragmatic objectives that has since 2009 stalled the movement and realization of world anthropologies beyond the conceptual, theoretic, and virtual.

The above examples are not exhaustive of the barriers to the successful collaboration of contrapuntal anthropologies. At the closing of this chapter Ntarangwi serves a final, and surprising critical point: the problematic chasm in African anthropology between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ anthropology. He argues that a joint dialogue, the bridging of theory and practice, in anthropology education in African institutions can better prepare social sciences to meet and address the local, but globally implicated, social, cultural, and political realities of many African regions. Though there is no room for preoccupation with theory and abstraction, they are critical tools to strengthen praxis. He encourages his African anthropology colleagues to begin, when resources allow, to prioritize “the life of the mind” (151). His suggestions are admirable, much like the objectives of world anthropologies. However after the strong discussion of material and economic limitations, they read as aspirations for a distant future and leave our seminar  group questioning how they might ever be realized

From his ‘native’ perspectives of both continental and transnational Other, and his continued experience with the institution of American anthropology, Ntarangwi sees the need for integrated anthropological conversations, inclusive projects, and objectives which can realistically transcend and work above problematic disciplinary and socio-economic divides. He sees this dependent on “individual connections and relations among anthropological networks across racial, geographic, and class boundaries”, and which will “lead to more sustainable collaborations” (136). Ntarangwi might argue that it is in communicatory media such as this blog, and our seminar classroom, where we should begin dialectically determining the pragmatics to realize these collaborations. As budding Canadian anthropologists we are gaining the lived experience of ‘otherness’ within academia, albeit not the same degree as our non-Euro-American colleagues. What we do have in common with them, though, is the pivotal choice between marginalization or assimilation into the American corpus of anthropology. However, for many of the reasons argued by Ntarangwi throughout his ethnography, most of us in the graduate program at Concordia are in the position to forge a third way, to give momentum to the changes long overdue in the global anthropology discipline and in academia more broadly. We have a fair degree of economic, epistemological, and material liberty to reorient our practice and disseminate rearticulated theory; the capacity to make our anthropology happen otherwise, as Restrepo and Escobar would say (2005). These alternative courses of action are “intricately tied” to the collective fate of anthropologies (151). Our “individual connections and relations”, as graduate students and immanent professionals, are privileged to help develop the network of critical and collaborative exchange for which Ntarangwi hopes and to reinvent anthropology’s future should we choose to do so (151).

Other Sources

Escobar, Arturo, and Eduardo Restrepo

          2005  “Other Anthropologies and Anthropology Otherwise: Steps to a World Anthropologies Framework.” Critique of
Anthropology. 25(2):99-129.

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One thought on “Reversed Gaze, Chapter 6: A New Paradigm for Twenty-First Century Anthropology?

  1. I like your conclusion Elizabeth, much appreciated–and the article as a whole, which is very well written and comprehensive. On minor, technical points involving the typing, please do some editing to remove duplicate words, close parentheses, correct variations involving “it”, etc.

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