Struggling with Patterson Against Neoliberalism in Anthropology (Review of Chapter 5)

Patterson, Thomas C. (2001). A Social History of Anthropology in the United States. Oxford: Berg.

(Chapter 5, p. 135-164)

Though the overall aim of Patterson’s book was to identify the effects of social conditions on the historical development of knowledge production in anthropology in the United States, this last chapter epitomizes a gradually increasing lack of explicit linkages between social conditions, the changes within anthropology, and the positions of anthropologists. As was said in class, Patterson initially presents the social conditions and history of a period. Then the theoretical developments follow, sometimes without sufficient effort to connect them. I was particularly disappointed by how clear this was in the last chapter, as I consider it extremely important for anthropology to not underestimate the extent to which (neo)liberal assumptions and norms reach into and influence our research and representations. I will go over the chapter to further develop some of its points, but I will also try to address the matter that Patterson (commendably, if only implicitly) struggles with in chapter 5: what is neoliberalism, and where can we find it in contemporary anthropology?

Patterson presents us with a critical history of the mid-1970s to 2000, but misses opportunities to connect it explicitly to shifts in the discipline later on. By 1974, the already initially tenuous labour-capital pact for material progress that had emerged out of the postwar period had begun to break down. Patterson notes that this period has also been characterized by continued intervention in the “Third World” by the IMF and other US-dominated institutions, if not more directly by NATO and the US military. This point about US and Bretton-Woods domination is an important part of the introduction to the context of the neoliberal era, and indeed this influence is hard to overstate. However, Bretton-Woods policies and US imperialism are relatively absent from the rest of this chapter.

Chapter 5 divides the neoliberal era into three broad periods that coincide with theoretical, methodological and empirical shifts in interest in American anthropology. These are the Marxist turn from 1974-1982; the postmodern turn or “restructuring” of the profession from 1982-1994 and the last section dealing with globalization, feminism and the future of anthropology from 1994-2000.

Patterson remarks that symbolic anthropology and ecologically-oriented neo-evolutionists had no means of accounting for the new labour conditions in the mid 70s, but the Marxist perspective did, which is largely why it had more success up until the early 80s. That said, if we look at the works of symbolic anthropologists like Schneider and the work of neo-evolutionists like Rappaport and Leslie White, both these schools were clearly influenced by Marxist thinking (even if the latter school in particular shed most of the ideas about class and dialectics in favour of technology, culture and energy). Patterson perhaps understates the shared roots of these three currents.

During this same period leading up to the 1980s, no-growth budgets meant that universities and departments could not hire as they previously had: full-time faculty were not replaced, and an increasing number of part-time faculty (mostly women) joined, leading in part to the current paradigms of full-time vs. part-time, tenured vs. non-tenured, and as discussed in class, gender inequalities in graduate studies as well as faculty hiring.

The period from the early 80s to the early 90s is described as the “restructuring” of the profession and the postmodern turn. The postmodern turn in anthropology was also a linguistic one, in which the Geertzian language of the text and hermeneutics dominated explorations of culture. Particularly, the author underlines the centrality of words to the way in which people negotiated meaning as intersubjective (there being no objective reality outside the text made up of what people say). Writing Culture authors Marcus and Clifford became the figureheads of a turn towards new ways of writing and auto-ethnography, but also demonstrated a strong concern (particularly from Clifford) for the ways in which anthropologists author-ize their claims about culture using “I was there” tropes, and refraining from referring to the influence they had by adopting the “objective observer” perspective. Postmodern anthropologists focused disproportionately on social and cultural change in a capitalist world as coming from the middle class and the elite. Identity politics took priority over acknowledged, but ultimately ignored, vectors of structural oppression.

What is missing here, to me, is that there is no in-depth commentary on why these anthropologists acted the way they did. Patterson shows us the conditions of emergence, and shows us how people acted, but in this last chapter, doesn’t make the move Bourdieu (1984) does of saying ‘academics were situated here, this is their history, and this is why they acted this way in these conditions’. For instance, there is a common narrative about the critical turn in anthropology that anthropologists were being criticized for their involvement in colonialism and so turned inward to create distance from these actions, as well as introspect on what anthropology should do in order to avoid reproducing its colonial representations and methods. The author mentions the influence of Marcus, Clifford, and to a lesser extent Said, but doesn’t really look at this as a moment of crisis (resulting not only from neoliberalism but of critique of the discipline and its ongoing relationship with colonialism and imperialism). Indeed, one of the guiding threads of this book had been the evolution of race and contestations around colonialism, which go undeveloped in chapter 5.

However, the author does emphasize that this was a period of increasing state repression under Cold War dictatorships and a period of neoliberal policies that allowed corporations to suck the life out of workers, peasants and tribal peoples. Patterson intimates that anthropologists concerns seem rather quaint, and even complicit, in retrospect. Even more so when we consider the administrative changes at the AAA that paralyzed attempts to take public positions against CIA recruitment, apartheid, and other issues.

The last period, from 1994-2000, covers ongoing changes in the structure of the discipline and the anthropology classroom. Anthropologists are apparently more integrated into applied projects, particularly oriented towards improving health in the global south. The author uses this as evidence of the fact that anthropology isn’t at risk of going away, without really talking about what anthropology is becoming as a result. Simultaneously, he notes that less emphasis is placed on the four field approach, and students are becoming increasingly specialized but unable to relate to things outside their field. This last claim is particularly specious to me. I think that, for better or for worse, many social scientists are now all the more interested in similar topics, and even using similar methods and theories.

I want to end by addressing a question that we did not have time to explore in the seminar: what is Patterson’s view of neoliberalism and where does he locate it in anthropology? Patterson claims that postmodern anthropology adopted the ahistorical central tenet of neoliberalism: that identities were not created in social relations but rather in the exchange of words and ideas between peoples occupying different places in the hierarchy of power (Patterson, 2001: 155). I want to set aside potential confusion around terms of “social relationships” and “peoples” here. Patterson does not spend enough time developing this point for me to explain what is meant, but it is clear enough that he is calling out as neoliberal the kind of agency and identity work done by the likes of Marcus and others. Instead of trying to counter this perspective, I want to briefly present a complementary one in light of the recent success of actor-network theory across the social sciences.

Rather than claiming that neoliberalism has some kind of consistency anchored in a central tenet, I would focus on the potential for the theories we use to uphold and support existing orders of oppression. Network or system theory’s focus on decentralized networks and its purported inspiration in either nature or machines (or both in the form of cybernetics) tends to represent reality as flattened of power relations, or even relations bearing any form of quality. At its worst, by making the basic unit of analysis this vague idea of “the relationship”, actor-network theory often amounts to assembling these relationships that suggest infinitely diffuse power and responsibility. For all the potential that thinking with networks might have for problematizing notions of “the human” and “the individual” that are too often assumed to have no connection to gendered or racial oppression, this theoretical orientation meshes quite well with the historical practices of neoliberalism (and they indeed share roots in cybernetics). It may be that no matter how we cut the network to emphasize hierarchies or conflict, its assumptions are so deeply entangled with those of network thinking that it is unlikely to provide significant challenge to the main means by which power is exerted today.


Bourdieu, Pierre. (1984). Homo Academicus. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


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