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.

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.

Reversed Gaze, Chapter 4: Remembering Home, Contrasting Experiences

Ntarangwi, Mwenda. (2010). “Remembering Home, Contrasting Experiences.” In Mwenda Ntarangwi, Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology (p.78-100). Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Mwenda Ntarangwi’s fourth chapter in Reversed Gaze, reflected on the use of anthropology to study one’s self and one’s culture. Even despite Western anthropology’s predominantly studied Other, Ntarangwi was convinced of the value of reflecting “upon one’s own culture” (p.78). In this chapter he demonstrated how the combination of his various geographical locations and his anthropological training, allowed him a unique vantage point from which he could ‘gaze’ and his own Kenyan culture.

After two years of graduate studies in America, Kenyan born Mwenda Ntarangwi, returned home for a visit. Revisiting Kenya presented Ntarangwi with his first real opportunity to conduct anthropological analysis. He hoped that his two-year absence, combined with his degree in anthropology, was “good ethnographic training that would make [him] more aware of the cultural realities and practices in [his] own country” (P.85). Throughout his visit, and through various conversations with family members, Ntarangwi became increasingly aware of the disparities between the African imagination of America, and the reality of Africans living in America. Ntarangwi noticed that in his absence the cost of living had increased, while many Kenyans were receiving below minimum wage. This enlarged the already existing gap between the rich and the poor. Ntarangwi felt that these problems “added to the lure of leaving Kenya for greener pastures abroad” (P.86). Prior to his move to America, Ntarangwi admitted that he believed Western tourists to be very wealthy. It was only once he visited America and interacted with Americans, he learned that the majority of Western tourists save for several years in order to amass enough money to make these two-week Kenyan excursions possible. However, it was noted during our weekly seminar, that although Ntarangwi stresses that money in America doesn’t grow on the “proverbial trees” (P.81), Americans are still rightfully perceived as wealthier. Despite the time it might take Westerners to save enough money, they spend their saved money on a vacation. America might not be correctly perceived as “the land of milk and honey” (P.81), but it is worth considering that it is a land with ‘more milk and more honey’ than often Africa has to offer.

The idea of America as the ‘greenest’ of pastures was echoed by Ntarangwi’s conversation with his family. He was advised to remain in America in order to presumably make money. During his family’s dinner conversation, rumored American salaries were discussed. Ntarangwi’s relatives fantasized about a job at an American gas station, which one family member claimed paid up to $16 an hour (P.86). Ntarangwi admitted skepticism towards the validity of this salary. He also noted an absence of the costs of medical insurance, taxes, car insurance, rent or mortgage, etcetera, in his family’s ‘fantasy’ calculations. The cost of living in America was wrongly compared to that in Kenya. Ntarangwi noted that the shared imagination of America as a land with abundant opportunities, contributed to the culture shock experienced by many new African students studying in America. “Many [Africans] who were used to help in their homes in Africa are amazed to realize that daycare is very expensive [in America]” (P.79). More so, due to visa statuses and economic needs, many African students find themselves working jobs they likely wouldn’t have considered in Africa. However, the salaries of laborious jobs are often not sufficient. Many Kenyan students quickly realized that they required the “financial support of their parents or relatives in Kenya, [in order] to make it through their first few years of college” (P.87). Regardless of reality, the image of America as a plentiful land is perpetuated. Upon their return, these struggling students don’t reveal that their time in America was spent working the “dirtiest and most demanding jobs” (P.87). Instead, they theatrically play the role as an individual who has greatly benefited from the wealth of America.

Ntarangwi doubted his ability to reveal the truth about ‘American wealth.’ After all, “who would believe [him] when [he] told his friends and family members that it is hard living in America” (P.87)? He ultimately decided that the best strategy would be for people to find out for themselves. During our seminar one student hypothesized that Ntarangwi may have refrained from revealing the ‘truth’ about America due to a family’s, and often a community’s resources that are pooled in order to send someone to America. Ntarangwi stressed the Kenyan spirit of helping one another in contrast to the rugged individualism that he experienced in America (P.92). Perhaps a more nuanced image of America is avoided because it would greatly disappoint existing contributors, and maybe repel potential contributors. Thus hindering “Harambee,” the Kenyan national slogan for pulling together (P.92).

A large portion of Ntarangwi’s chapter four was dedicated to the illustration of the imagery of America as a wealthy nation in Africa. However, Ntarangwi never implied that he himself travelled to the West due to a monetary hunger. Rather, throughout the text, Ntarangwi implied that his reason for travelling to the West was due to his pursuit of enriching his existing field of study. Prior to his graduate school training, Ntarangwi described his feelings of suppression while focusing on popular music. In his existing study of poetry and popular music, Ntarangwi desired an incorporation of a more holistic approach. He felt that an anthropological training would grant him the liberty to do just that. However, anthropology was, and “continues to be a very marginal discipline in Africa generally and in Kenya in particular” (P.94). Thus his educational advancement needed to advance in a more Western direction. During our seminar it was questioned why Ntarangwi specifically chose to study anthropology in America. We considered that an anthropological training in the United Kingdom would have been just as beneficial, as well as closer to home. It was agreed that it would have been enriching for Ntarangwi to elaborate on his choice to study in America. Without his explanations, the reader is left wondering if he was influenced by the African image of America, perhaps more than he was willing to admit.

Despite the “near absence of anthropology departments in African insulations,” Ntarangwi noted that the discipline is essential in understanding Africa’s innumerable social, economic, and political challenges (P.94). By explaining certain underlying practices or beliefs that aren’t always apparent, Ntarangwi stressed the importance of anthropology, as well as the need for African anthropologists. However, in order to transform anthropology into a discipline with more significance, Ntarangwi remained convinced that “a more defined collaboration between anthropologists in the North and those in the South” (P.97), is required. Through Ntarangwi’s American publishing, distribution, and general ethnography about Africa, rather than from Africa, our class determined that he was mainly writing for a Western audience. Perhaps Ntarangwi’s perceived collaboration solution was his leading motivation. Perhaps he imagined that the West needed to be made aware of their potential role in leveling the anthropological playing field.

Ntarangwi communicated his belief that his anthropological training equipped him with a unique awareness and a heightened sense of observation. However, in order to gain anthropological training Ntarangwi was required to travel Western universities, were anthropology was offered as a distinct discipline. This meant he was geographically distanced from his site of study. Ntarangwi explained that this critical distance combined with his anthropological training, “enabled him to step outside of his own culture and observe it from some outside position” (P.93). Ntarangwi’s unintentional combination for obtaining a new set of sociocultural lenses, begs the question if a training and distancing from one’s sight of study are necessary. Did Ntarangwi obtain access to an objective gaze that is unattainable to Western trained anthropologists who continue to study their own culture in the West? Ntarangwi brings up a good question, one worth exploring for Western anthropologists studying Western cultures.

Review, Reversed Gaze: Chapter 3: Pursuit of the Other

Ntarangwi, Mwenda. (2010). “Of Monkeys, Africans and the Pursuit of the Other”. In Mwenda Ntarangwi, Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology (pp. 52-77). Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

In the third chapter of Reversed Gaze, Ntarangwi takes anthropology and anthropologists to court on several charges, these include, but are not limited to anthropology’s obsession with constructing and pursuing otherness, exoticizing and ‘preserving’ cultures (which are far more fluid than is being ethnographically represented), emphasizing theory while devaluing applied and practical anthropology, and a complicit role in the commodification of the education system, which is supposed to be public.

He points out that the many shortcomings he experienced in undergraduate, graduate classes and as a professor within a Liberal Arts college in the United States have been widely overlooked by anthropological investigation. The root of this oversight is based on the discipline’s normative structure, which actively encourages its adherents to study ‘otherness’ in all its guises. Therefore the proximity, commonness, ethnicity and racial composition, and familiarity may have dissuaded many academics from researching and/or commenting on the culture of American anthropology. When the anthropology of anthropology is done, many times it is by academics in the later part of their career, which are less useful due to the acculturation which has already occurred over many years.

One example of anthropology’s continued obsession with the ‘other’ which Ntarangwi discusses is a situation in which posters for his university’s Undergraduate Association for Student Anthropologists (UGASA) were posted around the department, which depicted a picture of a monkey juxtaposed with an image of the professional basketball player Michael Jordan in his iconic scissor jumping pose. The poster also related information pertaining to fictitious fieldtrips to “exotic” locations (predominantly in the global East and South). Though these associations were made to attract students and to garner further participation within UGASA, it alerted Ntarangwi’s “symbolic interpretive mind” to its hidden (potentially racist) meanings. This for Ntarangwi was evidence of how anthropology is “fixated with alterity”(2010, 52-54). Another example, is how researchers who could not gain access to foreign (read: African) field sites would nonetheless focus on these groups in their local context, adhering to the normative practice of studying “others” wherever they are located (or constructed).

 Contradictory to anthropology’s obsession with the “other” is the lack of non-Caucasian, non-male faculty members within its American university departments. For our university’s anthropology department specifically, this phenomenon is also quite noticeable (there is not a single non-White professor). Perhaps this is due to class and race divides, which relegate these peoples to the role of informant, rather than as researcher and professor. Perhaps, anthropology still contains remnants of its colonial past. In any case, the fact remains that it is a predominantly an enterprise of White males and is hardly representative of the diversity found in anthropology throughout the world.

Ntarangwi then enters into a more holistic interpretation of what he sees as the fundamental issues which concern him about American anthropology and its proponents. One of his major concerns is that academia is largely selling-out and becoming a commodified product which is being packaged and sold to students in the most easily consummable fashion possible. Accordingly, the author is concerned that such a style of education will lead to student conformity and a disposition for not thinking critically, but instead accepting information passively. The commercialization of education within the US is turning students into consumers, who are investing in a “college experience”, one which may not be geared towards the purpose of learning, but which is viewed simply as another of life’s stages and/or boxes to check. This leads students to employ the best techniques possible to achieve high grades, instead of focusing on the learning process; the ends become the standard of evaluation. This standard is predominantly based on middle and upper class values, which reward compliance, non-responsiveness and the regurgitation of material without any real intellectual digestion. As Sherry Ortner states, “As silence and obedience to authority were rewarded, students learned that this was appropriate demeanor in class” (Ntarangwi 2010, 69).  This situation can lead to professors becoming the sole responsibility for students’ success and if a student does not succeed within a course the blame is laid on the professor’s lack of proficiency, regardless of the degree to which the student engaged with the material. This is problematic, especially considering the anecdotal evidence provided by Ntarangwi concerning undergraduate reading habits.

It is humorous to see the author unable to comprehend how American students were required to read and digest such a large amount of material in such a short period of time compared to their African counterparts, while simultaneously describing his incredulity over the fact that American students who were leading discussions in his classes had privately admitted to not having completed the required reading. Obviously, not actually doing the reading and “bullshitting” their way through seminars made it far easier to achieve these insurmountable goals which so impressed upon Ntarangwi.

Unfortunately, this is a reality which I can personally attest to. Undergraduates simply do not do the required readings and/or work involved. From what I have seen in just one semester as a Teacher’s Assistant (TA) at the undergraduate level in my own university, is that students put in the effort where they locate compensation for their work in the way of grades. If half the energy assigned by my students to the pursuit of grades were assigned to learning the material, grades would be significantly higher. Quite a catch-22, but as Ntarangwi aptly identifies, this is due to acculturation. So, we cannot simply blame the students.

My mother was a professor at the CEGEP level for over 35 years and much of what is described by Ntarangwi would simply make her laugh, furiously, but laugh nonetheless (especially the section which describes how students have become the new “customers” of education and that according to the rules of customer satisfaction, the student is always right). My mother was anything but a conformist. She had a very unique teaching style and would not accept bullshitting, not in the slightest. The idea of being concerned about her chances for tenure based on student evaluations would seem ridiculous to her. So would the idea of catering to students to allow them to achieve higher grades, thereby compromising the material for better results.  Perhaps, anthropology could use of dose of my mother’s specific brand of non-conformity. For conformity begets conformity, and if professors are not challenging themselves and the systems of knowledge in which they exist, such as any self-respective anthropology professor should, how can they expect more from their students?

Ntarangwi does not delve into his own practices as a professor and I would be interested to see if his practices differed markedly than those he is commenting on. If they do, why has the author not provided a more detailed account of potential avenues for similar improvement or alterations? From my own experience (two terms of TAship), I can simply provide one example of how things can be done differently in the classroom setting. This was when I gave a lecture on interviewing, in which I briefly explained what the process entailed (the students had already read assigned texts on the subject) and then had three students attempt to conduct interviews with me pretending to be their informant, for all to observe. This practical application of anthropology is rarely experienced within the classroom and yet the professor told me that the students believed that they had benefitted greatly from the process. It had given them an experience of what fieldwork could really be and the sorts of obstacles they may have to overcome with unreasonable, vague and discriminatory interviewees.

In reviewing this chapter, I hope that I have given our seminar group some interesting points to discuss. The chapter is so very rich in great ideas and pertinent questions, that no less than a full paper could begin to address them all. The unique perspective provided by Ntarangwi should allow us the opportunity to reflect on our practices, making for stimulating discussion and providing insight into potential inroads to improvements in the inclusivity of our discipline.

Review: Reversed Gaze, Chapter 2: Tripping On Race

Ntarangwi, Mwenda. (2010). “Tripping On Race”. In Mwenda Ntarangwi, Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology (pp.24-51). Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Mwenda Ntarangwi’s Reversed Gaze is the first in-depth ethnographic account written by a non-Western anthropologist that I had the chance to read. I also deliberately chose to read this book because its author is a non-Western anthropologist, an interesting fact which I think should be kept in mind. In this post I review the second chapter of the book, titled Tripping on Race, which touches upon questions of segregation, racial and class integration, discrimination, and the problem of studying up. Ntarangwi opens the chapter with a series of questions regarding race and anthropology, fieldwork and historically-determined racism. Such series of questions occur at strategic places in the book and are refreshing as they open different streams of thought. Ntarangwi readily admits that there are no unique conclusions with regards to the answers these questions might create.

The argument in this chapter is that “anthropological fieldwork has predominantly been shaped by the asymmetrical relationships that attend between the anthropologist and his or her subject as framed within race” (p.24). Ntarangwi’s conclusion is that “the power dynamics attendant in anthropologists’ own cultures present fieldwork challenges that in turn may make research in “other” locations more tenable” (p.25). This explains why Western anthropologists tend to prefer fieldwork abroad rather than in their own communities. Ntarangwi also questions his own fieldwork “advantage” as an international student in the United States and how his own skin color might have helped him, or not, in his fieldwork.

The reader will appreciate Ntarangwi’s new look at seemingly mundane events. In this chapter per example, Ntarangwi reflects on his experience as an international graduate student in an American university, more specifically on a group research project on race in a low income neighborhood inhabited by a large proportion of African-Americans. Ntarangwi recalls a step-by-step account of the process of doing a team project with four other graduate students and the different approaches to fieldwork by members of the group. Ntarangwi is as interested in the group project as in the group dynamics. He discusses the “fieldwork ritual” (p.26) and how each person had his or her own perspective on what should be the focus and on the kind of information to collect (p.26). Later in the text he writes about teamwork: “our own individual interests were taking precedence” (p.35) and that the group members “should have focused more on the project than [their] personal issues” (p.37). However, despite the tensions and divisions among the group, Ntarangwi writes that team members were “determined to make the project work” (p.47) and that ultimately they receive a high grade for their work.

A very interesting section of the chapter is concerned with Ntarangwi’s account of how he came to discover the “shifting nature and fluidity of the field site” (p.37) when a man standing in line at McDonald’s begins to talk to him. They end up eating together, and the man later becomes an important informant to Ntarangwi. It is at this point that the author comes to realize that he had assumed “that there was a need, and even the possibility, to separate “research” from “real life” (p.33). Ntarangwi is especially interested in “the logistical and personal challenges that anthropologists face in the field as a result of their subject positions marked by race” (p.25). The group project gives him the opportunity to reflect on how his own subjective position as international student and as a Black man influences his relations in the field: “My skin color may have endeared me more to the people I was making contact with – besides the fact that I was a foreigner” (p.38). As far as the reader knows, Ntarangwi is the only student of his group to actually interview Black persons, many of whom approached him directly without being aware of his anthropological work most likely because of their shared skin color. Ntaranwgi writes that “As a foreigner I was not part of the dynamic of race relations in the American academy and, as a result, may have been more welcome in a conversation with African Americans about race than my White colleagues would have been” (p.39). I am not sure just how much the “foreign” advantage weighted compared to Ntarangwi’s own skin color in the context of fielwork in a neighborhood mostly inhabited by Black people. On the other hand, I do reckon the “foreign advantage” described by Ntarangwi is a significant component of fieldwork. It also raises interesting questions: should we select anthropologists most apt to reach out to the people studied so as to get more information?

However, Ntarangwi also realizes that his “foreign advantage is short lived” (p.39) when the women in the group decide to hold a meeting without the men and he is confronted to the “gender thing”, adding another layer of complexity to fieldwork and team research. At another time, everyone but Ntarangwi has been informed that a group meeting has been cancelled, and he alone shows up at the meeting venue, experiencing isolation from the group (p.47). I wondered if the women of the group might have felt isolated from the field. When Ntarangwi recalls how a female member of the group “said that going to church was not dangerous, even though she wondered how it would feel to be the only White person in church” and that he told her “it did not matter, but she seemed a little disconcerted” (p.36), I can understand why the student felt this way. It did matter to her since she voiced her concern. Another episode is the group going to the American Legion (p.47), where the non-Black female members of the team experience discomfort and uncertainty. I think anyone will experience a feeling of estrangement and discomfort when being the single representative of his or her kind among a larger group and surely this influences fieldwork as well. Finally, as Ntarangwi points out, “perception of the area [are] shaped by experiences and identity, especially [by] social class and educational backgrounds” (p.32). Similarly, George Orwell writes in the Road to Wigan Pier that “It is in fact very difficult to escape, culturally, from the class into which you have been born” (2001(1937):209).

The last section of the chapter relates to race as a topic of classroom discussion (p.49). In a class where the students were to discuss Ruth Frankenberg’s White Women, Race Matters (1993), Ntarangwi notes a certain level of discomfort in the classroom. He resents the fact that there had been no honest conversation about race (p.50) and wonders: “Were the students too greatly implicated in the study that the only way to deal with the data was to dismiss it? Is this common practice in an anthropology classroom?” (p.51). Interestingly, one student in our seminar mentioned before the class that he expected that we would probably not even “talk about race”, and after the class remarked that we had indeed not talked about race. I am not quite certain what it really means to “talk about race” but I admit that I do not recall a specific moment in our own class discussion when we explicitly discussed race. We did talk about different cultures but not specifically about different races, if this is what it means to talk about race. The fact that we did not go in depth in the subject as we might have if one of us had actually raised the matter perhaps has something to do with the culture of our own multicultural city. Race is a sensible subject and like Quebec’s two referendums and the language question, we tend to try to avoid it when possible. Maybe due to an overdose of half-covert public debate on linguistic and religious rights of cultural groups, we have come to completely dismiss the question of race.

Later in the book Ntarangwi criticizes academics that recycle their field notes and produce ethnographies that present cultural groups as historically fixed. Yet, Ntarangwi reflects on his experience long after it happened, based on notes and diaries he wrote at the time of his graduate studies (p.9). I do think, however, that distance in space or in time is sometimes necessary to clearly understand what has happened. It might be that we never really stop processing the information we absorb. Ntarangwi also observes that “Many of the nationals in […] post-colonial locales have never seen Westerners in subordinate positions and especially under local authority” (p.24). This reminded me of another novel by Orwell, Burmese Days (1934), in which the character of Dr Veraswami, an Indian doctor, constantly argues for the intellectual superiority of the British over the Indians. The fact that this Western “research advantage”, Ntarangwi argues, is what “makes Western anthropologists choose “other” field sites than those in their own communities” and that research funding also tends to be dominated by these structures (p.25) certainly deserves further inquiry.

I am glad that Dr Forte put this book in our hands at a timely moment. The book is titled Reversed Gaze and on the cover there is a face: two eyes and the arch of a nose. Many passages make me think of certain aspects of my own life as an anthropology student to the extent that at some point I had the feeling that “reversed gaze” not only meant the gaze of the Kenyan ethnographer onto America, but that the book was actually looking at me. It is an interesting book and I think it perfectly fits in the context of our seminar. It truly opens up on new directions in anthropological research by asking the reader to consider his own subject position in the field as well as the fact that ethnography is clearly dominated by Western thought.

 Additional references

Orwell, George. (2009). Burmese Days. New York: Penguin Books.

Orwell, George. (2001). The Road To Wigan Pier. New York: Penguin Books.

Review: Reversed Gaze, Chapter 1: Imagining Anthropology, Encountering America

Ntarangwi, Mwenda. (2010). “Imagining Anthropology, Encountering America”. In Mwenda Ntarangwi, Reversed Gaze (pp.1-23). Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Willingness to deconstruct analytically the formation of anthropology, since ‘the reflexive turn’ era, is immediately captured by the reader in the opening introduction to the first chapter of the book. The author starts with questioning the reduction of anthropological discourses on subjectivity to the fieldwork practice out there, to the implications of textual representations, to the encounter with the ‘other’, and to the subsequent repercussions on such tendencies on the production of ethnography as a source of anthropological knowledge. The reader’s engagement with the author’s stream of thoughts propels the former to probe the prevailing one sidedness of conventional reflexivity in the discipline. The same stream of consciousness in the text seems to be disturbing. It confronts the reader with the idea of an unfamiliar holism. It explores new arenas within anthropology as a form of culture, in addition to being a discipline, which ought to be studied as well. One way of studying a culture can be simply reduced to ‘studying up’ the active agents, or participants who are part of a culture, who constitute, re-produce, consume and pro-create a culture: The discipline of anthropology. In other words, the author diplomatically questions the essence of the representation of anthropological knowledge in the midst of a peculiar one way historical mode of practice. Western ethnographic representations, despite the scope of the reflexive revelations conveyed, fail to trespass the bestowed authority and the relative freedom on how to capture ‘the realities of the Other that they study’ (2010:2). Accordingly, the idea of studying the practice of anthropology from within, and the challenge to ethnographically ‘studying up’ professional anthropologists, account for willingness to enhance anthropological knowledge by exploring ‘the hidden/unrevealed’ (2010:2) aspects of ethnographic representations. To put the idea into practice, the author studies his own subjectivity in relation to his initiation, and eventual immersion, as an outsider, into the culture of American anthropology as an African student and a professional anthropologist later on. Hence the project envisaged seems to liberate anthropology from its ‘western’ elitist, racist and post-colonial residue through a re-examination of the unequal power relations embedded in the construction and the becoming of the discipline.

Faithful to his standpoint, Mwenda Ntarangwi traces, in a reminiscent style, the early phases of his initiation to the journey of anthropology as a student and a professor as well. He attaches considerable effort to logically shaping a seamless web of ideas that are meant to constitute the becoming of his identity. The process of organizing such ideas in a logical way foregrounds his constant attempt to meet, and abide by, the expectations of western readers, or standards. Surprisingly, the author’s ‘African ethnography’ on his early encounter with anthropology, during the process of representation, appears to utilize the same mechanisms of exclusion and ‘logical’ inclusions pertaining to other existing ‘western’ ethnographies. His chain of ‘reminiscent’ logic begins with an inherent aspiration to indulge into a ‘holistic study of music’ (2010:40). It is remarkable how his breaking down of such an abstract general idea accounts for a series of subsequent standpoints regarding his, perhaps, existential preoccupations. His logic of finding a niche in anthropology is being explained by a vested interest in multidisciplinary trends of thought outside, yet intrinsically linked to the practice of, anthropology. Hence the becoming of his identity is due to the oscillation of his intellect in probing ideas of social justice, popular music and culture, gender relations, marginal or subaltern social positions, social agency in relation to social conditions of subjectivity in being.

In addition to what has been conveyed above, the author’s physical translocation and immersion into American culture, while studying anthropology inside out, enables him to nurture a ‘reversed gaze’ that is, I believe, necessary for democratizing, or rather, de-politicizing the discipline of anthropology. His voice is situated within the interpretive approach to culture and to anthropology. Holistic thoughts appear to find a comfort zone in deciphering meanings to his being an ‘outsider within’ during the process of his becoming a professional anthropologist. He fully questions everything from such an estranged, yet beneficial, social situation. He navigates the world views and anthropological theories for the sake of understanding his own subjectivity; the very subjectivity which bestows him with the privileged strength of maintaining his intellect’s nourishment. Yet the book’s style of ethnographic writing, opted for so far, connotes a regulated conformity; a prescribed diplomacy in the expression of thoughts; an awareness of the targeted population of ‘white’ academic readers. The African voice in the African ethnography is not quite assertive yet; the gaze is reversed but not on equal basis. It seems to be waiting for approval; for the approbation of the historical power structure in the discipline of anthropology. Reversing the western gaze does not seem to derange yet, and to provoke the prevailing paradigms of meaning emanating from a historical one sided way of practicing anthropology. The well-established western hierarchy in the culture of anthropology still acquires the exclusive use of orchestrating the mediated discourses of tolerance and accommodation. It is strange how words such as tolerance, accommodation and the fixing of names, which at a surface level appear to be positive and for the common good, are charged with ‘unrevealed/hidden’ revelations on a ubiquitous power structure that defines, categorizes and marginalizes those who are different.

Having said that, the first chapter of this book does not merely invite the reader to think about reversing the western gaze for the sake of doing something different, or even for the sake of equalizing power relations. That would be I suppose the explicit tone. As a non-western reader, having the chance to come across such an iceberg form of ideas, in my first semester at a master program in anthropology, I do have the resonant impression that one’s awareness of one’s own subjectivity, whether in the field, in academia, at home, on earth etc. constitutes a first step towards inventing a new form of ‘sociality’ based on selfless equal dialogue, and transcending the illusive categorizations which fix supposed being subaltern voices. The text should be a reminder that the stage of ideas is not orchestrated from above; because I think there is no such a thing as above; it can be just an illusion that shapes collective consciousness in a conforming way. Accordingly, the fact that I am blurting out such random, yet pertinent ideas, on the text that I was assigned to engage with as a student is a reminder that the reading material ‘Reversed Gaze’ is in the process of breaking the ice of division between some ‘us’ and ‘them’. The debates taking place at the graduate seminar in reaction to the assigned reading material proves that ‘African ethnography’ is alive and healthy. It provokes the intellect and makes it think. The residue of the historical violence should not be a pretext to maintain the ‘nod’. I don’t think that the author of the text should really engage into ‘the process of this forgetting of my (his) own way of seeing the world and attempting to adopt another’ (2010: 22) for the sake of fulfilling an (un)biased understanding of the other, even if this process is going to be temporary and for a very short period of time. I doubt whether one can have control over such forgetfulness procedures. People do carry their own ‘backpack’ of the past and present collective memories and worldviews. The challenge is not to forget one’s self for the sake of understanding, but to synchronize an equal dialogic nature with other selves. The holistic approach to the expressive in culture, and the harmonious longing for quiescence should enhance, rather than divide, the making of history, the adoption of a new direction in conceiving of inevitable questions to the very meanings that we seek to decipher, whether by reversing the gaze, studying up the familiar, our inner selves, the institutions, the ideas, and the illusive otherness, which shape the way the intellect does its own practice.      

In a very short period of time at the seminar “New Directions in Anthropological Research”, I realized that this very weird intellect of mine, as a student in anthropology, rapidly engaged with the reflections and the ideas discussed in class. Different minds conveying different standpoints, and negotiating new floating around webs of viewing human existence, anthropologically, even if it is most of the times an unconscious practice of thinking. With the aim of considering a sort of continuity to the holistic approach that the author of the text advocates, I think that it’s time to consider the idea of liberating the collective consciousness of the subaltern from the illusion of being in an inferior position. Every living human organism is in the process of making history happen, without realizing it, for the time being; it can be a simple idea such as reversing the gaze, conceiving of new forms of sociability, free modes of belonging to the self and the other, who is part of our selves. Ideas such as ownership and property of a commodity, such as text for example, reinforce the rigid divides that create hierarchical differences, and this can be in academia as well. The tendency is that people forget the fact that the very property or commodity does have value only in relation to the other. Privilege itself can be experienced and lived to the fullest only in relation to other selves. Hence, the text ‘Reversed Gaze’ is inspiring only in relation to the debates that it provokes during the seminar, by the students, and the public professional readers who engage with it constructively.

I really enjoyed reading the book; it is inspiring and thoughtful. It reminds other minds of their capacities to engage in processes of constructing other re-definitions to conceiving of the here and now. It provokes silence and habit in everyday life. Yet it is not charged with a disenchanted voice that is committed to change the way things are. The style of writing is conformist, and correct as the North American lifestyle wanted it to be. I hope that the diplomacy and conformity stems its conspicuousness due to the technical bureaucracies imposed by the publishing institution only.                   

  

Second Book: REVERSED GAZE

Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology
Mwenda Ntarangwi
University of Illinois Press

The second book in our series for 2014 is described by the publisher as follows:

REVERSED GAZEDeftly illustrating how life circumstances can influence ethnographic fieldwork, Mwenda Ntarangwi focuses on his experiences as a Kenyan anthropology student and professional anthropologist practicing in the United States and Africa. Whereas Western anthropologists often study non-Western cultures, Mwenda Ntarangwi reverses these common roles and studies the Western culture of anthropology from an outsider’s viewpoint while considering larger debates about race, class, power, and the representation of the “other.” Tracing his own immersion into American anthropology, Ntarangwi identifies textbooks, ethnographies, coursework, professional meetings, and feedback from colleagues and mentors that were key to his development.

Reversed Gaze enters into a growing anthropological conversation on representation and self-reflexivity that ethnographers have come to regard as standard anthropological practice, opening up new dialogues in the field by allowing anthropologists to see the role played by subjective positions in shaping knowledge production and consumption. Recognizing the cultural and racial biases that shape anthropological study, this book reveals the potential for diverse participation and more democratic decision making in the identity and process of the profession.