A Possible Anthropology: A Guest Post by Anand Pandian

Anand Pandian teaches anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. His books include Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation and the coedited volume Crumpled Paper Boat: Experiments in Ethnographic Writing, both also published by Duke University Press. In this guest post, he writes about his new book, A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times, which conceptualizes anthropology as a mode of practical and transformative inquiry, staging an ethnographic encounter with the field in an effort to grasp its impact on the world and its potential for addressing and offering solutions to the profound crises of the present. Join him at his online book launch on Friday, November 15. See more at the end of this post.

In a time of intense uncertainty, social strife, and ecological upheaval, what does it take to envision the world as it yet may be? In A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times, I argue that the field of anthropology has resources essential for this critical task. It is true that anthropology is no stranger to unjustice and exploitation. The colonial and racial violence that gave rise to the field remains with us still. All the same, with this field as with any domain of social life, dominant tendencies are always crosscut by emergent elements on the threshold of possibility. This book pursues the vision of a possible anthropology, one to meet the challenge of uneasy times, one willing to set sail with its most imaginative kin.

I explore these ideas with the studied eyes of an apprentice rather than through an authoritative voice of judgment: as an ethnographer, that is, of a scholarly practice at work. Ethnography is a endeavor in critical observation and imagination, an effort to trace the outlines of a possible world within the seams of this one. A Possible Anthropology is written in the spirit of a fieldwork journey in the company of working anthropologists: canonical figures like Bronislaw Malinowski and Claude Lévi-Strauss, ethnographic storytellers like Zora Neale Hurston and Ursula K. Le Guin, contemporary scholars like Jane Guyer and Michael Jackson. Paying heed to their methods, we encounter an empiricism pitched beyond the givenness of the here and now, drawing from the expressive powers of magic, myth, and metaphor, the revelation of realities otherwise unseen. Their work helps to reveal the method of experience that anthropology relies upon, one that carries the transformative force of encounter through diverse forms of practical activity: fieldwork, writing, teaching, reading, and beyond.

“This book pursues the vision of a possible anthropology, one to meet the challenge of uneasy times, one willing to set sail with its most imaginative kin.”

The early 20th century work of the “Boas circle” rested on “a theory of human society, but it was also a user’s manual for life … meant to enliven our moral sensibility,” Charles King observes in his gripping and insightful account of the birth of American anthropology, Gods of the Upper Air (Knopf Doubleday). With this book too, I try to show how anthropology remains a venture in cultural transformation as much as representation, a creative engagement with human nature at the threshold of the natural and cultural. I convey this idea by tracing how anthropological insight and imagination circulate in diverse arenas of contemporary public life, such as indigenous ecopolitics, futurist artwork, and speculative fiction. Humanity surfaces in such arenas as a medium of expression and aspiration, rather than as an object of analysis or a species to distinguish. With this insight in mind, I argue, we can think of anthropology itself as an affirmative mode of critique, less concerned with denunciation than with the opening of new horizons, a way to nurture the potential of things to become other than what they are.

Anthropology is a discipline manifestly devoted to social justice, but one that still manages to reproduce inequality in many of its fundamental modes of operation. Demands to democratize the discipline and to work against its enduring hierarchies of race, class, gender, and privilege have come into focus most sharply in online venues like #AnthroTwitter. With some of the lessons of these debates in mind, this book is launching as an online public event, an occasion to tune in wherever in the world one may be. Here’s a link to the Zoom webinar that will host the book launch on Friday, November 15th from 12:00–2:00 pm EST (5:00–7:00 pm UTC): https://zoom.us/j/545386810.

I’ll talk a little bit about the book and read a couple of excerpts from the chapters, with plenty of time for Q&A. You can also follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #AnthroPossibility.

You can read the introduction of A Possible Anthropology, free online now, and purchase a paperback copy of for 30% off using the coupon code E19PANDN.

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