Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology – By Mwenda Ntarangwi
Article first published online: 11 JUN 2012
© 2012 by the American Anthropological Association
Anthropology and Humanism
Volume 37, Issue 1, pages 123–125, June 2012
How to Cite
STOLLER, P. (2012), Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology – By Mwenda Ntarangwi. Anthropology and Humanism, 37: 123–125. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1409.2012.01121.x
- Issue published online: 11 JUN 2012
- Article first published online: 11 JUN 2012
Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology . Chicago : University of Illinois Press , 2010 . xvi + 151 pp., notes, bibliography, index ..
There is much to admire in Mwenda Ntarangwi's provocative ethnography of U.S. anthropology. Ntarangwi is a Kenyan, who, after studying literature in his home country, came to the United States to pursue graduate studies in anthropology. Reversed Gaze is the story of his immersion into the institutional matrix of U.S. anthropology. His tale is filled with insights about how U.S. anthropology works. He notes, for example, that there is a class division among anthropology departments in the United States. The major universities hire their own graduates or the graduates of other “prestigious” programs, which means that the “received wisdom” of those programs shapes the discipline—how we get funded, how we conduct research, and how we write. This structure, he suggests, not only narrows the anthropological gaze but also reinforces anthropological aversion to serious discussions of race and class. Ntarangwi's critical ethnography is laced with examples that will be potentially unsettling to anthropological readers. He describes examples of the latent racism he experienced in graduate seminar group projects at his university. He chides anthropologists for their ongoing romance with exotic “others,” suggesting that U.S. anthropologists might be better off conducting studies of U.S. communities. In addition, he suggests that older anthropologists often recycle old field notes and publish texts based on field experiences ten, 15, or even 30 years in the past. As an example of this phenomenon, he describes his 2002 meeting in Tanzania with Johannes Fabian, the renowned Africanist anthropologist who had written award-winning books on society and culture in Zaire, now known as Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Ntarangwi had been excited to meet an icon of Africanist anthropology, but was disappointed to learn that Fabian's “visit to Tanzania was the first time he had been back to Africa after leaving Zaire in 1986. Despite this long fieldwork furlough, Fabian had continued to write about popular culture in ways that suggested a close understanding of Zaire's contemporary social realities and sensibilities, which are best gathered through fieldwork” (p. 76). In the same chapter, “Of Monkeys, Africans, and the Pursuit of the Other,” Ntarangwi also critiques anthropologists who return home to study the diasporic communities of the peoples they first encountered overseas. He quotes Orvar Lofgren who says that “anthropology at home functions as a training ground for students . . . [or] part of a retirement scheme [for] scholars who have been out there ‘doing the real thing’” (p. 71).
Ntarangwi's ethnographic critique of institutional anthropology is also based on his fieldwork at professional meetings. Here his insights are illuminating, but not surprising for most of us who attend academic meetings. The bulk of his meeting observations involve the admittedly crazy contours of the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association—graduate students relentlessly roaming about in groups, the buzz and chaos of the book exhibits, and the serious stress of job interview booths—a profoundly surreal scene that is alienating along multiple dimensions. Amid the swirl of the Annual Meetings, the author is disappointed with the intellectual quality of the information exchange. Streamlined, jargon-laden 15-minute presentations and the frequent incoherence of discussants point to a preference for style over substance. Ntarangwi suggests that the meetings of other groups, smaller in size and more focused, are better venues to learn something about social processes and cultural realities.
In sum Mwenda Ntarangwi is disappointed with the institutional contours of contemporary U.S. anthropology, which, in part, has been shaped by such factors as social class, colonialism, institutional racism, the romance of the other, and postmodern political disengagement. His solution to these disciplinary problems, which could one day bring about the “end of anthropology,” is to push for an anthropological practice that is more fully engaged in politics and the struggle for social justice—truly giving back to the communities that we study. He argues that such a turn could be prompted by widespread advocacy for “world anthropologies,” a way of extending anthropological epistemologies into multiple matrices, which, in turn, would prompt deep and serious efforts at meaningful collaboration.
Such a thorough and serious critique, which serves up much food for self-critical thought, merits a thorough and serious response. Much of Ntarangwi's ethnography of U.S. anthropology scores points on a number of issues, but it also seems a bit mired in the past. Yes, many critics still consider anthropology a colonialist and racist enterprise rooted in the sins of the past. But do they consider the past 20 years of anthropological practice in which anthropologists, moving away from the obfuscation of postmodern discourse, have embraced a more politically contoured anthropology that focuses on the structure of poverty, human rights, social justice, and social inequality? Indeed, the energy of contemporary anthropology is focused squarely on these politically engaged issues. We now have “action anthropology” and “public anthropology,” in which the practitioners of each forcefully bring anthropological insight to the arena of public policy and debate.
Ntarangwi is rightfully critical of the anthropological romance with exotic otherness. But he does not mention how, from Rousseau onward, scholarly contact with the “exotic” has also sharpened the scholar's observation of her or his own society. This perceptual shift, of course, is the foundation of cultural critique, perhaps the most important intellectual contribution an anthropologist can make. Ntarangwi underscores this point when he writes about how his confrontation with U.S. otherness altered his perception of things Kenyan. Indeed, public anthropologists routinely use the “comprehension of the self by the detour of the other” to make insightful and opinion-swaying comments about social and political life in the United States. Thousands upon thousands of people read these anthropologically inspired comments when they are circulated in the blogosphere.
Reversed Gaze sometimes reads like a manifesto. It is a book in which the author bluntly articulates an argument for institutional reform. Indeed, Ntarangwi's ethnography compels each of us to question how race, class, gender, and the historical moment constrain our perceptions, thoughts, and practices. His forceful arguments and disconcerting examples—all based on the subject position of being an African scholar who has trained and worked in U.S. anthropology—are certain to trigger much needed and welcome anthropological debate.