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The SAGE Handbook of Social Anthropology, published in 2012 with The Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth (ASA), is a monumental, 1000+ densely packed page, two-volume compendium of 64 articles by over 80 authors, covering British social anthropology over the past 25 years.

It begins with three substantively rich introductory overviews describing its genesis, historical, and current trends in British social anthropology, and posing questions with which the ASA has been grappling: what was, is, and should be British social anthropology, especially in the postcolonial era?

The core consists of four parts, each with its own editors and introduction, each addressing a basic question and major theme in contemporary social anthropology: “What, whereabout, how, what next.”

Part 1, Interfaces, focuses on “interdisciplinarity,” how social anthropology relates to “other disciplines or branches of knowledge.” While many chapters address familiar linkages (e.g., linguistics, gender studies, religion), the social anthropology perspective can be fresh and provocative, as in the critique of cognitive approaches in “Anthropology and Psychology.” Newer collaborations include the postcolonial, media and cultural studies, art, biomedicine, and public policy. The absence of education, and especially sociology, given ASA's concerns over disciplinary identity, was disappointing.

Part 2, Places, “interrogates both newer and enduring localizations of ethnographic practice.” (p. 4). The contents initially resemble traditional areal studies (e.g., South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa) until chapters on globalization, migration, and cosmopolitanism appear. And older regional configurations receive critical treatment, for example, of the “naturalizing” of space, or in other ways tread new grounds.

Part 3, Methods, highlights problematic, innovative, and intriguing methodological and ethical dilemmas given the contemporary terrain of social anthropology, such as in war zones or employment in policy-driven institutions. Interdisciplinary collaboration poses its own methodological issues and challenges to disciplinary identity. Part 3 seems particularly relevant to Society for the Anthropology of North America (SANA) members.

Part 4, Futures, rather than “future gazing,” describes current research, some long-standing, such as on the environment, health, and food. Divided into four parts, themes range from neo-Darwinism, biology, and the brain sciences, to new technologies and materialities. Authors offer innovative approaches to old problems and glimpses of future social anthropology. Part 4 concludes with an “Afterword: A Last Word on Futures” by Marilyn Strathern (Life President of ASA).

Overall, the volume's breadth and depth is almost astonishing, tracking shifts in contemporary social anthropological concepts, topics, and methodologies. Articles vary in length and approach. Some survey the field while others have a thematic focus, as in colonialism's impact on the trajectory of African anthropology or Sarah Green's compelling argument for “Replacing Europe” as an analytical unit. The ample historical material reminds us that current concerns, such as for disciplinary identity, have been confronted and overcome in the past. The volumes also provide new insights into the politics of knowledge production, especially in colonial contexts.

Sampling Materials

  1. Top of page
  2. Sampling Materials
  3. Parallels with North American Anthropology
  4. Contrasts
  5. The Colonial Legacy
  6. Conclusion

Like with any smorgasbord, one samples in accordance with one's tastes, sometimes going for the familiar, sometimes for more “exotic” selections. The exotic, as expected, yields the unexpected. I discovered Japan's anthropological community, of approximately 2,000, is one of the oldest (1884, U of Tokyo) and largest in the world, and pioneered the study of modern urban societies, methodologically and topically, exploring the complexity of identity, discourses of belonging, popular culture, and technology impacts. An estimated 1000 foreign anthropologists also study Japan. Yet Japanese scholars tend to be ignored outside of Japan, a concern that led them to create international organizations, such as the Japan Anthropology Workshop (JAWS) with a JAWS Routledge Series; the Anthropology of Japan in Japan, holding twice-yearly workshops between Japanese scholars and foreign scholars of and in Japan; and the English-language Japanese Journal of Cultural Anthropology (Martinez, p. 388, 394).

Chapters on “the familiar,” that is, my areas of expertise, exposed me to new research, researchers, and ways of thinking, such as Gledhill and Wade's argument for conceptualizing racial formation in the Americas from a unified, interrelated “Continental” perspective rather than emphasizing regional contrasts. Or Moore's insightful review of attempts to conceptualize and theorize gender/sex.

Parallels with North American Anthropology

  1. Top of page
  2. Sampling Materials
  3. Parallels with North American Anthropology
  4. Contrasts
  5. The Colonial Legacy
  6. Conclusion

Overall, despite our distinct locations, histories, and conceptions of “anthropology,” I was struck by parallels in the problems that we and our ASA colleagues are confronting. These include the rise of the “business” university, with its emphasis on “rational” and “efficient” “production” of job-oriented degrees, constant funding cutbacks to public education, and “a relentless culture of audit, evaluation, and standardization, of funding squeezes, creeping privatization” (Comaroff and Comaroff, p. xxxv). Also familiar is the prevailing climate of anti-intellectualism, a preference for simple facts over abstractions, for simplistic, comfortable truths over nuanced explanations and understandings. We too experience pressures “to treat the surfaces of the observable universe as the outer limit of our analytical horizons, and … to compromise on complexity in order to be heard at all” (Comaroff and Comaroff, p. xxxv).

In such a climate, all academic disciplines, “pure” physics as well as anthropology, must justify their existence and prove their value to the public and politicians, using this narrow, neoliberal educational model. Indeed, one goal of the handbook is to demonstrate the “cutting-edge work” of social anthropology and how it “can contribute to understanding the human condition in a changing and more multi-centric world” (Gledhill and Fairhead, p. xxvi).

On the more positive side, such pressures are credited for stimulating a period of “remarkable critical analysis” and reflexive, soul-searching that resembles, in many ways, trends within North American anthropology. ASA members have probed the politics and processes of knowledge production, questioning the conceptual apparatus underlying traditional units of anthropological study, whether spatial regions, like Central Asia or Europe, topical frames, like “post-socialism,” distinctions, like culture–body, sex–gender, even core concepts, like “society.” In 1989, the Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory in the UK met to discuss the proposition that “the concept of society is theoretically obsolete” (p. xxxiv).

We read familiar critiques of “unitary wholes,” essentialized, naturalized, homogenized spaces, locations, cultures, peoples, religions, societies, anthropologies; of authoritative, hegemonic, single voices, and discourses. We are offered alternatives: explorations of diversity, multiplicities (e.g., the varieties of Islam), multivocality; localized, historicized, situated, contextualized, contemporized ground-up description, interpretation, theorizing.

Critiqued also are traditional regional emphases, such as on caste, religion, rural villages in South Asia, or the “obsession” with pastoralists in Central Asia, although only a fraction of the total population. In contrast, modern social anthropology must and has expanded its anthropological gaze to new areas, topics, settings. The world has changed, and ethnography must portray people as they live in the world today. Indeed, contributors make a strong argument for the continuing importance of ethnography as the crucial base and core of grounded, bottom-up, theory.

As in the United States, British social anthropology has reached out to other disciplines, not with the goal of colonizing new fields but as a collaborator, offering valuable insights and approaches, including ethnography, pursuing synergies while retaining its own identity.

Contrasts

  1. Top of page
  2. Sampling Materials
  3. Parallels with North American Anthropology
  4. Contrasts
  5. The Colonial Legacy
  6. Conclusion

Beyond these parallels, I found some rather striking contrasts. First, this is a two-volume work devoted to social anthropology by a prominent organization of the same name. Historically, the ASA explicitly differentiated itself from psychology, emphasizing the “primacy of the sociological,” with “culture and meaning” seen as “second-order representations of social arrangements” (Comaroff and Comaroff, p. xxxi). Although I'm not sure I agree fully with this perspective, it is refreshing, as someone social-anthropologically oriented, to be immersed in a volume where social forces, social relations, social processes, social facts, social agency, social interaction, even, social organization and social structure, are at the center of analysis and vocabulary.

What a contrast with my impression of U.S. anthropology, judging by AAA sections and interest groups, flagship journals, recent meeting panels/papers, where social “structure” or “organization,” if treated, is often semantically disguised. Has the U.S. political-popular cultural obsession with the individual self and the neglect of broader collectivities and social processes permeated North American anthropology? Are we abandoning our motivation (or tools) for identifying the recurring patterns underlying seemingly endless “variety,” whether of clothing, cable TV programs, or other domains of “choice.” No wonder U.S. citizens (and our students) seem blind to the larger social and institutional forces shaping their individual experiences. For me, at least, this volume was a breath of fresh air! Social processes, institutions, even “family structures” are alive and well! The emperor does not have clothes but most people will say he does and describe them in similar ways and that is worth studying. Along with why he is not a self-made man!

Postmodernism, perhaps as a result, seems to have been both less influential and less welcome within the ASA community than in the United States. While introductory articles by the past presidents of the ASA recognize its “salutary” effect, generating useful criticism, there seems more skepticism as to its contributions and besides it is time to move on. Indeed, according to former ASA President Fardon's introduction, “it preoccupies contributors to this handbook remarkably little” (p. 3). British social anthropology also seems committed to theory and theory-building, albeit grounded in ethnography, with several explicit calls for less particularizing, more theory.

The Colonial Legacy

  1. Top of page
  2. Sampling Materials
  3. Parallels with North American Anthropology
  4. Contrasts
  5. The Colonial Legacy
  6. Conclusion

I was also struck by the impact of the colonial legacy on British social anthropology. British colonialism has shaped the “jewels” in the crown of British social anthropological research: Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, etc. Authors here offer critical analyses of colonialism, how it shaped research agendas and theoretical emphases, from functionalism to processes of decolonization in the 1950s. More recent research explores the destabilizing effects of empire, colonial discourses, including Orientalism, and postcolonial- and Commonwealth-related issues, such as immigration.

But British colonials also produced colonial scholars — “native” anthropologists, often trained in the UK or in the universities created as part of colonial education infrastructures (e.g., India). The impact is apparent on both the membership of ASA and the scholarship of these regions, and to a lesser extent on the contributors to this volume. In contrast, the United States' own colonial legacy, except for Native Americans scholarship, seems less anthropologically visible. Indeed, we tend not to think of ourselves as having a colonial past, despite our occupation of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii, etc. African American slavery and its aftermath, however, has powerfully shaped U.S. anthropology.

Overall, I felt a stronger international presence in British social anthropology than in the AAA, albeit with a bias toward the Commonwealth, especially Canada, South Africa, and Australia. With the exception of South Africa, few of the handbook's contributors are affiliated with non-European Commonwealth country universities. Yet non-European scholarship and publishing houses are clearly visible in the works cited. ASA membership, still mainly from the UK, includes significant percentages from other countries, has independent affiliated ASA associations in several Commonwealth countries, and ASA conferences are “regularly” held outside the UK, including Zimbabwe in 1997, Tanzania in 2002, New Zealand in 2008, and New Delhi in 2012. The ASA has been an “active member of the World Council of Anthropological Associations since its founding meeting in Recife, Brazil, in 2004” (p. xxvii). The publication team for this volume was in Bangalore, India, although this may primarily reflect cost considerations!

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Sampling Materials
  3. Parallels with North American Anthropology
  4. Contrasts
  5. The Colonial Legacy
  6. Conclusion

All anthropologies are somewhat insular, but North American, especially U.S. anthropology, perhaps because of our geographic size and isolation, and relatively small footprint as a colonial power, seems to engage relatively little with the anthropologies of other countries (especially non-English-speaking countries). Ironically, the turn “homewards,” to study “ourselves,” represented by the emergence and growth of SANA within the AAA, could exacerbate this insularity.

Volumes like The SAGE Handbook of Social Anthropology offer an opportunity to expand our horizons, to briefly and painlessly immerse ourselves in anthropologies outside of the United States, to see what our colleagues in Britain, the Commonwealth countries, and beyond are doing and how they are conceptualizing and theorizing our field, past and present! We gain new insights into our discipline's history. And while there is little specific focus on non-indigenous North Americans, the broader issues, questions, and dilemmas should resonate, revealing contrasts and convergences, often unexpected, between our own experiences and those of our colleagues across the seas.