Starting at the bottom

Issue: 123

David Seddon

Heidi Armbruster and Anna Laerke (eds), Taking Sides: Ethics, Politics and Fieldwork in Anthropology (Berghahn Books, 2008), £45

I enjoyed reading this collection—in part because it reminded me of when I was at the London School of Economics as a graduate student in social anthropology. This was in 1968, when there was a good deal of discussion about the politics of anthropology—mainly coming across the Atlantic from the US and exemplified most memorably by Current Anthropology’s “symposium on social responsibilities”. Here Kathleen Gough made a central contribution (referred to in the introduction to this book but strangely nowhere else in the collection) about the impossibility of remaining “neutral” in social investigation and analysis. The main reason I enjoyed it, however, is that there is a sense of purpose to the work contained in Taking Sides, and that purpose gives the analysis and discussion provided by the various essays a distinctive clarity and personal character.

The book, which aims to re-establish the relevance of what might be termed “critical anthropology”, is dedicated to Nancy Lindisfarne (formerly Nancy Starr Self Tapper) by the editors, who identify themselves as students and friends of Nancy’s (“We know Nancy as a demanding and exceptionally inspiring supervisor, a fiercely intelligent discussant and, above all, as a lovely friend”). Nancy herself contributes to the book with a remarkable and stimulating essay on “fieldwork, gender and imperialism now”, and one of the hardest hitting and, to my mind, most illuminating chapters in the book (the final chapter), is provided by Nancy’s partner, Jonathan Neale—anthropologist, political activist, professional writer and university lecturer in creative writing. I have also to admit to a longstanding relationship, as colleague and friend, with Nancy, from the days when I was teaching at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) and she was Nancy Tapper, through to now. So here, in the review as well as in the book reviewed, the personal is political, and vice versa.

Nancy Lindisfarne has lived and worked as an anthropologist in Afghanistan, Turkey and Syria, has taught at Soas (among other institutions), where she supervised the doctoral work of several of the contributors, and has published extensively on various issues, usually concerned with gender and the Middle East. She has also written short stories,1 and exhibited paintings, prints, collages and photography. She is evidently also an able linguist and someone who can adapt to immersion in different cultures (eg US, British, Austrian, Afghan, Turkish, Syrian).

For the editors, “the purpose of this volume is to contribute to a clarification of political and ethnical partiality in the formation of anthropological knowledge” (p11). Interestingly, partiality here is used in the sense of both commitment and taking sides, and also of incompleteness and limitation. For the editors at least (p11), and for Nancy Lindisfarne herself (p23), the starting point is fieldwork—for it is in fieldwork, and particularly in participant observation (living and becoming to a greater or lesser extent embedded in another culture and society), that the anthropologist has the experiences and initially constructs the knowledge and achieves the understanding that provide the basis for analysis.

“Starting from below”, as Nancy Lindisfarne herself puts it, undoubtedly provides a distinctive perspective on anthropology, not only studying society but also seeing it “from below”—a position from which, as she puts it, “power and privilege stand out in sharp relief” (p23). But this is only the case if the anthropologist is predisposed to “see” the structures of inequality that permeate all levels of society, from bottom to top, in the contemporary world. It does not automatically follow, as many of the contributors to this collection seem to believe, that fieldwork, and “paying attention to the lives of ordinary people” (as Lindisfarne puts it) result in critical and committed analysis, let alone activism and advocacy.

As Jonathan Neale’s contribution makes abundantly clear, anthropological research is not just conducted “in the field”; anthropological practice and the process of “knowledge construction” take place, usually, within a highly articulated and profoundly hierarchical institutional matrix of universities, research institutes, funding agencies, and so on. These effectively conspire to reduce the capacity of the researcher to deviate from the dominant discourses and paradigms of the discipline or dissent from the predominantly “top-down” conventional wisdoms of the day.

For Neale, “writing as an activist is a very different project from writing as an academic” (p243), and requires a powerful predisposition to critical work. Most academic anthropologists are too constrained by the hierarchies of the profession to venture too far into critical analysis. It is certainly possible, but “it is not easy to be both an academic and an activist” (p217).

It is significant that the boldest assertions of critical autonomy in this collection are those by Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale, both established mavericks and seasoned campaigners. The contributions by younger anthropologists, whose positions within the academy are more vulnerable and whose intellectual formation as “critical anthropologists” is more recent, are less able to make the links and connections that enable both of these two to range widely, from specifics to generalities, drawing on a wide range of examples and illustrative material, from considerable personal experience, to make a powerful case for “taking sides”.

Nevertheless, Heidi Armbruster provides a focused discussion of “The Ethics of Taking Sides” in her introduction to the collection, and also contributes a fascinating study of “Memory, Ethics, Politics” based on her research among what she describes as “a beleaguered community” of Syrian Christians in south east Turkey and Berlin. Panagiotis Geros discusses the discomfort and difficulty—ethical, political and practical—of “Doing Fieldwork within Fear and Silences” in Syria, while Sabine Strasser examines the very different political strategies of three anti-racist activists of Turkish origin in Vienna in her study of “Multiple Belongings, Political Activism and Anthropology in Austria”.

Studies that involved the anthropologist more directly in local political practice include Nayanika Mookherjee’s account of her own “Friendships and Encounters on the Political Left in Bangladesh”, Tayfun Atay’s personal “encounter”, as a Turkish anthropologist (and only “nominal Muslim”—p61) with an Islamic Sufi Order in London, and Heike Schaumberg’s “Taking Sides in the Oilfields”—describing her political engagement with workers and grassroots activists in Mosconi, an oil town in northern Argentina. All three of these, especially Tayfun Atay, are concerned with the personal implications of the fieldwork experience (and of “taking sides”), and all three, especially Mookherjee and Schaumberg, manage to integrate these concerns effectively with an analysis of the wider political context.

Finally, Anna Laerke presents an extraordinary and revealing account of extreme participant observation in a primary school in an English village—where she spent virtually all of her time in class, in playtime and at dinner time with the children (giving her, as she puts it, “a view from the floor”—p144). Her exquisitely sensitive and restrained “Confessions of a Downbeat Anthropologist” involve an account of her own emotional entanglement (throughout the fieldwork, as a “recollected, sad, small and angry me”—p172), and an analysis of power, discipline and socialisation, and forms of resistance. The function of the school as an institution is considered to have been what Anna Laerke calls “uniformation” (I would prefer “standardisation”, with its connotation of maintaining standards as well as of ensuring uniformity), assured through a process she calls “bonsai” (trimming or pruning) of young children.

All in all, a challenging and provocative volume, providing much food for thought and implying that anthropology always has the potential to be edgy and uncomfortable, problematic and political—and that this is no bad thing, for then it reveals more than usual. For those who are predisposed to believe that the issue is not so much how to understand the world as how to change it, the fieldwork experience can promote not just a better understanding of the world and how it works, but also—albeit within very real institutional constraints, particularly as far as academics are concerned—can enable more effective action to be taken.

One key concern and criticism: the authors in the collection all appear to take it for granted that such action will always be progressive and broadly supportive of the exploited and oppressed. The cover picture—of a young woman wearing a CND and a “Free Palestine” badge and looking full face at the reader, a man looking sideways towards but not necessarily at her, and a poster behind them both of what may well be Tony Blair—illustrates the point. But, if “taking sides” is unavoidable, and “refusing to take sides” is also, in effect, a political decision in favour of the status quo, it is also possible for fieldwork to be used to “investigate” (or “spy” on) the poor and subaltern and see how better to manage exploitation and oppression.

Historically, it has been argued, this was the function of anthropology, as the handmaiden of colonialism (or imperialism)—to provide knowledge and understanding that would be “useful” to the powers that be. There is no rule to say that “taking sides” necessarily implies taking one side rather than the other, even if there is a tendency for fieldwork to involve a significant degree of identification with those studied, and thus an inherent bias towards taking “their” side against (usually more powerful) “others”; the outcome is not inevitable—unless the anthropologist is already predisposed towards activism of a particular political orientation.


1: One collection is Dancing in Damascus (State University of New York, 2000).