The Academic Boycott and the Proxy Science War in American Anthropology – Or How Reflexive Anthropology Disappeared from AAA

As a cultural sociologist who has closely followed the debates over Boycotting Israeli academia in the American Anthropological Association, I’ve been surprised at the lack of… well, anthropology.

In response to efforts of Anthropologists sympathetic with the BDS movement, AAA put together a task force which published its findings in October, 2015 on the status of Palestinians and Palestinian and Israeli scholars. The report’s authors claimed to have used anthropological methods and scholarship to study the situation, but I had a hard time finding any anthropology in the report at all. Methodologically, there was neither the classical immersion-style fieldwork, nor more contemporary approaches of collaborative knowledge production where “informants” are authorized as experts and become co-authors. On the theory side, the task force report relies on the master frames of “settler colonialism” and a “unitary matrix of control,” despite acknowledging that these are controversial ways of understanding the Israeli state and certainly contested by many Israelis. These contradictions between the making of the report and its content, on the one hand, and anthropological research standards and methodologies, on the other, raises troubling questions about the degree to which the American Anthropological Association will let itself be shaped by global political concerns to the detriment of advancing professional interests of the academic association, and indeed whether political and ideological battles leave any room for a meaningful anthropology, or dimply degenerate into ideological positions and highly political discourses.

The Report on the Task Force on Israel Palestine was supposed to be a resource for members who would be voting at the business meeting of the AAA in Denver, in November 2015. Two resolutions were offered by AAA members. Resolution #1, submitted by a group of that includes Israeli anthropologists, criticized current Israeli policies that continue to make Palestinian lives miserable, and that restrict the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars. It denounced those state policies, and proposed a set of steps AAA itself could do to seek to enlarge and protect the space for anthropological practice in the region. The idea was to help local anthropologists to engage in work that could help address both their own situations and also contribute to scholarship that could illuminate the conflict and seek ways to resolve it. The second resolution, denounced the Israeli state and accused it of willfully engaging in ethnic cleansing as well as engaging in destruction of Palestinian universities and denying Palestinian rights to academic freedom and education, and American complicity in such policies. And it finally exclaims that Israeli universities are complicit in this because they allow expertise, planning, and technology under their auspices that contribute to this. To address this, the resolution called for the AAA to engage in a boycott of Israeli universities, until such time as those universities are no longer “complicit” with Israeli Occupation and policies of inequality.

The mobilization by the BDS activists was impressive and enormously disciplined in its messaging, and as political theater. Their performance at the AAA, and at the Business Meeting in particular, was a model of how to run a political campaign. And a political campaign is precisely what this was. BDS buried anthropology as a mode of thought and analysis. Instead of pursuing thoughtful anthropological debate over the existence of multiple perspectives and truths, and consequently acknowledging the profound difficulty of figuring out an ethical path forward, the AAA meetings became something akin to a tribal expression of solidarity in which BDSers presented themselves as holding the single, morally pure, position. This leads me to wonder about what an anthropological analysis of BDS itself might provide. Indeed, how is an academic boycott not a contemporary, secular pollution taboo against colleagues deemed to be tainted?

Part of me finds this astonishing. I always considered Anthropology to be more sophisticated in its understanding of the production of knowledge than sociology. I observed how anthropologists, much more than sociologists, had developed reflexive tools to avoid simplistic transference and counter transference of their own politics and culture onto the Other. Their experimentation with diverse genres of representation, including those that write one’s informants and cultural modes of knowing into the analysis, enabled anthropologists to avoid simplistic moral narratives that depicted the other in a non-agentive, ahistoric, acontextual, and overly cohesive depictions. Anthropology has long been committed to interrogating the way its own practitioners were implicated in representations of the other, and to seek out innovative forms of mutuality, such as by dialogic means of representation. While some critics denounced this reflexivity as potentially centering the anthropologist as the main character, I found that this approach carried a liberating rejection of master narratives. It focused on developing complex and nuanced understandings in which readers came to see that cultures and identities were forged through multiple and contradictory logics and agencies.. Although I have had my disagreements with Anthropology, I have always thought that sociology could learn a few things from its sister discipline.

Yet as anthropologists have descended into the Palestinian-Israeli polemical quagmire, vestiges of scholarly anthropology have all but disappeared, and claims and arguments are made on the strength of narratives that resonate with the political and moral values of different constituents, these themselves largely shaped by the structured position within the field of anthropology. The task force report itself is a mess of a document that occasionally references scholarly work, although highly selectively, but also happily relies on borrowed master narratives without attribution, and activist anecdotal reporting without any prioritization or valuation of references.

And the “debates” from active participants are even more polemic, and devoid of systematic introspective analysis. Battle lines have been drawn along demarcations that seem to mirror the science wars that marred academia in mid-to-late 90s. Except, of course, that the most “objectivist” and marginalized anthropologists are unlikely to enter the fray. Left in the game are the everything-is-political-and-anthropology-is-just-tool-in-the-battle-for-political-values and the somewhat more moderate values-and-politics-should-be-informed-by-research-not-drive-it orientations. Those disgusted and alienated by the naked battle for cultural capital, for what “cool anthropology” should look like are unlikely to weigh in. There is no resolution that appeals to them, and any debate is simply likely to delegitimize their understanding of cultural capital (what counts and is recognized as authoritative in the field) – so a lose/lose proposition.

I am reminded of Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus, where he uses careful institutional analysis, in-depth interviews, and correspondence analysis to show how the academic wars in the late 60ies in France aligned viewpoints along structural positions in the various fields, the professorial generations, and the new emerging orientations in humanities and social sciences. And the there is Bourdieu’s trenchant analysis of the “Spokesperson” in Language and Symbolic Power, where he shows how the spokesperson by claiming to be nothing but the reflection of the will of the People (or in this case “Palestinians” or “Israelis”, or … you name your reified essentialized category), at one and the same time channels and borrows authority from the constructed category of the pure moral (and therefore personally disinterested), while denying their own creative agency in constructing their claims and narratives (see my post on this). In both cases, Bourdieu takes these analyses as the point of departure for a call for a reflexive sociology, one that is attentive to the speakers’ own situatedness in institutional and structural positions in various fields, so as to generate an actual critical sociology that is not only politically relevant, but also effective.

But I see no reflexive sociology or anthropology in the debates around the Academic Boycott. There are plenty of identity politics “as a Jew…”, “as an activist” “as a Palestinian”, but you won’t hear much of “as an anthropologist…”, “as a researcher…” etc. For all the talk of delegitimation, sanctions, boycotts, engagements, non-engagement etc., you would think there would be lots of discussion about classical anthropological notions of pollution and solidarity, and how institutions think, but you see, anthropology is a critical endeavor cannot survive when the role of the spokesperson is the rule, and reflexivity is out the window.

But this reflexivity, I think, is urgently needed. There is a new generation of anthropologists who desperately want to be relevant, critical, and socially engaged. Nothing wrong with that. But it needs to do so by seriously interrogating what that engagement can look like and what politics it would engender, what kind of anthropology and scholarship would inform it, and how it can build on a diversity of anthropologies. It should teach that such engagements are not for the faint of heart, and requires taking some personal risks, and cannot be short-circuited by jumping on a band wagon of defending “the oppressed” somewhere far away, but requires an anthropological lens and engagement to lend it authenticity and integrity. It should be an anthropological engagement that builds on accumulation of knowledge, an understanding of the scholar’s own “complicity” or positioning a variety of different structures, a commitment to be open to an Other that one does not like, and be ready to be surprised. And it requires a commitment to not take at face value the constructions, narratives, and morality tales of its interlocutors, and probe instead at how they are entangled in a local struggle for claims-making. A struggle that entails competing efforts at restricting and enlarging the universe of included and excluded agents. By looking closely and attentively at the local struggles for authorized claims-making, a reflexive Anthropologist is uniquely positioned to identify and offer frameworks that can bridge and deconstruct such competing constructions, and thereby offer ways for conceiving larger and more inclusive publics that recognize all kinds of otherwise excluded agents and claims.


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