Anglo-American Hegemony in Contemporary Anthropology

Henri-Edmond Cross (Henri-Edmond Delacroix) (1856–1910), Landscape with Stars, ca. 1905-1908. (The Met collection)


More and more anthropologists have been critical of the neoliberal values ​​of academic competition, embedded in the dictates of assessments.

Disclaimer: In the last few days, I had a writing episode. For months, nothing came out of my brain. I had been teaching online and occupying myself with students and family. I suddenly felt the need to scribble something down. I hesitated to share it. Who would be interested? Who would care about that now, when we're in the middle of a pandemic, with eyes tired from so much time in front of screens, loaded with uncertainty and helplessness? I can't fake it. I'm not sure I have the energy to discuss ideas. After all, wouldn't we need to rest and preserve strength for the months to come?

Well, I couldn't stop him. And that too is part of the pandemic experience. I've heard so many colleagues share their desire to build something new, after this terrible situation that affects everyone... I also dream of another world later. I hope that we can think together to create better academic communities, and that we don't fall back into the old business as usual.

“As modern man feels both the seller and the commodity to be sold in the market, his self-esteem depends on conditions beyond his control. If he succeeds, he is 'valuable'; if not, useless. The resulting degree of insecurity can hardly be exaggerated. If a person feels that his own worth is not constituted primarily by his human qualities, but by his success in a competitive market with constantly changing conditions, his self-esteem will probably be weak and will constantly need to be confirmed by other people. Therefore, the person is compelled to fight incessantly for success, and any setback is a serious threat to his self-esteem: the result is feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and inferiority”. (Erich Fromm. [1947] 1960. Analysis of Man. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar. Translation by Octávio Alves Velho[1], P. 69.)

The issue of privilege is widely discussed in anthropological circles today. Who represents who? Who has access to what? These are very healthy questions that, from a French-speaking Belgian perspective, often still seem light years away (since here the academic debate on diversity and on “decolonized” curricula is still, unfortunately, scarce). However, one aspect of these questions is almost unanimously disregarded: that of the current Anglo-American hegemony in the production of anthropological knowledge. I say “Anglo-American” because the English language has become dominant in our discipline. But this specificity also has to do with the visibility and attractiveness of academic infrastructures, namely: universities, scientific associations, university or non-university journals and publishing houses, dissemination networks, etc.; in particular with regard to those based in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in the United Kingdom. And let me be clear: I know I'm part of the problem (something I discuss below). I have friends who are dear to me and thoughtful colleagues, with whom I enjoy exchanging, learning and collaborating, and who work in exactly these environments. I am also aware that this text will be read in different ways, depending on each academic bubble. This short opinion piece (I am not an expert on globalized power relations in higher education, nor on Gramsci) is not about individuals. It points to a privilege system that just doesn't say its name.

It is, of course, a truism to say that anthropology is dominated by scholars trained in—and producers of knowledge in—American and British universities. However, these institutions are plural and unequal to each other. A few are part of an elite; many others are on the periphery. My colleagues who work in these academic spaces have repeatedly drawn my attention to the fact that only a few fields Anglo-Americans are at the top of the pyramid (while the others unfold as they can), although sometimes it is easier to insert yourself in the “top” when you come from highly regarded European or Asian research centers, than when you come from universities peripheral Anglo-Americans. I am well aware of this complex national diversity and the internal inequalities. Still, seen from the outside, some facts are unavoidable. Most anthropology journals at the “top of the ranking” is released in the United States or the United Kingdom. Starting from Google Scholar Metrics, for example, of the top 20, only Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale e Ethnos are not published there. The same is true of the "best" schools (London School of Economics, Harvard, Cambridge, Chicago, University of California, and so on), as important anthropological associations are based on them. These institutions and organizations enjoy eminent respect, lining up an extensive history with famous ancestors. The journals have high-quality editorial boards, and the article review process has always struck me as rigorous and remarkably well-managed. Without a doubt, its recognition is fully deserved. However, personally, I do not believe that what is produced in these centers of knowledge and published by their vehicles is intrinsically superior to that of any other center in the world. I find it equally stimulating to read and cite articles from both widely acclaimed publications and some other (unfortunately) obscure regional publications. What the former have and the latter do not is a very marked visibility and attractiveness, as Anglo-American journals are becoming increasingly representative of “the discipline”.

This brings me to the core issue of my question. In the United States and the United Kingdom, this system is imposed on academics, who have little choice but to follow it to satisfy their passion for research. American Ethnologist e JRAI (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute), among many others, are your local journals. And I feel sorry for them having to maneuver in such an alienating space of rankings and evaluations, in which access to the most prestigious vehicles is an essential criterion for obtaining the best jobs at the best universities.

More e but Anthropologists have been critical of the neoliberal values ​​of academic competition, incorporated into the dictates of evaluations: the temporality of urgency, the use of metrics, the search for funding, the precariousness of positions, as well as the many burdens once “inside” the university . Added to this are the pathogenic conditions inherent to the practice of research: the race for recognition, the division by caste and the resulting inequalities, isolation. A toxic cocktail that mainly affects the most vulnerable (doctoral students, postdoctoral students, assistant professors, that “cannon fodder” of the institution). A recent book by Robert Borofksy, available for free access (and which was recommended to me by Doug Falen), deals with the professional search for status individual within American anthropology. In addition to being extremely valuable, his analysis can certainly be extrapolated beyond this context.

It is equally disheartening to think that some ideas are considered “interesting” and command attention more than anything because of their place of publication, their international circulation, and their sacrosanct collection of quotations. What strikes me as most worrying is that these very academic infrastructures have become the Holy Grail sought by so many anthropologists around the world. A globalized mimetic desire for recognition was set in motion. And I'm talking about my own case, that of a privileged permanent professor at a European university. This is how the story happens. First, one must (try) to be published by Anglo-American magazines — American Anthropologist, Current Anthropology, JRAI and so on—where the “important disciplinary debates” are taking place. These vehicles are supposed to be neutral when, in reality, they embody local traditions of research that have been globalized and emanate from centers of power. Only then can you send your articles to your Belgian, Italian or South Korean cousins ​​(who also have serious editorial committees). Why that? I think we all know the answer. That's the way to get a job and to be “in” the anthropological debates in vogue. There is no explicit rule about this. On the contrary, it is becoming a habitus shared that need not be said.

In the same vein, academics are strongly encouraged to do a postdoc at one of these Anglo-American institutions. When I started my doctorate in Brussels, I recognized very quickly the behaviors necessary for survival. From the beginning, my low self-esteem and fear of “not finding a permanent job” acted as unhealthy triggers.

That one habitus it is learned from an early age by many doctoral students and young researchers. By observing and participating, without the need for explicit pedagogy, novices internalize the implicit rules of their professional environment: a ethos competitive process that emphasizes achievement (i.e., being published in the best journals, having read everything, going international, selling well, and so on), glorifying the blurring of boundaries between scientific and private life, and keeping silent about negative emotions and possible mental health problems. Unfortunately, most academic ecosystems do not have the ability to “sustain”, so dear to Winnicott, that of welcoming researchers' desires and nurturing their creativity. Immersed in this gray zone called “intellectual passion,” most of them accept the potential toxicity of the environment that holds them, like a child adapting to a depressed mother. Soon they will be scourging themselves to meet the demands of the ecosystem, both its protector and its torturer. The institution will survive. Undoubtedly, many of us find there the scent of decadent environments that we have already known before.

And when you are not within the legitimate archipelagos of knowledge production — and although I see French-speaking Belgium as a privileged academic environment, it remains peripheral to the Anglo-American realm — you need to internationalize. For me, a young researcher trying to escape the then rampant local nepotism, the Anglo-American academic infrastructures constituted a resource of social access. These infrastructures mainly promised an opening, and gave me access to new and large anthropological continents. After a few years in the UK, I received a postdoctoral fellowship in the US at a large institution. Clearly, this served me to impress my father—and not as a great success—as well as to obtain the famous “postdoctoral visa in the United States”. There, I learned even more about competition and felt extremely isolated. However, I worked like a donkey to acquire another grail: an article in American Ethnologist. This publication, which required enormous linguistic energy and a certain degree of theoretical-paradigmatic plasticity. It got me a lot of “with this job, you'll get a position!”, and indeed, I finally got a job. Years of anxiety about my performance finally paid off.

But now, when it is eventually my turn to sit on selection committees, I am struck by the extent to which Anglo-American journals and academic experiences receive them as almost inescapable assets for the hiring and grant-awarding process in Belgium. Again, there are no rules explicitly formulated here. This is a recent phenomenon, particularly for those who have studied abroad in the Anglo-American world. I myself fell prey to this “fill in the Anglo-American square” reflex when evaluating entries, as if having such trophies was an indisputable sign of quality. Of course, publishing in “local” media is still essential to getting a job at many universities, as they are in the US and UK. However, it is as if Anglo-American references and scholarships — which are, of course, quite relevant for assessing creativity and research ability — have become absolutely indispensable for many other academic cultures. Could this be a new standard? I think so, but the reader should not hesitate to share his experiences as well.

Examples like these raise questions. First, on the diversity of anthropological traditions. American and British schools and journals have their own theoretical leanings. To be one of them, the aspirant may be tempted to adopt the code of their paradigms. I remember an article submitted to an American magazine whose editor insisted that I come up with a title that sounded terribly postmodern to me, but was in line with what they had been publishing. The already globalized “writing of culture”[2] It is, without a doubt, an example of the attraction exercised by Anglo-American paradigms, even if ― I observe ― a not inconsiderable plurality still persists.

What are the multiple impacts of these dominant models on other scientific communities? Would anthropologists be concerned with cultural heterogeneity only to neglect scientific diversity? Even more important: how does this academic hegemony contribute to the universalization of a neoliberal agenda of knowledge production and evaluation?

However, as I mentioned just before, I myself used Anglo-American resources to escape local forms of nepotism. On the other hand, I now see that such resources are becoming globalized to the point where it is difficult to exist academically outside of them.

It is obvious that there must be a balance. And that can be anything but simple. And I'm trying hard to paint a nuanced picture of the situation. Still, let's fantasize for a moment. In the cosmopolitan world of anthropology I dream of, PhD students in the US and UK can do postdoctoral work at Belgian, Italian and South Korean universities. They, like established scholars, would publish primarily in these non-Anglo-American venues, while everyone would have access to Anglo-American centers of excellence. Wouldn't these be the virtues of décentrement, of which anthropologists are the greatest advocates? On my dream planet, where all scientific journals would have open access [not paid] and where there would be no doctors, postdocs, researchers and assistants in precarious situations, academics would replace our competition policy with an ethics of care , always striving for a sardonic critique of metrics and other tricks of neoliberal evaluation. In a moving reflection on what would have been most significant in his scientific life, the late Jan Blommaert, whom I unfortunately never met, wrote: “What did not matter was the competition and its attributes of behavioral and relational competition, the desire or urge to be the best, to win competitions, to be seen as the champion, to proceed tactically, to forge strategic alliances and all the rest of it. ”.

In such a world, ideas would be attractive not because of the place where they are developed, but because of their intrinsic heuristic richness. Likewise, candidates for a position would be selected based on their texts, without knowing in which specific journals they were published, valuing their linguistic plurality. I say “dream”, because academic capitalism is structural and knows how to play with our narcissistic wounds and our need for recognition. We are dealing here with visceral values ​​related to symbolic and economic forms of profit. And there are no simple answers, because the national contexts are very different from each other, to the same extent that the changes would have to be both political and behavioral.

I spent considerable energy trying to capitalize on recognition through Anglo-American knowledge production infrastructures, and I still do. However, if I am part of the problem, I can be part of the solution. Individual initiatives are important (especially those of established Anglo-American scholars). It is necessary to have voices that speak loudly on the ground, declaring, for example, “from now on, I will only publish open access works”, and decide to break with the system, while we challenge the globalization of a hegemonic model on the most diverse levels – for example, creating exchange forums in scientific associations (such as EASA – European Association of Social Anthropologists), demystifying it with our colleagues and students, sensitizing our authorities and resisting citing the authors we want in the articles we submit, whether they are Anglo-American or not. However, isolated academics will not have power by themselves. They need to be supported by their universities, national scientific agencies and critical anthropological communities. Only the conjunction of these levels is what, in my view, would stop the machine within which we are alienated today.

*David Berliner Professor of Anthropology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

Translation: Ricardo Cavalcanti-Schiel.

Originally published on the portal AllegraLab (Anthropology for Radical Optimism).

Translator's notes

[1] These are the fathers of Brazilian anthropologists Otávio and Gilberto Velho.

[2] The author's original expression refers to the famous ― I reserve the right not to call it a “classic” ― book edited by James Clifford and George Marcus, writing culture. I preferred here to do justice to the Brazilian translation published by Editora da UFRJ, and use the same expression used for the title of this edition.

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