From: Paul Stirling, University of Kent.


Report on ASA 4th Dec Oxford for Anth in Action

  Why did I submit to a last minute request for an instant ethnography
  (participation and observation) of the recently constructed ten year rites of
mystification and self regard held by the U.K. based profession of

  The Ass of Soc Anthists of the Commonwealth held its Fourth Decennial
  Conference in St. Catherine's College, Oxford, from Monday 26 to Friday 30
July. A triumph, no less. Well over 450 people attended; by far the largest
number ever.

  Main stream talks (and some discussion) organised by the Convenor,
  Marilyn Strathern and her Section Convenors, together with receptions,
visiting speakers, and other events kept the conscientious and the tame busy all
day every day from breakfast to bed time. Kirsten Hastrup and Marshall
Sahlins were invited to curtail dinner conversation on Tuesday and Thursday.
On Wednesday, into which a lunch hour showing on a new film Firth on
Firth had been shoehorned, the Annual Dinner, was capped by Raymond
Firth in sparkling nonagenarian person. On Thursday, the assembly was
ritually transubstantiated into the Royal Anthropological Institute, to hear
first, the Oxford Chancellor Roy Jenkins celebrate its 1 50th Anniversary, and
then George Stocking deliver the Huxley Lecture on the professional advice on
research (mostly among 'barbarians' and 'savages') offered by anthropologists
over some 130 years.

  The chosen Decennial theme was nothing less than The Uses of
  Knowledge: Global and Local Relations. Brilliant advertising copy, covering
almost everything anyone could think of, with more than a hint of profundity.
One useful neologism which this rite seems to justify is polysemic (or
polysemous?). A few speakers settled for pure theory; most used their rhetoric
to begin and end a report of field research. Styles, competences, causes, claims
varied immensely, but I never saw the main lecture theatre less than full. Lots of
well known names, at least to insiders. Plenty to applaud or disagree with,
fruitfully or sterilely. Far too many words all round.

  While all this was happening, we had, for the ASA, an innovation. We
  had 12 'bottom up' parallel non-plenary Associate Sections on a variety of


  topics, each lasting one day or less, offering all kinds of choice, some
perceivable as abstruse; including of course one lucid day of BASAPP  see p.
000; plus 2 Open Sessions, and a crowded Special Panel on Ethnic Cleansing,
convened by Pat Caplan, on behalf of a new organisation against ethnic
violence, [Editor I assume this will be separately reported ? ] see. p. 000.

  So what were we all really doing? Who says there is any reality? Well, I
  do for one. Following many decades of uninterrupted tradition, many were
asking that old question - what do anthropologists do? Others announced what
they ought to do. 'I believe (sic - (why believe?)) that anthropology is
properly'; or denounced themimplicitly or explicitly for hegemony, bias,
oppression, collusion, functional-structuralism, globalism, localism. If so many
have got so much wrong, it must take courage to say " I have got it right".
Some seemed to wish to demonstrate that they could produce sentences
apparently in English which no one - or only the chosen few - could

  Fair? Not really. (Wot, reality again? ) . Many papers reported solid and
  interesting research, with little or no obscure theory. Many presented ideas
which audiences found intriguing. (How do I know?  Well, I do; osmosis.) And
besides, there were opportunities to talk to old friends (and enemies), to make
new ones, and to attach faces to books. Most people were professionally
intensely busy; and the purposes of dissemination, rapid appraisal, discussion,
criticism including self criticism were achieved for hundreds. As Raymond
Firth remarked ( not exactly in these words) "Most of this has been said
before, if not exactly in these words" . A remark which has certainly, and
truthfully, ( not truth as well as reality? ) been made before in much the same

  Six random points out of the 347.73 points which could be made. First,
  hurrah for field work. Immersion research for your ticket into the profession is
one established norm, custom, praxis, hegemonic oppression, of which this
conference proved the worth. Most speakers had been forced to make sense of
all those months of unexpected detail; to fit the field experience to the original
plan, to attempt consciously to understand others ( not THE other - there is, for
all the (French?) rhetoric, no such thing) in their own terms, to reflect on
ethnocentricism, and to attempt an acceptable thesis about it all. This intense
empirical, personal and intellectual experience shows in (almost) all the papers.
Something which anthropologists share; more or less exclusively.

  Second, the main theme, knowledge, is indeed central to the
  comparative study of human societies and culture; and baffling. We cannot


  dodge the implicit philosophy, even if we mostly do it badly. (Worse than
the philosophers?)

  Third, political power, the world economy, the search for markets,
  technology, 'modern' communications and the media have indeed destroyed the
once reasonable assumption that we can find people to study who live in
communities, isolable at least conceptually; that we belong in the periphery. All
natives have long been governed by interferers, from Oxford and Paris to
highlands, islands and deserts everywhere. All 'localities' have to cope with
massive outside 'forces', global or otherwise. And for good measure,
'synchronic' is equally a goner. The 'global' is not steady, and all 'local' systems
are changing systems. So the 'hegemonic rhetoric' 'resonates' for solid reasons.

  Fourth, field work is now conducted in an increasing variety of contexts;
  bureaucracies, agencies, economic enterprises, political parties, music makers,
artists. Excellent, and often very difficult; but paradoxically this often
exacerbates the problems of reliability of the descriptive models we construct.
In spite of the chorus about reflexivity, disembodied ethnography, often close to
journalism, thrives. " The forces of civil society in X are growing ...." And
more complex situations complicate the difficulties - already impressed firmly
on me in 1948  that willy nilly anthropologists collect the local dirt, knowledge
of which immediately creates nasty problems about both truth, and about moral
commitments to persons, groups, sources of information, future researchers,
and even crime prevention; and perhaps about the researcher's own safety.

  Fifth, rage is healthy in two year olds; and in decennials. While we are
  interpreting and causally analysing human societies and cultures, we also have
the right and duty to think about their comparative moralities, and to watch our
own morality as researchers. We are pretty uninfluential, and many of us - I
plead guilty - may confuse our personal moralities, and what we see as our
compassion, with our professional analysis. The morally self righteous may do
more harm than good. Yet we are right to be angry, even if we disagree with
each other. I attended the BASAPP session, and 1, unlike some colleagues, fully
supported the session on ethnic cleansing.  But as one colleague who is
professionally directly concerned with hatred and violence remarked, "Do not
ask me how to cure ethnic hatred. I do not know". So keep our analysis as
professional anthropologists firmly apart from our conscious attempts as
persons to change the world. Reform, active policy is not our professional
business; though our findings are often directly relevant, which is quite another

  Sixth, boundaries are absolutely basic to thinking, and almost all those
  that concern us are fuzzy. Both our descriptions and our ideas  theories -are


  normally immensely complex. Words are often simplistic traps; many sentences
propaganda. Painstaking care to be as clear as possible ought surely to be one
prime intellectual duty for all of us. Yet as a profession we seem to strive for
obscurity, confusion, high flown 'polysemes'. Without such pomposity,
pretence, showing off, and indifference to precision the genuine and serious
issues of this conference could have come through far more sharply.

  ASA conferences have always been in varying degrees - for conference
  goers - stimulating, companionable, network building and informative. They
force the serious to work extremely hard, and they shake up personal routines
dramatically. And they may - they do - act both as rites of solidarity and as
advertisements for anthropology.

  Reflection? My ethnographer's belly button? First, how can I describe
  450 people talking for five days? Flippant coward, I have not openly reported -
or criticised - any specific contribution. Second, I learnt a lot. Third, I have a
strong impression ( what is that ?) that people are facing genuine intellectual
puzzles, and struggling with research in new fields. So I am glad I went
(expensive for the unfunded); and optimistic. A lot of serious people - many
young -, doing a lot of serious thinking and research, no longer primarily about
exotic and 'simple' outsiders, but about all human societies and cuitures. The
profession looks secure, and, in spite of postmodern carnivals, serious and
cumulative. Back with progress, at least as a profession?


Return to Papers index