Tuesday, April 5, 2011


After frying my brain on "simple" number operations in my preparation for the math portion of the GRE (perhaps more on that later), I started looking through the most recent Anthropology News. I used an article written in AN in my very first post. Out of all anthropology publications, I find this one to be the most useful in enabling me to think about anthropology, rather than just thinking about concepts within anthropology.

In the "Dialogue" section of AN, letters are published "for the purpose of addressing issues that relate to the discipline and practice of anthropology." It's kind of amazing, actually, given my interest in talking and thinking about disciplines and methods that I haven't looked at it in depth before. However, this letter caught my eye: Is "Governmentality" Necessary? A Plea for Ordinary English in Anthropology.

In this letter, Robert Hahn states: "A anthropologists, we are experts in translation and cross-cultural communication, and we should be able to bridge the gap. It is odd and unfortunate that we rarely do so." (Hahn 2011: 3).

Those two sentences alone are poignant, but it really brings into focus my original goal in creating this blog. While I have endeavored to make it more personal and shed some light on the process of becoming a (paid) anthropologist, I really want to stress how important it is that other people (those not trained in anthropology) be able to read what anthropologists write. He makes this point very clear when he brings up the unnecessary creation of words (he refers to them as neologisms, but in an effort to be clear, I have chosen not to use this word) in anthropology to stand for new ideas. This happens in all disciplines unfortunately, but because of our duty to be able to translate cross-culturally, we should also be able to communicate our ideas to our own culture.

For instance, he brings up Foucault's notion of governmentality. "In a lecture named for this concept, Foucault describes this form of societal organization in which a government exerts pervasive control of  its constituents through its production of ideologies and multiple forms of power." (Hahn 2011: 3). He then asks if this new understanding deserves a creation of a new word. His answer: "The new words obscures a need to elucidate the concept and its coherence, but this shorthand also creates a barrier to comprehension." (Hahn 2011: 3).

I have to agree with him on this point. Last quarter, I took a class called the Ethnography of North America. In that class, we read A Space on the Side of the Road by Kathleen Stewart. I dare you to pick up a copy and turn to the introduction, start to read, and let me know what the hell she's trying to say. Her writing and choice of words are so obtuse that it is nearly impossible to read without doing extensive searches into the philosophical background of the words she uses. Then one might be able to begin to unpack the history and usages of the terms and their underlying meanings to understand what argument she is trying to make.

Thus, there are two problems to the accessibility in her book. First, her word choice confuses the reader and makes it difficult to understand even when she isn't using unusual vocabularly. Second, she uses words and invokes philosophical traditions and theory without announcing what they are or explaining what they are. Thus you might have to spend hours trying to figure out what usage of mimesis she means to invoke on the first page of a chapter and still not be able to follow her thought process because her word choice is incomprehensible to most people.

My point, then, is that I share the hope of Robert Hahn that anthropologists might begin to use "ordinary English" in an effort to make anthropology accessible not only to those not trained in it, but also to the students who seek to continue the production of new knowledge within anthropology as a discipline.


Hahn, Robert A.
2011  Is "Governmentality" Necessary? A Plea for Ordinary English in Anthropology. Anthropology News. 52(4): 3.

Stewart, Kathleen.
1996  A Space on the Side of the Road. Princeton University Press.

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