Controversial implications of activist anthropology: an interview with Nick Long
Nick Long is at the heart of a new initiative at the Cambridge University Department of Social Anthropology, with a view to making its research more relevant to pressing issues of the day. Interview by Bela Dimova
How is the department changing and why?
It's not changing fundamentally. We're devising a new research strategy to link up common issues many of us are working on. There are three research tracks, broad initiatives to support fruitful dialogue and establish Cambridge as a centre of global excellence in these areas. The brfirst is 'intimate aspirations and the ethics of social relationships'. The second is currently entitled 'socialities in transformation', looking at new practices of sociality, for example friendships and social relations online, but also returning to questions of nationalism, post-socialism, and post-colonialism. The third is 'resources - natural, conceptual, human', driven by the idea that things we didn't consider to be resources, or that didn't exist before, are now resources. Peace resolutions and genetic sequences can be marketed, human resources replace personnel departments, and the weather has become a non-renewable resource. Of course, 'resources' of all kinds are a big political issue worldwide. We're looking at 'resources' not just as an analytical term, but also an ethnographic category.
Climate change is making the news here in the West and lot of work is devoted to it in other disciplines. How do you think anthropology would pitch in?
Little anthropology of climate change has been produced so far and I think it needs to go a lot further. There's an emerging body of work focusing on discourses of climate change. Some of it has an activist approach, for example an interesting piece by Kay Milton on how the fear that permeates these popular discourses paralyses people so they're unable to confront it. There's also some fascinating ethnography of fishermen in Australia, who take great pleasure in watching 'The Great Global Warming Swindle'. They'll say, 'in 1970 it was scorching, so has there been 'global cooling' since then?!' The local knowledge anthropologists normally celebrate becomes much more problematic here, because it's going against so-called scientific truths. There's scope to be critical of the way the scientific consensus on climate has been constructed. And for me, 'climate change' is most obviously tangible in everyday life as a discourse. There may well be real changes in the weather, but it's difficult to point to them and say decisively, 'that's climate change'. So there's potential for engaging with climate change as an abstract explanatory category, and examining how, when and why it gets drawn upon - or not.
How would anthropology sound as academic discourse on climate change?
I think if anthropologists want their research on environmental issues to have an influence, they will have to be restrained in their scepticism towards science. But if we're concerned with implementing policies, if we accept that industrialising nations' carbon emissions is very quickly going to have a massive effect on climate to the point of rising sea levels, something needs to be done to engage these populations and their governments with environmentalism. Anthropology could contribute to working out how to do that. But then we need to move past the kind of anthropology which celebrates the failures of intervention, with academics back-slapping each other and saying 'Oh, yes - it's all jolly complex!' Of course it is, but that's not the way to get an audience with anyone. The environment and resource depletion are political issues. People in the developing world don't care about climate change because it's more important to earn enough to send their kids to school. How do we deal with that? Should actions be taken against industrialised colonial countries to compensate for the new industrialisation of Africa and India? Should China and India have their emissions capped? Anthropology may not solve these dilemmas, but it could at least remind everybody what's at stake.
So anthropologists would be bringing out the local voices and making them heard globally, but that traditional role may contradict their environmental-activist motivations?
Perhaps. From a more activist stance, you could still think about why and how the message of global warming is coming through (or not). Why is it that, say, in the Cambridge student body, where most people accept climate change as a reality, most people also will recycle their sweet wrapper, but won't bother when it comes to making big lifestyle changes?
Like going to fieldwork via land.
Exactly. There's a hypocrisy involved: people are only willing to entertain the notion of climate change where it's comfortable to them.
Do you think activist and anthropological agendas contradict each other in fieldwork context?
Not necessarily. This debate obviously crops up whenever someone wants to emancipate people they're working with. Having your own predetermined convictions of what kinds of social change a place requires is problematic. But then again, these sorts of issues necessarily arise in the field; having a powerful Western academic voice often forces you to take sides. In that sense, it's difficult for fieldwork to not be activist in some respects, so it's a question of volume control and keeping anthropology and academic rigour in mind.
How will the new research projects get funded? More generally, what is the role of sponsors in anthropological work?
The usual sponsors of anthropological research are government research councils, the EU, the British Academy, and the Leverhulme Trust. It's difficult to know what the current economic crisis will do to funding. But I think we're producing world-class research on important issues, which should be able to secure a generous percentage of funding. As for sponsors outside, some anthropologists at the Australian National University recently took on a major contract with Rio Tinto Mining to study the social impacts of nickel mining in Sulawesi (Indonesia). The project involves training local academics to become cutting-edge researchers. But people are already accusing them of 'selling themselves out'. This seems a bit harsh - the research has not yet even begun! But then again, there is a genuine risk that the company is using this contract to present themselves as 'fluffy' while extracting nickel and pouring refuse into a river, and just filing the research away. It's a difficult balance. On the one hand, you're potentially complicit in a structure of exploitation; on the other hand, your resulting work might become useful for activists elsewhere.
Bela Dimova reads Archaeology & Anthropology at Cambridge. Her fascination with secular and religious mythology and iconography 'here' and elsewhere in the world, now and in the past, begins with Classical Antiquity, in particular Thracian Orphism, through Soviet eschatology to the rhethoric of green movements. She wishes there were more interdisciplinary collaboration and hopes Imponderabilia will help advance that. Beyond the books, she dreams of mountaineering, making documentary films and that humans could live in harmony with the environment.