Does Anthropology Have a Point?

Does anthropology have a point? I ask this not so much about the purpose of anthropology in academia, where I think the answer is clear – anthropology does indeed provide useful insight. What I am referring to more broadly is the way anthropology becomes relevant to a broader audience, and how we package our research in a manner that makes it palatable to a generalist audience. First of all, let me give a little background to how I got thinking about this. I was recently interviewed on radio for Australia’s National Broadcaster (ABC). The catalyst for my appearance was an article that I had written in the East Asia Forum, a relatively well known academic website based at the ANU which publishes material on (surprise surprise) East Asia. The show’s producer read my article, and invited me on to speak.

China and Iran

During the interview, I spoke about, and drew overwhelmingly, on the fifteen odd months of fieldwork I had done in Iran between 2015 to 2018, if a little tangentially. During my ethnographic research, I spent some time learning Persian with a Chinese engineer and Communist Party member who had been resident on and off in Mashhad over a period of three years. He lived together with a handful of other engineers, a cook, and a ‘fixer’ with good Persian, all of them Chinese, in an apartment block in the suburbs of the city. The engineer’s project was to help construct and monitor the growing city metro system, while the chef ensured that the engineers never went without Chinese food,  the fixer guaranteeing that fluency in Persian was never necessary for others.

Although peripheral to the main question of my research, I was fascinated by all the complex social issues that this engineer’s colony seemed to embody. The engineers told a story that was simultaneously both international, and at the same time, deeply interpersonal. It was a tale of China’s growing international clout, its ability to build infrastructure projects across the world, and of the Communist Party’s apparent commitment to keeping its agents as isolated from host countries as possible.

And it was that last component that struck me most especially as a profoundly human story. What did it mean for these men (they were all men) to be isolated from their spouses for ten months of the year? What does it mean to live in a country where you don’t speak the main language, and aside from a small collection of colleagues, no one can communicate with you? And what is it like to grind up against the same people, day after day, in such a small ‘community’, amidst a much larger one? And for Iranians, what did it mean to have China – a country that had in living memory only been peripheral to Iran’s interests – suddenly become a major player, its products dominating bazars otherwise emptied of European and American goods? All of these questions, at least to me, seemed fundamentally anthropological, concerned with intimate and everyday questions.

With an eye always on the next potential project, I was keen to get my name out into the public sphere as having an interest in these questions. And so, I wrote my short piece for East Asia Forum. My angle was on relations between Iran in China, and I was keen to stress both the international – China’s One Belt One Road initiative and its emerging economic and political muscle – but also the those more human and ethnographic elements that had I spoke about. This included the negative assessment of Chinese goods by Iranian consumers as poor quality, as well as the vexed relationship between bringing in more Chinese materials, the Iranian government’s nominal commitment to autarky at home, and what it meant in particular for brand-conscious Iranian families.  

Anthropology isn’t good enough

Taking my paper in hand however, the reviewer argued in effect that the paper was ‘too anthropological’. Out with the stuff on Iranian consumption patterns, none of this talk of domestic politics, or what brands or quality ‘meant’ to families. The reviewer wanted it to be about head to head China-Iran geopolitical and strategic relations.

I rewrote the paper, making sure I still snuck in at least one sentence of what I considered ‘anthropology’. The rest of the paper was, however, pure international relations – high level interactions between states defined as homogenous actors. For me, this was doubly problematic. Firstly, having taken an undergraduate degree in international relations, part of my shift to anthropology as a masters and PhD candidate came about because I had fundamental reservations about the methodology that IR employed. Secondly, international relations also – or at least, now – isn’t really my field, or my area of interest.

Despite my own hesitations, the article was obviously read, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone on the radio.  In my interview, I tried as much as possible to bring the discussion back to territory I felt comfortable about, i.e. Iranian perceptions of Chinese imports. I thought the topic was safe and anthropological. But after the interview went live, I was surprised by how non-anthropologists listening to it saw it as a piece of international relations. “You spoke about IR”, I was told.

Getting it out there

This brings me back to my original questions. Even as I attempted to (re-)present my research as anthropological, on its journey into the public sphere and a wider audience, it was interpreted and reinterpreted as ‘international relations’. When I was interviewed, I was introduced and thanked as a generic ‘PhD researcher’. Here, what made anthropology relatable and presentable to a wider audience was done by stripping it of what I felt to be anthropological. My (unanswered) question is, then, why do anthropology when no one hears it as such, when we have to sneak work or hide it under the veil, presenting it as something that it isn’t?

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