Paper on the ‘The Nihilistic Turn: Dealing with Ethnographic Entanglements’ published

‘The Nihilistic Turn: Dealing with Ethnographic Entanglements’ has been published in Anthropos 2023 (118): 1-5.


The nihilistic turn: dealing with ethnographic entanglements


In this brief essay, I intend to make two inter-related points: (1) the perception by interlocutors and one’s coevals that ethnographic fieldwork is by its nature somehow exploitative is misguided; (2) the anthropologist is not necessarily in the superordinate position that so many assume vis-à-vis his or her interlocutors.[1] I shall argue that the ethnographer is seldom in a position of power; in my experience, when in the field (be it Greenland, the Faroes, Colombia or Russia), he or she is typically perceived as little more than a curious oddity. Nonetheless, the image of anthropology as a colonialist and exploitative undertaking prevails because so much of the social sciences remains saturated with hegemonic, postmodernist thinking and its discourse of power relations framed in Foucault exploited neologisms. The tenor of what follows is therefore partisan, and deliberately so.

To be upfront about matters, I feel as anthropologists we should challenge more effectively the view held by so many that our subject remains coupled with the more exploitative aspects of colonialism. I appreciate it is not exactly in vogue to challenge the apparent axioms of anti-racist rhetoric. I do not wish to be seen to be defending the history of anthropology such as it is and certainly do not wish to appeal to anthropological hubris, but likewise I do not wish our subject to be unnecessarily delegitimised by epistemological anarchy. In this essay, I am mostly addressing anthropologists for paradoxically it is its practitioners who are often most complicit in engaging in such misconstrued and outdated tropes regarding ‘hierarchies of control’. In the anthropological spirit of speaking in terms of ‘turns’, recent developments might amount to what one could call the ‘nihilistic turn’ for such critiques imply structures of intellectual self-destruction which one could only describe as nihilistic. I am not suggesting this term should be seriously employed, but this specific cultural typology has gathered a good deal of momentum in recent years as those who moralise about the untruths of our subject’s past in the name of anti-racism are seldom held to account.

I believe that anthropology has undoubtedly a civic role to play, but it must be more than just that. If anthropology becomes little more than a platform for anti-racism activism, then it risks sacrificing its intellectual integrity and might struggle as a stand-alone discipline. This essay was prompted by a number of developments that relate to these concerns now that anthropology departments are in the throes of ‘decolonising’ and ‘decanonising’ the curriculum. For a subject that some perceive to have grown out of cultural imperialism, ‘decolonisation’ represents the latest permutation of the nihilistic urge that has characterised the discipline for some years now. It is fine to repudiate the alleged hegemony of the essentialising meta-narrative that we might find in the ‘classic’ ethnographies, but there is little point in just replacing it with the counter-hegemony of anti-racist anthropologies whose objective is largely to deproblematise the former. As intellectuals stumbling collectively through a post-truth reality, one might hope that we are still able to critique the essentialist ethnographies that comprise the pedagogical base of the subject in the context of their time and for their colonial aporia instead of just airbrushing them from history. Afterall, they comprise the epistemic roots of the discipline.

This kind of pigeonholing logic is surely at odds with the tenets of anthropology. Now that the likes of Evans-Pritchard (replaced by Frantz Fanon), Malinowski (replaced by Hsiao-t’ung Fei) and Mauss (replaced by Mareketi) as well as Benedict, Mead and Boas are being removed from reading lists, one might speculate if the decolonisation end-game could perhaps pose an existential threat to the subject and its commitment to the comparative study of the human condition. Once anthropology’s founding insights have been removed, what would then be the basis for the discipline’s intellectual viability? The epistemological uniformity of the anti-racist diversity rhetoric? Jettisoning the colonial canon is surely just one step away from the toppling of statues and book burning. It is perhaps opportune to pause for reflection before jumping unthinkingly on the bandwagon.

My views regarding the nihilistic turn and how we deal with ethnographic entanglements that are problematised in a way that motivates such nihilistic thinking are informed largely from one piece of extended fieldwork in north-west Greenland. Here, I lived in a very remote community of Inuit who are normally referred to as the Inugguit and who speak a language that linguists refer to as Polar Eskimo. There are approximately 800 Inugguit and they inhabit an area the size of Germany living in four different settlements. I am a linguistic anthropologist who spent a year living in all the respective communities to document primarily their language and endangered spoken traditions. As a linguistic anthropologist, I have the advantage of having one foot in the discipline of social anthropology and one in linguistics –a subject that has become too empirical and experimentalist for my liking, but that is thankfully free of the nihilistic navel-gazing that characterises social anthropology. It is an advantage in the sense that it offers me a tangential vantage point to critically analyse from a distance some of these more nihilistic developments, and perhaps offer some fresh insights. I am also a Hymesian and in addition to a monograph on the Polar Eskimo language and its oral literature, I wrote an ethnography which focused on ‘ways of speaking’ and ‘ways of belonging’.

The ethnographic entanglements that I allude to in the sub-title come in many forms. For instance, what kind of picture should an anthropologist paint of a community if there are widespread problems of alcoholism and domestic violence that impinge on his or her fieldwork on a daily basis? Other Arctic anthropologists chose to ignore them entirely, some not even working with local people and instead collecting material through Danish marine biologists. Another never learnt the local language and relied solely on untrained interpreters for ethnographic insights. Such self-censorship amongst anthropologists seems to have reached the point that any implied (not matter how faint) social criticism of one’s fieldwork community is simply unacceptable even if anonymity is granted to one’s interlocutors through the use of pseudonyms. Whether to make oblique references to these issues or not was one of the many conundrums I faced when I wrote The Polar North: Ways of Speaking, Ways of Belonging (2014). I learnt the language largely from the children who would visit me in my hut on a daily basis. There were times when it felt like I was running an orphanage: hungry and often frightened children would seek shelter in my cabin, sometimes very reluctant to leave because of problems at home. They felt safer with me. Like it or not, if you are an ethnographer that ‘goes deep’ into such a community becoming a fluent speaker of the language, you are going to become entangled in these issues. You will be confronted with the ethical problem of either ignoring it and arguably doing a disservice to the community, or mention it and face attacks from your anthropologist peers for making perceived negative comments about the ‘ethnographic other’ even if your explicit purpose was to help the ‘ethnographic other’.

Far from being exploitative, anthropologists often assist those who are the victims of such injustices. Anthropologists’ entanglements in the day-to-day social workings of their communities has little to do with power relations – that Foucaultian fetish. Linguistic anthropologists who document endangered oral traditions and languages are devoted to their subjects, work for peanuts and have almost no hope of ever securing an academic job doing what they love. The work I completed in Greenland is the first complete record of a language and oral literature whose content gives us a plethora of indigenous knowledge regarding the changing climate and the fragility of the Arctic natural environment. To caricature such work as exoticising ‘the Other’ just because it refuses to engage solely in ways that will apparently safeguard the discipline is to do it and linguistic anthropology per se a gross injustice. It is also to play into the hands of ideologues.

As a linguistic anthropologist, I had to go deep into the community for the simple reason that one of my tasks was to document their language. It is not possible to document such a complex language without spending very extended periods of time with its speakers. And this approach suited my philosophy for I believe strongly that ethnographies should be constructed with our interlocutors (Ingold, 2017: 23). Committed to social justice, I did not feel that I could pretend none of these problems existed particularly when children in the community implored me to help them. To ignore the problematic issue of alcoholism entirely when discussing notions of ‘belonging’ would to me feel not only intellectually dishonest (alcoholism segregates the community in a whole host of ways, not least in terms of religious practice – a Pentecostalist church was established in the wake of alcoholism and is attended primarily by former alcoholics), but would also have been abandoning children in need.

There were other reasons why references to alcoholism would have been unacceptable: it would have undermined the communal discourse and self-image (common to indigenous societies) of harmony and peace. Historians of the Arctic are able to dispel these images with their accounts of murders of missionaries in the Canadian Arctic (Ulloriaq, 1985), but anthropologists take a great risk in suggesting any alternative narrative for it may undermine the empowered identity of the group, and then the ‘anthropologist as colonialist (even racist)’ tropes risk being invoked. The purpose of this article is not to entertain the question of whether indigenous communities in the Arctic have historically been peaceful or not. There was a murder in one of the settlements where I lived, I was personally attacked by a convict who had been ‘exiled’ for attempted murder and of course there is the tragic problem of very high suicide rates amongst the young. The only violence that I ever witnessed was due to alcohol, and in the one ‘dry community’ violence was more or less unheard of. I would certainly not describe the Inugguit as violent, but to suggest these communities are entirely peaceful and harmonious is a false stereotype and a distortion of the truth.

Members of communities that subscribe to such discourses of peace and harmony may perceive these dynamics as unsanctioned, unsavoury or even non-existent. Mention of them could potentially make you persona non grata amidst your interlocutors as well as your academic peers. Ironically, it is the more activist inclined anthropologists that tend to wish to perpetuate these connections to a mythologised past when instead they could be raising awareness of social justice issues. They understand the political currency of such actions. If anthropology is to have a future, its practitioners must be free to undertake fieldwork without the need to self-censor. Anthropological inquiry should not be confined either solely to ‘neutral’ pursuits where it risks stagnating.

Greenland has had of course its fair share of colonial encroachment and my fieldwork was made easier because I am not Danish. Greenland remains to this day a Danish colony. Many Greenlanders would argue that the country has and continues to benefit greatly from its connections to Denmark. At the time of my fieldwork, the Danish Government was paying Greenland a subsidy which amounted to $10,000 per capita. The hunters with whom I worked told me repeatedly that there was little incentive to hunt when they could sit at home, do nothing and be paid rather well for doing so by the Danish State. The generosity of the Danish welfare state has undoubtedly played a role in the undermining of the traditional hunting life in the more remote communities at least.

In what is largely a post-colonial world, the tendency to correlate anthropological fieldwork with colonial exploitation deserves closer scrutiny. This correlation lacks seriously any sense of perspective. In my own fieldwork, I had no choice but to pay for my language documentation data. I paid drum-singers generously for recording drum-songs and story-tellers for documenting stories. These traditions have been commoditised and come at a price. When I returned to the community two years later to work on a television documentary, the hunters charged the film crew extortionate amounts. North-west Greenland is a region of superlatives and the climate change debate has meant that it is has attracted interest from well-heeled television and film companies. This process was underway before I started my fieldwork, and has resulted in it being more or less impossible to do data-driven fieldwork there without being charged.

The so-called ‘exploitativeness’ of any anthropologist cannot be compared to the actions of multinational mining companies who during my time in the field were surveilling the land for every mineral and precious metal imaginable. More immediate for me was the negative impact of all the imported junk food and trashy western video culture that has transformed these communities in a short period of time. A sudden change in diet has led to a proliferation of serious health issues (most obviously obesity) that were previously unknown in the community. When I returned to the High Arctic some years later, I discovered that a number of my closest interlocutors had died of cancer – a disease that had afflicted very few previously.

When I was in Greenland, I documented stories about the effects of the nuclear accident in 1968 when a B-52 bomber with four nuclear bombs on board crash-landed at Thule, a nearby US Air Base in north-west Greenland that was built in 1953. One of the nuclear bombs remains on the sea bed. The accident happened during the ‘dark period’ when there is no sunlight at all and was covered up for decades. The Inugguit who had been forcefully relocated by American soldiers so they could build their airbase were sent back to clean up the debris. Many of them became subsequently ill from the contamination. During my time there, I tried to raise awareness about these issues which are largely unknown to the rest of the world. I helped the Inugguit catalogue the photos and video footage of all the sea mammals that had been deformed through the radioactive contamination. Sea mammals still form the traditional staple diet of the Inugguit.

Similarly, there is the negative impact that the activities of Greenpeace had on the region. Unlike in the Canadian Arctic, seals were never clubbed in Greenland but killed in a humane way. But the actions of Greenpeace put an end to the market in seal skins, and pushed the Greenlanders further from their traditional life towards the western consumer society which comes to Greenland via heavily polluting supply-ships. And, of course the impact of climate change could potentially end completely their traditional lifestyle of travelling by dog sledge over the sea ice. Throughout my time, I wrote and blogged about all these issues. The ‘exploitation’ of any anthropologist pales into significance when compared to the effects of any of these actions by nation-states, NGOs and multinational corporates. If the scrutiny of an outsider, an ethnographer, is barred because it is feared he or she may say something negative about the target community, then nation-states, NGOs and multinationals will be free to suppress, steal resources and spin harmful narratives.

It would be naïve to suggest that the best way of circumventing the anti-colonialist critique of anthropology would be to encourage indigenous anthropologists to do the fieldwork instead. The experience of difference is surely central to the agenda of anthropology. Working in rather homogenous, remote communities (precisely the kind of field-sites that many anthropologists have tried to get away from in their anti-romantic deconstructions of community), I have noticed how indigenous scholars are also ‘outsiders’ by virtue of their education, upbringing and privileged social class affiliation. Ironically, indigenous anthropologists are often less welcome than western anthropologists as local people believe they are more inclined to look down on them and make disparaging remarks. The Inugguit are for the most part totally unimpressed by academic credentials, and perhaps even wary of other Inuit who come to ‘research them’, boasting an elite academic pedigree for there is an expectation that they (unlike westerners) should have a skill base that has some utility in the local environment. A genuine outsider has no battles of class or tribal affiliation to entertain in his fieldwork community, and it is sometimes harder for interlocutors to grasp what the real motives of the fieldworker are if they are not a ‘genuine outsider’. In short, the parallel between ethnography and exploitative colonialism breaks down under closer scrutiny. Instead of focusing on such nihilistic discourses that seek to discredit our subject, anthropologists could do more to rethink epistemology and highlight the true exploitation of indigenous communities.

My fieldwork has led me to believe that anthropologists should not just frame questions of representation through the postmodernist lens of power differentials. The supposed ‘power’ that a western ethnographer has is grossly exaggerated, and often misconceived by interlocutors. I was charged such large amounts of money for recording drum-songs because performers believed I might ‘subsequently sell them and get rich’. All of my recordings are housed at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge and of course I never earnt a penny from them. The average academic ethnography might sell 500 copies, and the author will typically receive nothing in terms of royalties. In most cases, it is meaningless to talk about the ‘exploitative power’ of the ethnographer. With very few exceptions, even in remote, homogenous communities such as mine they have no socio-political leverage whatsoever.

We should be confident that the regulatory structures long since in place mean that fieldwork is no longer a simple dyadic transaction where the anthropologist can ‘exoticise’ and ‘other’ his interlocutors. On the contrary, current scholarship indicates a good ethnography tells stories and captures social realities of cultures that enrich our understanding of the world in a multitude of ways. Ethnographies are richer still if the views of the people being focused on (many of whom are marginalised for one reason or another) are central to the narrative. Ethnography must remain the heart of our discipline and should be defended at all costs. By promoting ethnographies borne from the conviviality of listening and sensitivity towards representation, we will help to ensure that not only the philosophy, but the methodology of anthropology is ‘decolonised’ in the right way. However, if we are just servants to the current whims and start expunging anthropology’s distant past to please a minority, we will sever the subject from its roots and only marginalise it further. If we disown our ancestors, we might just end up academic orphans.

[1] I should like to thank Profs. David Shankland and Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov for reading and giving comments on an earlier draft of the paper. I am also grateful for comments received from an anonymous reader. Any remaining errors are my own.