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Meeting of Minds and Disciplines: Authors Discuss ‘Anthropology & Political Science’

Myron J. Aronoff and Jan Kubik’s  Anthropology and Political Science: A Convergent Approach was published in paperback last November. Following, the co-authors reflect on the conception of the book and their writing process, as well as its reception since the initial publication.



I lived abroad for a dozen years from 1965-1977 having earned a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Manchester University and in political science from UCLA. The Chair of the Department of Political Science at Tel Aviv University, where I had taught for eight years, asked me what I would write about when I returned to the US to take up my position at Rutgers University. I told him that, among other topics, I intended to write an analysis of the convergent approach bridging anthropology and political science that I was developing. I then wrote my third book on Israel and updated and expanded my earlier book on the Israel Labor Party.


At a meeting of the AAA I was approached by David Kertzer who invited me to write a book on Anthropology & Political Science for a series he edited for Berghahn Books. I told him I would love to do it, but first wanted to complete my next project that became The Spy Novels of John le Carre: Balancing Ethics & Politics (1999, 2001, & forthcoming). By the time this book was first published we had hired Jan Kubik, a brilliant Polish anthropologist, in the Department of Political Science I chaired at the time. (Kubik presently chairs the Department of Political Science at Rutgers.) Kertzer agreed to have Kubik co-author the book with me. I thought that by bringing Jan aboard the book would be considerably strengthened and it would hasten the completion of the project. I was definitely correct on the first point, but very mistaken on the latter.


The course of our lives and careers—especially the illness and death of my beloved wife Rita—prolonged the writing of our book well beyond our initial deadline. However, as we write in the book, the delay was fortuitous in one important respect. The Perestroika movement (conceived in 2000) and associated developments in American political science created a more hospitable climate for the approach we champion in this book. It is an open question whether developments in anthropology were equally propitious for the reception of our convergent approach.


Myron J. Aronoff 

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Mike was my professional role model when I was in graduate school (Anthropology, Columbia). I knew early on in my academic life that what I was going to work on was by its nature inter- or multi-disciplinary. And I have been interested as long as I can remember in the question of legitimacy of power and the politics involved in the formation and dissemination of collective identities, his métier. I started, in Krakow, in sociology and philosophy at the ancient Jagiellonian University (founded in 1364). Then came my Columbia years (1982-89). There I studied anthropology, which is still the discipline closest to my heart. A bit later, Rutgers, guided by some divinely inspired wisdom (that is Aronoff’s), hired me in the Department of Political Science. Mike and I talked incessantly and we taught together a class of two. The book was in the air. As Mike points out it was many years in production. Partially because other, important things were happening in our personal and professional lives, partially because it was hard to figure out a precise delineation of “our” approach to what we saw and still see as a very fertile, vast area between (cultural and political) anthropology and political science, particularly comparative politics.


We had to make many decisions to narrow down the book’s scope. Let me outline a few of them.


First, we had to find the appropriate “level of pitch.” We decided to go for a narrative that was relatively simple – so we could introduce our work to undergraduates – and built mostly on the works belonging to the “golden” or “classical” period of cultural and political anthropology during which we were both trained. This period has since been rightly criticized for its shortcomings (for example, absent or insufficient attention to anthropology’s implication in colonial exploitation), but we also believe many of its foundational accomplishments have been somewhat forgotten or mishandled in the discipline. They include, in my mind at least four: (1) The necessity of reconstructing (at least in a rudimentary fashion) of social structure “within which” people operate and whose actions reproduce it. Anthropology used to be about kinship systems, networks, and other structures. These days it is hard to find systematic works on these topics. (2) A systematic examination of the relationship between culture (symbols, discourses, rituals, etc.) and both the political and economic processes. (3) The need to produce systematic, at least somewhat abstract models of the studied reality, so that comparative studies are made possible. Anthropology used to be about comparisons. The contrasting impulses behind interpretation and comparison are not easy to combine, but it is possible (think of Geertz’s Islam Observed). (4) The ambition to explain things, not just describe and interpret them.


The second set of decisions was related to the treatment of culture. We could have chosen a more “jazzy” but also more demanding (for uninitiated) style of writing often present in today’s anthropological narratives, but we decided to stay close to the simpler language of that “golden” (at least in our minds) period when the anthropological writing was based on such concepts as culture, myth, ritual, symbol, kinship, conflict, hegemony, and yes, even function. This was a choice dictated not only by our desire to provide basics for the undergraduates but also by our strategic goal: make political scientists interested in this “cultural stuff” and help them see how important are the processes and phenomena denoted by these concepts, particularly in politics.


Third, we had to make a decision about the areas of the world to cover. We selected the areas we work on and know well: Israel and Eastern Europe, particularly Poland. We did review many studies and reported on their findings, but the bulk of empirical material came from our own fieldwork, in the best anthropological tradition. And we wrote about the topics we have been working on for a while: political rituals, national identity, consociationalism, civil society, post-communist transformations at the local level.


We are very gratified by the initial reception of our book. The excellent review by the prominent Princeton anthropologist John Borneman in the recent issue (June 2014, Volume 12, Number 2, pp. 515-17) of Perspectives on Politics was particularly gratifying. It is significant that the editor, Jeffrey Isaac, of this leading political science journal chose one of the top anthropologists in the field to write the review.


 —Jan Kubik



Myron J. Aronoff is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Anthropology, and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University and Visiting Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Michigan. He is the recipient of the 2013 AIS-Isreael Institute Lifetime Achievement Award.


Jan Kubik is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and the incoming Director of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.


Series: Volume 3, Anthropology & …