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Interview with the Editors: European Anthropologies

european anthropologiesThe following is an interview with Andrés Barrera-González, Monica Heintz and Anna Horolets (editors of European Anthropologies which was recently published by Berghahn). Andrés Barrera-González is tenured Profesor Titular in Social Anthropology at Universidad Complutense, Madrid. Monica Heintz (PhD Cambridge 2002) is Associate Professor in Social Anthropology at the University of Paris Nanterre. Anna Horolets is an Associate Professor at the Chair of Social Anthropology, University of Gdańsk.

What drew you to the study of European anthropological traditions?

MH: As a student, I left France and went to the UK to train in British social anthropology, because I explicitly wanted to have an empirical approach to contemporary humankind and for me French anthropology consisted in Levi-Straussian theoretical elaborations on secondary material. I loved my training in the UK and definitely thought that the discipline in which I wanted to pursue was that where fieldwork is the key knowledge source. But then I had the chance to be employed in Germany and in France, where as it turned out researchers did also a lot of fieldwork, where perfectly mastering native languages was the beginning to scientific curiosity, where researchers held long-term engagements in the field, even if they would not necessarily refer to the same anthropological ancestors. This is how I have discovered that social and cultural anthropology existed in other versions than the one in which I was trained, versions of which I had no real knowledge and that were definitely worth being explored. They were often hidden under the term ‘ethnology’ or kept in the shadow by the theoretical work of a few grand thinkers that had “made it” to the Anglo-Saxon cultural world. Not to mention that they were published in local languages that only sometimes I happened to read.

Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research/compiled the contributions to the time you completed the volume?

MH: I have learnt everything about European traditions from this work, from the authors that have contributed to it and whom I would never thank enough for. It gave me a better understanding of the intellectual life of the 20th century, with its networks, predominant figures, and reinforced if need be my awareness of the link between historical changes and scientific production. When one sees the production and influence of German anthropology at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century and its collapse after WWII, as the collapse of other empire grown anthropologies, one could not contest this link. Most importantly, thinking about the past allowed us to understand the present unintended danger of erasure of these traditions due to the current international scientific policies and that is urgent to emphasize and talk about, while it is still possible.

What aspect of compiling an edited collection did you find most challenging? Most rewarding?

MH: There was no time for such a book! This is a book in which anthropologists turned historians had to write about themselves. The contributors had to make a huge effort to step out of their ordinary research time, to look at what they were doing as practitioners of their discipline, and to dare take the huge responsibility to write about it in a both neutral and engaged way: neutral as to their historiographical choice and engaged in their will to bring alive figures that would otherwise unjustly disappear from the history of the discipline. Their work has been fantastic and we needed time, a different time for it.

AH: I think the issue of time has been absolutely pivotal in this book’s production. One of the chapters we waited for came just after Easter break via an email with an ironic title ‘the Easter miracle’. Well, it is a miracle indeed that authors found time to do such an in-depth research to present the intellectual histories of their fields. But also, it demonstrates that anthropologists and ethnologists spend their free time to write: it can be read as a sign of devotion to the profession but it is also a sign that as a discipline, and as academy more generally, we are incredibly time-poor – and time-pressed.

To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field?

MH: I would like to think that historians of the discipline would be thrilled and historians of the 20th century as well, about this ‘case study’ in intellectual history that deals with nothing less than the (theoretical) management of the encounter with the ‘Other’. But what we would like mostly is to open the resources for future students of the discipline, to draw their attention to large amounts of relevant literature that may otherwise be lost, a huge reservoir of knowledge. And the debate about the current scientific policy where the system of evaluation, the predominance of English as language of scientific production, etc needs to get bigger and lead to new research policies before it is too late.

Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?

MH: It is certain that some people feel the history of each country’s discipline could have been written differently and that more countries could have found their story told (but then those were the opportunities and too large a book would have been daunting for the reader). And of course, describing apart European anthropologies from world anthropologies corresponds to a research stage; it is just the beginning. We wanted here to open the space for debate, for new histories, for new links, for a new valorization of these intellectual traditions. There are many European anthropologies and there are many anthropological traditions flourishing beyond Europe. They need to be discovered, read, discussed, and thought about by scholars.

ABG: This is just the beginning of a line of work that needs to be pursued much further and in several directions. There is for instance a clear need to draw the many yet unwritten histories of European anthropologies and ethnologies, framed in new paradigms like those propounded in H. Kuklick, ed. (2008)

AH: I think the cover can cause a moderately controversial discussion among anthropologists. Some might wonder why European anthropology should be represented through old books, why Italy is at the centre… But as editors, we love the cover: in my eyes it perfectly suits a book on the intellectual histories of the discipline, and it points at what is inside: one of the many ways to tell the histories of European anthropologies, like there are many ways to draw a map of the territory. There could be other ways to tell this same story. The controversy is probably a too strong word to refer to this possibility. We hope the book will make people speak about anthropology’s histories and futures, not quarrel.

The nation states in Europe are in permanent crisis. What is a relation of anthropologies to supporting or undermining nation state?

AH: Relations with nation state have been crucial for the development of anthropologies in Finland and Slovakia, in Lithuania and Greece. In these countries anthropology (ethnology) has long been understood (primarily) as a discipline that would describe folk culture and play a crucial role in preserving it. The term ‘salvage’ ethnography also appears in the chapter on France, in the context of the concern with the disappearing rural culture. In this sense anthropologies in Europe played a role in constructing national imagery. Yet, anthropological preoccupation with actors’ perspective could not but undermine the grand narratives of various kinds, and this includes nation state. Perhaps the one thing that stays a blank spot beyond anthropologies’ vision, is that by and large they develop and function as national disciplines – despite the exchange and collaborative efforts. This has institutional explanations. So, we hope that this volume will provide opportunities for different traditions to notice each other, to notice the similarities as well as particularities and difference, and in the end allow better mutual recognition and understanding.

Can sociocultural anthropology in Europe be called a marginal discipline, in what sense?

AH: From the chapters on the national traditions of doing anthropology as diverse as the Portuguese, Lithuanian or Italian ones, it clearly follows that not only anthropology is situated at the margins, but humanities more generally are in dire state in terms of their position in the field of contemporary academia. The marginality, paradoxically, also means a relative autonomy of the discipline. Since the entanglements of anthropology with power today are less dense than those of some other disciplines, anthropologists have more liberty to speak up. For instance, in Poland anthropology was the only discipline that mobilized for a collective action in 2016 in response to the up-surging problem of hate speech and hate crimes triggered by the so-called migration crisis in Europe, and organized a special event ‘Anthropologists Against Discrimination’, which stirred further discussions in wider academic circles and public discourse. This is what can be seen as ‘strength from the margins’.

What is your favourite anthropology book, all intellectual traditions considered?

MH: After what we have just said, this becomes a tricky question, isn’t it? Would that be a book written by a men or by a woman anthropologist, from what intellectual tradition- paradigmatically or nationally defined, from what period? Would that be a monograph, a book building around a concept, a collection of provocative essays, a famous book or a book that nobody has ever heard about, an old book that shows we support ‘classical’ anthropology or a new book that shows we are uptodate and modern? So here is a tricky answer as well: “How We Think They Think”, Maurice Bloch’s collection of articles that shakes some of the most praised ethnographic habits.

Learn more about the book here, and check out the Anthropology of Europe Series here.