The Appropriate Role of Outside Critics in Politicized Academic Disciplines:

I came across an interesting post by Professor Kenneth Dauber on a list to which I subscribe. I am reprinting it below with his permission. Professor Dauber's comments were prompted by the recent tenure controversy involving Barnard anthropology professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, and an obviously one-sided article in the New Yorker on that controversy, but I think have broader significance. Note that I don't know enough about anthropology to endorse Professor Dauber's view of that discipline [note that he takes no position on the quality of El-Haj's work]. But Professor Dauber's remarks go to a broader issue--the tendency of certain departments, or entire disciplines (see, e.g., Women's Studies), to be overtly politicized, and for academics who have participated in this politicization to then claim some sort of academic freedom right to autonomy not merely from outside interference, but from outside scrutiny and criticism. Here's Prof. Dauber:

1)Modern anthropology, founded, essentially, by Franz Boas — interestingly enough, a Jew and a professor at Columbia — took as its social good the appreciation of communities that the march of the West had relegated to the primitive.

Contemporary anthropology continues that tradition, but, now under the influence of a general academic agreement that the West equals colonialism, with barely a remainder of what else the West might be, it continues with the difference that it is less important to articulate the values of marginalized communities than to break down Western hegemony.

That the anthropological project of appreciating other communities is also a product of the West is what anthropology cannot admit. And that marginalized communities might adhere to values that are, actually, not to be appreciated is outside the discourse.

2) History: History is not particularly interesting to anthropologists. Since what anthropology is interested in is the way in which communities construct themselves, history and myth, fact and fiction serve equally well.

Anthropology is very bad at analyzing historical cultures--that is cultures for whom what actually happened is important. What actually happened is not exactly outside the discourse, but it is, if we may use the word, itself "marginalized."

3) Free speech: Within academic disciplines, free speech is highly constrained. There are norms, criteria of what counts as evidence, attitudes, and anyone violating these will have a hard time getting published or getting a job or getting promoted.

Depending on the criteria, this can be a good thing. It rules out the promotion of fantasy. When the criteria themselves are fantastic, however, they rule out the promotion of anything one might like to call truth.

Comparing the criteria you use with the criteria that those in other disciplines use is generally outside the discourse of your own discipline, not only in anthropology, of course, but very definitely in anthropology.

Let's put it bluntly: Whatever the particulars of the Abu-El-Haj case, whether her work is good or bad, to deny that a highly politicized discipline that evaluates the work of its practitioners from within the terms of that politics, to claim that experts with a vested interest in the blindness of their discipline necessarily are objective, to attribute to everyone and every objection an unholy commitment that contrast badly with the holy commitment of defenders is not only to be blind but either to blind yourself or attempt to blind others.

UPDATE: Post slightly edited for clarification purposes.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Norman Levitt on Nadia Abu el Haj and "Science Studies":
  2. The Appropriate Role of Outside Critics in Politicized Academic Disciplines: