Lecture 10: Modernity and Change (2012)

Between 1960-1980, the theories developed in the use of field of anthropology are the scientific, structural-functional approach, which takes the stand that there is a structure in studying culture, and every aspect of the culture has its function within the culture; cultural relativism, which believes that each society is unique, and none has a ‘worse’ or a ‘better’ culture than another; societies and cultures seen as “whole”, functional, systems in perfect equilibrium. Most anthropologists are European and American men doing research in the “Third World”.

There are some points that I wish to raise here, with reference to Prof Thompson’s review on World Anthropologies. I think I am beginning to understand what Prof Thompson was driving at when he taught about reflexivity. A major question is: what are the paradigms and challenges faced in the world of anthropologies, for the coming century? (Do pardon me for conveniently citing the title of Prof Thompson’s review.) An issue that’s been raised both in this lecture and in the article are the changes in the notion of “self” and “others”. We are moving away from the phenomenon of white intellects studying third world societies. In relation to that, firstly, anthropology as a neo-colonial discourse has been challenged. Secondly, indigenous intellects have been studying their own cultures in recent decades, thereby challenging the notion of the “Other” since from their perspective, there is no ‘others’ to speak of because they themselves are from the culture that they are studying. This second point ties in with the first because the study of their own culture by indigenous intellects, or Asians, results in a different entry point from hegemonic Euro-centric traditions. In terms of politically and culturally, new assertions on identities will definitely be made. Subjectivity will also lead to new ideas and interpretations made in ‘the world of anthropologies’. Thirdly, economic empowerment and modernization allows indigenous people to write about their own culture, for example, Japan has a growing repository of anthropological work, as suggested in the article. These changes account for the need for the world of anthropologies to re-evaluate itself, and thus ‘reflexivity’ is concerned.

Continuing on my summary of the lecture, the ‘crisis of representation’ leads to reflexivity. In this ‘crisis’, anthropologists reconsider how they have been representing the people whom they study, and how and why these representations are problematic. They are problematic because they are political in nature, and misrepresentation can lead to serious political consequences. One classic example is the (mis)representation of Malays as ‘the lazy native’ written by colonial power. In addition, the theory of standpoint epistemology suggests that knowledge is never neutral, and is always dependent on one’s point of view, for example, it may be due to one’s gender or ethnic background. This ‘crisis of representation’ has created an awareness of the politics and power-relations involved in studying culture, thus leading to changes in its approach. People are viewed as subjects with agency instead of objects of study; anthropology shifts from study of isolated groups to study of globalization (the Wholesale Sushi article clearly demonstrates the multiple layers of systems and meanings involved in the globalized seafood market.); a focus on power instead of culture; aim for critical theory building instead of scientific objectivity; postcolonial nationalism instead of colonialism or neo-colonialism.

To sum up, ‘the world of anthropologies’ is trying to keep up with the changes in the world in terms of globalization and modernity. It has also faced its own internal changes as more non-Western anthropologists emerge in the field, and represent themselves/ their own indigenous culture differently. It is removing its neo-colonial discourse, by a different approach in embracing the subjects of its study as people with agency. It recognizes its subjectivity, and the political discourses that are involved in representations, thereby reasserting and repositioning itself as a field that is very relevant and in pace with global changes.

More pages