Public anthropology plenary at the Melbourne AAS conference

I was excited to convene the plenary with Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Tess Lea and Greg Downey. Each of them have an amazing track record in bringing anthropology to bear on global issues, the public and make a contribution in society. I had engaged with this topic for a while now, coming out a free education movement, helping to set up a free university and thinking about the role anthropology plays in public discourses and the impact our work has on the people we work with as well as society more broadly. The University of Queensland offered me the opportunity to create free content and a social anthropology MOOC based on a 1st year course I teach on the Anthropology of Current World Issues. I have had my reservations about MOOCs, but wanted to create something of use to students, our department as well as the discipline and included a series of interviews with anthropologists we met along the way of filming. For those interested, here is the edX sign on page to do the MOOC World101x, but all videos are also available on youtube.

OK, enough of a plug for my MOOC. One of the people we interviewed was Rob Borofsky in Hawaii who runs the Center for a public anthropology and over a couple days with him we had a series of discussions on the role of the anthropologist, the political engagement we can/should/must have and the role of such activism in our discipline. The interview with him is available here. At the plenary I quoted a short definition of his from the early 2000s where he says public anthropology is the:

“ability of anthropology and anthropologists to effectively address problems beyond the discipline – illuminating larger social issues of our times as well as encouraging broad, public conversations about them with the explicit goal of fostering social change”

He has since written a longer explanation, especially to address the long history of and engagement with applied anthropology.

My own view is that anthropology can do much more to translate our research findings, our accumulated academic knowledge, into social effects and impact both in our fieldsites and at our home institutions/societies and contribute to public discourses we are already engaged in.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, who has a long history of what she calls militant anthropology shared some stories with us of her work and called upon (some) of us to be engaged anthropologists or agents provocateurs who infiltrate the structures of power and sometimes must put our bodies or words on the line – these are not mediators and the positions we take up can hurt us, professionally, personally and physically. She also called upon anthropologists to invite criticism and have courage to take risks with our opinions (based on the evidence we collect). This will not work for everyone, nor should it, but I think she engaged a theme that seemed to run through much of the conference, one of unsettling ourselves and others.

Tess Lea focussed on the difficult task of communication and actually bringing our knowledge into the public realm AND have it read. She has just published a fascinating book on Darwin that is part memoir, part socio-cultural analysis and history for a public audience. She is also a filmmaker and said that this has been tough and profoundly under appreciated. Particularly our workplaces and the bureaucratisation of measuring our work outputs/impact has led to a tension in what sort of work gets produced and valued at the university and the discipline. Good writing, one that is sophisticated, interesting and engaging (i.e. a page turner) and that says some hard truths/things is difficult to master and we are never really taught (creative) writing as a skill, just expected to be doing it (in A* journals).

Greg Downey, who also runs a great Neuroanthropology blog, focused on teaching (I asked him to, because he ram the first anthropology MOOC,  which is fantastic) and he sees public anthropology as an integral part of his teaching work. His MOOC is on ‘becoming human’ and covers evolution, biological anthropology and dispels some often held popular myths about genetics. Take it, it’s free! – and wonderful to see a teacher so enthusiastically talking about anthropology. It is also politically important when considering teh recent rise of white student groups on campuses (or at least facebook) across Australia. Greg has intervened on their facebook posts, dispelling myths about genetics and nature and WHITE MAN CIVILISATION…they should just take his MOOC already. He left us all feeling fuzzy and happy by calling on us all to love each other, help each other and create human networks of shared knowledge. Oh and we should all chill out (especially on AASnet) and take a breather. Anthropology is a public good and we also have to be good to each other.

The following discussion was fantastic too, with interventions by Erin Taylor who runs an anthroplogy blog/magazine/wonderful place to spend time online popanth, Ghassan Hage on the role of capital that can push particular views and arguments and someone’s mother who thinks anthropologists are ‘useless alchemists’. Spirited exchanges followed and I had run out of paper to scribble along, so please add comments below with your recollections.

I hope you can share this around and I’ll upload the video as soon as it becomes available. See you all in Sydney next year!

 

Gender segregation and the campus

This article first appeared in the Australian newspaper, Wednesday 7. August 2013Image

I am currently revising an article about my work in Malaysia with what can be described as fundamentalist and secular Muslims. One of the debates I am engaging is what role the researcher, in this case an ethnographer, plays in describing, analysing and writing about confrontations between universalisms and worldviews. Last Wednesday I took some time off from revising this paper to attend an iftar (breaking of fast) event I had been invited to by a student of mine.

The university’s Muslim Student Association had organized a big event and invited non-Muslims to share in the experience of breaking fast together in a park on the university’s campus. Mats were laid out on the grass to allow people to sit down. The event included the breaking of the fast (with water and a date or snack), a prayer and the communal dinner.

Upon arrival I was directed to sit down on the left-hand side of two clearly separated seating areas and told that this was the men’s section, whilst women had to be seated in the corresponding women’s section. As a staff member at a function of a university union affiliated club I was aware of my position in what would come next. If I quietly sat down in the designated male section, I could be seen (as could the university) to be condoning gender segregation. If I began questioning the practice and decided to leave or sit elsewhere I could be causing offence.

In my fieldwork in Malaysia I often came across gender segregated events and as part of my research work I would often question the reasons behind certain practices and document the reasons people gave for them. More importantly, during Ramadan the breaking of fast and communal meal was generally a communal experience in which families came together and men and women were not segregated. The prayers, especially if held at a mosque would be separated, but most people break their fast at home or in public places with only a short prayer.

Here, I was not in my field; rather, I was there as both a participant and member of an Australian university with my own views about the position of religion on the campus, so I engaged the first and second and third person who directed me to sit in the men’s section by asking them who had decided upon the seating arrangements (the organizing committee) and on what basis gender segregation was practiced here. A few students engaged me as I sat down on the sidelines of the event. I valued the interaction and discussion I had with these students as it afforded me an opportunity to question and respond with my views on Islamic traditions and the history of gender segregation.

The event raises important issues beyond the immediate seating arrangement relating to both gender equity and religious tolerance and discrimination. Some of these issues have been raised by a similar incident at Melbourne University in April, but universities have not responded resolutely in addressing them. More importantly, though, I want to raise this issue to elicit a debate about the role of religious organizations on campus, whether Muslim, Christian or any other, and the role of the university as a place that can accommodate difference, whilst safeguarding universals. I see the university as a progressive space in Australian society that should engage separate views in its community and debate openly motivations for and against gender segregation derived from religious commitment. The pointy end of this issue is whether Australian universities are prepared to accommodate religious practices in public areas of the campus which contradict policies regarding student and staff behaviour.

New book on Why human security matters!

We (Dennis Altman, Joe Camilleri and Robyn Eckersley) have just published a book on ‘Why human security matters’ with Allen and Unwin. I have written a chapter with Chris Roche from Oxfam on the importance of bottom-up approaches to security that are both people-centred as well as generated by the people affected by insecurity. Security continues to be framed in high-level and statist terms that underestimate new approaches, new technologies and people movements or organisations that are finding sometimes radical, new ways of dealing with insecurity. Click here to order a copy. The book was officially launched on October 8th 2012 at Melbourne University by former Australian Foreign Minister and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group Gareth Evans. Read his speech here.

Book Cover

On Interfaith dialogue in Malaysia

Interfaith dialogue in Malaysia is important, if not a prerequisite step to ameliorating societal tensions in Malaysia. However, I would argue that interfaith dialogue is itself problematic on two counts. The first difficulty is that only people of faith (usually narrowly defined as adherents of an Abrahamic faith plus a few major other traditions/religions) are invited. The other is that those invited are often from the moderate wings of religions and are thus more likely to be able to find common ground and be open to the discussion of interfaith issues. This, however, means that these meetings are largely marginal and, in the Malaysian context, not representative of wider society.

Theatre of development

In the recent issue of the Journal of the Asia-Pacific Economy, Gerhard Hoffstaedter and Chris Roche’s article ‘All the world’s a stage’ explores recent critiques of aid, particularly in regards to notions of ‘good governance’ and accountability. Using the allegory of theatre, they suggest that much of the formal process of interaction between aid agencies and local actors can be seen as a ‘performance’, and what goes on behind the scenes is often, and sometimes deliberately, ignored.