I Am a Social Theorist: Do Not Bend, Fold, Generalize or Marginalize

2 May

Originally posted at Iqra’i.

I was just going to link to this in an amused and patronizing fashion: aw, look, everyone, Dayo Olopade discovered the smoker’s code!

But apparently she is quicker than I am and patronized me in that post before I had the chance to patronize her back. In fairness, I don’t think she knows me, but she patronized my people. And by “my people” I mean “anthropologists.” I’ve never seen anthropology referenced so nonchalantly in a blog post before, and I’m really truly grateful and hope it starts a trend. But just in case it does, there are some issues I want to nip in the bud first.

Here’s the Sedaris passage she pulls for analysis (I apologize in advance):

“Give me one of those,” he said, and he pointed to the pack I was holding. I handed him a Viceroy, and when he thanked me I smiled and thanked him back… wasn’t it beautiful that our mutual appreciation could transcend our various differences, and somehow bring us together?

(To which she adds):

I believe anthropologists call this “gifting.” And it’s an all-too undervalued part of human intercourse.

The post goes on from there. I do not. Instead I present you with…

3 Quick Tips on Blogging about Anthropology (which, Incidentally, Everyone Should Do)

1. Minimize the sweeping statements. “I believe anthropologists call this…”? I hope this is ironic, but it’s unlikely. It sounds like a parody of a midcentury ethnography: the mock humility of “I believe” and the slightly patronizing “call this.” Yes yes, I know, anthropologists have an awkward history of Othering. We’re hypersensitive about it and when we notice it in other people we’re never sure if they’re being ironic or problematic. (Quick hint: when on the internet, use “t3h,” as in “t3h gayz and t3h goyim.”)

2. Every anthropologist is a special snowflake. I’ve never heard two anthropologists agree on what to call something, ever, come to think of it. Shared definitions are just not something we do. Surf Wikipedia for a bit, pick a name to drop and run with it; if you feel the need to use anthropology in the blogosphere that’s probably because we need more anthropology in the blogosphere, and by extension people who are willing to make references to it.

3. Fact-check. No, actually, we don’t call that “gifting.” We don’t call “Give me one of those” much of anything at all except possibly impolite (or at least a bad pickup line). And there is no such thing as “gifting.” There is a system called the “gift economy,” some aspects of which exist in our own society (thank heavens), but that also has very little to do with turning a cigarette into an anecdote — it’s about establishing a lasting social relation on the continued exchange of gifts of slightly unequal value, so that you’ll have an obligation to see the other person again (whoever’s in gift debt that week can bring something for his creditor).

(Digression: I understand the desire to isolate phenomena from systems for the sake of cultural criticism. I do it all the time myself. But it’s quite another thing to turn a mechanism for a years-long friendship into a mechanism for a shared serendipitous moment. Random acts of kindness are lovely, but we already have a phrase for random acts of kindness. I’d love the concept of the gift economy to really come back in force, but we shouldn’t dilute it as if it’s inevitable that all social spheres go the way of hookup culture.)

But much more generally: please do your fieldwork homework when talking about us. There aren’t enough of us in the blogosphere to give an accurate representation of what we’re really like, which makes it easy to fall into the stereotypes that have hectored us since the days of Margaret Mead. Once there’s a critical mass of anthropologists who don’t just blog about anthropology (or blog about blogging about anthropology), we’ll be able to inspire new and improved stereotypes; until then, hang tight to your Mauss.

No, seriously, hang tight to your Mauss. Essay on the Gift is a fantastic depiction of the phenomena I’ve described above and of the rise of law, and hands down the best argument I’ve heard against the libertarians and evolutionary psychologists who insist that the market is a natural institution because man needs an outlet for his self-interest. Go read it.

In seriousness, the post is solid. If you don’t read CSB (but why wouldn’t you read CSB?) and don’t know any smokers who like talking about smoking, it’s probably quite nice. Otherwise, solid.

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