Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Elizabeth Hall (University of Toronto)
How, in our post-positivist and post-postmodern times, does anthropology “know”? And what are the practical prospects for anthropological enquiry understood as a kind of humanistic, critical empiricism? We consider these questions in relation to anthropological and bureaucratic knowledge practices surrounding global environmental change. Within this arena, policymakers, natural scientists, research funders and governments increasingly agree that climate change is a quintessentially human problem, whose solutions demand the human sciences – including anthropology. Still, anthropological and kindred knowledges continue to struggle for recognition as “best evidence” for policy in this arena. Assessment reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for instance, are still dominated by the natural sciences, physics, engineering and economics. Though there are several possible reasons why, we wish to ask whether certain differences between anthropological and bureaucratic knowledge practices might be one. We dwell on two virtues familiar in public service: “objectivity” and “openness.” To generate trust, climate change bureaucracies must work objectively, which is to say, impartially and fairly; they must also work openly so that anyone can, in principle, see them working that way. By juxtaposing these bureaucratic knowledge practices with anthropology’s preferred ways of making knowledge, the paper points to a conundrum: what is good for policy is not always good for anthropology, and vice versa. Thus, how anthropology “knows” for itself is one thing; how it “knows” – and is expected to know – for others in other settings can be quite another.