Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
The last decades of critique of ethnographic knowledge production in anthropology were motivated by ethical concerns about just behavior towards ethnographic interlocutors in marginalized communities. The enduring worry was that our ethnographic knowledge would be misused by the powerful to further exploit the already oppressed. This question also poses itself when we "study up." We are worried about ethnographic knowledge being co-opted for unintended purposes due to “bureaucracy’s iterative capacity for absorbing and turning knowledge to ends of its own” (Strathern 2000, 291). But what about instances when ethnographic knowledge appears utterly inoculated against actionability? When the critical mode neuters knowledge from circulating in a practical mode? This question emerges from my experience of being asked to demonstrate the “policy-relevance” of my work during my first postdoctoral position at an interdisciplinary center for security studies. While I could identify my personal political resistance against assisting policy-makers maintain the status quo, I was more puzzled, and even maddened by how difficult it felt to translate what I’d learned in the field into “actionable” knowledge that wasn’t completely banal. If it was so important to me as an anthropologist to ask critical questions and produce critically-informed knowledge about the world, how come that knowledge couldn’t even help someone do something? This paper seeks to affirm the empiricism of ethnographic knowledge by exploring the political possibilities of critically actionable ethnographic knowledge. It does so by pondering what a think tank run by linguistic and legal anthropologists might look like.