Kabul University © Antonio De Lauri

Academic Politics of Silencing

Table of Contents:

Introduction: Confronting Silencing, Antonio De Lauri

Unravelling the Politics of Silencing, Laura Nader

It Wasn’t a Tenure Case: A Personal Testimony, with Reflections, David Graeber

The Sounds of Anthropological Silence, David Price

Having Company: An Antidote to the “Politics of Silencing”, Susan Wright


Introduction: Confronting Silencing, Antonio De Lauri

The featured image for this discussion shows a closed door of a classroom at Kabul University. I took the picture in 2008 while doing fieldwork. In its purpose here, however, the geographic reference of the picture is not important. What matters is that it shows a door within a university. The small window is broken and it would therefore be possible to see inside the room. Yet the door is locked, and only those with the right key can enter. Ideally, that door should be always open, not simply to allow the knowledge produced there to radiate outside, but to allow access for everybody. It is a fact that the whole institutional universe in which knowledge is produced – not only universities, but also research centers, laboratories, etc. –remains alien to large parts of the world population for reasons that transcend the realm of “competence” and belong more to politics of inclusion/exclusion. This is the case not only where political regimes explicitly make it difficult to access knowledge, but also in Western democracies where knowledge is, in theory, available for everybody.

In a blog post on bourgeois knowledge, published on Allegra Lab a few years ago, I discussed some structural, latent mechanisms that tend to give continuity to both a predominantly class based compositions of departments’ faculty and a class based knowledge of issues such as social inequality and marginality. There are many ways that research institutions and the education system effectively reproduce power and hegemony. There are also many ways that some researchers are marginalized or silenced. Laura Nader’s paper and the three comments that follow by David Graeber, David Price and Susan Wright discuss the academic politics of silencing and confront the hidden instances that lie behind them.

Nader’s life-long engagement with contrarian anthropology can be seen as an effort against silencing. In her paper, she rightly points out that “indirect controls are most powerful because they are normalized.” Indeed, it is our responsibility to throw light on the shadows produced by hidden forms of control, and this often translates in opposing “trendiness” within academia. Graeber was excluded from the US university job market. From this experience, he creates a narrative that illustrates the role played by politics in the broader academic infrastructure and reminds us that these politics always have profound effects beyond the sphere of work  and on the personal life of researchers and academics. Price emphasizes that troubles often begin when we move from books and articles to actual action. He recalls some of the difficulties (e.g. obtaining proper funding) researchers meet when studying certain topics, but he opportunely concludes that “since silence is a problem, we need to make noise,” this means not limiting our intellectual efforts to traditional academic outlets.

Acritically joining the “chorus” and looking for company can be very different things. In fact, Wright reminds us that to confront silencing we indeed need company. There is still space, Wright says, “for exercising individual academic judgement but much more collective action – or keeping company – is required. There is a continuous challenge to analyse how our research, teaching, priorities and values are being influenced in organisationally embedded and often mundane ways, so that we can ensure our institutions enable us to fulfil our role as academics, not as an individual privilege, but as a social responsibility to act as the critic and conscience of society”.

Academic silencing is dangerous because it limits the intellectual and political freedom of researchers. However, it is also dangerous because it feeds the power machinery that, outside the departments and laboratories, normalizes domination, inequality and injustice.

Unraveling the Politics of Silencing, Laura Nader

Over the 50 years plus that I have been at Berkeley I have received many letters from fellow anthropologists and students of anthropology reporting silencing techniques. Such techniques are intended to directly or unknowingly perhaps to silence their voices. The complainants are often pushing the boundaries of an acceptable anthropology, an acceptability which to me defeats the basic purpose of our discipline – to challenge assumptions, in the face of evidence, and in the process to enlighten the public about the controlling processes in our lives. Sometimes the silencing comes from funding sources, or publishers, or the tenure review process.

A good example of how controlling processes work is Dimitra Doukas’s book published by Cornell University Press, Worked Over —The Corporate Sabotage of an American Community (2003), an ethnography that covered 100 years of regional capitalism in upper New York State. She dealt with the takeover by the big trusts thereby delineating a corporate capitalism and brought to my attention the need to recognize that there are many kinds of capitalism: regional capitalism, corporate capitalism and penny capitalism. It is not one big thing. Sol Tax’s work on Penny Capitalism in Guatemala (1953) made this point. Doukas taught in Canada for a short time, had temporary positions in the United States, but no serious job offers in the United States. Why? Don’t challenge the dominant power structure through the lens of a people’s history.

More recently, Brian McKenna writes in Counterpunch “How Anthropology Disparages Journalism” (March 2009). He asks, “Is there a career danger for an anthropologist wanting to be relevant, a publically engaged writer? … Too many academic anthropologists are marooned in the coffin-boxes of university classrooms, their pearls of wisdom echoing wistfully off of hermetically, sealed-walls.” McKenna refers to academic unwritten rules as a “type of border control.” In other countries such as France, Spain or Mexico anthropologists are more publically involved.

In a personal communication, Gary Downey (2012) notes that he believes that “academic scholarship is worthwhile only to the extent that it makes a significant difference beyond the academy. Seeking affirmation only from other academic peers is incestuous.” Downey is a professor of technical studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He is a mechanical engineer turned cultural anthropologist —a pioneer in energy related research. Most anthropologists probably never read his work, although it is especially important on issues of radioactive waste management. Anthropologists are sometimes not very nice to their innovators because of the dynamic of control, both social and political, direct and indirect. When I started work on energy for the National Academy of Science, the chair of my department instead of encouraging me said “Laura, you aren’t going to get promoted for this energy work in our department. Why don’t you drop it?” I was the only anthropologist of 300 scientists invited to work on the prestigious CONAES study – the Committee on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Study because, as they said when they invited me, “We need an anthropologist on this study.” (See Energy Choices in a Democratic Society Nader 1980).

When it comes to students, the silencing strategies are often direct. Just read Anthropology’s Politics- Disciplining the Middle East (Deeb and Winegar 2016). Separate “academic” from the “political.” Emphasize anthropological knowledge as devoid of political stance. Social Science should be autonomous from political advocacy. The teaching of anthropology of the Middle East for decades taught me a good deal about what was and what was not acceptable anthropology. It is hard to believe that in 2017 some scholars still believe that some people are political advocates while others are not. What one doesn’t say is as political as what one says —it’s a matter of speech categories. All culture is full of politics. There is no such thing as apolitical.

The history of how such unwritten rules of silencing came about in the American academy was explored in depth by prize winning historian Mary Furner in her book Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science. 1865-1905 (1975). Public advocacy was considered important before the Civil War, but with the rise of the big trusts the move to objectivity over advocacy was increasing. Lack of objectivity was used to penalize advocates in academic freedom cases of the 1880s and 1890s, marking limits of acceptable behavior for academic social scientists, visible at least to a historian: the power of objectivity as control, fed by the big trusts.


— Read the full article on www.brill.com/puan



It Wasn’t a Tenure Case – A Personal Testimony, with Reflections, David Graeber

First of all allow me to remark how touched and honored I am to be put on the same list as James Mooney, who I’ve always admired, and Edmund Leach, who may have been the man who most inspired me to take up an anthropological career. Leach for me always been a model of intellectual freedom.

I hadn’t heard that Dimitra Doukas hasn’t been given a proper job and am outraged to hear it; the fact that she hasn’t it seems to me also answers the question with which the essay ends, of why US anthropology didn’t foreseen Trump, since her work is specifically about using ethnographic tools to understand right-wing populism. I was myself writing about similar issues—in Harpers, since Anthropology didn’t seem much interested—around the time I too was being effectively expelled from US academia, though mine were mere musings in comparison.

There are many mysteries of the academy which would be appropriate objects of ethnographic analysis. One question that never ceases to intrigue me is tenure. How could a system ostensibly designed to give scholars the security to be able to say dangerous things have been transformed into a system so harrowing and psychologically destructive that, by the time scholars find themselves in a secure position, 99% of them have forgotten what it would even mean to have a dangerous idea? How is the magic effected, systematically, on the most intelligent and creative people our societies produce? Shouldn’t they of all people know better? There is a reason the works of Michel Foucault are so popular in US academia. We largely do this to ourselves. But for this very reason such questions will never be researched.

Since my own case features prominently in the text, I might as well say what really happened at Yale. I think it’s important to do so, in part, because it illustrates that one way that tactics of bullying, silencing, and other abusive structures of power operate is by the insistence on the part of the bulk of the academic community that things like this cannot possibly happen. Consider the circumstances. In my case, American anthropologists were confronted with the information that an untenured “out” anarchist scholar had been dismissed from his job at a prominent university, in a highly irregular fashion (it was not a tenure case and what sparse media coverage there was noted this), despite a strong publication record and student support. No official reason was given. American anthropologists were asked to decide between two options:

(1) politics played a role

(2) he must have been dismissed for some other reason, just the department for some reason didn’t say what it was

Judging by the response when I then applied for jobs, the overwhelming majority appear to have chosen 2.

So here’s a narrative of the principle events:

In 2000 I had passed my first reappointment review with flying colors and was assured I was proceeding exactly as I should as a junior prof—though warned to stay out of politics, I was encouraged to think I had a strong chance at tenure if I followed this advice. In fact I was aware that the Yale tenure rate was roughly 7% so tenure struck me as unlikely, no matter how well I played my cards. Therefore, when the Global Justice Movement picked up and I felt I was uniquely positioned—and therefore had an historical responsibility—to contribute, I effectively told myself “well, it’s not like I’d have gotten tenure anyway” and jumped on board. I soon became convinced the tools of ethnography could be useful to those trying to create new forms of direct democracy and took a sabbatical year (2001-2002) to pursue this idea. In the course of that sabbatical year I also made press statements as a member of various direct action-oriented and broadly anarchist groups involved in the protests that successfully halted the Free Trade Area of the Americas treaty and other neoliberal trade initiatives. When I returned in the fall of 2002, several previously friendly members of the senior faculty – people I had not been in contact with at all during my sabbatical – refused to speak to me. They did not return my greetings and walked by as if I wasn’t there.

I should clarify the Yale socio-cultural anthropology department was, at that time, in an unhappy state. If they were known outside New Haven for anything, at that time, it was for their unique institutional culture, epitomized by the habit of some members of the senior faculty of writing lukewarm or even hostile letters of recommendation for their own graduate students—students who, I might note, were on average of a clearly higher intellectual calibre than the faculty, but lived in a climate of fear and intimidation as a result. (Needless to say it was the same clique who wrote the hostile letters who suddenly stopped speaking to me.) Matters were complicated by a grad student unionization drive that met with unrelenting hostility from this same dominant clique: union organizers had been screamed at, received abusive emails, been object of all sorts of false accusations, even been threatened with police; there were multiple outstanding student grievances and complaints against such behavior and even one pending NLRB case. At the same time the students themselves were deeply divided about the merits of the union. Junior faculty were caught in the middle. For my own part, I made the strategic decision to avoid internal Yale politics, and focus on larger targets (such as the IMF). In New Haven, I concentrated my efforts on teaching, and on mentoring and protecting my own students—who, I am proud to report, are almost all now pursuing successful academic careers.

In the end, I was not allowed to remain neutral.

When the time came in 2004 for the normally routine promotion to “Term Associate” (an untenured position that would lead in four years to tenure review), this same handful of senior faculty tried to deny me reappointment, despite uniformly positive external reviews (one by Laura Nader) and strong student evaluations (I had taught some of the most popular courses in the department’s history). They told the dean I had not done enough committee work—but when challenged were forced to admit they had not given me any. Informed they couldn’t simply fire me without warning, they solicited, and were granted, special permission to review my case again after a year—and this time, at their insistence and as far as I know in violation of all precedent, without external or student input.

At the very least this procedure was highly irregular.

The next year the same clique attempted to pressure out perhaps my most talented student, a brilliant Asian-American woman who was also an organizer in the graduate student unionization campaign, before a major student strike—on obviously fabricated grounds. (The Director of Graduate Studies had written her a negative letter of recommendation for an AAA grant application, then accused her of “ethical violations” for not using or returning it, and demanded she leave the program, despite a complete lack of any actual grounds for expulsion.) This was of course primarily an attempt to intimidate the union organizers, but partly also meant to test my loyalty. I failed the test spectacularly by defending her (she was an excellent student, with good grades and strong support across departments). Afterwards I was—this is actually true—accused of “intimidating” the DGS by taking notes in the meeting where the DGS tried to pressure the student to resign, leaving me later to remark that Yale was the only place I knew of where a representative of the senior faculty can tell a student “you’re no good, get out of the program!” one junior faculty member dares to say “surely we can work something out,” and he’s the one who gets accused of “intimidation.” (Incidentally, she did not resign, did get the grant, and is now pursuing a successful academic career.)

After that my dismissal was a foregone conclusion. All that remained was to find a pretext. This however proved difficult, since I did not have a drug or drinking problem, had never been accused of plagiarism, unethical academic practices, or sexual or any other form of harassment, had never been convicted of a crime, never slept with students, had no history of clinical mental health issues, and never been the object of student grievances or complaints (in fact, it’s quite possible I was the only member of the socio-cultural faculty at that time of whom none of these things could be said.) I was also by then doing quite a bit of service work and had contracts for two forthcoming monographs in addition to the two books already out. Some students told me they were pressured to bring false charges but refused. Many wrote unsolicited letters of support. The best the other side could do was to get one foreign student, who was told she was in danger of flunking out and being deported, to write a letter complaining about the overly democratic way I had organized a seminar (!). This however allowed them to claim the students were not unanimous, and the student letters weren’t entered into evidence anyway. Some brave and wonderful colleagues fought hard to defend me, but in the end it was to no avail. (Most also left in frustration soon after.) In the end, I was told my contract was not being renewed but no reason was given—other than a newfound concern with the supposed weakness in my academic work.

At the time, it honestly never occurred to me that I would not be able to find a job elsewhere in America. Letters of support were pouring in from seemingly everywhere – Marshall Sahlins to Laura Nader to Mick Taussig to John and Jean Comaroff. Outraged students asked me if they could protest my dismissal. This was a hard one. I had already decided not to sue, despite receiving more than one communication from people connected to the Law School suggesting I do so—and it’s true I knew if I had sued, I’d have had almost uniquely well-positioned (one student, for example, was willing to testify that one of the profs leading the charge against me had actually called her parents to warn them that their daughter was taking courses with a dangerous radical!) It occurred to me suing might damage my future prospects. Still, the anthropology students had been very much divided over the unionization drive, and many told me the only thing they all agreed on was that what happened to me was wrong—they were even putting together protest committees, each carefully balanced with one pro- and one anti-union student. I felt I could hardly tell them not to. In retrospect I realize this was my undoing.

The Chronicle account that Laura Nader mentions describes me as failing to land a job despite 17 attempts (by the end I think it was well over 20). This substantially understates what happened. Failure to win a position despite 20+ attempts might still be attributed to bad luck in a difficult job market. In fact, in 20+ attempts, I failed even once to even be considered for a job. Not only did I not make any short lists, I failed to make any long lists. Not a single university asked me for my letters of recommendation. That means that in every single one of those 20+ applications I was eliminated at the first cut. In contrast, before my firing from Yale, I had made at least the first cut in virtually every job I applied for, and what’s more, afterwards, I continued to be considered in the same way everywhere else in the world other than the United States. I was receiving regular feelers and even offers from departments from Paris and London to Shanghai; but in the US, suddenly no one would look at me. It is almost impossible to attribute this to statistical coincidence.

Now I must admit this outcome did surprise me. The Yale department was as I mentioned famous for its poison-pen letters. No doubt they’d be spreading rumors but who would take them seriously? And after all, as I often told myself, I only needed one job. Yet none materialized.

I did get insider information about what happened in a few instances. As most readers will be aware, at the first round in job searches, committees are often faced with an overwhelming deluge of applications and are desperate to cull. If anyone raises a strong objection to an applicant that applicant is usually eliminated without further discussion. The effect is much like black-balling in a social club. In my own case, too, matters were complicated by the student protest. I was labeled a “trouble-maker” who would turn their students against them (a silly idea, as my subsequent history attests). So in many cases at least, the moment one person raised any such objections, my application was instantly rejected. I was also told this also happened in at least two cases where I was considered as a target of opportunity—in one case the one objection came from a faculty member, in the other from administration. But always, one objection was enough.

I’ll stop the narrative here, and just underline a few relevant lessons:

1. There is a near total gulf between the way many (most?) anthropologists view situations in their field areas, where they tend to identify with the underdog, and in the academy, where they tend to instinctually take the side of structures of institutional authority. There is little doubt that most of my detractors would have come to exactly the opposite conclusion about what must have “really happened” in my case had I been a young scholar and political dissident in Indonesia or Mozambique who was dismissed from his job with no reason being given.

2. A widespread sense of guilty discomfort about this discrepancy often sparks resentment at anyone whose active political engagement might been seen as drawing attention to these contradictions. To this day, I occasionally encounter colleagues who, on learning I have a history of activism, instantly assume I must be sitting in judgment of them for sins of hypocrisy which, in almost all cases, would never in a million years have occurred to me had they not brought them up.

3. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of social class. I was told by one ally at Yale that my problem was that owing to my proletarian background and general comportment, I was considered “unclubbable.” That is, if one is not from a professional-managerial background, one can be accepted by one’s “betters,” but only if one makes it clear such acceptance is one’s highest life aspiration. Otherwise, ideas or actions that among the well-born would likely be treated as amusing peccadillos—such as an embrace of anti-authoritarian politics—will be considered to disqualify one from academic life entirely.

4. In extremely hierarchical environments, being nice is often seen as impertinent or subversive—at least, if one is equally friendly and sympathetic to everyone.

5. In academic environments where most people were first drawn to their careers by a sense of intellectual excitement, but feel they then had to sacrifice that sense of joy and play in order to obtain life security, it is extremely unwise to be seen as visibly enjoying oneself, even in the sense of being excited by ideas. This is viewed as inconsiderate.

6. The term “collegiality” often operates in a deeply insidious way to disguise the workings of points 4, and 5. If one hears that someone is “uncollegial” one typically assumes they are rude, contentious, nasty, unsociable, or otherwise a jerk. In fact the term is never applied to superiors for abusing inferiors, but is almost invariably used for people lower down in a hierarchy for acting in way that others (often but not only superiors) disapprove of. It is thus perfectly possible to be too nice to students, and too enthusiastic about sharing ideas, and be denounced as “uncollegial” – thus raising in the minds of all those unfamiliar with the specifics of the case the assumption that one’s behaviour was exactly the opposite.

7. Children of the professional-managerial classes, as Tom Frank recently pointed out, tend to lack any ethos of solidarity. Solidarity is largely a value among working class people, or among the otherwise marginalized or oppressed. Professional-managerials tend towards radical individualism, and for them, left politics becomes largely a matter of puritanical one-upmanship (“check your privilege!”), with the sense of responsibility to others largely displaced onto responsibility to abstractions, forms, processes, and institutions. Hence frequent comments from ostensible leftists that, in protesting my irregular dismissal, I was revealing an arrogant sense of entitlement by suggesting anthropology somehow owed me a job in the first place (I got similar reactions from some academic “leftists” when I was evicted from my lifelong family home at the instigation of Police Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism, after Occupy Wall Street. “Oh, so you think you have some kind of right to live in Manhattan?”) I find it telling, for instance, that of the few who did reach out in practical terms in the wake of my dismissal, and ask if there was anything they could do to help me find employment, the majority were African-American: i.e., people who came from a tradition of radicalism where people are keenly aware that sticking one’s neck out could have severe personal consequences, and that therefore, mutual support was necessary for survival. Many of elite background offered public moral support, but few if any offered me practical help of any kind.

8. The (tacitly authoritarian) insistence on acting as if institutions could not possibly behave the way the anthropology department at Yale did in fact behave leads almost necessary to victim-blaming. As a result, bullying—which I have elsewhere defined as unprovoked attacks designed to produce a reaction which can be held out as retrospective justification for the attacks themselves—tends to be an effective strategy in academic contexts. Once my contract was not renewed, I was made aware that within the larger academic community, any objections I made to how I’d been treated would be themselves be held out as retroactive justification for the non-renewal of my contract. If I was accused of being a bad teacher or scholar, and I objected that my classes were popular and my work well regarded, this would show I was self-important, and hence a bad colleague, which would then be considered the likely real reason for my dismissal. If I suggested political or even personal bias on the part of any of those who opposed renewal of my contract, I would be seen as paranoid, and therefore as likely having been let go for that very reason… And so on.

9. The truth or falsity of accusations is often treated as irrelevant. There seems a tacit rule not just of the academy but almost all aspects of professional-managerial life that if a superior plots to destroy an underling’s career, this is considered disagreeable behavior, certainly, but consequences are unlikely to follow. If the victim publicly states this happened, however, this is considered unforgivable and there will be severe consequences—whether or not the accusations are correct. Similarly if accusations are directed against an underling, even if they are proven false, the underling is usually assumed to have done something else to have earned the rancor of the accuser. So in a way the veracity of the accusations is again beside the point and making too much of a fuss about it is considered bizarre.

10. Prejudice in favor of institutional authority also allows authorities to easily get away with indirect forms of dishonesty aimed at falsifying the facts. To this day, most academics who have heard of my case appear convinced I was simply denied tenure, which of course makes my protests of political bias seem bizarre and self-serving, since most junior faculty are denied tenure at Yale. Almost no one knows that in fact it was a highly unusual non-tenure procedure where rules were changed for my case and my case only. Why? One reason is because Yale authorities kept making statements that implied, but did not quite state, that it was a tenure case. For instance when the New York Times ran an article about my dismissal, the author mentioned in passing it was not a tenure case, but also included a quote from an ally of the senior faculty which basically would have made no sense had it not been one (she said it was telling that I “personalized” the case rather than seeing it as being about Yale tenure policy). The ploy was effective and most of those who read the article appear to have been left with a false impression of what happened. But this was only possible because of their own bias: for all the leftist posturing, most American anthropologists, presented with a confusing Rorschach-like welter of evidence, appear to have decided it was more likely that an activist scholar had unreasonably politicized a routine academic decision, than that a notoriously conservative department could possibly have changed the rules to get rid of radical who was actively engaged in organising direct actions to disrupt trade summits and discomfiting the powerful in other actual, practical, ways.

In the end, I was not silenced. I made a new career in the UK, published widely, and continued to make interventions in public life. What the Yale brass did ensure was that all this came at enormous personal cost. My two remaining close family members (brother and mother) both, as it happened, faced prolonged terminal illness while the drama at Yale was unfolding—I found myself dashing back between being care-giver to first one then the other in New York and dealing with the latest machinations of the senior faculty back at Yale—which meant I had to indefinitely postpone my own plans to start a family. My own marriage ultimately buckled under the strains of exile, leaving me, for a while profoundly isolated. As one might imagine all this took no small emotional toll. Throwing myself into work I accomplished a good deal; but to this day the reaction of American anthropology continues to hurt me. I felt I had made important contributions not just to the discipline, but to political causes almost all my fellow anthropologists claimed to share—indeed, in many cases, built academic careers claiming to interpret and represent. Yet the main response seems to have been an eagerness to give credit to even the most transparent attempts at character assassination.

To end with a sociological reflection on silencing, then, I would invite the reader to consider the following. I agreed to write this because I have no intention to apply for an academic position in America in the foreseeable future. There is probably not a single paragraph in this essay that I would not have self-censored had that not been the case.


The Sounds of Anthropological Silence, David Price

Laura Nader’s essay draws on her half century of participant observation of the controlling processes governing academic life at American universities, and she provides important context to consider how anthropology silences itself. Her analysis appears during a period of new crises on our campuses, even as decades of structural attacks reducing tenure lines built particular silences.  Many of the means of silencing inhabit our bodies in ways that make the silences appear as if they are just personal preferences, but as Nader shows, the structures of silencing are built into the institutions where professors teach, research, go through the motions of shared governance, strive for tenure, and where students learn certain things in certain ways.

When Nader observes that “sometimes the silencing comes from funding sources, or publishers, or the tenure review process,” she identifies three significant controlling processes governing the development of anthropology. In informal discussions with colleagues, conversations sometimes drift to consider what are the most interesting questions we might be asking if left completely to our own devices; not having to worry about things like funding, tenure, or publications. In most cases, these become research roads not taken, as interests become circumscribed and dreams deferred.  Careers advance in the usual ways with other work that becomes interesting and significant in its own way, and we often do not notice that these were choices made along the way—mostly because we don’t see the choices we actually have about publishing and funding.

Vast silences obscure the ways that funding shapes anthropology. The discipline never really confronted the impacts of something as basic as the Rockefeller Foundation’s once routine practice of vetting grant applicants by making sure awardee’s names did not appear on governmental subversive lists generated by Joseph McCarthy, the Jenner Committee and others. And as Inderjeet Parmar’s important work shows, foundations established by American elites significantly shape the questions we ask and answers found, though such acknowledgements make many uncomfortable, I suppose because this implies about intellectual constraints (Parmar 2012).

Given the freedoms that can come with tenure, it remains disappointing that more academics do not use its protections to break disciplinary silences. In theory, anthropologists could use tenure to pursue the publishing venues giving them the most freedom, or to ignore the silences imposed by only pursing research that can be funded by traditional grants and fellowships. That so few among us do this is remarkable, and I believe tells us more about where we think the boundaries of possibility lie, than where they actually are.

The lessons of self-censorship and harmonizing (Nader 1996), learned on the way to tenure can root deep enough within academic hearts that once tenure is granted, paths of inquiry are narrowed to a point that these silences sound normal. Whatever promises to oneself of pursuing controversial work after tenure are easily forgotten. Graduate students often notice the sort of disciplinary gaps Nader describes, but should they begin dissertation projects bridging these silences, they are frequently counseled back to the straight and narrow, being advised that such inquiries are not good career builders—this was certainly my experience as a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1980s, when I wandered into the silence surrounding anthropologists’ contributions to the Second World War, and was dissuaded from undertaking such work, because four decades after the war, disciplinary discomfort remained too great.

To be sure, we have colleagues calling attention to disciplinary silences. Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar’s work disrupts silences about the institutionalized political hurdles facing anthropologists writing about the Middle East (Deeb & Winegar 2015). New voices are focusing critical attention on sexual harassment within the discipline (Gibbons & Culotta 2016), and Nader’s examples of contemporary academic noise makers are good company to keep—David Graeber, Max Forte, Brian McKenna.  Their work and career paths exemplify what it means to use academic freedom, and (mostly) using tenure as a path of freedom for inquiry unhooked from fundamental concerns about funding sources of publishing outlets (1).

In discussing the consequences of being an oddball breaking silences, Nader wonders “what happens if you don’t have company?”—and she then makes historical nods toward contrarians from three centuries, in which Mooney, Leach, and Graeber broke silences protecting established relations of inequality. I suppose one of the consolations of history is that we learn we are not alone, that others before us broke silences, sometimes doing things that might now seem fundamentally unradical, because the silences they broke never returned.

 On Not Knowing What We’re Not Hearing

Laura Nader’s point that Professor Graeber’s working class roots helped shape his critique is an important observation—one that has largely unexplored importance for our understanding disciplinary silences. Michael Shott once observed that archaeologists’ professional societies track things like gender inequality, but fail to map something as profound as class bias; and that “archaeology as a course of study appeals much more to students from the upper class than it does to those from the working class, resulting in domination of the profession by the upper class” (Shott 2006:24).

Nader’s description of Yale’s treatment of Graeber exemplifies the sort of harmony policing universities routinely undertake. Such policing functionally broadcasts warnings throughout the discipline and academy, marking boundaries; showing others the narrowness of the corridors of acceptable behavior for professors.  While there were sustained efforts to protest Graeber’s firing, and some attention in the mainstream media, there were enforced silences about these events were discussed in public venues.

Nader pointedly asks about Graeber’s treatment, “what unwritten rules did he violate, if any? Was it about decorum? Intolerance of political outspokenness? Contentiousness? The power elite?” I assume it was each of these, but the most significant factor was that he did not stop with a theoretical analysis of the world (something university administrators have learned to tolerate), but that he moved from critique to action. The main lesson I learned researching McCarthyism’s impact on American anthropology, was that the FBI and governmental committees driving McCarthyism cared less about academics’ ideas than they did about the behaviors of activism (Price 2004).

But one of the products of silences is that we often don’t know what we’re not hearing—and I think this point complicates Nader’s important observation about anthropologists’ disengagement with the media. I want to raise one example from The Parable of The Graeber illustrating how media frames limit what can be said about these silences in very particular ways, and that shows there are limits to what impacts anthropologists can have on these set narratives in the media.

Back in 2005, after a significant online protest campaign grew supporting David Graeber, even the New York Times could no longer ignore the story. Times reporter Karen Arenson contacted me in December 2005 for comments on the story, in my response I tried to push beyond the narrative of a brilliant professor failing to gain tenure, towards a narrative of the structural confines of knowledge and action.  In reply to Arenson’s queries I wrote that,

David Graeber’s work is exceptional. He is a rare scholar who is able to grapple with complex social theory in a very straightforward way, but it seems that it was his decision to not let theory simply be theory that lead to his leaving Yale. I am sure that had Professor Graeber been satisfied with only writing books and articles for other academics on the problems of pay inequities and globalization he could today be sipping a dry martini within the secure confines of the Yale Faculty Club. But moving beyond theory to action is seldom welcomed on university campuses when one is studying inequality.

I think that self-proclaimed anarchists can fit into an establishment university, so long as their anarchism is limited to the written and spoken word–universities can and do welcome people espousing all sorts of beliefs; it is just when professors and students behaviorally challenge power structures either off or on campus that trouble begins. It would seem that Professor Graeber’s activism both on and off campus is what put the kybosh on his tenure application.  Another way of looking at this is to say that activism matters–matters so much in fact that those who engage in it must be marginalized.

…You ask if this incident is related to McCarthyism. Yes and no. No, there were no loyalty hearings, blacklists or public degradation ceremonies. Professor Graeber’s treatment was “procedurally clean”—sort of a bureaucratic equivalent of beating someone with a rubber hose so that no marks are left behind. But, yes: just as in the McCarthy period, the treatment of Professor Graeber sends clear messages advertising non-activism to other professors who are watching from the sidelines. (DP to Karen Arenson 12/12/05)

I received an enthusiastic reply from Arenson, liking the rubber hose image; and then the story was published without any of this analysis, instead following the narrative of Graeber as marginalized radical. I realize that journalism’s word limits always necessitate cuts, but it is also true that when consulted views fall outside of the larger narrative frame they are the easiest to trim in the interests of keeping the storyline coherent. I don’t care that I wasn’t quoted by the Times (in fact, I’m always happy to not be quoted by the Times), my point is only that even when our media reports on such silencings, the media’s frame requires particular silences. It isn’t hard to give news outlets like the Times the sound bite they want and get it in the story, but such quotes map of the edges of the silences described by Nader.  I don’t disagree with Nader or McKenna that anthropologists need to work with journalists, and as journalists, but we need to go into this understanding that the silences we find in journalistic narratives have boarders as strong as any found in academia, and these silences exist for reasons.

There are many other dynamics that contribute to our disciplinary silences. Among these are anthropologists’ increasing reluctance to explore, much less even provisionally state, relationships of cause and effect in the social phenomena we study. Some of these silences are natural outgrowths of postmodernism, while others grow from the cautions of career care (Healy 2017). As a graduate student I once heard a bright positivist professor say in a lecture that it was worse to make a type one error, than to make a type two error (2).  Believing that I did not adequately understand what type one and two errors were, I press him further on this, arguing that both type one and two errors were equally errors and each of no greater value than the other. He conceded that I was essentially correct, but what had ignored that the career consequences for type two errors were much less significant than making a type one error; in fact, he estimated that something like a third of the research articles in a given anthropology journal were making type two errors, and that these were far easier to get into print than those making type one errors.

I suppose this is another form of silencing: an implicit bias erring towards reporting nothing is going on or seeking the safety of critique that complicates nuanced analysis beyond hope of correlations. Such silences of causation have dire impacts in a world ruled by plutocrats and where openly fascist views enter mainstream discourse. There are consequences for all when, as Professor Nader points out, the “indirect controls are most powerful because they are normalized,” and when our colleagues know when to keep their mouths shut.

— Read the full article on www.brill.com/puan



Having Company: An Antidote to the “Politics of Silencing”, Susan Wright

Laura Nader’s paper exposes some of the ways boundaries have been maintained around an “acceptable anthropology” during her intellectual lifetime and the techniques and politics of silencing “irreverent researchers”. In the process, she also weaves in an account of the development of her own research and how she has struggled to avoid its silencing. She defines the basic purpose of our discipline as “to challenge assumptions, in the face of evidence, and in the process enlighten the public about the controlling processes in our lives”.  She describes how isolated she felt in pursuing this aim, until a number of “contrarian” anthropologists came together in Del Hymes’ Reinventing Anthropology (1972).  As she says, “silencing was not part of the project” and, with the publication of that book, “we were not odd-balls, single irreverent researchers – we had company”.

1972 was the year when I started my anthropological training and Laura Nader, and especially her article in that book, “Up the anthropologist – Perspectives gained from studying up” has been my company throughout my academic career. Thank you Laura (if I may). I’d like to highlight some of the themes in her “politics of silencing” paper that have been especially formative not just for me, but for the discipline over 45 years.

Laura Nader makes the point that “There is no such thing as being apolitical”. In 1972, this seemed to me to be an obvious implication of the basic approach to anthropology I was taught at that time: if every activity has a political (and also an economic, kinship, social and cosmological) dimension, then no action could be apolitical. But the impression I gained when I attended the ASA’s 1973 decennial conference at Oxford was of a discipline spiralling into more and more esoteric language focused on ever more minute niceties of symbolic analysis, with scant regard to political meanings in the society studied or for the contribution anthropology could make to understanding how the world worked. It seemed equally obvious when I was doing doctoral fieldwork in pre-revolutionary Iran, that if anthropologists are participants as well as observers whilst doing fieldwork, then they are part of the action, so everything they do in the field also has a political dimension. On my return from fieldwork, by the mid-1970s, feminism gave me a term for this: one is always a positioned actor.

How was a British anthropologist to position herself, and how did the discipline position itself, in the post-colonial period of the 1970s? British anthropology seemed to have hunkered down, still focused on artificially closed and isolated “peoples”, despite the Crisis of Community Studies (Bell and Newby 1978). Talal Asad’s (1973) introduction to Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter gave a (mildly) critical insight into anthropology’s positioning in a system of government and power. That reflexive critique was countered by the LSE’s publication, claiming anthropologists were well-intentioned, and labelling Asad as “acrimonious” (i.e. committing the sin of rocking the boat). That approach avoided what, for me, studying how tribally organised people in Iran were organising themselves in relation to a modernising state, were the crucial questions: how were people trying to understand and position themselves in a changing world? And how could anthropology study ethnographically how people, in their everyday lives, acted within worlds as big as nation states and international oil economies?

Two articles from the U.S. widened the field of anthropology from just studying a “people” to the economic, social and political “systems” in which they are located. At the height of the Vietnam war, Kathleen Gough’s (1968) “Anthropology and Imperialism” argued that when western anthropologists researched communities in Asia, Africa and Latin America it was important to find ways to study the local within international systems of imperial domination. Laura Nader argued that we should not just “study down” to those who are weaker and marginalised, but “study up” – the industries, regulators, legislators and professional bodies. Motivated by indignation over, for example, children being seriously burned because their night clothes were not fire-proof, she started with the people affected and traced upwards through layers of bureaucracy and corporations to find out the reasons for the problem (Nader 1980). She studied how people’s lives in the USA were shaped by “hidden hierarchies” of industrial and state power and aimed to enable citizens to make such systems more democratic. Her article gained even more relevance when I turned my attention to studying the transformations of British society under Thatcherism. Whereas Nader studied up, my study went up and down. It was located in three sites: central government and how the figure of the “enterprising individual” emerged in legislation and became key to  the Thatcherite reshaping of Britain; a local government that attempted to resist the roll back of the state and competitive individualism by reviving notions of “the public” and “community action”; and people in a village whose heavy industry had closed down  – what happened when their conceptions of “individual” and “community” encountered the local authority’s ideas of community action and the central government’s reforms for self-management of social housing and public schools? In trying to fathom the fast-moving transformation of British society, I focused on “policy” as not only the instrument that central and local government were using to try and make changes, but also methodologically as a way to trace how events in the three sites were partially connected and how people contested their meanings. Theoretically, I conceptualised policy as a space of contestation where differently positioned people across these sites, albeit with different access to resources and forms of power, were all active participants in reshaping British society.

Besides Nader’s writings, I had three kinds of “company” in trying to uncover the workings of Thatcherism. First, Cris Shore and I brought together our different ethnographies to develop the anthropology of policy as a new field of political anthropology (Shore and Wright 1997, 2011), which was the inspiration for the AAA’s Association for the Anthropology of Policy (ASAP). Second, students on my 3rd year BA course, “Policy and Power” kept me company by doing excellent investigations into how a range of government policies tried to re-envisage and shape people as enterprising individuals and competing citizen-consumers. In particular, a PhD student, Susan Reinhold (1994), developed Nader’s ideas into an approach called “studying through” – tracing across sites and through time how a policy emerges, is contested, becomes authoritative and maybe hegemonic, and in the process how key organising concepts of citizen, family, nation become transformed (Wright and Reinhold 2011). Third, from 1987-91 I also chaired a voluntary organisation, Group for Anthropology in Policy and Practice (GAPP), later renamed Anthropology in Action (AinA). This was a network of about 300 British anthropologists who were employed in, or researching, different parts of the public sector. We were intent on using anthropology to understand and work out how to act on changes to the welfare state and international development (Wright 2005).

This kind of public anthropology was silenced in a way not discussed by Nader. AinA depended on a few tenured academics using some of their research time, or at least their Sundays, to keep the organisation and network going. But from 1986, British universities were audited through a “Research Assessment Exercise”. The publications of academics in each discipline were assessed and the departments ranked, and by 2000, it was clear that government would fund universities differentially according to their departmental rankings. Academics became bad citizens if they did not put all their time and energy into academic publishing (with only a small reserve for teaching), and in some departments academics were explicitly instructed to drop all “outside” activities. Under this pressure, AinA was dissolved.  The silencing of public engagement through such coercive audit, which measures and rewards specified performance and outputs and does not “count” others, is prevalent in the UK and widespread in Europe (Shore and Wright 2015, Wright 2014).

— Read the full article on www.brill.com/puan




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