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'I Write Their Stories'

In our efforts to describe other people and their social worlds, we inevitably reduce the complexity of their being in this world. Anthropology attempts to balance contextualised nuance with broader theory to gain practical insights. However, initially defined and funded by European colonial desires, its legacy continues to be uncomfortable and frequently problematic. I have found Twitter to be a surprising source of reassurance, where collective frustrations can lead to both discussion and action.

Text and Image: Harriet Smith

Academic twitter is reaching a breaking point… or something… What’s your current fave drama to watch unfold, the chair throwing at ASA, the qualitative article on um, solo-authoring, or the back and forth about whether tenure requires dedication or is just pure luck’

@lopez_wd 9 August 2022 Twitter

As a millennial, social media can be both a source and a space of concern and community. Over summer, before entering my third year of anthropological studies and struggling with the inherently extractive nature of most academic research, I found myself scrolling through Twitter. Summer 2022 was a wild time for anthropology and academia, as @lopez_wd’s tweet suggests. They were referring to a series of conversations on Twitter, questioning the structure of academic institutions and the academic publishing industry. Tension at the African Studies Association (ASA) was high following the publication of an ethically questionable article. Then, Qualitative Research published a (since retracted) paedophilic masturbation diary, self-described as autoethnography, which is typically a self-reflective form of qualitative (descriptive rather than statistical) research. The enduring debate of meritocracy caused further division among those engaged in academic careers, revealing class privilege, discomfort and varying degrees of self-reflection. For those struggling with ethical disagreements and their own position as anthropologists, Twitter is not just a place to argue online though. It can be a place to seek community, and even push for collective change as a tool for organising. It has expanded my concerns about the field of anthropology, especially regarding academia and publishing, and yet I still feel there is hope. These scattered thoughts inspired by my university experience and Twitter moments are my current attempt to reckon with a central facet of anthropology: ‘I write their stories’.

Being an anthropology student

Studying anthropology has given me a more nuanced understanding of power, politics, and identity categorisations (and their limitations). Yet I am left with a sense of discomfort around the idea of ever becoming an ‘anthropologist’. If people’s stories are important, why must they be written by someone else? My ongoing unease fluctuates, unsure if the importance of storytelling, valuing and creating a wider and more nuanced awareness of the many ways of being in the world, outweighs the potential harm and exploitative nature of unending research on communities categorised as marginalised. How does it feel when a community’s stories become a career for someone else? The location and language of storytelling and the accessibility of knowledge matters if we are truly interested in societal improvements. I wonder if anthropology can ever truly transcend historical power structures, and my head is full of questions and concerns with no clear answers. Judging from conversations with my friends, I am not the only one.

Anthropology teachers at our university balance a desire to reckon with anthropology’s colonial heritage while also providing a foundational knowledge that is ‘internationally competitive’. This often requires a certain number of canonical texts, those that are considered the foundations of the discipline. Canonical anthropological texts are often historically or ideologically linked to European colonialism, presenting specific biases. I constantly recall the words of Bell Hooks, describing the overlapping political power structures of ‘imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ when I think about the legacy and reality of social science subjects in university.

In early anthropology, white European men travelled and ‘studied’ communities abroad, labelling them as ‘primitive’ and ‘uncivilised’. This justified their own sense of superiority and the ‘civilising mission’ of European colonialism which enriched nations such as the Netherlands, while enacting atrocities upon and impoverishing others. Anthropological theory, like most social sciences, is not static or universally agreed upon though. Approaches shift in geographic space and time, often a result of teaching mentors and shaped by the subjective experiences and beliefs of the researchers themselves.

Today, anthropologists aim to be increasingly reflexive, actively aware of their position, privilege and power. However, to build a career usually still requires that an individual authors the stories of other people, whose lives are often vastly different from their own. An overemphasis on difference or writing about something based on fragments of information, risks continuing a colonial pattern of exoticising and ‘Othering’. A further layer of discomfort is created when one can become an expert above those living in the communities selected to be studied. If the empowerment of people who are turned into the subjects of research, is based upon granting access to a researcher, however well intentioned, then it is likely that colonial power dynamics are recreated. In this context, who is authoring whose stories, and why, matters.

Tweeting against power structures

Widely available internet access has made information instantly and globally obtainable. Twitter has changed journalism, it has amplified movements for social justice (#MeToo), connected people in academia across the globe (#AnthroTwitter and #AcademicTwitter) and given millions of people a space to air their thoughts, feelings, and frustrations. Twitter users who work in academia have utilised the platform to connect and organise against poor working conditions, unethical publishing and biased reviewing practices. I will consider two main examples to explore how Twitter presents the possibility for collective organising: the open letter sent to ASA following an unethical publication and the creation of @0pointseven to fight insecure temporary contracts in academia in the Netherlands.

‘My colleagues & I drafted an open letter to @ASRJournal in response to the Autoethnography article. We offered an explanation of the harms in great detail & have asked them to retract it. Please support us as signatories. All typos in it are mine.’

@MissChisomo 18 May 2022

‘It is beyond time to have an honest conversation about whose voices are centred, privileged, and celebrated in African Studies. This letter by respected colleagues pushes us towards that reckoning. I signed it’

@AugustaAtinuke 21 May 2022 </i>

My concerns about anthropology were validated in the example related to the ASA, where an unequal ‘Global North’ power imbalance in publishing becomes visible. Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba, an assistant professor of literature, describes ‘African Studies Keyword: Autoethnography’ (Mara and Daly Thompson 2022) as repeating ‘racist colonial fantasies’. The article created polarising debates online about white supremacy and free speech. This culminated in an open letter and an ongoing dispute between the ASA and African scholars. Advocating for including oneself in the story, the authors of the original article equate autoethnography with decolonisation, suggesting there is not enough autoethnographic work within ‘African Studies’. However, in doing so, they appear to encourage an extractive approach, where informed consent becomes unclear. Their focus on gaining insider status follows previous fieldwork, which they describe as ‘going native’; one author did this through a questionable autoethnography about their own marriage in Zanzibar. It reflects a Euro-American view of Africa, privileging an interpretation by people who continue to term themselves ‘Africanists’.

The term ‘Africanist’ repeatedly used within the 2022 article creeps me out. It immediately reminds me of Edward Said’s term, ‘Orientalism’, a concept which Said utilised to explain the creation by the ‘West’ of the ‘East’ as a counterpoint, a measure of difference that heightened a sense of superiority. To be an ‘Africanist’ today suggests an assumption of special knowledge about Africa, an entire continent, and that Africa should be known by the ‘West’. With this understanding, it is unsurprising that the open letter asks for a retraction of the article because it risks perpetuating cultural and structural violence on communities it labels as marginalised. Autoethnography must be approached sensitively and ethically, so it is not utilised to obscure, erase, or justify power imbalances which are non-consensual and unnecessary. The ASA have not yet issued a retraction, but instead suggested edits to the open letter.

Closer to home, the creation of @0pointseven on Twitter is an example of organising around a collective grievance. While academic researchers may hold a privileged position in relation to some communities that are researched, the process of becoming an academic researcher is a precarious one. Academics are often reliant on class and wealth privilege to afford the slow process of climbing an increasingly crowded and unstable career ladder within a neoliberal institution. In this context, Twitter served as a digital addition to on-campus organising across the Netherlands for those with insecure temporary contracts for part-time work (yet usually facing full-time workload). So far collective organising and a grading strike has led to improved contract lengths for junior lecturers at the University of Amsterdam.

‘Today, Casual Academy has published the important report “Casualisation in Dutch academia: testimonials from the margins’. Download from our website and spread the word.’’

@CasualLeiden 31 October 2022

@CasualLeidenis just one account currently sharing the report related to current structural problems. Casualisation is the process of shifting a workforce from permanent to short term or casual contracts, a problem across multiple industries. Academia has rapidly become an employer that uses job insecurity to its advantage. Precarity creates pressure to do more work for less pay, even encouraging unpaid work. By recognising insecure contracts as a national rather than an isolated problem, connecting campuses through social media, more effective collective action could be organised, and large institutions made more publicly accountable. The more I have learned about this, the more grateful I am for those who have organised. I am also shocked at the reality of employment in supposedly prestigious institutions. I wonder how anthropological techniques could be used to research and understand the reality of university, making the familiar strange, because honestly, it already seems strange to me.

Being hopeful

While I can see continuing flaws in who is studied, what is published and by whom, and the structure of universities as facilitators and gatekeepers of knowledge, I do not feel without hope. There is value in teaching students to deeply listen, to acknowledge the ways in which we can learn from each other’s stories. There is also great power and potential in being able to sit with discomfort. I am unsure if the useful skills would therefore be better taught earlier in one’s education. Anthropology can teach us complex nuanced reality about processes that have created the world (and some of its problems) today. It can discourage us from making assumptions without inquiry. By recognising that there are no universal truths, but subjective and contextual, personal and collective, multiple truths, we encourage openness and flexibility. Furthermore, I believe there is applied and practical research, stemming from social science subjects that is necessary for shifting the cultural beliefs we inherit. Recognising connections between cultural attitudes across time provides the potential to de-mysticise ideas guiding behaviour that have oppressed and harmed others. I find cultural anthropology most useful when it allows us to make visible the ways in which an ‘imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ remains present.

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