Why anthropology?

I was asked the question shortly before finishing my doctoral thesis. “But why anthropology?” It is rather uncommon to refer to so many anthropologists in a thesis in my field, a thesis that is not based on ethnography. In social work it makes more sense to refer to sociologists, psychologists, even political scientists. So “why anthropology?”

I remember pointing out some obvious parallels between the works of Aihwa Ong, Didier Fassin, Miriam Ticktin, and Rania Kassab Sweis and my own work, such as those related to the analyses of biopolitics, philanthropy and embodiment. But the answer is more complicated and it has taken years and “hindsights” to figure it out.

The reason I find these works so inspiring was because I was already familiar with the field of migration studies, which some of these works are part of as well. Some authors followed from previous studies, such as Gloria Wekker, Clifford Geertz, and Johannes Fabian. It all made it easier to comprehend the debates and also see similar developments in my field. Yet, merely understanding does not actually make it interesting. And, for a very long time, I have appreciated the balance between the empirical and the theoretical that anthropology offers. I admire the enriching self-critique within the discipline whose only correspondence I find in gender studies. Perhaps this is precisely what makes it easy to think anthropology in other fields, what even helped me to understand my own field (outsider-within, in-betweeness), but also what made my work less comprehensible for others in that field. But there is more.

Approximately 1,5–2 years after I was admitted as a doctoral student to a research program, I had to face a few harsh realities. I had to accept that I could not proceed with the intended methodology, namely ethnography. This was the moment when I realised that, up to that point in time, doing ethnography and fieldwork was what my studies were all about. However, although this was fundamental in what I was used to and what I loved to do, I did this in social science/gender studies programs, not in anthropology. I thought of myself as a feminist scholar and did not think much about anthropology. If I did think about it, I associated it with a qualitative method that I preferred.

When I formulate questions but have to tear the paper up after meeting my first informant – there is something about this process that I simply do not experience when reviewing documents. Or the process which forces me to question my presumptions when encountering the field. This unpredictable process which gives me the sense of shattered worldviews but also of new insights and knowledge gained. When I read anthropology I get a similar impression. The world looks a little bit different after each “thick” description provided.

It is not to say analyses of policy and documents are not relevant or interesting. Because they are. Nor does all of this mean that I was on the wrong track. Non, je ne regrette rien. I had to learn more about new sociology of childhood to understand that anthropology of childhood is where I am headed. Given that I no longer was able to “do” ethnography, a new interested emerged: anthropological theory.

Referring to anthropologists became a strategy to engage with anthropology, without doing or being in anthropology.

I now attend courses in social anthropology to show the world what I have longed for, what I still want, what I hope to return to, use repeatedly, and learn much more about in a continuous crossing of disciplinary boundaries.

Update 2020-12-07: Thanks to one of my amazing lecturer, I now have learned the word, which pretty much summarizes this post and answers “Why anthropology?”. The answer: serendipity!