Why anthropology? (Serendipity)


“But why anthropology?”. I was asked the question shortly before finishing my doctoral thesis. It is rather uncommon to refer to so many anthropological studies in a thesis that is not based on ethnography and is, in addition to this, written within the field of child welfare social work. In social work, it is more common to refer to sociologists, psychologists, and 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. Some authors followed from previous studies, such as Gloria Wekker, Clifford Geertz, and Johannes Fabian. Because this was already a familiar territory, it was easy to draw parallels and identify similar developments in my field.

I have always liked to draw unexpected parallels and use unexpected combinations of theoretical perspectives. Thus, including anthropology where others would instead draw on sociology or psychology is what can be expected of my work.

In addition, I have for a very long time appreciated the balance between the empirical and the theoretical that anthropology offers and how anthropologists use practice to generate theories. I also admire the enriching reflexivity and disciplinary self-critique in anthropology whose only correspondence I find in gender studies. This is another reason why it is easy to “think” anthropology in other fields. Questions like these helped me to reflect on my situatedness (outsider-within, in-betweenness). But there is more.

“Where are the children?” From the photo project Karantäntider (Lockdown Times).
I changed from gender studies to child welfare social work thinking that this would be the discipline/field where I would study young people’s world views. When the project changed, I was able to learn different kinds of text analyses. But I missed ethnography.

Approximately 1,5–2 years after I was admitted as a doctoral student to a research program in social work, I had to face a few harsh realities. I had to accept that I could not proceed with my initial research plan and 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, which, I thought, I can continue with in any field…

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 to this day have not experienced when analysing documents – the unpredictable and sometimes uncomfortable encounter with the field which forces me to question my own presumptions, shatters worldviews but also gives new insights and knowledge that allows me to rewrite the world. Given that I no longer was able to “do” ethnography, a new interest emerged: anthropological theory.

When I read anthropology, I get a similar impression. The world looks a little bit different after each “thick” description provided. Yet, the main point here is the kind of questions asked. Finding new angles to the problem instead of following previous research and approaches that are taken for granted is perhaps what inspires me the most. Because of this, I feel restricted when this approach is not comprehended, overlooked, or when I am forced into the same discourses that I am trying to overturn.

That is not to say that analyses of policy and documents are not relevant or interesting. Because they are! And in the end, it all leads to texts and the written word. Neither 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 may be where I am headed. Children are social actors, but anthropology helps me to think young people as political subjects too.

“Theory” is a product of displacement, comparison, a certain distance. To theorize, one leaves home. But like any act of travel, theory begins and ends somewhere. In the case of the Greek theorists the beginning and ending were one, the home polis. This is not so simply true of traveling theorists in the late twentieth century.

James Clifford “Notes on Travel and Theory

“To theorize, one leaves home”. For feminist and postcolonial scholars, leaving “home” is more a way of navigating the world than a disturbing experience. It definitely is for me and my transdisciplinary restlessness. This does not mean being without locations, it means that they are not confined to disciplines.

After the PhD program, I attended a few courses in social anthropology. I guess I will always cross disciplinary boundaries but this helped me to reconnect with myself and at the same time find new inspiration.

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

Serendipity means, according to Merriam-Webster: “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for”.