In the past two posts I’ve been exploring the election of President’elect Trump through the lenses of anthropology. If you’ll recall from my first post, one of the key capabilities of anthropology “is to make the world safe for human differences” (Benedict 1946). In this post I’ll continue to build a way forward, anthropologically.
We may have reached the apotheosis in this decade for the need for anthropology, for its attention to the subtleties of embodiment, to the power of discourse, and to the broader context within which the course of events play out.
In the second of two articles written for Paul Stoller for The Huffington Post on Trump, he writes that,
Blinded by their own cultural assumptions, the media and the political establishment overlooked the power of culture to shape an election. How many of them understood the social and psychological dynamics of the disaffected Trump voter? How many of them could understand their social frustrations, their lack of hope, or their embrace of a fictive reality?
We live is trying times that require anthropological impute to combat the coming onslaught of Trumpism—the loss of health insurance, increasing deficits, the inevitability of climate disasters, racial and religious intolerance, and the re-institution of torture. Anthropological insights can help us to change the narrative of Trumpism and reconfigure the American political landscape into one that values social justice and human dignity. Participating in protests may make us feel good, but if you don’t have a culturally attuned and politically convincing narrative, there’s little chance for real social and political change (2016).
Culture, says Stoller, is the crucible of change. We must be tuned in to the voices of the disaffected and present a more powerful narrative that can be drawn from the centuries of cross-cultural anthropological thought. Trump is not new; the ideas and narratives that he invokes speak to the disaffection of people and he offers them “change”. Without doubt, the change that he has in mind has the potential to further disaffect the white, working-class Americans that voted him into office. Without a broader context, they may not see that the Emperor has no clothes.
Stoller offers three ways forward drawn from the potential of anthropology: The Power of Ethnography, The Power of Thick Description, and The Power of Cultural Critique.
The Power of Ethnography
The long term engagement in research milieus offers anthropologists a unique insight into the worldviews of those they research with. As such Stoller argues, and I concer, that an anthropologist could have given voice to the worldviews of Trump supporters. On this particular group, I recall Kathleen Stewart’s, A Space on the Side of the Road, which explores the “margins” of American culture in the foothills of the Appalachians. Stewart’s sureal prose involves us in the tribulations, poverty, and humanity of the people she spent so much time with. As Stoller suggests, “Ethnographic thinking … enables us to understand social and political dynamics and use them to precipitate meaningful social change.” (2016).
The Power of Thick Description
In contrast to the “thin” descriptions of the recent poltical events, thick description, a method so-named by the indomintable late Clifford Geertz, seeks to unravel the complexities of an event. As such, Stoller suggests, “Thick description embraces complexity. In the world of analytics, where practitioners reduce human behavior to abstract and distanced mathematical specificity, thick description provides the kind of social and cultural context that big data usually overlooks” (2016).
Thick description, like all anthropology, seeks to re-present and re-member the social memories of its interlocutors without freezing them totalizing narratives, of which there is little escape. In contrast, we keep culture moving, as a process of becoming something something more, or nothing at all (Stewart 1996).
The Power of Cultural Critique
The late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu considered sociology to be a martial art. As a public intellectual, Bourdieu, like many anthropologists, use the profundity and breadth of our research to provide insight, and crituq to the matters at hand, be they political or otherwise. “In cultural critique”, Stoller suggests, “we use ethnographically contoured essays, films, and blogs to bring into relief the hidden, taken-for-granted dimensions of our social systems—dimensions that reinforce racial, ethnic, class and gender inequities. In the end, cultural critique is a powerful way to underscore the accountability of anyone, including, of course, Mr. Trump. We can use it to configure a counter-narrative to Trumpism, a counter-narrative that can limit its forthcoming damage to our society and eventually bring about a more perfect union” (2016).
The counter-narratives we create cannot be critiques-as-usual (Stewart 1996): they must pull and twist the just-so story of fear and hatred, wrenching it apart through the embodied and visceral accounts thickly described through the power of enthnography.
1996. A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an “Other” America. Princeton University Press: New Jersey.
2016. Revisiting The Anthropology of Trump: Ethnography and the Power of Culture. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-stoller/revisiting-the-anthropolo_b_12891694.html