I spent last week in Mexico City, at the invitation of Dr. Leif Korsbaek of the National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH). Two of the lectures that I gave at the ENAH were focused on British Social Anthropology.
The first lecture was on the British style of fieldwork, illustrated with some of my own experiences doing fieldwork in Mexico. The second, a conferencia magisterial, formed part of a series that Dr. Korsbaek has organised on British Anthropology, addressed, at his suggestion, to the issue of whether it was still worth talking about British Anthropology at all. My short answer to that question was no, in the sense that there was still an intellectual position that was distinctively British at the international level, although, following the lead of Adam Kuper, I explored the past and recent history of social anthropology in continental Europe. The contributions of British-based scholars to European anthropology in recent years have been both positive and important, making lack of distinctiveness in the insular sense a virtue rather than a vice, although I had to point out that, like much else, the current cosmopolitanism of British anthropology is now threatened by Brexit. I argued strongly against the idea that the intellectual project of social anthropology can be defined by its most favoured method, ethnographic fieldwork. But my main objective was to complicate the stereotypical image of what British social anthropology was, in its “classical” heyday. So as well as recognising the crucial importance of Durkheim and Mauss, I looked at the historical relationships between the work of some British social anthropologists and anthropologists (and sociologists) in the United States who did not subscribe to the Boasian cultural anthropology paradigm, and explored the differences amongst the British structural-functionalists that were paradigmatic as well as questions of academic politics. Although I could not resist an account of what I consider the dead and living parts of the classic tradition of British social anthropology today that was considerably more favourable to Max Gluckman’s Manchester School than to my own alma mater, Oxford, the lecture ended with Malinowski’s final project, carried out in Mexico on the then very novel topic of the market system of the Valley of Oaxaca, drawing on work by Susan Drucker-Brown and Scott Cook. When the draft report that Malinowski wrote with his left-wing Mexican colleague Julio de La Fuente was finally translated into Spanish, a committee of ENAH students praised the text both for its lack of “exoticisation” of indigenous people and its interest in examining how cooperatives and other kinds of rural development initiatives might improve their welfare. Although the official indigenismo of the post-revolutionary state that sponsored these initiatives has long been repudiated by Mexican anthropology, the country’s still lamentable record on alleviating indigenous poverty in the second decade of the twenty-first century perhaps invites us to reconsider the more virtuous aspects of the horse to which Malinowski, always an advocate for “practical” uses of anthropology, hitched his cart in the last years before his untimely death.
My other talks at the ENAH were on the coup in Brazil and its implications, and on the recently published Spanish language edition of my book The New War on the Poor (La Nueva Guerra Contra los Pobres, Bellaterra, 2016).
In my discussion of Brazil, I placed particular emphasis on how the strategy of lawfare had been used against the PT in general, and against Lula, without doubt the besr president the country has had to date, and still capable of winning an election, in particular. I then considered the wider and deeper implications of what has now become government through a permanent state of exception backed by a partisan or cowed Supreme Court. The present coup can be seen as a continuation of a cycle of interruptions of democratic governance in Brazil that reflects continuities in the country’s history since the first republic, with its wars of extermination against rural rebels who resisted a class and racially biased model of order and progress, and the systemic reproduction of the power of an oligarchy. But it also reflects a pathetic form of class resentment of a racialised kind that has no place in a twenty-first century society that aspires to be recognised as modern and, to use a phrase beloved of the golpistas, “civilised”. The entreguismo of the usurpers bears an obvious similarity to the posture of Mexico’s currenr rulers, as does the corruption of the system of power that they represent. It is worth remembering that the Italian protype of Lava Jato did not end well, despite the fact that, in contrast to the Brazilian version, it attacked all the established political class, not just a political force that, whatever its other failings, made serious efforts to reduce poverty and social inequality.
Thanks to an invitation from my former student Dra. Areli Ramirez at the Universidad Iberoamericana, I was also able to talk about the book there as well on my final day in Mexico City. Given its focus on security and the fact that the situations it discusses continue to go from bad to worse, it was good to have an opportunity not only to present the book and receive some very generous commentaries on it, but also to underscore the continuing relevance of its arguments. Antonio Núñez was kind enough to tweet some key points from my presentation at the Ibero (https://twitter.com/antonionupi).
I would like to thank all the colleagues and students who came to hear me at both venues not only for listening but also for asking some good questions in all the sessions, and for providing some wonderful hospitality and conversation outside the classroom.