Reflexive Brokerage for a Global Anthropology

Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara on the cover of the Tricontinental magazine No. 14

As anthropologists, we do not create knowledge. We spend most of our time coming to understand what others already know by heart. Our contribution lies in brokerage: articulating others’ knowledge about life into formats that help to bridge different understandings. And there are many gaps to bridge.

We first aim to deepen exchange in knowledge production between the Global South and North. We take experiences and perceptions in the Global South as intellectual resources to analyse global changes, rather than merely cases to be investigated. Simply put, the Global South is the major driving force of world changes, and not merely an epistemological position that helps us to decolonialize Northern knowledge. Moving beyond post-colonial critiques about the North, we hope to advance a more inclusive and constructive global anthropology.

In this context, we will make a special effort to carry out South-South conversations as a method of theory building. When a scholar from China is puzzled by what happens in India; when a researcher from Brazil is pressed by an activist from Indonesia to articulate her position; when a Somali academic empathizes with reflections of a Syrian refugee – these are moments of theoretical innovation. Such conversations are the oxygen of the Department. Visiting and writing fellowships for early career researchers and a summer school for PhD students are possible pathways.

Second, we aim to bring academic insights into public debate, which is not easy. The material that we anthropologists study often appears banal and even trivial to the public (“what food you eat” –So what?), but the questions that anthropologists raise are often unintelligible to a general audience (“the making of subjectivity” –What?!). The key to overcoming these gaps may be to ask questions that the public is interested in and design research in such a way that its outcomes will provide analytical tools useful for the public in understanding their life. Our research respondents are co-researchers.

Such brokerage must be reflexive. The “Global South” has many facets, and there are many “publics”. Brokerage between different positions is itself positioned. We need to constantly reflect on our positioning and adapt our methods of brokering. 

This endeavour will start with two projects at the early stage of the Department:

I. Social Debates in China as an Intellectual Resource

This project takes social debates – debates among the public, rather than among researchers or policymakers – in China since the 1990s as a source of perspectives that advance global thinking. For instance, the debate on rural-urban relations raises the question of whether the institutional divide between city and countryside could protect peasants from market volatility. This challenges the conventional thinking that takes unified markets and undifferentiated citizenship as unquestionable norms. The debate about state-owned enterprises calls attention to the politics of ownership in a historically specific manner: Will privatization facilitate fair competition, or will it ossify existing inequalities? By curating competing viewpoints on ten critical questions in the format of an annotated reader, we hope to generate research hypotheses with global relevance. 


II. Multi-directional Problematization in Social Research

A key characteristic of anthropological research in the twenty-first century is the fragmentation of contexts of engagement: the contexts in which our subject matter unfolds, our theoretical resources originally developed, and how we publish and seek interlocutors, are widely dispersed and disconnected. This fragmentation is particularly acute for scholars in the Global South, because the major existing social theories were developed to address problems in the Global North during particular eras. When one “applies” a theory to a case, one often detaches the theory from its original context and may also misrepresent the case at hand. Multi-directional problematization re-interrogates theories as conventionally presented, the empirical case as we understand it, and the public perception of related questions by drawing on insights from each other. By doing so, we probe new connections between thought and data, which often belong to different worlds. This project starts with a group of mid-career and senior social researchers based in China, including anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and political scientists. Through workshops, online discussions, and a collective writing project, the team reflects on what research questions were asked over the last twenty years in our fields. Why did we and our colleagues ask these questions instead of others? Could the questions have been asked in more productive ways?

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