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01 August 2011

Anthropologists as Mediators

This post consists of some cursory thoughts resulting from Rex's Savage Minds post titled "Anthropology as Stand In and Interpreter."  I agree with a lot of what Rex is saying, but the role for anthropologists he is suggesting sounds too passive to me.  The "stand in," if I understand correctly, helps others see their work differently.  The "interpreter" translates information from one (specialist) language to another.  Certainly, we can serve both functions, and I don't take issue with the importance of either of them, but I am concerned that the terminology implies a certain passivity - as if anthropologists work best when their work isn't apparent, when it makes no difference.

I'm sure this isn't what Rex is saying, but it's a possibility suggested by his chosen terms ("stand in" and "interpreter") and I think it needs clarification.  Later in the post, Rex uses the term "mediation," which I think gets at the role he's suggesting more accurately.  Mediation is not passive - it is the active engagement with two beings in order to create a different kind of relationship.  This, to me, is what anthropology - indeed, all science - ought to be about.  It is the creation of difference, the building or relationships, the creation of new realities.  But the mediator doesn't impose her vision upon anyone - she is a "third party" who helps to negotiate between the others in order to create something new and unexpected. 

John Law's book After Method and Anna Marie Mol's essay "Ontological Politics" provide an excellent way of understanding the social sciences in this respect.  But it's also implicit in the way Latour uses the terms "translation," and "mediation," and in his understanding of the practice of science.  Science does not discover knowledge of a pre-existing world, rather it composes new relations which are new realities in themselves.  That anthropologists do this with societies is the only difference, and what makes anthropology so relevant.  We are in a prime position to compose new social forms - new relationships between people, places, and things.  Thus, the role of the anthropologist is not merely to communicate between disparate groups or even to help groups be who they want to be (as if they need us anyway), but to make a difference - to change the way people think of themselves and their world  - and create something new.

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