By Aglaja Kempinski |

Anthropologists can be a bit mean. There, I said it. I suppose I could have prefaced this with a whole “some of my best friends are Anthropologists” spiel. But this would be a bit redundant. Obviously my friends are anthropologists. I am one. Do I harbour a deeply unhealthy relationship with my chosen discipline and life-path? The answer, as I will suggest here, is yes. Kind of. But more to the point, friends tell friends when they’re being a bit mean and that’s what I’m about to do.


I need all the support I can get for this post of professional suicide

The first sign that something was amiss was when I noticed friends from other disciplines (not only are some of my best friends Anthropologists, some of them are also not!) making snide comments: “Anthropologists are all mean” “They are constantly bitching about each other behind their backs” “Anthropologists tear each other apart in seminars” “They eat live baby armadillos for breakfast”

Of course I would (and I still do, complex creature that I am) fiercely defend my tribe. I think Anthropology is pretty dope.  A lot of the feedback I get is very kind. Academia is built on constructive criticism. And after all, if you can’t stand the heat, vacate the kitchen, right?

My perspective started to expand when I went to my first non-anthropology conference.  Sociology is similar enough to Anthropology that essentially we were talking about the same things. But something struck me about it. Everybody was SO NICE to the presenters. Yes, there was criticism but it was always phrased respectfully in a way that did not put the presenter down or ridicule them. In fact the only somewhat antagonistic comment I heard was from another interloping anthropologist. A week after this I went to an anthropological conference where a fellow PhD student was told during the discussion after a panel that her anecdote about her own vulnerability and trauma was “a bit glib” by a senior anthropologist. In case, like us, you are not sure what precisely glib means, it denotes an argument which is made to look smooth on the outside but is really devoid of meaning; an argument that pretends not to be shallow.  Just to clarify: that is not a nice thing to do – especially not from an established scholar to a student presenting their work in front of others for the first time. On the same day I had another senior anthropologist literally giggle contemptuously at my PhD project (on a subject which it later turned out she knew close to nothing about).


these three monkeys, in contrast, are conducting collaborative enquiry peacefully

The point is that while I know that most people in anthropology are nice and respectful, it feels like there is a disproportionate amount of turf wars and putting people down going on.

And, to arrive at the point of this blog post (crescendo please), I think there is a reason for it. As Anthropologist we have to do a minimum of one year of fieldwork. I am a big fan of this, not just because of the data it generates but because it grinds down your preconceived notions and re-structures the way in which you view the world. It’s a methodological tool for your own mind as much as for creating ethnography. But while this tool is powerful, it can put us through a pretty tough time. While we do not have a way of easily acknowledging this, many of us go through a lot of pain while we are on fieldwork – psychologically, socially, and emotionally. It can be tough to be away from your loved ones in a social environment that might initially reject you or which you perceive as unjust, all the while with the pressure of having to gain some unique insight that will make an original contribution to your field. And so, I believe, we attach the pain we went through to gather our data to the ideas which emerged from it. By extension this means that every time we feel our ideas are being threatened or someone questions the validity of something we believe in, implicitly or explicitly, we feel that our pain, our deep emotional attachment to our fieldwork is being invalidated. So, naturally, we have to defend our idea to the death or risk having everything that makes us who we are being called into question. This has three effects: First, we feel that because of our unique experience our perspective is superior and that we therefore have the right to criticise others – often forgetting that they themselves also have unique experiences and being much harsher and more condescending than we need to. Second, replicating our isolation during fieldwork we assume that our analysis must be isolated as well and therefore we often resist collaborating with other anthropologists. And third, it just makes us more sensitive.

Which is fine. Let us scale back out and talk about academics generally. Constructive criticism is important and something the academic community is rightly proud of. However, remember that when you are commenting on someone’s academic work, you are often implicitly commenting on all the things that person went through: their trauma, their choices, their sacrifices and failures. The most productive academic discussion and constructive criticism happens when we are respectful of each other. So please, let’s all reduce our stress levels and play nice.

Aglaja is a third year phd student at Edinburgh. After training as a camera (wo)man during her undergrad years she haphazardly stumbled into Anthropology. She is now happily merging those two directions into her PhD in Social Anthropology. She has no idea where this process is going but she has faith it is some bizarre, interesting place full of imposter syndrome and wonder. Direct all complaints and compliments to @baaaglaja

cover image and image 1)  © flickr. Image 2) © Wikipedia, Links to license are on file 😉