Socio- Ethnographic Study of the Academic Professionalization of Anthropologists

Author: Loewen, Gregory V.
This book is a study in the sociology of knowledge. Specifically, a study of how anthropologists over the previous forty years have constructed anthropological knowledge. Interpretation of this material takes place within the discourses of the anthropology of knowledge and education.

Anthropologists say that ways of thinking about anthropological knowledge conflict at the theoretical level but do not conflict in practice. Practice is defined as fieldwork and teaching. here, theory is felt only indirectly. Various tensions follow from this understanding. They include those between subject and object, positivism and post-positivism, value and validity, field and archive, and cultural relativism versus scientific knowledge.

The concept which mediates these tensions is that of the field. Fieldwork is seen by anthropologists as an experience with both epistemological and ethical implications. Ethically, the field supports a certain manner of living and outlook on humanity. Yet, epistemologically, the field is divisive because it is cast as the promotional agent for various kinds of method, theory, and reflective analyses. These analyses include a belief in value relativism in concert with a scientific notion of validity. For example, if it were not for the fundamental tools of positivism in anthropology, anthropologists felt that anthropological knowledge might be seen as idiosyncratic. In their search for human knowledge, anthropologists are united by their methods and ethics. They are divided, however, by their theories. These divisions and unities are inherited in the culture of anthropology. Although anthropologists understand different cultures’ values to be equal, they suggest that ways of knowing another culture through anthropology are not equally valid.

Theoretical conflicts are also produced in institutions. These are seen as major influences on the ‘look’ of anthropology at various times and places. Departments, publishers, students and teachers are all influences on anthropological knowledge construction.

Anthropological knowledge is also seen as being constructed at a personal level. Anthropologists felt that the concept of vocation in the individual’s life-narrative as an anthropologist is important to this construction. Anthropology is seen as a calling or assignation. As well, the purpose of anthropological knowledge is seen as an ethical precept. The sanctity of field experiences for these anthropologists brings them together ethically but divides them epistemologically.


“Over the last three decades or so American anthropology has been in a state of disarray characterized by an acrimonious and ideologically charged diatribe between the so-called "positivist" and "post-positivist" (or the epistemological relativist) camps. The contentious debate concerns the construction of anthropological knowledge and a polarization between those anthropologists espousing scientific, explanatory perspectives who are committed to pan-human generalizations and those who are concerned with interpretive, intuitive, hermeneutic approaches, local knowledge, and the production of narrative ethnographies of the particular. Central to the debate is the disjunction between pan-human theories of culture (anthropological knowledge) and "local knowledge" (the so-called "native's" point of view). The positivist and post- positivist debate is above all about authority in the discipline. Efforts by various writers to come to grips with the issues noted above have been hampered by individual theoretical and ideological allegiances to particular theoretical camps. Dr. Loewen's highly nuanced approach avoids this pitfall and brings new insights into what is a complex politically-charged and ideologically laden diatribe by turning the anthropological eye directly upon the discipline of anthropology and the views of its practitioners, what he calls "the native anthropologists' voices." … Loewen approaches anthropological knowledge not only as it exists as theoretical formulations but also as the personal experiences of the individual practitioners in their spheres of activity, in the field and in the classroom. We therefore get a unique ethnographic view of the lives of the very individuals who make ethnography central to their intellectual endeavors. Loewen's elucidation of the role of ethnographic fieldwork and its central place in the anthropologists' understanding of what is anthropology is remarkably revealing … Loewen has demonstrated that an understanding of how disciplinary culture impacts the manner in which anthropological knowledge is generated requires an examination of a multiplicity of dimensions, or "spaces," encompassing not only abstract epistemological and theoretical formulations, but also the personal experiential, ethnographic and vocational/ pedagogical aspects as well. This book is a substantial piece of scholarship and an important contribution in the area of the sociology/anthropology of knowledge for which the author deserves considerable praise. – (from the Commendatory Preface) Dr. H. Sidky, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Miami University Oxford, Ohio

“In this book, Loewen draws upon three years of research to write an anthropology of anthropologists, an ethnography of ethnographers. His purpose is to describe and analyze both the epistemologies of sociocultural anthropology as a discipline, and anthropologists as a cultural group. Although he describes his work as “a study of how anthropologists in North America construct anthropological knowledge,” his analysis goes beyond epistemology to consider not only the ‘knowledge of anthropology,’ but also ‘knowledge of the anthropologist’—that is, anthropologists as people characterized by a particular ethics, vocation, and sense of purpose … Loewen’s book contributes to the ongoing discussion of who we are and what makes us so, reflecting anthropologists’ own voices back to us as the source of authority for our consideration. It is these ‘native voices’ of anthropologists that are the book’s greatest strength. In relating these voices, this book provides us not only with a discussion of epistemology, but also with a unique historical document for future generations, which captures the self-reflections of a subset of anthropologists at this juncture in the development of our field. While this subset of scholars is a limited one, this is nevertheless in keeping with the ethnographic goal of privileging depth of analysis through extensive interviewing with key informants. Loewen provides an ethnographic account of anthropology as a discipline to complement the textual, ‘official story’ found in scholars’ published works. This ethnographic perspective is revealing … the book is particularly original in its consideration of the relationship between epistemology and more personal aspects of the anthropologist’s identity, in particular, it’s ethical and vocational dimensions. It thus opens up a space for considering disciplinary identity in terms of more than just its intellectual aspects—touching also upon its personal and ethical meanings. This book should be of interest to anthropologists, social scientists, and a broad range of scholars concerned with epistemology, the sociology of education, and academic culture.” – Dr. Jen Pylypa, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

Table of Contents

1. Anthropological Constructions of Knowledge
2. Epistemological Differences and their Tensions
3. Babel Rejoined: The Culture of Anthropological Knowledge
4. Institutions and Anthropological Knowledge
5. Why Anthropology? The Ethical View
6. A Sense of Anthropology
References Cited