When Informants Theorize Back: Confronting the Anthropological Legacy of the Theorized Other
Panel for 2011 AAA Meetings – Traces, Tidemarks, and Legacies
November 16-20, in Montréal, Canada
Shana Harris (University of California, Berkeley / University of California, San Francisco)
Beatriz Reyes-Foster (University of Central Florida)
The construction and examination of difference has unquestionably played a fundamental role in the history and development of anthropology. Drawing distinctions between “us” and “them,” “modern” and “primitive,” “West” and “rest” has served as the basis for so much of our anthropological knowledge. Shaping our ethnographic endeavors and influencing our analytics in innumerable ways, difference is the bedrock upon which our discipline is built. Countless scholars have noted that this production of difference has also contributed, consciously or unconsciously, to the “othering” of the peoples, places, and practices we study. This multifaceted process is consistently scrutinized, analyzed and re-analyzed, in order to understand the traces it leaves on contemporary anthropological research. Yet one arena where such critical attention has largely been absent is that of theorization.
Theorization is central to how we, as anthropologists, craft our expertise. We use theory, one of the primary instruments in our anthropological toolkit, to reflect on the information we gather and the activities that we observe during our fieldwork. The application of theory to ethnographic data is meant to reveal something about the people we study, our so-called “informants.” We also construct theories about those with whom we work. By both wielding and producing theory, the anthropologist is separated from the informant; a line is drawn between “theorizer” and “theorized.” In this sense, theorization operates as a sort of “othering” mechanism that sets informants apart in order for the anthropological expert to theorize about them. Such a practice underscores a great deal of our work, however few anthropologists have examined what happens when this distinction, a legacy from our disciplinary past, is actually challenged by the theorized. In other words, what happens when informants theorize back?
This panel addresses this important question by critically examining the role of theorization in the construction of anthropological expertise. Drawing on research conducted in both the global north and south, panelists discuss how theory, in its various manifestations, is no longer the privileged realm or tool of anthropological experts. Recognizing how informants increasingly speak and “inform” in a language of theory, panelists consider what it means for our field when its experts no longer have the discursive and symbolic monopoly on all things theoretical. Conversely, this panel also seeks to interrogate the very idea of “theory” as a privileged domain of the social scientist. Why is it that the theoretical language we use in analyzing the social phenomena we study invariably has a Western European genealogy? Recognizing that informants can also generate theory, this panel is also about taking informants’ own theories and theorization seriously. As such, panelists explore how different theorizing practices call into question the distinction between “expert” and “informant,” highlighting the fragility and flexibility of this demarcation. For when informants theorize back, the line between “expert” and “informant,” between “theorizer” and “theorized” shifts.
This shifting tidemark begs the question: Who gets to theorize and whose theories count?
We invite abstracts for papers that ethnographically analyze this tenuous yet anthropologically foundational relationship between “theorizer” and “theorized.” Please submit an abstract (250 words max.) to both panel organizers by SUNDAY, MARCH 20, for consideration.
Send comments and questions to H-Net
Webstaff. H-Net reproduces announcements that have been submitted to us as a
free service to the academic community. If you are interested in an announcement
listed here, please contact the organizers or patrons directly. Though we strive
to provide accurate information, H-Net cannot accept responsibility for the text of
announcements appearing in this service. (Administration)