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Anthropology and Activism: from Radical Difference to Communities of Suffering.

By Nicolas Argenti

It was fashionable in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for anthropologists to title or subtitle their papers ‘A little known people’ of this or that region. (Evans-Pritchard is reported to have quipped that with so many people studying little known and even lesser known peoples, he should like to study a non-existent people). The rhetorical device of referring to exotic and impossibly remote social groups spoke to the self-image of the anthropologist as adventurer/explorer in search of radical cultural difference. In a recent article Joel Robbins adumbrates a turn that has taken place in the discipline – a fundamental shift away from the study of faraway peoples as examples of otherness first identified by Michel-Rolph Trouillot in 1991. Robbins goes on to suggest that the new focus of anthropology – long in coming to fill the gap left by the turn away from ‘the savage slot’, as Trouillot glibly referred to it – is now the suffering subject. From having been objects in the study of difference, other peoples have now become subjects similar to ‘us’ in a new empathetic embrace that seeks not to highlight human diversity or difference, but to establish communion in the universality of suffering. In embracing this new communion with other peoples, Robbins takes inspiration from Cathy Caruth’s seminal work on trauma. As a literary critic, Caruth has been instrumental in taking the notion of trauma from its clinical setting and introducing it into the realm of the humanities and the social sciences, simultaneously transforming its original use as a diagnosis of individual patients to a lament for the suffering of social groups across time and space. Continue reading

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