What needs to change in academia?
Ceridwen Dovey is a South African born novelist who now lives in New York. After receiving her undergraduate degree from Harvard in 2003, Dovey returned to South Africa to write a novel. Blood Kin, the result of that work, was published in 2007 to critical acclaim: the novel was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Informed by Dovey's South African roots, the novel tells the story of a fictional military coup from the perspective of the overthrown leader's portraitist, chef, and barber. Dovey is currently completing a PhD in Anthropology at New York University. Dovey doesn't see a conflict between her two passions. "Both anthropology and good fiction are full of thick description and a layering of detail," she says.
Question: What needs to change in academia?
Dovey: Well I can’t speak for all academia; but for anthropology as a discipline within academia, I think there’s this tension right now where there’s a desire for anthropologists to be more engaged and sort of a kind of activist to anthropology that overcomes the distancing effect of sort of observing ____________ observation and theoretical understandings of human life. But this. . . There was this recent, you know, story in the New York Times about anthropologists now being imbedded in combat units in Afghanistan. I’m not sure if they’re also doing it in Iraq, but it was in Afghanistan. And it was a strategy to try and imbed an anthropologist in every combat unit. And it raised all these debates for the academy, because on the one hand people were saying, “Well finally someone is saying that this knowledge that we generate is useful in these very practical ways.” And conflict had often been reduced 60 percent when an anthropologist had been with the combat unit and sort of just known what was going on in terms of those sort of local, tribal dynamics. But on the other hand, you know, if anthropologists are so dependent on the good will of people and letting a complete stranger, often, come into the community and live there and observe their lives – that if there’s even a shadow of a doubt that anthropologists are somehow, you know, linked to the U.S. government in certain areas of the world, I think that undermines the anthropological project anywhere. So I think for the . . . for the academy it is. I think it’s this tendency to both, you know, stick in the ivory tower and justify that by saying, you know, “We can’t get involved, because the moment we get involved we implicate in these things.” And then this tendency to say, “Well how do we make this knowledge that we generate relevant and useful to people in their lives?” And as a graduate student it’s just, you know . . . This phase of graduate school, I’m doing coursework. I haven’t yet started my own research. I’m very much at the theoretical distance level before actually going to sort of get my hands dirty. And I think it’s really in that field where experience a lot of these things ____________. So anthropology is unusual in that sense within the academy, because it does have that field work . . . two years of field work sort of built into your academic experience. It forces you to grapple, you know, and go out there and engage with people. So it’s . . . Unlike sociology which is, you know, much more sort of statistical and sort of quantitative based social science. So it’s very unusual in that sense, but it still struggles with finding a balance between those two positions.
Recorded on: 12/6/07
Imbedding anthropologists with combat units in Afghanistan presents some unique opportunities, as well as some ethical liabilities, Dovey says.
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