Harvard, Sexual Politics, Class and Resistance

A long read by Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

As we write, the case of alleged sexual harassment by John Comaroff, a professor of anthropology at Harvard, is exploding. The Harvard case is particularly egregious, not least because of the elite status of the university.

In this piece we treat the Harvard case as part of a much wider set of problems concerning class, sexual politics, inequality and resistance. Our focus initially is on universities in the United States. But we need to remember that academic enterprise today is utterly international. Everywhere the industry relies on similar economic models, has similar intellectual concerns and fosters the considerable mobility of professionals and students from workplace to workplace around the globe.

We are particularly addressing anthropology and other graduate students in the United States and across the world. Our aim is to try to answer some of the difficult questions that come up again and again in online discussion of the case.

[You can download a pdf of this long read here.]

First: Why did Caroline Elkins, who wrote such an important book about the brutal suppression of Mau Mau in Kenya, sign the dreadful Harvard letter? And why did so many other people whose work you admire sign letters like the Harvard one?

The second question is one people seem to avoid asking directly, but it is behind so much of what is being said.  At Harvard, and with other abuse cases, a strange fact stands out. Most men are not abusers. But almost all male managers cover up and enable abuse. And so do almost all female managers. Why? What is going on here?

Third: The people who write the open letters, and others who want to defend abusers, go on about due process. But due process works as a Catch-22. Why should well-educated men accused of sexual harassment be the only ones to enjoy due process, when the apologists know full well that is exactly what we want for the victims of sexual abuse? Instead of banging on about due process for abusers only, shouldn’t we all be asking how can to build a genuinely fair process for everyone?

Fourth: Harvard, Columbia, and other universities in the United States and across the world go to extraordinary lengths to cover up abuse, protect abusers and thus enable further abuse. They do so even when most of the people who run those institutions don’t abuse. Why? Why does this matter so much to them?

Fifth, and finally, how can we do good work in the toxic environment of these institutions? Or to put it positively: what can we take from the struggles against sexual violence at Columbia and Harvard to help us do good, creative intellectual work as scholars and teachers?

Continue reading

All Things Being Equal

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale review The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. This article was first published in The Ecologist.

Graeber and Wengrow’s new book is energetic, committed and kaleidoscopic, but also flawed. This presents us with a problem.

David Graeber died young, only a year ago. His masterwork, Debt, may be specious in parts, but its ambition was inspiring in its time.

David Graeber’s work as an activist and a leader in the Occupy and social justice movement was unusual, and exemplary. The respect and affection for him from his colleagues in the anthropology department at LSE speaks volumes. And his heart was always with the oppressed.

But precisely because Graeber was a good guy and left us only recently, there is a danger that for many people The Dawn of Everything will frame their understanding of the origins of inequality for a long time to come.

The back cover of the book carries praise from Rebecca Solnit, Pankaj Mishra, Noam Chomsky and Robin D. G. Kelley – eminent and admirable thinkers all.

Kelley is representative: ‘Graeber and Wengrow have effectively overturned everything I ever thought about the history of the world. The most profound and exciting book I’ve read in thirty years.’

The book has received considerable recent attention in the press, and it would be unfortunate if such praise became the general view.

The question of the origins of inequality in human evolution and history matters a great deal for how we try to change the world. But Graeber and Wengrow want change without attending to equality and class, and they are hostile to environmental and ecological explanations. These flaws have conservative implications.

So here goes. This is a rambunctious, and partial, review of an enormous book. We console ourselves with the knowledge that Graeber loved, and excelled at, the cut and thrust of intellectual debate.

Continue reading

Women in Afghanistan / Frauen in Afghanistan / An Interview with Nancy Lindisfarne

Katharina Anetzberger

This interview was first published in the Austrian socialist magazine Linkswende as Frauen in Afghanistan. You can read it in German here.

LINKSWENDE: Since the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan, the situation of Afghan women has come back into focus. How does this situation look like at the moment concretely?

NANCY LINDISFARNE: I think a place to start is that we need to understand what does actually happen with the Taliban and the actual defeat of the US, militarily and politically. So we’ve got a group pf people who have fought a guerrilla war and they have actually taken over a government with the idea of continuing to be not democratic but ruling a state. And they couldn’t have done this without – nobody wins a guerrilla war, certainly not one where the two sides are so disproportionately powerful and weak – without popular support. And that means that people all over the country have decided that the Taliban are a better deal than either the occupation government or the warlords.

In Afghanistan over 80 percent of the population is living in rural areas or very small towns or villages. This popular support is from men, from women, from everybody. This has been a long time coming and has been kind of growing over a period of time. This isn’t because the Taliban are deeply loved by the Afghan people but simply that they have been a lot better than the cruelty and the corruption of the American government. So that’s the framework I think which is very important and is somehow kind of forgotten in so much of the media.

The situation is enormously precarious for many different reasons. We can’t talk about women without talk about the whole population in a sense that the American occupation, the government of Ashraf Ghani, lost because as I said of the cruelty and the corruption, all that affects everybody. You can’t have a war and bomb people and send drones out and kill only the fighters. So people are in a dreadful situation frankly, partly because the Americans have been humiliated, they’ve been defeated and one of the terrible things that they do in defeat is they exert revenge by making sanctions as a financial penalty. They did this in Vietnam, in Iran, in Iraq, in Cuba.

Continue reading

Dancing in Damascus

Katharina Anetzberger

Based on the experiences and incidents she collected during her field studies in Syria, anthropologist Nancy Lindisfarne wrote Dancing in Damascus, a collection of short stories, in the late 1980s.

[This review first appeared in German here in the Austrian socialist magazine Linkswende.]

Nancy Lindisfarne actually wanted to use the visit to a fellow student in the Syrian capital Damascus as an introduction to studies on the working class there. By chance, she got caught in the middle of the marriage policy of a wavering middle class, which fluctuated between tradition and “modernization” according to the Western model. In nine short stories, she describes the everyday life of a society under dictatorship, tells of the search for identity, gender roles, and the struggles for a self-determined life.

Continue reading

My First Day in Camp with the Piruzai – Afghanistan, 1971

Nancy Lindisfarne-Tapper

My friend Maryam

In 1971 and 1972 Richard Tapper and I lived with Afghan villagers for nearly a year. The Piruzai, some 200 families, lived in two small settlements near the town of Sar-e Pol in northern Afghanistan. They were Pashtu-speakers, pastoralists and peasant farmers, poor people, working very hard to survive in a vicious feudal system.

The people, the setting, and even the division of labour between Richard and myself seemed to conform to every stereotype about the Middle East. There were veiled women, men on horseback, camel caravans, stunning scenery and dramatic lives. These were stereotypes shared by the Afghan officials, politicians and urban professionals we met in Kabul. But the people we met were not two dimensional.

They were warm, funny, clear-thinking and tough. They understood we were doing research – anthropology – insanshenasi – and they wanted to help us ‘write a book’. They wanted their words to be heard and written down. Living with the Piruzai was an immense privilege and our obligation to tell the story of the Piruzai is on-going. Continue reading

Anthropology and Climate Jobs

Nancy Lindisfarne

[Originally published as a letter/comment in Anthropology Today, March 2020.]

The editorial by Thomas Hylland Eriksen (AT Feb 2020, Vol 36, no 1) is a passionate plea for more anthropological engagement in public debates about global warming. His focus is on knowledge – ‘what we can say’ and storytelling – ‘how can we say it?’ His hope is that anthropologists can find ways to intervene more effectively in political debate. I agree and would add that to do so, we need to be willing to take sides, and draw on our anthropological and historical understanding of resistance, social movements and the mechanics of social change (Armbruster & Laerke 2008; Lindisfarne 2010). And in the case of global warming, there is one utterly compelling way to take Eriksen’s plea for action further.

Continue reading