Anthropologies of Class

Written by: James G. Carrier

Anthropologies of Class

Power, Practice, and Inequality

James G. Carrier, the co-editor of Anthropologies of Class, explores the impact of studying class.


Class was supposed to be dead — only it wasn’t. The globalisation and economic turmoil that have marked the present century make that clear. Because of this, we ought to study class once again.

Not only ought we study class, we ought to study it anthropologically, for our discipline’s approach can yield special insights on the ways that people experience class and are connected through and affected by class relations. Those are the sorts of insights that my co-editor, Don Kalb, talks about in his conversation on the Author Hub (see video below) and that the chapters in our volume illustrate.

There is another reason why anthropologists ought to study class, one that is related more to what has been going on in the discipline than to what has been going on in the world we see around us. I want to explain that reason.

Anthropologists used to attend to things like class. That is, many of them used to study the ways that people were linked to each other, the ways that those links created patterns and the ways that they affected people. Sometimes the people they studied were aware of those patterns. Sometimes, however, they were not, in the way that individual kula traders were not aware of the overall pattern that their trade created, the kula ring that Malinowski described.

In the 1970s, though, this began to change, not just in anthropology but in the social sciences generally. The change appeared first in the growing and changing interest in culture that many called the Cultural Turn. Increasingly, anthropologists told themselves that they should be concerned only with how people understand the world around them, the Native Point of View. As well, increasingly they told themselves that describing that Point of View should be an end in itself.

The change within anthropology did not stop with this sort of interest in culture, for the Cultural Turn was followed by the rise of postmodernism, and again this occurred not just in anthropology but in the social sciences more generally. The advocates of postmodernism told us that the intellectual tools we had were seriously flawed. Those tools had led us to think in terms of cultural units, when in fact those units were fragmented and diverse. They had led us to privilege the position of the researcher, when in fact it was no more valid than the position of the individuals we studied. They had led us to think that we could produce fairly comprehensive and valid ethnographic descriptions of groups of people, when in fact those descriptions were biased and partial, reflections of the Western Modernism that had shaped the discipline.

Many of the anthropologists who advocated these changes saw them as a way to correct the intellectual and political shortcomings of the older style of anthropology. But whatever they intended, the result turned out to be a discipline in which many seemed reluctant to do much more than record and report what the people who were their interlocutors had to say about themselves and their view of the world.

The concern to record as faithfully as possible how a particular set of people see themselves and their world led to many good ethnographies. However, it carried a cost. That was a spreading lack of interest among anthropologists in relating the lives of the people we study to things that they do not see or think about, and a similar lack of interest in what can be called the social rather than the cultural.

This cost has become more burdensome over the past few decades, as government policies and programmes increasingly came to echo what is commonly called neoliberalism. It has become especially burdensome since the onset of the economic crisis in 2008, and the associated deterioration of many people’s well-being and increased concern with inequality.

It has been burdensome because the rise of neoliberalism, the economic crisis and the rest have made it increasingly clear that people are enmeshed in systems of relations that affect them in important ways. Moreover, it also has become increasingly clear that significant parts of those systems are invisible to the people who are affected, whether because those parts are far away or because they are near at hand but shrouded in secrecy.

An interest in class can reduce that cost because it encourages us, once again, to locate the people we study in a broader world. That world is a set of relationships and interdependencies that affects people’s lives in ways that those people can perceive, but does so because of the actions and interests of people and institutions that they may not perceive.

The papers in Anthropologies of Class show that we can learn much about class and its associated inequalities if we attend to the Native Point of View, to how people understand their world and themselves. However, those papers also show that restricting our attention to that Point of View hinders us in our efforts to make sense both of people’s understandings and of the world that they confront.

That is why the study of class is important because of what has been going on in anthropology, and not only because of what has been going on in the world around us.

Watch an interview with Carrier’s co-editor, Don Kalb, about Anthropologies of Class:

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About the Author: James G. Carrier

James G. Carrier is the co-editor of Anthropologies of Class....

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