This essay was the result of a highly meaningful collaboration with Iris Jean-Klein, whose remarkable ethnographic work in the West Bank continues to be an inspiration to me and my students in thinking about the ethics of ethnography. We each came to the anthropology of human rights from different sides—the anthropology of violence and human suffering in her case, and the anthropology of human rights administrations in mine. Working together enabled us to see patterns that neither could have grasped alone. Working together also gave us courage to say things that neither of us might have dared say on our own. At the time the piece was quite controversial—perhaps it still is. But re-reading it, I recognize and remember the care with which we thought through our critiques of the mainstream anthropology of human rights. In tune with the spirit of our essay, we meant this intervention as the beginning of a principled engagement, rather than a denunciation.
The piece was also a product of my own position, as a newly tenured law professor but an anthropologist in my intellect and heart. As such, I spent my days defending anthropology and ethnography among people who had little interest in, or time for, the discipline. It was disheartening, therefore, to see that when invited into the corridors of power, anthropologists too often conceded their unique expertise. Anthropologists seemed to be too taken by, seduced by, the attractive power of the human rights world.
The key points of the piece still speak to the field 11 years on, I think:
We diagnosed the fascination with human rights as in some respects symptomatic of a crisis within the discipline of anthropology, in the aftermath of the reflexive turn—as part of a desire for relevance, and also a desire for a space in which the questions of suffering and violence seemed so urgent that we could put down the questions and concerns about method, subject position, etc.
Controversially, we called for recommitment to discipline in the face of invitations to document human rights violations and to enter human rights administrations. That is, we called for confidence in the discipline of anthropology and to more ethnographic discipline in the midst of those encounters: “The principal challenge… consists… in knowing anthropology’s own disciplinary difference and uniqueness from other enterprises, both academic and political” (p. 175).
By ethnographic discipline, we had in mind “the skill and art of ethnographic practice… carefully observing and following, being guided by, recognizing, replicating. It is a condition of readiness—readiness to be responsive.” We emphasized that sometimes this requires holding back, not joining in. And we argued that if anthropologists wish to be relevant, they should draw on their own expertise in how to become relevant in field relations—which involves making careful, conscious choices about when to join in, when to observe, how to situate oneself, what relations to cultivate.
So our key argument was that anthropology’s contribution will come from a renewed—or perhaps we could have said, radicalized—humanist commitment to ethnographic practice, and to pursuing this disciplined practice where it might take us. In the article, we concluded that this kind of practice is by definition risky (p. 190):
One must be willing to produce a description that is profoundly unsettling from the standpoint of the ethical, epistemological, and aesthetic rules of human rights work and anthropological analysis. But it is precisely this risk that recognizes our subject as just as human as ourselves. Responsive, risk-taking ethnography and analysis is a form of ethnographic activism, in other words, even though its instrumental uses are not so openly asserted or prefigured at the outset.
Reading this piece 11 years on I cannot help but be struck by how much the world has changed in this short time. Human rights administrations are now under attack and critique, internally and externally everywhere. Publics have lost their fascination with violence and empathy for the suffering of others, and instead are reframing those who used to be the subjects of ethnography as potential threats to security and well-being. There is little need for a Foucauldian analysis of power relations in the bureaucracy when a version of the same argument finds voice among populist nationalist politicians; there is little chance of making a career of documenting the suffering of others when gruesome photographs on the front page of newspapers fail to stir public interest, let alone empathy, and even elite undergraduate students have lost their appetite for multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism.
In such a condition, documenting violence and producing principled ethnographic accounts of human rights administrations remains highly important political, ethical and scholarly work, but it now offers the anthropologists few professional rewards, and in fact comes with quite real personal and professional risks. Ironically, with the seductive attraction of power removed from the equation, the commitment to discipline this work requires becomes all the more visible.