About the PhD Program in Anthropology and Social Change
The Anthropology and Social Change PhD is unique among graduate programs in the United States due to its focus on exploring counter-hegemonic alternatives, postcapitalist cultures, and prefigurative practices. In a certain sense, we are a department of postcapitalist studies. However, by this complicated word, postcapitalism, we do not wish to refer to some dreamed-up utopia, nor to a speculative exploration of futuristic scenarios. While we agree with Lewis Mumford on the "importance of building castles in the sky," we see as an even more urgent necessity to study politics of alternatives in the here and now: the need to engage with postcapitalist cultures that are already being built, and to understand other worlds that are already possible.
Together with the activists of the World Social Forum, we believe that "another world is possible." The role of the new social movements, we are reminded, is not to conquer the world, but to make it anew. What, then, is the role and responsibility of anthropology and other social sciences? In a world riddled with so many crises, few things appear to be more relevant than systematic research of counter-hegemonic knowledge and practices. Social scientists should leave pessimism for better times. Anthropology, in particular, is well equipped to participate in the "nowtopian" task of constructing social scientific knowledge that looks beyond capitalism, hierarchy, and ecological disaster.
The practice and technique of ethnography provides an important model of a possible "postcapitalist" social science. As one contemporary anthropologist, a friend of our program, recently noted, when one "carries out an ethnography, one observes what people do, and then tries to tease out the hidden symbolic, moral, or pragmatic logics that underlie their actions; one tries to get at the way people's habits and actions make sense in ways that they are not themselves completely aware of."
We ask our students to do precisely this: to look at those who are creating viable alternatives, to try to figure out what might be the larger implications of what they are already doing, and then to offer those ideas back, not as prescriptions, but as contributions, possibilities-as gifts.
This program offers the space and the possibility to engage with many traditions of radical scholarship and emancipatory social science. We believe that anthropologists should analyze, discuss, and explore the possible; that they should research alternative institutions; that they need to collectively reflect and debate the dilemmas of activist anthropology . The collective effort of understanding "real utopias" takes the form of analytic and ethnographic study of real historical alternatives in the present. This, in turn, requires a serious engagement with social movements involved in the production of alternatives. Students are expected to have an excellent command of history, debates, and perspectives of contemporary social movements. These movements exist in the historical, social, and epistemological context of colonization, development, and globalization. As contributors to the book Contesting Development remind us, more then one in six humans now live in slums, over one billion in a world of jobless growth, or no growth. Solutions offered by mainstream social science are often the source of the problem, and our students are expected to have a good understanding of intertwined historical processes of colonization, development, and liberal modernity.
The doctoral program is distinctive for its focus on alternatives. What are some of them? Worker cooperatives in Oakland, social centers in Italy, autonomous systems of justice in Guerrero, community gardens in Detroit, occupied self-managed factories in Argentina, "good government" of the Zapatistas, buen vivir (good life) and plurinationalism in Bolivia, participatory democracy in Kerala, solidarity economics of Mondragon, participatory economics in Winnipeg, pedagogy of the block in African-American communities, alternative environmentalism in Afro-Colombian river regions, legal pluralism, autonomy of migration, marginalized medical practices in South Asia, solidarity unionism in New York City, communal agriculture in Malawi, shack dweller democracy in South Africa, Copwatch in LA, biodiversity in Brazil, restorative justice in Ohio, knowledge commons and globalization, independent media, and autonomous food systems in Japan, are only some of the examples of postcapitalist possibilities. There are so many more, and one of the responsibilities of our students is to discover them.
The program is distinctive in its emphasis on:
- Postcapitalist analysis of historical alternatives in the present
- Global social movements and lost revolutionary treasures
- Issues of colonialism, globalization, development
- Anarchist, Marxist, feminist theoretical perspectives
- Political ecology
- Integration of activism and scholarship: developing research skills in activist ethnography, intercultural translation, and emancipatory research
Many classes include a research component, and the doctoral dissertation is based on activist ethnographic research. Activist ethnographic frameworks include participatory and collaborative research approaches as well as more recent research techniques and strategies associated with militant research and co-research approaches (see methodology section of the introduction).