Thursday, February 28, 2013

The scientist and society

When people ask me what is anthropology about, I remember myself years ago completely convinced that anthropologists dug out pre-historic scalps and argue about Australopithecus and what such. So what do they actually do?

In Hobbs' Leviathan, anthropology would be the reflexive capacity of the brain. A luxury few can afford, be it humans or nations.

In Language and Power in Indonesia, Anderson (1990: 63-65) writes about pre-Islamic hermit-sages, known as ajar, rasi or begawan, and later Islamic kyai, who would get away with dishing out social criticism by virtue withdrawal from society and thus staying outside any kind of political power struggleI guess better social scientists, with enough civic conscience, spare time and knowledge, are like those ajars: Paul Farmer, Noam Chomsky, Stuart Hall and Michel Foucault spring to mind.

In reality, very few social scientists act as Socrates' famous social gadfly. Ridiculously overworked, they more often than not have no time to preach scientific truth to the masses. They speak a professional lingo essential to describe life in all its complexity. It takes years of hard effort to master that skill. By then, they become unintelligible to nearly everyone outside the ivory tower, both in terms of what they say and how. Most of those who become public intellectuals sell out to populist dualisms and thus are but glorified journalists. Most voiciferous of  them are also the least likely qualified to talk about what they talk about: exemplo praelucere, Richard Dawkins. Thus all domains of knowledge remain safely aloof from each other.

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