Truth and Responsibility

There are years that ask questions and years that answer. 

―Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

“Truth and Responsibility” is a call to reimagine anthropology to meet the demands of the present moment. The imperative to bear witness, take action, and be held accountable to the truths we write and circulate, invites us to reflect on our responsibility in reckoning with disciplinary histories, harms, and possibilities. To whom are we giving evidence and toward what ends? For whom are we writing? To whom are we accountable, and in which ways?

Many hold on to the notion that anthropology is a holistic social science dedicated to cross-cultural understanding, as a way of reducing bigotry and more fully comprehending “what it means to be human.” We often offer this as an origin story of our discipline. Others push against this narrative, arguing that “human” has been, and remains, a highly contested political category—evident as the presumed set of rights and protections associated with the “human” continue to be stripped away violently in the very communities in which some of us live and work. In telling truth(s) about the discipline’s development, for which violent histories and epistemologies must anthropologists take responsibility? How do the dual histories of settler colonialism and slavery continue to influence anthropological thought and practices? In these political times, how can anthropologists throughout the globe work to secure a capacious, progressive vision of humans? How might movements for anti-racism, abolition, decoloniality, queer liberation, and healing such as #BlackLivesMatter, #ProtectMaunaKea, or #MeToo, push a future anthropology out of the ashes of the anthropological past? Finally, what are the limits and possibilities of the anthropological imagination?

Across subfields, we find truths in patterns of human behavior, language, evolution, and cultural worlds. We seek to contest assumptions at the heart of prevailing practices, examine discourses that serve particular interests, and exert effort to share knowledge. Industry-positioned anthropologists do this by extending the boundaries of the discipline not as an administrative solution to job shortages but as a source of intervention and knowledge production. Increasingly, anthropologists that make use of the scientific method question how status and identity help to decide which facts come to represent truth. How might quantitative researchers use our methods to identify patterned truths, and what responsibility do we hold in challenging conventional wisdom about these patterns? What responsibility do we have to both our colleagues and larger publics, to push toward increased transparency and ethical grounding in our data collection, analysis, and presentation? How has the global coronavirus pandemic laid bare the connections between the qualitative and the quantitative, the significance of multi-subfield anthropological research, and the role power plays in producing scientific knowledge?

Located in the unceded land of Piscataway, and a major site of art and activism during the Civil Rights Movement and the 2015 uprisings after the killing of Freddie Gray, Baltimore is a city that houses complexity. Baltimore’s complex past and present push anthropologists to implement (and think critically about) practices that account for the impact of our work. What is the responsibility of contemporary anthropology to reckon or repair relationships with communities who have historically been the target of our discipline? As practitioners, students, and professors increasingly resemble these communities, how can we create new pedagogical, archeological, and ethnographic practices? Which barriers exist in anthropology as a whole (and in the AAA as an organization) that serve to exclude those whose truths are uncomfortable, unfashionable, or inconvenient? What might our disciplines and organizations look like if we were to honestly confront the barriers that exclude marginalized and contingent scholars?

Pedagogy is a key medium for the communication of anthropological truths. But educational spaces—and the institutions they are often a part of—can be hostile to the inconvenient truths we might offer. Which (and whose) truths are foregrounded in our curricula? What are the possibilities for a liberatory pedagogy in a precarious, “post-truth” era? Conferences, museums, organizing spaces, and classrooms are sites where pedagogy and various forms of communication can help us interrogate the performativity of truth. How might anthropologists conceive of truth performances? Might visual, aural, and choreographic performances during AAA sessions offer anthropologists alternative genres for truth-telling and truth-making that provoke novel discussions about responsibility?

In accordance with the urgency of this year’s theme, the questions posed in this call for papers do not have easy answers. The hope is that those who submit proposals will take up these questions as an opportunity to engage in collective thinking and imagining about the truths we hold, the truths we challenge, and the responsibilities we bear in making a more equitable and just world.

Visit annualmeeting.americananthro.org for all the latest information about the 2021 AAA Hybrid Annual Meeting.

Cite as: Williams, Bianca C. 2021. “Truth and Responsibility.” Anthropology News website, May 7, 2021.

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