Graduate student Aaron Su interviews Carolyn Rouse about the value of Anthropology today

Sept. 27, 2023

“The Value of Anthropology”
An Interview with Professor Carolyn Rouse
President-Elect of the American Anthropological Association

In November this year, Princeton’s Ritter Professor of Anthropology, Carolyn Rouse, will become the next President-Elect of the American Anthropological Association (AAA)—the flagship organization of scholars and practitioners in the field of anthropology.

With work tackling questions of race and inequality in numerous fields from medical anthropology to religion and design, Professor Rouse has amassed experience not just as a scholar, but an institutional leader. From 2016-2022, Professor Rouse was Chair of Princeton’s Department of Anthropology, and from 2021-2023 she has served as President of the American Ethnological Society, the oldest professional anthropological association in the United States.

Princeton PhD candidate Aaron Su sat down with Professor Carolyn Rouse to discuss her accomplishment, as well as her reflections on the future of the AAA and the discipline of anthropology more broadly.

AS: First of all, congratulations on this remarkable accomplishment! I wanted to start off by asking, how do you see your transition from leading a department (as former Chair of Anthropology at Princeton) to directing a discipline?

CR: I think it's very important to have run a department before I undertook this new role, because you get to understand how institutions think. You also see the need to communicate to various stakeholders about the value of anthropology—because it's incredibly valuable.

For example, I am proud that in recent years our department has continued seeing steady increases in our number of majors. Princeton University has as growing number of first-generation or low-income students who might not have been exposed to anthropology, and we have designed tracks—from Medical Anthropology to Legal Anthropology—that are attuned to various needs, such as making our degrees a stepping stone to a fruitful career in medicine or law.

This enduring question of making anthropology legible, to students and institutions, is something I have appreciated—from my days as a graduate student studying visual anthropology at the University of Southern California with Tim Asch, to our current VizE Lab, which experiments with ways of representing ethnographic data. As Arturo Escobar says, we need designs for the pluriverse: and I want to bring this to bear on the AAA’s future as well. I am excited to think about how to bring anthropology and the AAA into the twenty-first century, given all its new needs and discourses.

AS: I appreciate your noting that anthropology has constantly had to adapt to changing circumstances as we theorize the world around us. I am curious, then: how have you seen the role of the AAA transform from when you were a graduate student until now?

CR: Entering anthropology, there was definitely a more hierarchical ethos at the AAA—with star anthropologists, as well as certain literatures and theories you had to be fluent in. For example, as a junior scholar, I was in conversation with African American studies and critical race theory in my work, which wasn't one of those theoretical centers within anthropology. I had to navigate my work through hegemonic centers of knowledge production, the cutting edge of the discipline, as well as my own concerns and priorities. I am excited that part of the discourse about decolonizing the discipline is actually about disrupting some of these “little hegemonies,” so that different expertises and theories can thrive.

There’s also more of a push towards a publicly oriented ethnography or anthropology—urging us to be in conversation with other kinds of people beyond just our discipline.

AS: How do you see the AAA mediating between the many different groups united under anthropology’s banner: undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and non-academic anthropologists?

CR: Since I am not the President-Elect until November, I have only begun to start having conversations with our wonderful team. But, to give an example of an idea I have in the works: I have proposed rethinking individual memberships for undergraduates and graduate students, instead shifting responsibility for student memberships to university departments. There are so many undergraduates and graduate students who would love to get involved but don’t have the resources or institutional commitments to do so, and it would be great for departments to chip in, supplemented with perhaps a sliding-scale approach based on the institution’s resources. As anthropologists, we are keen to brainstorm the limits of individual-centered approaches, and we can extend that practice to our own organizations, to become more supportive of our students.

As the program chair in 2012 for the San Francisco AAA meeting, I also noted that the AAA is not primarily for senior scholars, who often already have ample opportunities for travel and networking. It is for younger scholars, often from underfunded institutions, where the AAA can serve as a central conference to go to, once a year, in order to take advantage of resources in anthropology. I think it’s a place to bring people into the profession, in a really robust way.

Finally, the AAA has already voted to approve many great ideas, but after they become institutionalized, they kind of just sit there. There’s some institutional accretion—inactive ideas that have been voted in for many good reasons—that we can pull on and reactivate. There are many small changes that we can make to rethink the entire structure of the AAA—for example, how interest groups might be mobilized as 3-year working groups within the association. We could give interest working groups more space to present, collaborate, and publish together. We can think about how structures and processes work together to create a dynamic and developing organization. Fifty years ago, an anthropologist might have thought that their knowledge production was the final word about a culture or society, and that was it. Let's own the fact that our knowledge production now is not the final word and bring anthropology into a continually changing present.

AS: Since you are an anthropologist who has engaged various communities—hospital patients, designers, institutional leaders, in unique ways—what do you see as anthropology’s most pressing role in the ever-complex world we live in, vis-à-vis the perspectives of other disciplines or the public sphere?

CR: I think we anthropologists sometimes beat ourselves up for being slow. But we can actually push the world to slow down: the ways our societies constantly demand growth and development can actually sow the seeds for their own destruction. For example, there was recently a piece in The New York Times arguing that one of the best ways to fight climate change is to slow down. Anthropology’s method and practice demands this slow attention to our interlocutors and the world around us. This is often in contrast to ethnography’s uses in design work, for example, in which we often see social research carried out in order to quickly produce new inventions and technologies without reflection on whether those are really what we need right now. I'm happy to lean into our slow knowledge-production and the nuance that we create in the world.

And I want to reassure you that regardless of this slowness, people are still reading our work, and things are changing from the inside out in institutions like hospitals. I’ve talked to residents who now have a sophisticated understanding of medical anthropology, and they tell me they have been reading our work. This shows that we can offer a necessary complexity so that other institutional actors can use our work to make change in the world more carefully and cautiously.

AS: I definitely appreciate the call for a slow anthropology, and how that can be a powerful force in this driven world. To wrap our interview up, I wanted to ask you: what directions or new initiatives do you see the AAA undertaking under your leadership?

CR: Besides some of the changes that I had already mentioned around incorporating students and other precarious members into the AAA more thoughtfully, I believe the AAA is a vital space for open-ended discussion and debate that needs to be preserved. Groups, for instance, should be given more space and resources to make arguments and engage debates based on theoretically and empirically robust research. Many disciplines, like economics, execute work that can come loaded with a set agenda in mind. I think anthropology’s greatest strength is in our lack of a singular agenda.

Moreover, I think that we can let the institution be a space for legitimating the discipline—by promoting publications and thoughtful scholarship. For example, the AAA has recently written a letter to support academic freedom in the midst of attacks on our Princeton colleague, Professor Satyel Larson, and her assigned texts in the classroom. I believe the AAA has a duty to emphasize the centrality of academic freedom to our enterprise.

Beyond that, I look forward to conversations with other leaders around what can make this association thrive. Who are we, and what are we trying to do together? How can we solidify our culture around the issues we care about? There is much discussion that I am excited to be having in the coming years.

Written by Anthropology Graduate Student Aaron Su.