Vital Topics Forum

With contributions from Karen Ho, Jillian R. Cavanaugh, Carol J. Greenhouse, Michael Partis, Carolyn M. Rouse, Sherry B. Ortner, Hilary Parsons Dick, Adam Hodges, Susana Narotzky, Alexander S. Dent, Karen-Sue Taussig, and Erin Debenport.

An excerpt from the introduction:

For anthropologists, truth and facts have long been complicated notions, at least since the ethnographic turn. While we are deeply troubled by Trumpism’s attempt to adjudicate truth-claims explicitly based on particular interests, views of the world, and power, not to mention ego, an intervention that reconsecrates the singularity and unassailability of “objective fact,” “truth,” and science against what are now called “alternative facts” would gloss over the multiplicity of concerns over knowledge production and inequality that have been at the forefront of critical scholarship, as well as perhaps misrecognize how we got to this contemporary upside-down place.

At the same time, given the larger social transformations underway that signal a turn toward both denial of myriad forms of social facts and evidence (such as racism and climate change) and a corresponding “re-naturing” movement, where innateness and fundamentalist logics divorced from a serious engagement with context and substantiation are increasingly mobilized as central explanations for everything from ecological devastation to diverse women’s underrepresentation in technology, it is crucial to not give up on what Hannah Arendt calls “factual truths.” In other words, showing the importance of society in the interpretation and making of facts does not, in turn, demand that all facts are equally valid, robust, corroborated, and—dare we say—true. It is crucial to not conflate the assertion that social groups and societal frames shape knowledge production (that facts are made meaningful through collectivities) with the contention that all knowledge claims are up for grabs and relativistic, thus leading to the problem of false equivalences—where, say, structural racism and reverse racism are framed as “equal facts,” just on “opposite sides.”

It is precisely because of this tension (the importance of holding onto both sociality and facts), combined with calling out the powerful’s manipulation of truth (ironically in the name of the marginalized), that we convened this American Anthropologist Vital Topics Forum, which includes the pieces collected here and this introduction. To frame our intervention, we believe that bringing together Emile Durkheim’s concept of “social facts” and Hannah Arendt’s notion of “factual truths” might be a productive way to think through the stakes and the tensions of the particular moment. In addition, placing Durkheim and Arendt in the same analytical frame orients our intervention around the themes of truth, politics, power, and society, and thus links productively with the minoritized, feminist, postcolonial, and critical race and ethnic studies scholarship that has been so crucial in providing the tools to conduct an anthropological excavation of presentist hierarchies and exclusions.

Read the full forum here.

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