Andrea Rugh Drifts into Relativism

By Brian C. Nachbar ‘12

The cultures of the Middle East have been highly relevant to American public affairs ever since the attacks of September 11 and the United States’ national engagement with issues related to the Islamic world. This importance was redoubled when America found itself tied down in difficult nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. One might expect that anthropologists specializing in that culture would have enjoyed a commensurate rise to prominence. This, asserts Andrea Rugh, has not happened. In her lecture, “Where Are the Anthropologists?” Ms. Rugh, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and the wife of a former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, sought to explain the causes and consequences of anthropologists’ absence from both government advisory positions and popular media.

Rugh acknowledged that most of the responsibility for anthropologists’ silence rests with the anthropoligists. Scholars fear that writing for a public audience will lead them to oversimplify their findings. They also tend to dislike or distrust the American government and are therefore reluctant to advise it. Finally, pure academic work tends to be more respected and rewarded within academia. The result is that anthropologists who travel the world doing research do not leave the ivory tower with their findings.

The result of this isolation, Rugh claims, is a lack of accurate information among American citizens, soldiers and policymakers. As a small but illustrative example, Rugh cited a magazine article about the good relations between American soldiers and Afghans that included a picture of shirtless soldiers waving to Afghan passersby. The magazine’s editors were evidently unaware that male shirtlessness is considered indecent in Afghanistan.

A more serious case is the widespread assumption that Middle Eastern women will be supportive of attempts to create more equitable gender relations. To Westerners reading about the current practices in the region, this seems self-evident, but according to Rugh’s first-hand experience, most women have accepted the status quo. Counting on their support for radical change will lead to disappointment.

Rugh briefly claimed that such information rarely finds its way into the popular media because people dislike challenges to their preconceived notions. However, if Rugh’s lecture was typical of anthropology, this condescending assessment was not quite accurate. Though she stated several times that she was not defending the practices she described, she often gave the impression that she was. In her description of gender relations, for example, Rugh mentioned that although women are excluded from the public sphere, they have a good deal of freedom in the private sphere. Perhaps she was merely describing how some in the region see the situation, but if so, she did not make it especially clear. It sounded as if she were advancing this argument, so reminiscent of the anti-suffragists a century ago. Needless to say, few mainstream magazines would want to publish an article which contained such a statement. The issue became even clearer when a questioner asked if practices such as stoning were not undeniably reprehensible. Rugh first said that she would not defend the practice but went on to claim that an understanding of the background might lead to a different view. She noted that in many cases, an execution by stoning is the only way to prevent a cycle of revenge killings between the families of the victim and the criminal. If her words were not intended as a defense of stoning, they were indistinguishable from one.

An anthropologist’s job is to describe without evaluating. However, there can be a fine line between refraining from making a value judgment and implying that there is no such judgment to be made. An anthropologist might see a society’s rationale for an abhorrent practice as relevant to her work and her own indignation as irrelevant. She would then include the former in her writing while excluding the latter.

To most readers, the resulting work would appear to defend the practice. The problem is compounded by anthropology’s historical association with moral relativism. At least at one time, many anthropologists really were denying that there were value judgments to be made about their subjects. Anthropologists who do not share the relativist position but do not take sufficient care to distance themselves from it will also appear to endorse it. Readers react to this with distaste and distrust.

This is unfortunate. Purely descriptive accounts of cultures have the potential to be very useful, not least for informing moral judgments. It is important to understand the rationales behind practices like veiling and stoning, even if only to combat them more effectively. The isolation of anthropologists is a real problem which Rugh did well to highlight. It is probably the case that, as she asserted, anthropologists should make more of an effort to share their knowledge with the government and the public.

However, her lack of insight into the public’s response to anthropology was disturbing. Rugh makes a living understanding culture, and she would never dream of explaining gender roles in the Muslim world by just saying that its inhabitants are misogynistic. However, confronted with poor reception of anthropological works, she concluded that the public is prejudiced and looked no further.

Even if the public is wrong to reject such works, there can be no hope of correcting the error without understanding its cause—a principle which Rugh is quite familiar with in her Middle Eastern work.