Am I studying autism to contribute knowledge to the discipline of anthropology? Or am I using anthropology to better understand autism? These two approaches – these two options – are not necessarily mutually exclusive; in fact they have shown over the past couple of years to be quite in concert, at least as far as I was concerned. And yet often, I’m faced with the dilemma of having to present my work as either one or the other. For example, I recently had to decide: should I end my article with “and this is why studying autism offers extremely useful insights to our understanding of human interaction”? Or do I end it with “and this is why anthropology is so indispensable for our understanding of autism”? (I’m paraphrasing, of course)
Most social anthropologists aren’t faced with a similar dilemma. Someone researching healing practices in Ghana, for example, is quite explicitly – as far as I can tell – working to understand (a) the people of Ghana, (b) Healing practices and (c) human behaviour. They would often have different research communities for each of these topics (the latter just being ‘general social anthropology’ or something to that extent): conferences would be organized, and journals would be published that address each of these concerns. And that would be fine. Natural, even. I don’t recall West Africanists agonizing over their role and aims, wondering if they’re doing one or the other. They’re simply doing both, and that’s what’s expected. So they’re using the accumulated knowledge from anthropology to understand the specific people they’re working with, while at the same time using specific knowledge they acquired about the people they’re studying in order to add to the cumulative anthropological body of knowledge. That’s pretty much how the system is meant to work. No problem.
So why does my case feel a bit different? Well, to be honest, I could simply be wrong about my not sharing this dilemma with others. That is very likely. Or it may just be that I’m biased into thinking that my area of study is so exceptional that it raises exceptional dilemmas, but that in fact, there is no dilemma to speak of. It’s all in my head. Again, that could very well be the case. Yet none of this means that the third option, namely that I am right in feeling that I am in a somewhat unusual position among my colleagues, is necessarily wrong. And I think that perhaps I can explain why my dilemma is, well, if not entirely unique, then at the very least more immediate and present.
Because this is where the difference lies: experts on healing practices in Ghana are expected to be social anthropologists. It’s quite unlikely that they will be anything else except social anthropologists (well they could be local healers, of course, but that’s a whole different story). And so when a person becomes an expert on healing practices in Ghana, they’re entering a very well-defined social role; hence the ready-made conference titles, specific journals and so forth. Yes, there would be other experts in the field; cultural psychologists, ethno-botanists, folklorists etc. But the social anthropologist’s position in that particular setting is more or less undisputed. Their authority as experts on healing practices in Ghana is grounded in their disciplinary tradition and is pretty much taken for granted.
But when a social anthropologist, such as myself, is studying autism, that’s a whole different matter. And I’m not saying autism is uncharted territory for people of my discipline (it’s not), only that our authority in this area is very far from established. Experts on autism are, traditionally, psychiatrists, psychologists, neuroscientists, geneticists, speech and occupational therapists and educators – and that’s just one brand of experts, namely those coming from the world of academic research. So when a social anthropologist – and I’m speculating here – makes a claim about autism, it is never merely academic; instead, it is very much political. It is an unapologetic attempt to put one’s foot in the door, into a room already fully occupied by others. It requires him or her to cry out almost explicitly – “I have something to say about autism, and I assert the authority to do so”. This, as far as I can tell, is quite different than if this same anthropologist was studying healing practices in Ghana, they would not only be happily invited into the room; they would be the one guarding the door.
So my dilemma is not just an intellectual one. Rather (as is so often the case) it is a social and political one, and has everything to do with the system of academic disciplines. Which group do I consider myself a part of? Am I a social anthropologist? Well then why aren’t I doing fieldwork in Africa, for example (some would ask)? Oh, I’m an autism researcher? Well then what’s all this business with participant-observation, relationality, and constructivism (some would ask)? Occupying this position of in-betweenness forces me, it would appear, to choose sides. But even if I do choose just one, there would be some explaining to do on my part. And seeing as I actually want to occupy both positions, I need to work all the harder to justify my claims and arguments, positioning them both within the discipline (social anthropology) and within the field (autism research). Which if not an insurmountable challenge, is definitely something that takes some effort.