Anthropology and the inchoate intimacies of power

by Michael Herzfeld

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Much of what anthropologists explore is discounted by other observers as obvious and as “mere” detail. This perceived lack of importance, compounded by the inherent indistinctness of many of the processes anthropologists observe, suggests how invisibility serves the interests of power—of the big picture, in short, that the discipline's detractors accuse it of ignoring. The tiny details and palpable evasions that illuminate a group's collective cultural secrets also reveal the dynamic that makes them embarrassing by today's globalized but vaguely defined values. Drawing on fieldwork in Greece, Italy, and Thailand, I argue—in a modality inspired by the thought of Giambattista Vico—that it is this capacity to probe beyond the obvious structures of authority and to find alternative realities in detail that renders anthropology both threatening to the sources of power and a necessary vehicle for the recovery of knowledge about the human condition.