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Speech: Kirsten Hastrup at UCPH anthropology's 70 year anniversary

The Department of Anthropology celebrated 70 years with a talk from Professor Kirsten Hastrup. Here is her full speech

[Editor’s note: 70 years of Danish anthropology was celebrated last Saturday at the University of Copenhagen. The Department of Anthropology hosted a series of talks from top anthropologists from Denmark and abroad. UCPH Professor Kirsten Hastrup was the first speaker. ]

The main theme of this jubilee meeting is engagement as part of anthropology’s DNA. The question is what it means beyond being in love with one’s field of study and finding a tremendous pleasure in unpacking it in unprecedented ways. I would like to suggest that it means an acknowledgement of how anthropology works in or for society – in all its present complexity. This is different from earlier ideas about an applied anthropology working towards a particular goal, and as set apart from a theoretical anthropology.

Today we agree that anthropology cannot tear itself apart from the world it studies. Objectivity in the sense of rising above the actualities of the world is simply not possible; we can never get ‘enough’ distance to claim impartiality. Once described, our fields of study are already analysed and the significant sorted out from the insignificant – and this sorting of course depends on our specific interests.

Given this, whatever period or version of Danish Anthropology we focus on, it is deeply implicated in the tide of the times. I shall not give you a historical tour de force here, but refer you to Ida Nicolaisen’s comprehensive exposition in the history of University of Copenhagen from 2001. I shall simply give some highlights and show how they relate to their time.

After the 18th century enlightenment and the many European expeditions to far away corners of the globe, reports and proto-ethnographic works were published in the general interest of promoting knowledge. In late 19th century a more professional ethnography took shape, beginning with Kristian Bahne Bahnsons two volumes on ‘Ethnography’, as it was called, seeking to identify the cultural ‘standpoint’ of various cultures, largely identified by their material or technological possessions. The implicit evolutionism was of course another sign of the times, but the particular twist towards the museum and the focus on ‘things’, gave it a distinct flavour related also to the rapid growth and popular appeal of the National Museum. This is where modern Danish anthropology took off – and to where artefacts from a new wave of expeditions were brought.

At the National Museum, ethnography was first designed by scholars whose education would have been in cultural geography, comparative religion, history or something else, but the shared interest in ‘other cultures’ gradually gained momentum and the need for a professional recognition of some kind of anthropology arose – not only at the museum, but also at the university with which there was a significant exchange and mutual recognition.

Anthropology was first established as a distinct field of study in Denmark in 1945 – and this is part of what we celebrate today. However, the decisive moment was in 1938, I believe, when Copenhagen hosted the second International Congress of the Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences – signposting that whatever had gone on in the diversified spaces where other cultures were discussed, some participants in this discussion decided that they were now to be seen as part of a larger international ambition to make anthropology visible and workable. A new kind of engagement with the world took root.

The Congress as such was established in Basel in 1933, where its statutes had been drafted, and they welcome studies of races, of peoples and of life forms. They are not necessarily separate, but they indicate the main areas of general interest. This was broad enough to accommodate what was going on world-wide.

The first session of this new Congress took place in London in 1934, where anthropology was already quite distinct and had had its first chair in anthropology since 1875, when E.B. Tylor was appointed in Oxford, to be followed by others over the next decades. It was no small feat that Denmark could muster to host the second, and there was no sense of humility on the part of the not-yet existing discipline in Denmark. Our forebears knew how to seize the moment – for internal as well as external purposes, and they knew how to make anthropology larger than life form the start.

Thus, the Congress was under the patronage of King Christian X of Denmark and Iceland. In addition to this royal dedication the Congress was blessed with no less than three Honorary Presidents, namely the prime minister, Thorvald Stauning, the minister for foreign affairs, P. Munch, and the Minister for public education, Jørgen Jørgensen, himself a renowned scholar of psychology. All four of them actually participated in the opening session and thus endorsed the significance of the emerging anthropological and ethnological sciences. The strength and the public image derived mainly from the National Museum, where Thomas Thomsen and Kaj Birket-Smith were both curators. They were spearheading the local committee and seem to have been the major force behind this grand scale effort to truly make anthropology happen in Denmark – but were surrounded and supported by prominent local scholars in addition to the international.

Birket-Smith is the one we credit for creating the discipline in Denmark, and he deserves our respect, even if he was not alone; he was trained in cultural geography, and he had participated in Knud Rasmussen’s 5th Thule Expedition (from 1921 to 1924) visiting all North American Eskimos and establishing close cultural links between them. At the actual expedition Knud Rasmussen was supposed to study the ‘intellectual culture’ of the Eskimos, while Birket-Smith should study their material culture. This division of labour linked these early ‘ethnographic’ expeditions closely to the new Boasian school of anthropology in the US.

On the strength of this and other expeditions, Copenhagen had actually become the world capital of Eskimo research, while also engaging in other regions. This was the reason why Birket-Smith could get the kind of patronage we heard of above, and could call in each and everybody in Denmark with something to report on races, peoples and/or life-forms to present their work (along with the international delegates, of course), but also to involving a large number of distinguished people from outside the field to form a honorary committee. The backing was impressive.

Copenhagen at the time was not only the world capital of Eskimo research, it had become a world-leading hub of physicists centring on Niels Bohr, and had taken a strong lead also in linguistics – with Louis Hjelmslev as the key-figure. Both of these illustrious scholars participated and added their weight to the proceedings. Niels Bohr was even asked to give the opening talk to the first plenary session, and in this talk we get a sense of the importance attached to anthropology in wider circles. Niels Bohr opened his talk in the following manner:

»It is only with great hesitation that I have accepted a kind invitation to address this assembly of distinguished representatives of the anthropological and ethnographical sciences of which I, as a physicist, have of course no first-hand knowledge.« (Bohr 1939: 86)

Bohr then goes on to state, that of course he – like other physicists – has become increasingly aware of the dangers of the time – he is alluding to the impending war –and of the cultural differences that may account for them. And he continues:

»Of course it is impossible to distinguish sharply between natural philosophy and human culture. The physical sciences are, in fact, an integral part of our civilization, nor only because our ever increasing mastery of the forces of nature has so completely changed the conditions of human life, but also because the study of these sciences has contributed so much to clarify the background of our own existence. What has it not meant in this respect that we no more consider ourselves as privileged in living at the centre of the universe, surrounded by less fortunate societies inhabiting the edge of the abyss.« (Bohr 1939: 87)

As a true humanist, he continues to question his own ideas of society and the things he takes for granted – notably the relation between men and woman, which are reversed in other societies, as anthropologists have documented. While one may at first shudder by contemplating such reversal of the hierarchy, he states, that this in itself demonstrates the »national complacency inherent in any human culture«. From there he moves on to stress the importance of the mixing of populations in the interest of cultural development and the removal of prejudice. This is still a valid observation, as is his statement about the relativity of human judgement. What we hear is a person whose own understanding of the world is increasingly influenced by anthropology.

The very potent concern that fused into all of anthropology at the time, led to a questioning of the less wonderful sides of culture – to which Niels Bohr added a lot of interesting parallels to physics, speaking of the complementarity of thoughts and feelings, of instinct and reason – and the impossibility to categorically distinguish between them.

The reason for looking behind the curtain of a pre-disciplinary event is both to celebrate the formative moment of an internationally recognized field discipline, and to suggest how the reflexive space created in various versions of ethnographic work in itself shifts the ground of society, whether high or low. This reflexive space is what makes anthropology work in the world.

Just after the Congress, the Second World War prevented immediate institutional steps towards a solidification of anthropology, but as soon as it was over, Birket-Smith took the opportunity to make it happen. That was 70 years ago.

It was not until 1965, however, that a proper University Institute was created and the first professor appointed; that was Johannes Nicolaisen. He had been the first student in Birket-Smith’s new field, and later, he was actually given a research fellowship – that Niels Bohr chose to transfer from physics to support him and the new discipline (personal communication form Ida Nicolaisen). Nicolaisen was a wonderful teacher, whom I first met in 1966, when I marched into the Institute and asked him whether it would be alright for me to begin studying anthropology (wanting to shift from geography, actually) – even in the middle of the academic year. He welcomed me, all while also warning me that he could not promise me a job, once I had completed my studies. Of course not, I said, and I found my lasting home in anthropology. There was room enough to think for oneself and for engaging with the world in a plethora of ways, thereby moving it in some way or other – but never in a linear fashion. Sadly, Nicolaisen died already in 1980, and the Chair was left vacant until 1990, when I was appointed. Since then, the Department has grown immensely.

Our multiple engagements with the world are implicit in our working with people who are always theorizing their own world, and the knowledge produced owes as much to local theorizing as to the anthropological tradition. By default, anthropologists work with the world. In that sense ethnography cannot be disentangled from the protagonists’ own analyses. This is where our claim to engagement is rooted and where our optimism for the future of the discipline is grounded.

I agree with Tim Ingold, who – in his report from the centennial meeting of the Association of Social Anthropologists in 2053 (sic) – maintains the strength of the discipline.

»Social anthropology is not what it was, for it is distinguished neither by a preoccupation with the social phenomena nor by the axiom that such phenomena are the exclusive preserve of a categorical humanity. The discipline has become, rather, a principled inquiry into the conditions and potentials of life in a world peopled by beings whose identities are established not by species-membership but by relational accomplishment.« (Ingold 2013: 77).

This conclusion is not as surprising as it could have been, because in a sense we are already half-way there; otherwise it would not sound probable. Still, the onus of description rests with the humans; this is one of their relational advantages, I would argue – and the major raison d’être of anthropology.

I believe that anthropology is standing on the firm ground of a discipline that always dared inquire into the conditions and potentials of life by engaging with the world. From there anthropology can be put to any work. With the four key-notes that we are going to hear today, I am certain that we shall glimpse the future in various ways, not because our friends are prophets but because all anthropological reflection works towards new ways of being.

Niels Bohr 1939. ‘Natural Philosophy and Human Cultures.’ Congrès International des Sciences Anthropologiques et Ethnologiques. Compte rendu de la deuxième session. Copenhague 1938. Munksgaard 1939 (p. 86-95)

Tim Ingold 2012. ‘No More Ancient; No More Human: The Future Past of Archaeology and Anthropology.’ In D. Shankland, ed. Archaeology and Anthropology. Past, Present, and Future. London and New York: Berg (ASA Monographs 48) pp. 77-90.

Ida Nicolaisen 2001. ‘Antropologi/Etnografi.’ Københavns Universitet 1479-1979. Bd. VI.2: Det rets- og statsvidenskabelige Fakultet, 2. del, Ditlev Tamm og Eivind Slottved, red. Københavns Universitet 2001 (s.187-257).

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