A Conversation with Anand Pandian '04

In this conversation, Anand Pandian, Professor and Department Chair of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University and alumnus of the Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, and PhD student Justin Greene speak about ecologies, ethnographies, and anthropological educations.


Justin Greene: You started out at Berkeley not in anthropology, I believe, but in Environmental Studies?

Anand Pandian: I was admitted into a program in the College of Natural Resources called Environmental Science, Policy, and Management [ESPM]. I spent two years in that interdisciplinary PhD program, taking classes there, with professors like Jeff Romm, Nancy Peluso, and Louise Fortmann, and in other departments like geography, anthropology, history, sociology. We were all trying to glean methods and techniques and approaches from lots of different places. It was rather scattershot.

I got to know [Professor Emeritus] Donald Moore because I had gotten involved in the Environmental Politics seminar, which ran for several years out of the Institute for International Studies that [Professor Emeritus of Geography] Michael Watts was directing. We had a Friday afternoon seminar on environmental politics, a space for interdisciplinary conversation around political ecology and other ways of thinking through and critically analyzing environmental questions, like the cultural politics of the environment and environmental philosophy. I got to know many people through those conversations: graduate students in anthropology and other departments, and also professors like Don. I also had one of those three-year National Science Foundation fellowships, in the field of natural resource sociology.

JG: Across the ROTC playing field, as Lawrence [Cohen] would say.

AP: I was lucky to have that NSF, and I was also a Truman Scholar, and so I had several years of funding with me for graduate school. I’d taken a class with Don, and then another, and began to take other classes in the department as well. Aihwa Ong was kind enough to let me take 240B the spring of my second year in ESPM. I hadn’t taken 240A and had already been turned away from other anthropology seminars because there wasn’t enough room for non-anthropology students. But she allowed me into that one. Don allowed me into his classes as well and it began to make sense to me, a change of programs. Because I had funding already, and because Don was willing to take me on as an advisor, I was able to transfer into the department.

JG: I was going to ask if you had to apply, but I guess you didn’t.

AP: I signed a Change of Major form. That’s how I entered into the department. Which is to say, people were kind enough to trust me and to take me under their wing, chiefly Donald Moore, and Lawrence Cohen being someone else who was also very generous and with whom I wound up working closely as well. I was still taking classes like hydrology and soil science—I was still trying to do all that—but it eventually made sense just to make the leap. I never even tried to get a masters in ESPM. I just left.

JG: Was it the ethnographic methodologies that you came across and thought, ok, this is where I feel like I fit, therefore anthropology? Am I getting a sense of that correctly?

AP: I hadn’t taken a single anthropology class in college, and it wasn’t until the second year of graduate school that I even took a class in anthropology. But I think I’d been drawn, almost without realizing it, to ethnographic methods far before that. I was doing ethnography-like things in classes, even as an undergrad at Amherst College, without knowing that I was doing this. I was interviewing people. I was hanging out with them. I was writing these very description-heavy, very observational and immersive research papers. I wound up volunteering for an NGO in South India before I came back to grad school and actually applied from there. I was keeping copious fieldnotes in that village-based NGO at the time and trying to make sense of everything that I was seeing around me. I’m not entirely sure why, but I was doing a fair amount of this kind of learning already.

JG: You had the methods from the beginning, it sounds like.

AP: I was never trained in methods, honestly. I’ve just been learning as I’ve gone along. My practice as an anthropologist has changed quite a bit, even in these last few years. In the years that I’ve been here at Johns Hopkins, I think I’ve really changed as an anthropologist. I think it’s important to be open to that, to let your mode of inquiry change with what you’re trying to understand.

At Berkeley I also took a lot of classes in geography too, by the way, with Michael Watts, Allan Pred, Gill Hart, and others. I still have a lot of friends who came out of that program. I met Don for the first time in a seminar with Michael Watts, and Don and Berkeley geographer Jake Kosek and I edited a book together, Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference. I definitely had one foot in geography. And I think I took for granted that, even if I’d stayed in ESPM, I would’ve done ethnographic fieldwork, even if I would not have necessarily called it that. I came into graduate school taking for granted that I would do qualitative, field-based, experiential research.

JG: Because you were doing it already.

AP: Well, in a sense. I don’t know if I was doing it, but I was interested in it. I was disposed toward it. I wouldn’t want to dignify what I was doing. I was just taking notes. I was really keen on recording what I was seeing and feeling and experiencing. Maybe I was just journaling, I don’t know. But I was taking down details, something akin to ethnographic fieldwork anyway.

So, I don’t think that’s what drew me to anthropology. What drew me to anthropology—the anthropology department at Berkeley, to be honest—was a better command of theory. I think it was the promise of a better hold on the intellectual tools with which I could make sense of what I was seeing, this is what drew me into the department. And those tools were of various kinds. With Don, it was cultural Marxism. It was thinking around environmental matters from the standpoint of British cultural studies and agrarian political economy, subaltern studies, and postcolonial studies. With Lawrence, there was some crossover with subaltern studies and postcolonial studies, of course, but there was also the strongly Indological interest that he had, a commitment to thinking through a deeper archive of Indian traditions of thought, philosophical, religious, and otherwise. I think I learned that from him. With Paul and Aihwa and others, I read in poststructuralism, Foucault in particular. I read a lot of Foucault.

JG: Yeah, I would imagine with Paul.

AP: Definitely with Paul: “What is Enlightenment?” was a foundational text in his pedagogy, and he was also on my committee. But I didn’t read Foucault with just him. Everyone was teaching Foucault. Stefania Pandolfo was also important in my education. She wasn’t on my committee, but she was an important influence on me in graduate school. When I wrote the acknowledgments in my dissertation, I said that she helped me find the voice with which I write. There was something about a mode of expression, her way of thinking around the problem in relation to psychoanalysis and strands of literature and philosophy. She was also teaching Foucault, his introduction to [Ludwig] Binswanger’s Dream and Existence. Foucault was ubiquitous, but there are many Foucaults, and many sides to his oeuvre that I was exposed to, many different strands.

I came into the anthropology department with the conviction that I would learn how to think more coherently and systematically about the empirical problems or situations that I was encountering in rural South India. But I didn’t have the sense that I would learn the anthropological canon as the means by which I would gain that coherence and systematicity. We read some of that canon. I took 240A with Laura Nader, for example, after I’d taken 240B with Aihwa Ong. But I wouldn’t say that it was a very rigorous immersion in the history of anthropological thinking. I think I got a very rigorous education in thinking, and in theorization, but it didn’t necessarily come from anthropology. Lévi-Strauss, for example, was someone I’d hardly read in graduate school—it was only at Hopkins that I began to read him deeply.

JG: Interesting. I was speaking with someone and they very much felt that anthropology is missing a canon and that’s a terrible thing because it doesn’t have a sense of identity. And, intuitively, I so disagreed with that. For me, the pleasure and the rigor of the discipline is that it’s at the confluence of so many different sorts of theory. It’s fundamentally interdisciplinary. It sort of exceeds itself. I think that sort of thinking and learning how to think, as opposed to learning how to think in conjunction with some singular anthropological canon, is the more gratifying stuff, at least for me.

AP: I hear you. I’m teaching the introductory undergraduate anthropology class at Hopkins this academic year in almost an anti-foundationalist spirit. We’re just reading books and, even though it’s an introductory class, all the learning is through these books, and whatever I can tease out of them to lecture on. To introduce early anthropology, the first two books we read were Waterlily by Ella Deloria and Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston. So, I might talk about Boas here and there, and Malinowski here and there and others—Geertz, Lévi-Strauss, and so on—but we’re not reading them. And I think that there’s a value to that.

I’ve also personally felt that I need to have a through line, in terms of the field. And part of the reason I wrote A Possible Anthropology was to try and give myself a sense of a heritage in the field that I could identify with, rather than simply having to fall back on the idea—that I think we still do way too often—that everything is somehow tainted and has to be repudiated. I think we do ourselves a disservice in glossing too quickly over some of the resources that we’ve inherited, or that we still have to work with. We have this notion that early anthropology was organized around a kind of brute empiricism, for example, and that it then got more interesting much later. The case that I make in that book is that you can actually think of the kind of empiricism that we find in the work of Malinowski, Hurston, and others as itself a radical empiricism. I can imagine a different kind of training in anthropology that might have helped me see that those resources were there, even in the field, and that one didn’t need to go to thinkers outside the field to find effective ways of wrestling with these problems. Even though there’s nothing wrong with that, of course.

JG: That makes complete sense. I took 240A with Lawrence and he had us going through—well, Boas was what he called the “empty center”—all the Boas people. We read “The Superorganic” by Kroeber and some Zora Neale Hurston, etc. That did definitely contextualize the discipline and the methodological heritage in a way that, especially retrospectively, I do appreciate, even if it can present sometimes like a very brute empiricism, as you said. There is something, if not comforting, to know where it started. But with anthropology, of course, some of the beginnings are not very comfortable.

AP: I think it’s important for us to be able to say simultaneously that anthropology kicked off in a pretty dark and sordid manner and yet, in doing so, it made available certain methods that, in fact, do have a kind of radical potential. And that both of those things can be simultaneously true.

JG: Yeah, and especially thinking of Zora Neale Hurston’s work and just writing, which is something I want to speak about, and what ethnography can look like. I think, at least for me, my undergraduate background was first in English and anthropology was an accident, so I knew Zora Neale Hurston as a writer before knowing her as an anthropologist. Obviously, those are bleeding into each other very much, but to come across her work and learn it as a legitimate mode of inquiry, that was very big for me.

AP: George Marcus has this phrase, “the para-ethnographic.” I wonder if we couldn’t also speak of the para-anthropological, the para-anthropological quality of a whole range of things that would not purport to be founded on ethnographic authority, and yet have at their heart a kind of anthropological imagination. We could also add to that list speculative science fiction, which I’ve always enjoyed reading and has really been important on my own intellectual development. That’s the genre that I go to more than anything else when I read at night. And there’s something very anthropological going on so often in those texts, which is why I also wrote about Ursula K. Le Guin in A Possible Anthropology, in addition to thinking so carefully with Hurston’s fictional and folkloric work as exemplifying an alternative mode of anthropological understanding.

JG: Thinking in terms of writing, and ethnographic writing in particular, obviously that’s a huge interest of yours. You co-edited Crumpled Paper Boat. I’m looking at classes you’ve taught and am seeing “Creative Expression,” “Ethnographic Writing,” “Anthropology and Fiction,” so on and so on. I’m curious about the role of writing and how that has been affected or shaped by your experience in anthropology. Did that interest precede anthropology? Like, were you really interested in writing and different modes of expression, and then anthropology introduced you to ethnography as a way to make sense of it? What’s that story?

AP: This is a little painful right now, because—

JG: We don’t have to go there!

AP: No, it’s fine. It’s just that this has been the absolute worst year in terms of writing, because things have just been so tough. I’ve always prided myself on being able to set aside a little time every day to write and be in a rhythm of it. It’s just been really hard this year.

But your question is an important one. To be honest, I’m still learning how to write. There’s no point of arrival about which I can speak with any confidence or authority when it comes to writing. I feel that I’m still learning how to write. Every time I write something and share it with someone for the first time, it’s still a real challenge to try to receive it and reimagine all over again from their point of view, to understand that it necessarily does something different for a reader than what I think it does, or what I think it should do, as a writer. There’s something about the encounter between a text and a reader that is necessarily open and uncertain and ineffable.

I continue to find writing very humbling. I’m just struck by how much good writing there is out there already. I suppose I think of writing as a challenge to be faithful to what we encounter, trying to convey not just what it was but how it felt. A truly faithful engagement with empirical reality has to have about it some sense or semblance of the force of that encounter, and in particular the transformative charge of that encounter. The ethnographic quality of that writing depends entirely on this.

Stuart McLean and I say something at the outset of Crumpled Paper Boat, that an ethnography carries beings of one world into another. That’s as close as I’ve come to a definition of ethnography, as precise as I’ve been able to get in terms of a characterization of ethnographic writing. To me, so much turns on that carrying, on that passing across, that passing over from one world into another. If you really want to bring people along, you have to try and effect a transformation through the writing. That’s where the challenge lies.

JG: You’re reminding me of a passage in the introduction to A Possible Anthropology where you say—I’m going to paraphrase this and hopefully not butcher it—humanity isn’t the subject of anthropology but also a medium.

AP: Humanity isn’t the object of anthropology as much as its medium, something we work on and with.

JG: Medium in terms of carrying, transference. You’re also reminding me of Angela Garcia and Michael Jackson’s pieces in Crumpled Paper Boat on fidelity, with respect to what we were talking about earlier.

AP: Absolutely. There are people who speak of writing as a spiritual practice. We could even think of it as a spiritual exercise, in the way that Pierre Hadot speaks of spiritual exercises in the ancient world. I can’t imagine a practice of writing that doesn’t carry with it some faith in something larger, something that may be necessary to acknowledge, but will still refuse to be understood. There is something really humbling about this experience, and all one can do in the face of something like this is muster up some faithfulness or fidelity and do what you can.

JG: And it’s something you have to muster, or at least that I have to muster.

AP: I think that many of us have had the experience of not simply writing, but of somehow being written—that is to say, being carried along by some current of expression, some story, something that needs to be told, and winds up being told in such a way that we lose some of our active agency as writers, in the face of that condition of being impelled. The fact that this happens attests to what I’ve also written about as a kind of creative ecology—that is, whether it’s writing or design or cinema or really any creative art, efficacy depends upon a certain kind of attunement to circumstances that are bigger than oneself, to the things that can happen when you key into the potentials already at work in a given environment or a given assemblage. And that assemblage may be as simple as the assemblage constituted by a keyboard and a screen and a sheaf of papers or a set of photographs. Or it might be as complicated as a camera and a few dozen people and a landscape you’re all trying to make into a cinematic image and a sonic artifact. Those ecologies, they can be more compact or more expansive, but there’s always something going on that’s bigger than the writer themselves. So much depends on finding a way of tuning into that.

JG: Which is so fundamentally ethnographic to me also, that paying attention to what’s going on, and that things can be estranged into the massive or beyond, or that the thing as familiar as the sheaf of paper can become this boat or current that takes you along.

AP: James Clifford has a formula—I think it’s in Routes—that the anthropologist or the ethnographer is the one who leaves and writes. I think you can actually do that pretty much anywhere. That is to say, any situation has a possible exit, and so often the trouble with writing is finding that exit. But it’s there. Which is to say that you can be an ethnographer of any situation, and that being an ethnographer of that situation is finding that exit, finding the opening through which it releases some other world that you didn’t expect to find.

JG: And to spatialize the exit, it’s an exit that isn’t necessarily a moving away. If anything, it’s a recursive moving-towards, an exit that leads to the same place, an exit that isn’t wholly an exit.

AP: I’ve learned enormously from Tim Ingold, and I feel that we all owe him a great deal, especially those of us who work on environmental and ecological questions. But I disagree with his characterization of ethnography, the distinctions he draws between ethnography and anthropology, the way he renders ethnography as a turning away from the world. It doesn’t sit well with my own experience. To me, the radically empiricist character of ethnographic encounter has everything to do with what you’re talking about, that way of attending to things in such a manner that you can begin to discern how they’re actually other things altogether, things that they carry the possibility of becoming other kinds of beings altogether. Our job is to find those lines of flight.

JG: Now I’m thinking of Stefan Helmreich's notion of sounding as a means of probing the contours of that which doesn’t have readily apparent limits, that sort of fumbling or sense that you don’t know what the object is prefiguratively. But ethnography provides a means not of approximating what the object is—because that delimits it in a way that I think is too confining—not of approaching something as it’s already known, but to approach what it might be.

AP: That makes real sense to me.

JG: Well, now I feel like writing, which is awesome! But can we talk briefly about being Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins? It’s a new development!

AP: It’s been good. I feel quite lucky to have colleagues in the department—and when I say colleagues, I mean both faculty and student colleagues—who are radical thinkers, committed social practitioners, people who are tinkering with the world in all kinds of interesting and unexpected ways. The department that I belong to now has never been one, as long as I’ve been here, that has prided itself on the mastery of a certain canon or the idea that, to be an anthropologist, you must know this one thing. It’s a much more eclectic place, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s especially a good thing at this point when there are so many people trying to figure out an anthropology more honest about its colonial heritage, more honest about its racism—its past racism but also the institutionalization of its racism even now—and also more honest about its professional future, an anthropology that’s willing to ask the question, “What could training in anthropology be now, given the circumstances that we’re in? What are people training in anthropology for?” I think we need to be asking all of these questions, given both the serious intellectual and social critiques that people have made of the field, and also the real challenges that students in particular face in building futures as practicing anthropologists. These are all things that we need to be thinking about, and I think it’s worthwhile having spaces in which to do that collectively, to work out other ways of doing anthropology that don’t necessarily envision or amount to a more conventional picture of the proper outcome, for example, of graduate education.

I’ve been doing some collaborative work around ecological design more recently with colleagues in anthropology, but also with colleagues in engineering and in other departments in the humanities and social sciences here at Hopkins, as well as people at the Maryland Institute College of Art and community organizations in Baltimore. We are trying to think through, in part, other ways of doing anthropology that might challenge the distinction we’ve come to draw so habitually or customarily between basic and applied research. That is to say, other ways of doing anthropology that might put us into more lateral relationships with other people who are not necessarily scholars in our own field, but with whom we can devise imaginative and practical outcomes that might also be seen as worthwhile products of anthropological or ethnographic inquiry.

Professional fields like ours continue to work so hard at qualifying certain ways of speaking and certain ways of doing, and disqualifying other ways of speaking and other ways of doing, as we’ve seen in many of the recent debates on Twitter and elsewhere about contemporary anthropology—debates in which people have giving voice to problems of hierarchy and deeply entrenched elitism, institutionalized disdain for those who don’t have a certain occupational profile or a certain language of proper scholarly expression, or a certain manner of self-presentation: graduate students, untenured scholars, practicing anthropologists who work outside the academy, people who have tried to secure academic jobs, people more marginal to the orthodox professional center of the field. And these are problems. These are things that we have to wrestle with, to work on if we really take seriously the idea of decolonizing anthropology, of confronting the systemic racism of fields like ours. We have to look at those practices of distinction and how to undo them more effectively.

A lot of this has to do with schooling, with training, with how we learn to be anthropologists, what it means to be an anthropologist, what it means to be a mature member of a field like ours. I think that every graduate program in anthropology needs to be asking these questions. We need to be asking ourselves what we’re doing as faculty vis-à-vis our students, what kinds of comportment we are modeling, whether we are pursuing our work in a spirit of, say, existential generosity as opposed to disdainful judgment. A lot of our professional programs still carry that baggage, and that’s a problem. This is something that I’m thinking about a lot these days.


Anand Pandian is a professor and chair of the anthropology department at Johns Hopkins University. His recent books include A Possible Anthropology (2019) and the co-edited books Anthropocene Unseen (2020) and Crumpled Paper Boat (2017).

Justin Greene is a second-year PhD student in UC Berkeley's Department of Anthropology. He is a small press editor at Entropy and the web editor at Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences. His writing has appeared in Hayden's Ferry Review, The Southeast Review, Hobart, and Barrelhouse.