Bruce Kapferer

Intervjuet av Bjørn Enge Bertelsen

Moving at the margins to re-centre anthropology

From having been supervised by Bruce Kapferer and having worked on and off with him since 1999, I knew that pinning him down long enough to interview him would be hard. After weeks of failed attempts, I finally became lucky in November 2010 when I managed to abduct him to my office. This strategic re-location was necessary to escape the constant ringing of telephones in his office as well as his office’s avalanche-prone ever-expanding piles of papers and books. All verbal encounters with Bruce are characterised by a direct, critical and engaging dialogue – as also documented in other interviews (see esp. Smedal 2000). This rang true also for the dynamic of the interview situation, so only after five minutes of discussing critically recent developments in anthropology did I succeed in posing my initial question.

Growing up in the wild Bondi area

I thought we could start by getting to know a bit about your personal background and childhood. I know from previous conversations with you that when growing up in Australia, you engaged in exotic activities like hunting kangaroos. Can you elaborate on your personal background, including the neighbourhood you grew up in?

I was born in Sydney, of course. My father, Robert Kapferer, was an immigrant. From France via North America, he arrived in Australia as a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune, to cover the early stages of the war in the Pacific. On a boat he’d met my mother, Gwen Arnold, who was coming back to Australia from an overseas tour. In Australia it was very important that people went overseas, as my mother did. My father joined up with the Australian forces during the war. That’s how he settled there and how I was conceived.

Where was your mother from?

My mother was born in Australia of an Anglo-Irish background. She was really uneducated and married very late, being about thirty when she married my father. Normally in those days if you weren’t married by 22 or so, you were considered to be “on the shelf”. My father had been stranded as a journalist in Australia at the outbreak of the war and enlisted in the Australian army. After the war he struggled to get work and we lived in a little one-room basement flat in a place called King’s Cross – a cosmopolitan, ambiguous area, largely populated by refugees. My father was from Paris, but had been a correspondent with the New York Herald Tribune as it was then called. King’s Cross was a marginal “wild” area of Sydney where night-life thrived with soldiers, prostitutes, etc. To keep the household going, my mother made gloves. Eventually, my father, financially assisted by his sisters and his uncle, Marcel Kapferer, who were living in Paris, became an importer of foreign films – largely French and Italian new wave such as La Ronde, Bicycle Thieves, Les Enfants du Paradis, La Strada, etc. We moved to a flat in the Bondi area which was a major immigrant area settled largely by people from East Asia, often Jews, many Greeks, Eastern Europeans, Russians. So it continues today. That’s where I grew up. Bondi became a national icon because of its immigrant population but it was also a place where all the values of conventional Anglo-Saxon Australia were challenged. I mean, what you see in television series in Norway, such as Bondi Rescue, is a totally domesticated Bondi, not the place where I grew up. Bondi was a place where largely British-Australian values were challenged. The beach was the location of the famous “Bikini Wars”: Women and girls, often from Eastern Europe, introduced the bikini and the ongoing contest was with Anglo-Saxon beach inspectors who supervised what was considered as decent as against indecent beach wear. It was a great place to grow up in – a relatively cosmopolitan island in a sea of moral convention that was (is?) largely Australia then.

So you see yourself as having a sort of an immigrant and working-class background?

No, not a working-class background – although it was to begin with. As with immigrant communities in most places, I was from an upwardly mobile background and my father made quite a bit of money. He then went broke and ended up as a messenger when he was in his seventies. But for a while he was really important in developing a foreign film industry in Australia, especially in Sydney. In fact he is listed in the Australian Encyclopaedia for being one of the civilizing influences! And he came from a strongly bourgeois family in Paris. His background was Jewish/Catholic – part of the haute bourgeoisie where religious persuasions were crossed in dynastic marriages.

And do you have Catholicism coming from your Irish mother as well?

No, my mother wasn’t Catholic. While my father professed atheism, to my mother’s chagrin, she was an Anglican and Anglo-Irish in background. She was petty bourgeois, in a sense, the daughter of a rural bank manager and was trained as a nurse. She had very little formal education as she left school early to take care of her mother who was dying from cancer. Growing up I was really marginal – I think typical of the immigrant, mixed, hybrid population that was developing in Australia. I was not from a working-class background but rather with connections into a relatively newly growing immigrant society of what at the time were marked as “New Australians”!

A first experience with Australian academia

So with that kind of marginal and diverse background, how did you develop your interest for anthropology – or academia at all?

Well, business was out. My father’s constant financial uncertainties – especially so in the context of the introduction of television in the 1950s – was a source of anxiety in the house. My mother would occasionally take work in the Post Office, or return to making gloves, which she did in the immediate post-war period when my father was “demobbed” and without employment – in order to support the household. I became interested in anthropology largely through my father’s intellectual interests. He was fascinated by other cultures. It was at home that I read Pierre Loti (1880), these days regarded negatively as an orientalist. It was my father who bought me books on archaeology that also became my entrance in anthropology. Nonetheless there was family opposition to specializing in anthropology or in academic work. Some kind of well-paid profession was the preference.

Initially, my main interest was archaeology. I remember I wrote a letter once to the renowned biologist Julian Huxley who had written a book – From an Antique Land (1954) – that I had read and was fascinated by. He replied! When I finally got into university in 1958 and wanted to do anthropology, you couldn’t! You could do anthropology only on higher degree levels. So, I had to do other things, like English, history, philosophy and psychology and various other things for a while, not anthropology. Anthropology came in later when I was able to specialize in it, which was at Sydney University.

And Sydney University at the time had a famous anthropology department. It had been founded by Radcliffe-Brown – his top hat was even in the department! He was succeeded by, I think, Raymond Firth, who again was followed by A.P. Elkin, famous for his research among Aborigines (1931). When I was a student William Robert (Bill) Geddes was professor and well-known for his popular anthropological work called Nine Dayak Nights (1957). Geddes worked extensively in Fiji and I recall reading in some depth his PhD thesis that focussed on patterns of reciprocity and the gift. When I was a student the department was in expansion with new recruits from the LSE.  One was Michael Swift (2001) who was a Malaysianist and another was Chandra Jayawardena (1963) who became my supervisor and who had worked in Guyana. Swift was from an English working-class background. And Jayawardena actually was from a Sri Lankan low-caste although in class terms from an upper-class or upper/middle-class family. Both Swift and Jayawardena were strong Marxists. Also in the department was Mervyn Meggitt well-known for his work among the Walbiri in central Australia (1962) and later among the Enga in Papua New Guinea (1965) – as well as Les Hiatt who worked on Aborigines (1996). Meggitt’s Walbiri work is excellent and continues to attract attention. His later work on the Enga was path-breaking and has suffered from the critique that it too readily applied African models to Melanesian material. But it is crucial in relation to understanding current conflicts over land and the relation of population density to conflict and warfare. A major figure whose personality influenced life in the department was H. Ian Hogbin who had been a student of Firth and Radcliffe-Brown.

Entering the Zambian Manchester School

So, Sydney during my student days was a significant place for anthropology at that time and filled with a mixture of ideas. Also, Les Hiatt who was writing up his materials for a PhD on Aborigines when I was a student. Sadly he has only recently died. He was a major proponent both of psychoanalytic and also ethological approaches applied to anthropology.

Sydney was a prominent colonial outpost for expanding anthropological interest in the Pacific region. Although British social anthropology dominated there was a gathering influence of American anthropology both before and after the Second World War. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson were outstanding among the influences. The importance of Sydney grew in the context of the development of research in Papua New Guinea – perhaps the last region for an exotic anthropology, an anthropology relatively untouched by globalizing forces or where the nature of the impact of such globalizing forces on “archaic” societies could be observed in process. The Sydney department was conscious of its intellectual importance regarding new orientations in anthropology and its proximity to major field work zones.

I had just started studying anthropology at Sydney when Max Gluckman made a visit. His   arrival at the department caused a minor furore in Australia. The Australian Federal Government banned him from entering Papua New Guinea where some of his students from Manchester were interested in studying. Their Marxist associations raised eyebrows in very conservative Australia. The celebrated Russian spy case – the Petrov Affair – had recently occurred and Australia at the time was filled with a “reds under the beds” phobia. Politically Australia was then heavily under the influence of US foreign policy, as it is today, but British imperialist concerns were also rife – fuelled by the colonial war in Malaysia. Gluckman had already been banned from working in Central Africa because of his left associations. He was not permitted to re-visit his field area in Barotseland for 17 years! It was a common rumour that he was a member of the Communist Party, which was untrue.

Gluckman’s presence further whetted my appetite for Manchester, which was growing in international reputation then largely as a result of the publication of a series of monographs centred in Central Africa where the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute (RLI) was the base. Succeeding Godfrey Wilson, Gluckman had been the Director of the RLI and when he took the professorship at Manchester in 1947 turned the RLI into the field base for his development of anthropology. But my interest in Manchester had already been fired by my BA Honours supervisor Chandra Jayawardena who was interested in the anthropology of law as well as in a more Marxist approach in anthropology. Manchester and the RLI was at the forefront of such an approach and it was Chandra who influenced me to apply for a British Commonwealth Scholarship to join the group headed by Clyde Mitchell then located at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (UCRN) in Salisbury (now Harare) in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Mitchell had gathered scholars educated in the Manchester tradition, had become Director of the RLI and was responsible for the in-fieldwork supervision of the anthropologists Victor Turner and Jaap Van Velsen. He was part of the initial group of RLI anthropologists that Gluckman had gathered around him, such as John Barnes, Elizabeth Colson, Ian Cunnison and Bill Watson. In many ways, as I was to discover, Clyde Mitchell was the important intellectual support for the development of Gluckman’s orientation to anthropology and, being South African, thoroughly conscious of the socio-cultural forces that had underpinned Gluckman’s own intellectual development.

Mitchell’s idea at UCRN was to build a group of scholars on Gluckman’s Manchester/RLI model. The core of his staff comprised Jaap Van Velsen, Axel Sommerfelt and Kingsley Garbett who was fresh from completing his PhD at Manchester. (When I arrived Ian Lewis had just left to take a post at LSE). Mitchell intentionally used the Commonwealth Scholarships scheme to draw young scholars to his department – among them were David Boswell, Norman Long, Peter Fry and myself. But others were linked in including scholars at the RLI – where Mitchell was briefly Acting Director – such as Peter Harries-Jones.

It sounds like a large group?

It was very small but relatively close-knit and intellectually engaged in a collegial way. I remember when I arrived in Salisbury, Mitchell thought that it would be good to work up in Northern Rhodesia – as it was then, it became Zambia the first year I was there – and that I should work among the Bisa. In this Mitchell was following Gluckman’s earlier research tactics of the RLI – that is, to direct researchers into areas in terms of a particular problem that was particularly pertinent to the region. Matrilineality was an issue. Mitchell had worked on this matter in relation to the Yao as had Victor Turner on the Ndembu. I think the Bisa were interesting to Mitchell because they had been involved in the Portuguese and Arab slave trades – as had the Yao. The Bisa are a Bemba-speaking group of people up in the Northern Province and they were further chosen because of the language factor as the intention was that I would be using this language in the urban areas where it was planned that I should do my major fieldwork. Mitchell wanted me and others, such as Boswell, to work on urban issues, his central concern. The Manchester School idea was that you should spend a year learning the language, and then do one or two years of fieldwork following that, working with the basis of the language that you had begun to pick up. They would argue that you needed a year to pick up the language – and they were right. So I went and worked among the Bisa – I have published a small thing on that fieldwork (1967). So, that’s how I got to Zambia and began working there and how I got tied up with the Manchester school, and how I left Australia – all in one piece. And I wanted to get out of Australia.

Why did you want to leave Australia? Did it have anything to do with its focus on the Pacific or Oceania or were there other issues?

I just wanted to get out of Australia and its immediate region quite independently of anthropology, although the subject opened up a larger horizon of possibilities. My own background was a factor in getting away. But there was a major interest in pursuing postgraduate work away from the Sydney department and its orbit. To me at the time the really interesting work was going on outside. I was a little bored by the stress on exchange systems. Although I am very hesitant to say it now, I found Malinowski and especially Raymond Firth’s work a little dull. As an undergraduate Firth’s text Human Types (1938) and his Tikopia work (1936) had been drummed into the students. Work in Africa seemed more intellectually adventurous. And to a large extent Jayawardena was instrumental in supporting such an opinion.

So even though you were part of sort of the colonial apparatus in a sense, by being with the research infrastructure you felt you could…

…I suppose, thinking analytically, we were part of the colonial apparatus. Inescapable! But this would devalue the radical nature of the group that I found at Salisbury and, indeed, the anti-colonial tenor of this group as effectively the second generation of the RLI-based Manchester School. The previous generation (located at the RLI situated in Lusaka in Zambia or Northern Rhodesia as it was at the time) had been highly critical of colonialism and its racial structure. Effectively apartheid was alive and well. I stress that Gluckman was made a prohibited immigrant to the Central African Federation (the unity of Nyasaland, Southern Rhodesia and Northern Rhodesia – the colonialist way to maintain white hegemony) and Bill Epstein was refused permission to work in the African housing and plant area of the copper mines. The anti-colonial critique which was a factor in the RLI was continued at Salisbury. Mitchell was fairly liberal in his political orientation but he gave full support to many of the more overtly radical members of his staff – especially Jaap Van Velsen and Axel Sommerfelt (see also Flikke and Simonsen 2009). Most in the department at UCRN were active against the regime of Ian Smith and at UDI when the Central African Federation broke up and the war in Rhodesia began, most were declared prohibited immigrants and had to leave. That is how Mitchell got to Manchester!  The most radical in the group was Jaap Van Velsen who had fought in the Dutch resistance. The Salisbury department continued – in relative terms – the radicalism of the old RLI. Some outside the situation and from the safe distance of the presence have seen the RLI and its successors as part of the colonial system. James Ferguson is an instance. They were difficult times and I think the radicalism of the RLI bunch shapes up very well with anything radical among the current generation. And Gluckman, Mitchell, Epstein and others paid for the relatively strong stand they took.

And your role in this radicalized RLI. Do you consider yourself to be part of the group that pushed Max Gluckman in a radical direction early on?

Gluckman (although seen by some later in life because of his advocacy of equilibrium models) was a very radical presence intellectually and politically within the discipline. He created the situation for other younger and sometimes more politically active scholars to gather such as Bill Watson, Vic Turner, Van Velsen and others. The radical nature of Gluckman’s anthropological group received further impetus in the immediate post-World War context. The war experience of those who joined him was a crucial factor.

Of course – post-hoc romanticism is part of many war stories…

That’s right. But do not forget that they were very critical of the colonial system, the bureaucratic state structures and so on.  This was provoked by their war experience which to them revealed the nature of imperial and totalitarian systems in general. Anti-colonialism was born in their class and their war experience. Many of those who joined Gluckman were working-class in background – in my generation I note particularly Norman Long and Kingsley Garbett.

And you fitted into this somehow?

I fitted into that because I came there as a colonial. The fact that I was Australian placed me in a similar position to Mitchell and Max Gluckman who saw themselves as colonials and subject to the discrimination of British class and imperialism. This comes out beautifully in relationship to Max in an article by Edmund R. Leach (1984). Leach was really quite a class snob. I might add that class factors underpinned some of the relations between the major anthropology departments in England. It was an aspect of a degree of conflict and opposition between Gluckman’s Manchester and LSE and some of the sniping between Manchester, Oxford and Cambridge.

Anti-colonial struggles, political formation and breaking free

Your fieldwork in Zambia and your relation there to the Manchester lot has the ring to it of intense political formation?

It was intense. The second day I was in Lusaka, I was in a hotel drinking with a group from the RLI – I think Eric Wood who was the research officer, maybe Peter Harries-Jones, I don’t fully recall – when the place was petrol bombed. It was a group of United National Independence Party supporters attacking ANC members. (UNIP under Kenneth Kaunda one the coming elections and led Zambia to Independence).

So you had no choice either, you couldn’t stay aloof?

You couldn’t stand outside. In any case there was a huge spirit of optimism. I think all the anthropologists were thoroughly caught up in the anti-colonialist spirit. Many of us had close dealings with leading members of the African political parties. On reflection I cannot get over how politically naïve I was. Australia was then a bit of a backwater. Most I now encountered were politically active. Certainly the event in the hotel ended my naivety immediately, though there were many things that were out of my experiential ken. I had intellectual sympathy with left politics but the Zambian experience brought me into more full-blooded contact with the relevance of its arguments. I should add that the people that I encountered (mostly the young anthropologists like myself) saw the African anti-colonialist drive as part of a wider push for liberation of all kinds. The Manchester anthropologists made it clear that the African struggle was part of the international struggle of the working class. Certainly Van Velsen, Norman Long, Kingsley Garbett were of this view. A major intellectual at Salisbury at the time was the economist Giovanni Arrighi (1966) – he was enormously influential for a whole bunch of us (see also Harvey 2009). I cannot overemphasise the spirit of enthusiasm and the sense of liberation that was in the air when I arrived in Central Africa. The whole ambience also was caught up in the anthropology that we were doing. Somehow anthropology was of special critical import.

I got my political education in Zambia. It was when I went to work among the Bisa that I confronted aspects of colonialism at first-hand. It was the end of colonialism but the lordly manner of its white agents was clear. The District Commissioner at Mpika – the small town in the Northern Province which was my branching off point for Bisaland – I recall more or less greeting me and my wife with a story of his iron merciless control, declaring that he had just come away from supervising the whipping of an African miscreant.

The Bisa at the time were alive with anti-colonial resentment and I was warned of the risk. A colonial district officer had recently been attacked and speared in the fishing area I intended to work. There was the concern that I would of course be identified with the ruling order. But I actually had little problem – I think my obvious youth and the fact that I was Australian and, therefore, not English were factors. I therefore also became very close to some of the people that were important in the Zambian independence movement. As with many other anthropologists I became good friends with Zambians who were soon to become prominent in Zambian politics and government. Nalumino Jesu Mundia, head of the UNIP Youth Wing and for a time a Cabinet Minister, gave me huge support in getting established in fieldwork in Kabwe – especially in the uncertain times around Independence. Zambia, of course, was a major front line state active in efforts against the white dominant apartheid states of Rhodesia and South Africa.

 Was this sort of a theoretical education also? You saw the struggle against and the end of colonialism, you saw the emergence of something new, you saw old structures break down. Has this been formative for your focus on crises and events?

Absolutely. I also learnt anthropology for the first time. I’d gone to the lectures in Sydney – they were all good people, beautifully presented lectures often – but lacking any kind of real spirit. The Manchester lot was totally dedicated to ethnographic analysis in relationship to theory – I suppose praxis in many ways. The empirical material was really that out of which new thought came, that was the importance of situational analysis and its focus on events. All of which I think – which I have been just writing (see esp. Kapferer 2005, 2006, 2011a, 2011, 2011 [1988]) – were all important preliminaries to what people like Gilles Deleuze (2004 [1969]) are writing about events and so on. These thoughts were already developed in Manchester. They didn’t have a language for it, and they were still locked within a structural functional paradigm that they were trying to break free of.

 And they broke free in different ways…

And they broke free in different ways. Although I had a great time at Sydney University, I really didn’t learn much anthropology. I learnt all that Pacific stuff which was all about exchange and reciprocity, and it kept on being influential in my early work. But I really think it was sort of boring compared to what the Manchester lot was actually pulling out. And the proof is in the pudding: Their monographs are still classics. I also learnt to appreciate new ways of reading old ethnography – the importance of Evans-Pritchard for example. Gluckman and Mitchell developed some of his critical ideas in original directions in the study of modernity. Situational analysis, the key method they both promoted, drew strongly on E-P’s idea of situational selection. Zambia really brought me into key new ideas and redirections out of old anthropology largely taking root in Manchester through Zambian ethnography that the stuff I had been taught at Sydney just didn’t seem up to. So it was a very exciting period.

 A return to Australia

When did you move on from Manchester and from the Zambia orientation?

My wife wanted to go back to Australia and was a major impetus. We were effectively away from family and friends for 12 years. The mobile phone had not been invented – this makes me reflect on fieldwork now. Anthropologists these days can stay in contact with remote field areas. When I first did fieldwork when you completed and left the field, that was it. Now I can communicate with my friends in the field and back home all the time via internet and the mobile phone, indeed they are great field aids. But when I was in Zambia and back in Manchester communications were relatively poor, we couldn’t afford to fly back to Australia for short visits as is now possible. When I was offered a chance to establish a new department of anthropology at Adelaide University in 1973, I jumped at the opportunity. This was not just because I was homesick but I saw it as a possibility for developing something like the anthropology I had encountered in Zambia and then in Manchester and the UK more widely.

I established anthropology on a Manchester-model and I think developed an innovative undergraduate course, at least for Australia at the time.  I broached my idea to my teacher and friend, Chandra Jayawardena at Sydney airport on my way to Adelaide. He asked how the hell would I start a first-year course, and I said; ‘Oh, I think I’ll do a Manchester-light’. This presupposes that you consider that the students you get in there are intelligent. This means that you hit them with the hard stuff immediately: You don’t hit them with the jargon, but you present them immediately with some of the deep intellectual excitement of the discipline. Chandra and many since have argued that this is the wrong way to go about. It is often said that anthropology has difficult ideas in it that demand intellectual maturity. Some say ‘oh no, students must be introduced to the concepts or jargon of the subject in order to understand the monographs, ethnography and so forth’.  I developed a course at Adelaide that presented all the exciting ideas that were coming from anthropological ethnography. It was difficult I think but exciting. The classes became huge – between 600 and 800 in the first year. I have maintained this position ever since. I think many introductory anthropology courses have got it wrong with going from simple to complex. I have hardened up on this position after reading Richard Feynman and his recipe of teaching physics. He insisted that young students are at the height of their brain power full of intellectual capacity. They can immediately handle difficult ideas and are thirsty for them. These can be presented without the confusions of disciplinary jargon which, while necessary, can be gradually presented to them through the fun of difficult ideas. Adelaide was a very successful experiment in this kind of teaching of anthropology.

So you stayed there from 1973 onwards?

I stayed there until 1985 when I was invited to apply for the professorship and Chair at University College London. The university system in England at the time was on the cusp of change. The professorial structure was still very hierarchical – an order of “god-professors” as they were called in Australia – and I was the only professor. But when I arrived neo-liberalism and Thatcher was biting and a managerial structure was introduced which also involved an “egalitarianising”. Effectively the US academic was sort of introduced – mobility within departments was eased and by the time I left to return to a post in Australia at James Cook before coming to Bergen I think something like 19 members of staff had been promoted to professorial status. This was one very positive development but somehow conventional hierarchies in the academic system continued and newer ones evolved- based on grant-winning capacity and not always linked to intellectual worth. Winning grants became a new economy of the neo-liberal university and is a general pattern. But some of what I am saying gets me to reflect a little more on the Manchester experience. No doubt Max Gluckman could be described as a god-professor of the old hierarchical type. What was distinctive about Manchester was how Max and his colleagues – all of us – were engaged in egalitarianising that intellectual world of the old university. Max began Manchester and extended his RLI experiment with young scholars who had come out of the war. They were, I think, against old hierarchies and bureaucracy. They wanted an egalitarian atmosphere. Vic (Victor) Turner, for example, was a conscientious objector and worked in bomb disposal. And as he said this really sharped you against hierarchy, the liminality of the situation brooked no pretence. Very appealing to me as an Australian!

The new University system seemed to herald in a new egalitarianism. But I don’t think so. The whole ethos was influenced by American managerialism and post-modern individualism. I also think so in relation to the changes in universities that were taking place in Australia. Perhaps a legacy – in Australia especially of Vietnam?

So do you think an Americanization started at that time?

Yes, I think it started then, and that was part of the imperium of America, its take-over from imperial Britain. So you moved from “god-professor” to “everyone’s a professor”, which is the moment we are still in now, which is a part of the expansion of, in my view, imperial control. Although it also has good aspects to it, the shift of the structure has an imperial character to it.

Anyhow, when I went to University College London hierarchy was still very much there in the British system. I think one idea behind my appointment was to revitalize the department. The place was de-moralized when I arrived there. I think it was partly Thatcher’s Britain which was at the root. Some in the department couldn’t understand why someone from Australia would come! I think I contributed a little to some revival in spirits. I left there after ten years to found another department at James Cook University in Northern Australia. This was a terrible mistake.


Because I had never really been -- this probably sounds dreadful – at a peripheral university before. Manchester wasn’t peripheral, Sydney wasn’t, Adelaide wasn’t – there was nothing like a real minor university in Australia like James Cook. I didn’t understand that. When I got there the first year they declared they were 20 million in debt and there was no money to expand. I thought James Cook was going to be wonderful, because it was way up there in Northern Australia, on the edge of Asia and the Pacific. It was a major aboriginal area of Australia where, in fact, further north aborigines outnumbered Europeans. I had done fieldwork up there in 1990 at the time of Eddie Mabo when Aborigines were recognized as having had their land stolen as a consequence of the colonial invasion. (Eddie Mabo who fought for this recognition through the courts had been a gardener at James Cook!)  When I was on fieldwork there in 1990 it was even mooted by Aborigines and others that the region north of Cooktown should become another state where Aborigines would control things. A pipe dream, sadly.  But I thought the possibilities would be fantastic up there. I thought something like the RLI could be repeated up there. Another pipe dream! But the debt and I think the myopia of the people then in control – there was a coup against the Vice Chancellor Golding who had been responsible for my appointment – and the petty and small-minded seemed to be in control.  There was no possibility to develop an anthropological centre – which was my aim. So when I got an opportunity to come here, I left. However, I have kept my connections with James Cook. I was able to initiate and play some role in the establishment of the new Cairns Institute – a research centre of James Cook at Cairns and partly involved in the development of anthropological research there. The department at Bergen is playing a role in that as well.

Moving at the margins

So you have become increasingly peripheralized. Why have you chosen peripheral universities increasingly?

I don’t see myself as peripheralized. I see myself as continuously moving at the margin. I really think – and this is what Gluckman used to talk about – that you are creative at the margins. Being at the margins is the basis for being creative.  It is great to be settled for a while and much can be learned. But sometimes you can become a little stale. Moving and being at the margins can be highly stimulating and intellectually energizing. I find that moving and being marginal is critical to good anthropological thought. I don’t think it’s great to stay in one place your whole academic life. It is a mistake as you then get grounded into routine, you accept certain things without having them challenged and you don’t try new things. I think I have grown intellectually through movement and being at the margins – actually moving at the periphery has in some ways given me more academic centrality in anthropology.

When you finally came to Norway then, in 1999, what sort of anthropological environment did you find, and what did you know about Norwegian anthropology?

When I said I started off Adelaide with the Manchester ideal- it was influenced by the notion that things happen at the periphery. Gluckman saw this when he established Manchester, which in the English environment was peripheral. I should stress that when I went to Adelaide I had what Barth had achieved at Bergen very strongly in mind. When I was at Manchester Barth had become an innovative light in anthropology. He created a great department at what was seen as a marginal location. I wanted to do something similar at Adelaide. Fredrik Barth had been really critical in creating a little department up there at the edge of the Arctic Circle – as a place that had actually attracted a great amount of interest in the anthropological world. So Bergen was, I think, famous. Gunnar Håland (1969), Ottar Brox (1990), Jan Petter Blom (2000), all these people were sort of known as a function of that little period when Fredrik Barth was here.  Bergen was inspirational for what I attempted at Adelaide – just as much as Manchester. All my friends said; ‘why are you going there (Adelaide), it is terrible, it is the end of the world, just north of Antarctica. Why do you want to go there?’. ‘No’, I said, ‘I want to try this’. So when much later I heard of a position available at Bergen, a kind of circle closed in my mind. When I came here I think it would be safe to say that Barth had long gone, although his anthropology still survived and still survives here. I was more sympathetic to it 15 to 20 years ago than I would be now.

Why is that?

I began to move away from individualistic kinds of rational choice types which initially interested me. I was still into emergence and generative structures – something that was inspirational in Barth – but was still influenced by the dynamic structural approach of Gluckman and found the work of Marshall Sahlins (2000, 2004) particularly appealing.  Sahlins’s influence began when I invited him to Adelaide as a visiting professor.  He was in the middle of writing Historical Metaphors (1981) and gave a set of terrific public lectures on the basis of it. I think he in many ways completed this book while he was at Adelaide.

When I came here I still found the shadow of Barth, rational choice and ‘the seat of your pants’ ethnography still held sway. It still does, I think, to some extent. I like it, admire it and I think Barth is very important because of his ethnographic emphasis, but I had other kinds of interests. He would have disparaged the abstract, theoretical and philosophical interests that I have developed, which is also a part of Manchester even though it was highly ethnographically grounded. For instance, you can’t read Victor Turner without being aware of that – or Max Gluckman for that matter. Turner was very much influenced by Nietzsche, the psychoanalysts, phenomenology – Gluckman was thoroughly influenced by jurisprudence.

Re-centring Bergen 

How do you see yourself having influenced Norwegian anthropology or this department?

I don’t think I have influenced it much. The only thing I think I did was that I encountered a sense that ‘oh, we are peripheral’. And I said to myself, to you and to other people; ‘what makes you think you are peripheral? You’re as good as others’. I also think that the training and the intellectual commitment that the Norwegian system allows, or did allow, anthropologists, is fantastic. Plus, your linguistic abilities and so on, are fantastic. Here I also found a really strong fieldworking department which, of course, Barth had set up. But I did encounter a sense that this place did in fact accept that it was peripheral, and secondary or tertiary to everybody else. And I think what I have done is try to demonstrate that this is not true.

To re-centre Bergen?

To re-centre Bergen, that was my aim – this has already happened in Oslo. And also to demonstrate that ‘hey, this is important to the anthropological world, and Norway is‘. Norway has a very great density of anthropologists, again supported by figures like Barth and others, so it is in fact a major centre of anthropology. It should not be looked at as a periphery. And I go into seminars with the idea that there will be a critical voice from me especially if I detect any note of centrist superiority from visitors.

I think they are very aware of that...

I think that the rest of people in the department now have joined in that spirit

I think that is right. But you could also be accused of having introduced subversive, post-structural theory in this department, like the thoughts from Deleuze and Guattari etc. I think that has made a lasting impact here as well…

I remember when I arrived in Bergen there was a lot of hostility. Well, not hostility, but suspicion; ‘Who the hell is this sod’, you know, coming from outside as an innvandrer! But what was so great was there were some post-graduate students and I began a seminar with them. They responded and we developed a good dialogue. From initial suspicion then there was an acceptance of this irritation from the outside. So, I felt fantastically welcome, and able to develop thoughts here and in terrific cooperation with others. It has been a tremendous experience. I now think, because of the spirit of the people in the department, the younger ones particularly, Bergen is really on the map again. When you travel overseas people say that ‘I would like to come there’ and ‘what is happening there?’

A discipline in (and of) crises and events

Speaking of which: In terms of being on the map anthropology has in different ways continuously been called a discipline in crisis. In particular from the 1960s onwards with first resistance against colonialism, then the end of colonialism and the political sensitivity in terms of arguments of anthropology being a colonial discipline and the radical position of claiming this was the end of anthropology.  Later anthropology suffered the onslaught of postmodernism. Now one can perhaps say that beyond postmodernism lately academic capitalism has affected the discipline. How would you assess such crises and the future of anthropology as a discipline?

Well, I think that anthropology has changed. I have got a sense that anthropology as a distinct discipline is gone. I think it has sunk into a variety of other things. It does not have its autonomy or its independence that it once had. In many ways the thing that is seen as its big problem – its tendency to totalize, its ability to go and study a whole society, to see people as if they were a whole society, no matter how right or wrong that conception is – it was that overarching holistic position which gave anthropology its distinction and enabled it to say a number of different things. Now I think it is much more topic-centred and it therefore joins up with all sorts of other disciplines. However, it hasn’t lost its distinction but I think it often maintains it in the wrong way through fetishizing fieldwork. What do I mean by that? Living that world and asking questions about that world – it’s actually just collecting material. People are living that world less and less and doing more and more interviews, and so forth. So it’s not living a world which was in fact an earlier anthropology. And maybe the capacities to do that, as you look at various methodological developments from James Clifford and George Marcus (1986) and all these people, they recognize that the world has changed, become fragmented and so forth. The problem is that they created an anthropology that doesn’t work. I’ve got a feeling in a sense that the capacity of anthropology to exist as an independent productive discipline, no matter how faulty its premises, I think that’s largely gone.

So do you think we’re destined to become sort of an ensemble of ‘the anthropologies of’?

Yes, I hate that and I think that is basically it. I just don’t like the anthropologies of.

I recently saw a call for papers for a conference based on what the conveners called ‘an anthropology of the night’ (Galinier et al. 2010)…

Oh God! What is meant by that? Anthropology as a concept or word has become a kind of performative. Call something anthropology and it becomes anthropology without any real thought about what that entails.

Anthropology, it seems to me, is a critical discipline and unerringly critical. It constitutes itself as something that will enter other realities and their constitutive dynamics to find original kinds of thought and practice. In anthropology, human being and its practices is given authority as to what human being is as well as the nature of realities that human beings form. Through this approach anthropology is given to challenge what Deleuze would call royal theory or theory that is conceived aside from what it is that human beings actually do and which accords itself authority. Anthropologists address realities that have in some way or another been submitted to royal theories but which may, in fact, radically challenge them. Anthropology is in Deleuzian terms a classic minor discipline – not in any inferior sense – but in according critical value to other ways of thinking and practice that may subvert the royal theories that have suppressed – created the minor of the minor theory – and open up to new kinds of understanding that may be proven to have very great general value (see Deleuze and Guattari 2002 [1980]: 108-109, 361-374). So, it can still be that, but I’ve got a feeling that it isn’t that anymore. It has not got the relationship to ethnographic materials that it once did have. And that is because of a new form of academic, the celebrity intellectual whose ideas are tested in the academic marketplace and which are all about self-advancement and less about knowledge. 

Ethnography has become more information – actually empiricist, an array of collected facts. This was a feature of old ethnographies but the best of them – Evans-Pritchard, for example – expressly recognized their ethnographies as constructions that depended on sets of premises that could be tested or challenged through an examination of the way the ethnography was constituted – and had emphasised certain facts, for example, over others.. More and more ethnographies these days strike me as chunks of data sandwiched between theoretical assertions of various kinds. The theoretical understandings don’t emerge through the ethnography. Anthropology in my view is not at first theory-driven. The theoretical is emergent from the ethnography. Ethnography should not be treated as mere illustration of theories already agreed upon – usually by those at the metropoles.

So we’re back to your idea also of the event as an opportunity to mine particular situations and potentials? In other words – and conversely – we should evade using ethnographic data or fieldwork material merely as illustrating theoretical positions?

Yes, that’s what I get out of it. That is why I like Deleuze’s position. He proposes engagement with the way the phenomena of existence or experience are constituted as a way into understanding. Deleuze offers a different kind of phenomenology to that conventionally offered. He looks particularly at what might be called events of creative emergence in which human and non-human forces are at work. Unlike many approaches in anthropology his orientation is fabulously open to potential not just in human creativity and invention but in the kinds of questions and finding of many other approaches outside anthropology.  Deleuze’s approach to events treats them as kinds of happenings or encounters that constitute new directions and openings to possibility or potential. By the way, for me a seminar is a kind of event. This is why I give them tremendous importance at Bergen, although many here might not agree. A seminar is an occasion to have ideas contested. They should not be passive occasions, just times for the dissemination of information, or moments when we can hear an important person. This was the point of the seminar at Manchester and I think we tried it at Adelaide. It was a great time to challenge thought and in the occasion or even in itself often very exciting ideas emerged.  Seminars are occasions of creative emergence.

But back to the current changes: Somehow I think the development of celebrity intellectualism has even hit anthropology and this dampens the subject as a place of excitement. Seminars are egalitarian moments of challenge – they were so at Manchester – and in this space they can be creative. Celebrity intellectualism creates new forms of hierarchy.

What I am suggesting is that the emergence of the celebrity intellectual is connected to the larger changes that are overtaking the universities. The neo-liberalism that is establishing the life of the university feeds into the nature of thought – anthropological thought. Too much pressure is being placed on production and this is affecting critical areas of anthropology. There is a move away from the ethnography to the article.  Yet it is the ethnography that is central to the development of thought in anthropology. This I feel often demands years of intensive work. It cannot be produced hurriedly. Modern pressures on quick production are a factor in killing anthropology, anthropology as a very distinctive discipline.

The pressure is for people to get their books out. So you can’t think through problems. We are asked to take on the speed of science and technology – itself motivated in the market. This is countervailing to the idea of anthropology.

But do you think anthropology can still thrive in geo-politically peripheral places like Norway?

Anthropology was a discipline of the periphery that gained its energy in the periphery. It’s in the periphery that you actually are able to place the centre in some sort of critical relation. You can recognize what the centre is, you can listen to the centre, and you can have suspicions about the nature of the centre. So it’s very significant, and I think that many of the great anthropologists came out of peripheral centres: Gluckman, Evans-Pritchard, Firth, Malinowski. Whatever you think of these people, Boas – they are all peripheral. It’s a subject that gains its energy in that. I think the more it becomes conventionalized and centred, the less exciting it will be, and the more convinced it is that it’s got truths. So Norway is important to anthropology, a great place from which to critically reflect on the metropoles.

Is this also why there is a need to go to the peripheries to do fieldwork as well – to visit global peripheries – or is fieldwork universally applicable in a sense?

Yes. I think it’s important to do work at home as well and it is important to do work in Norway. However, the best time to do work in Norway is after you have done work somewhere else as you are then used to looking at the things that everybody thinks they know about. You can then problematize it: ‘There’s something really weird about what we do every day!’

Yes, the experience of de-familiarization...

Yeah, yeah. It is a skill that should be learned, seeing the strange in the familiar. The ability to stand outside yourself in other words, is hard. If you do fieldwork at home, in your own situation, I think it’s really difficult, to achieve this first off. Experience of difference is important.

Is that also why you have moved through a number of fieldwork locations, and moved through a number of different analytical themes as well? You have done fieldwork in Sri Lanka, in Kerala, in South Africa…

I’m only just developing the work in Kerala. Sri Lanka I’ve been in for nearly 40 years, and Kerala was kind of an extension. It’s getting more and more difficult for me to work in Sri Lanka because of my political position (Kapferer 1998 [1988], see also 2001c, 2001d, 2003b, 2003c, 2004b). But I’m going back to Zambia, where I worked for nearly four years unbrokenly. I did work on Australia (Kapferer 2003d, 2006c, 2012 [1988]). Such movement is related to my interest in Louis Dumont – who stresses anthropology as par excellence a comparative discipline – to see the difference in the apparently similar and the similarity in the difference. I think people misinterpret Dumont. Dumont is saying that the difference is also in the similarity, so they’re not oppositions. He is against that comparison that merely works through oppositions and which fails to establish the ground either for the difference or the similarity. For Dumont ethnography and fieldwork are paramount.

I like to move around. Although I see Bergen as really my last place, I’ll go out of it now to do more research while I’m still healthy. But I want to be back in Bergen because, in a funny kind of way, it has allowed me to maintain my own autonomy to some extent. That is because people have been generous.

You talked about the enthusiasm and the sense of if not necessarily revolution, then radical and political transformation when you were in Zambia at that time. What do you expect to find now when you plan to go back to Zambia, and you haven’t done fieldwork in a long time?

I’m going to find Zambia difficult, I think. Zambia looks to me like many other newly independent places that have broken away from colonialism. It is being imperialized in new ways. This is my interest. I was there at the end of British rule and where Western corporations were in control. There have been new developments. The mining companies have now largely been taken over by Chinese interests. A new imperialism is growing. I find this fascinating. What I am now proposing with my colleague and friend Norman Long, is a study of these changes combined, perhaps, with some reflections on the history of the RLI some forty years on! Fieldwork is going to be difficult, although it will be great to track old friends.

Do you think there is more a sense that anthropology should be useful – and particularly useful to current dominant political projects?

I think anthropologists need to be very careful about being useful. If they have got any sense of history they will be aware of how dangerous that is. Their great use is to be, in a sense, challenging. I feel that current theories are kinds of useful theories. I have recently been a little critical about some of the uses of Deleuze and Guattari. They are open to fitting with a new kind of convention. Their notion of the rhizome has some connection with corporatist and managerial thought. I note that Deleuze is popular in business schools! I am at present a little wary of Bruno Latour and his growing popularity. He seems to be taking anthropology in a corporate direction and making use of a Deleuzian framework. There is growing demand for utility in the discipline. The drive is towards greater use for state and corporate interests. I think the current granting system is suffering from this – and anthropology as a result.

 So in that sense we should be happy that we are not too popular with grants either then, because we would get grants where we would do research that was applied…

I agree with that. In some ways a grant is a bad thing to have. I think what is good about anthropology is that you can do anthropology with very little money. As long as you’ve got a regular salary, you can do anthropology. And with the bit of help you can get in a little place like Bergen, or actually a lot of help, you don’t need a big grant. I think a big grant can be a real challenge because you’re constrained by a bureaucratic vision of what good research is. But good research, I think, is not normal science, that’s what keeps things moving. The good stuff is always coming up on the side – it doesn’t fit the right categories. That’s the good stuff. And if people are really worried about what you’re doing, you must be onto something.

In other words, being on the side and challenging the big things is good science? I see this as your anarchist inspiration shining through. You know the anarchist slogan; ‘if you’re on fire, try to hit something big’.

Ha ha ha! Yeah, that’s just it!

OK, Bruce. Thanks for the interview!


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[i] Bruce Kapferer was interviewed in Bergen on 13 December 2010 at the request of the Norwegian Anthropological Association (Norsk antropologisk forening).  In transcribing the interview, the interviewer has benefitted greatly from the work of Lotte Danielsen and thanks are extended to her. A shortened version of the interview printed in the Norwegian anthropological journal Norsk antropologisk tidsskrift during the spring of 2012 – a full reference to which is provided under Bertelsen 2012 in the bibliography here.