Daniel Hammer's Reviews > The Trouble with Community: Anthropological Reflections on Movement, Identity and Collectivity

The Trouble with Community by Nigel Rapport
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's review
Oct 04, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction

This thought-provoking book has an interesting structure. Two anthropologists, Amit and Rapport, each wrote half of the book with their own perspectives on community. After a short co-introduction, Amit’s half is followed by Rapport’s half, which is then followed by a short commentary of each upon the other. Fantastic idea.

Amit’s portion of the book is compelling and interesting. Her audience is the practicing anthropologist who is concerned with the discipline’s repertoire of conceptual tools for analyzing the world around us. The target, for both Amit and Rapport, is the continued reliance upon categorical, bounded ideas of community, despite anthropologists’ professed commitment against such essentialisms. Amit provides a well-structured and useful history of how the idea of community has been used within anthropology. She then moves on to her argument that even in this age of global movement and disjuncture, anthropologists continue to anchor their analyses in terms of cultural communities, even as the practical content of these ‘communities’ dissipates. This approach overlaps easily with modern identity politics, with which many anthropologists share an affinity. As counterexamples, she points to a variety of social groupings, such as students, tourists, and business people, which are constituted through mundane social interactions and sentiments, rather than symbolic markers. Yet, such practical communities, and how they are imagined, feature far less prominently in our analysis of social life than the essentialized categories of cultural and ethnic community. She gives a number of simple, yet convincing ethnographic examples to make this useful theoretical argument.

Rapport’s half of the book also contains some gems to ponder, but is less compelling than that offered by Amit. He argues that pluralist and communitarian politics, including the relativist perspectives of anthropologists who aim to respect cultural difference, ultimately lead to a world of categorically distinct communities with little chance of resolving fundamental cultural, moral, and legal problems. He proposes a form of humanist politics which relies upon mutual respect and the continuous, ongoing negotiation of values and identities. His goal is not to determine a ‘correct’ answer to moral dilemmas, but to propose a practical means of making society work. As Amit writes in her response to Rapport: who could disagree with this project? Unfortunately, Rapport’s chapters are short on anthropological substance and a means of putting it into practice. The entirely of Rapport’s chapters are detailed examinations of individual philosophers’ perspectives on communitarianism, individualism, liberal democracy, and the like. When he fixates on the philosophical construct of “incommensurate” cultural communities, I would have liked an example of what such incommensurability looks like in real world. As someone who works with such conceptually ‘incommensurate’ groups, I would have preferred insights into how moral values can be (and sometime are) negotiated on the ground, rather than in the world of philosophical abstracts. This seems particularly important in light of Rapport’s idea that we should proceed through continuous negotiations of values. This sounds like a solid pragmatic suggestion, which makes it something best explained within the messy context of real life rather than in the realm of ideal logics alone. Despite this, I enjoyed reading both author’s sections and thoroughly recommend this book to anthropologists struggling with how speak and write about culture and groups.
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message 1: by Mclaughlin175 (new)

Mclaughlin175 Keep me posted on this one. Looks useful.

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