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Interview with Donald Brenneis after winning the Franz Boas award

Donald Brenneis chatted with Ilana Gershon over Skype about the institutional and collegial relations that shaped his career, a reflection inspired by the Franz Boas award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology. Below is an edited transcript of the informal conversation.

You have been living an interdisciplinary academic life well before interdisciplinarity became an aspirational term. Could you talk a bit about your experiences of interdisciplinarity, and about how your work has been received by different audiences?

I find the question hard to answer because I have never thought of myself as particularly interdisciplinary. I tend to think of disciplines as institutional units or divisions of the world in some way. And I think people are their disciplines in terms of a lot of ways that cover the turf of institutional geographies. But I would get interested in particular kinds of questions and phenomena and people and following whatever kinds of pathways might be there to figure out what was going on and how to explain it, and how to get a slightly better handle of what was going on. I went into anthropology originally because I couldn’t major in linguistics as an undergraduate at Stanford. Because they thought it was too difficult for undergraduates, as it undoubtedly would have been. And then I discovered linguistic anthropology, which is much more what I wanted to do anyway. When I went to Harvard, fortunately, I arrived at the same time as Claudia Mitchell-Kernan and Keith Kernan, who taught linguistic anthropology and were students of John Gumperz. My principal advisor was Klaus-Friedrich Koch, you wouldn’t know about him because he died quite early, he was one of Laura Nader’s earliest students. So while I was at Harvard, I worked with people who were recent Berkeley PhDs. And this was one of my early experience with cross-subdisciplinary translation, in this case between linguistic anthropology and legal anthropology, that I have been engaged with from that moment on. I remember Klaus said: “You are really good on the pronouns, but are they really that interesting?” That sort of wonderment . . .  But I never thought of what I was doing in terms of disciplines, partially because I am not particularly well-disciplined. And it was just topics that I was interested in: talk and interactional processes, and that seeped over into music. It was hard to think of language without thinking of verbal violence and verbal strategies, and possibilities for violence, it just made sense.

You also got involved with Law and Society and stay very active in spaces with lively interdisciplinary conversations.

Law and Society is a very easy group to hook up with, and incredibly generous. I always found it really welcoming. One of the great experiences was being on the program committee the year that Barbara Yngvesson chaired it. We showed up one weekend in Central Massachusetts, and Barbara Yngvesson started off the conversation by asking, “Well, what matters?” It was just wonderful, it was a liberating thing, and that was the year we actually went out and recruited at a lot of events, and included a lot of emerging scholars in the critical legal studies movement. It really came from the sense that there were issues that mattered intellectually but also that mattered in the broader world, and that was as good a motivator as current theory.

Over the course of your career, you have had many insights that have opened conceptual paths for others around dispute resolution, language, and academic institutional practices. Could you talk about the origins for one of your ideas and how your understanding evolved over different research projects?

One way to think about anthropology is that of all the social sciences, we are the folks who are happiest to be surprised by the folks we are lucky enough to work with. And I am surprised and delighted at times to see where people take the things that I have done. There are two related ideas, in some ways the Gossip piece, one could not be happier about the pickup. Michael Silverstein wrote about the piece, which was very nice because Michael doesn’t necessarily disagree with the analysis, but he spends a quarter of a paper re-analyzing the data, and then applying it elsewhere. What more could one hope for?  He could translate it into appropriate semiotic terminology, that’s great. But at the core of that Gossip piece, and a number of the pieces that I wrote in the mid 1980s, revolved around the sense that the acoustic dimensions of talk matter, and that talk revolves around not only single-speaker turns but that the coordination among speakers really matters. It has a lot to do with the phenomenon such as the emotional aesthetics of performance. In my Fiji work , I saw how small points of convergence and almost unconscious forms of  coordination led to forms of identification in Burkean terms on a kind of affective level. And it was partially Michael and other folks who used the Gossip piece to show that style is actually consequential and is a social phenomenon.

Alessandro Duranti was the first graduate student I ever worked with, he was at University of Southern California, and I was on his committee. Alessandro and I both worked on the minutiae of audience as a consequential part of interaction. We were also working on co-performance and coordination as co-narration.  Everything I have learned, I have learned from conversations.

I am now stitching together all the pieces I have written on interactional phenomenon and practices of assessing peer review and documents, the nuts and bolts, and how that figures in the broader world of neoliberal hierarchies. I am also discussing peer review to provide points of resistance to the rise of metrics. Most of the articles I write about the assessment of peer review are not intrinsically linguistic anthropology. But decades ago, one of the program officers for the National Science Foundation Law and Society would often say when I was on her panel: “I hear a consensus forming.”  So I talked to her afterwards, I said: “ C’mon, you just wanted us to stop talking.” And she said, “No, you begin to hear something.” And that really attuned me to the subsequent questions for other program officers of their sense of what a consensus sounds like, is it a point through active actual agreement, or exhaustion, or an equal mood. The book concludes with a discussion of what is a consensus, how one performs it, because this pivots back to questions of the intensity of social interaction and cooperation.

And this is partially an insight from my work with Fred Myers; I was also very lucky to have Fred Myers as a close colleague. At the time that Fred and I were working on Dangerous Wordsmost of the literature about councils and meetings focused on decision-making. And Fred and I realized, working from very disparate ethnographic contexts, that decision-making was often tertiary. Sometimes exactly the worst thing you can do if you are in a decision-making role is tell everyone exactly what you think. That takes away the interpretive license of your interlocutors. That is why we do fieldwork, it expands the repertoire.

Academics tend to circulate a tremendous amount of advice around writing articles, grants, or books. Few talk about how to peer review, and yet this is a task that you have studied how it is done in the academy as a whole. Do you have any suggestions for how to peer review anthropology manuscripts? I am asking because I have begun to think about how much publishing hinges on peer review, and yet this is something we don’t teach graduate students to do.

You are right, we don’t do it in anthropology. In Santa Cruz, we have two intensive graduate courses in anthropology, and one of the points about teaching these core courses is to socialize students into generous readings. And that is necessary groundwork that you can establish before you get them to be generous and generative readers during peer review. You have to do this in part because they come in knowing that you get your chops being able to demolish arguments. And the question is: how do you balance your critique with an appreciation of why it can be published at all—what question does it answer? What makes it worthwhile, and what is the world in which this makes sense? This of course is a classic anthropological question.

Donald Brenneis won the Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service in Anthropology in 2017.  He is a linguistic and social anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has served as President of the American Anthropological Association and is currently co-editor of Annual Review of Anthropology.

Cite as: Brenneis, Donald, and Ilana Gershon. 2018. “Interview with Donald Brenneis.” Anthropology News website, October 22, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1004