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Michael Herzfeld


Michael Herzfeld is Ernest E. Monrad Research Professor of the Social Sciences in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University, IIAS Visiting Professor of Critical Heritage Studies Emeritus, Leiden University; and a member of the doctoral program in Beni Culturali, Formazione e Territorio, University of Rome “Tor Vergata.” Author of twelve books (most recently Subversive Archaism: Troubling Traditionalists and the Politics of National Heritage, 2022) and numerous articles and reviews, and producer of two ethnographic films, he has served as editor of American Ethnologist (1995-98). He is currently editor-at-large (responsible for “Polyglot Perspectives”) at Anthropological Quarterly, co-editor of “Asian Heritages” (Amsterdam University Press) and “New Anthropologies of Europe” (Berghahn), and editor of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies. His research (primarily in Greece, Italy, and Thailand) has addressed historic conservation and gentrification, the dynamics of nationalism and bureaucracy, crypto-colonialism, and the ethnography of knowledge.


Archaeological and art-historical knowledge are subject to three major political forces. One is the “audit culture” that neoliberal economies increasingly use to reduce all intellectual and academic activity to administratively manageable units; this leads to quantification as a substitute for interpretation (“Italy has 70% of the world’s great art,” etc.). Another force is ethno-nationalism, which attempts to reduce all such knowledge to ethnic categories, a task greatly facilitated by the discipline’s long-standing taxonomic proclivities. These two forces converge and collude in much of the official production of such knowledge. The third – and countervailing – force is a fundamentally ethnographic understanding of social and political process. This critical perspective provides empirical evidence of how the other two forces suppress social experience and disguise the political influences that shape the publication and dissemination of knowledge. These forces, in turn, threaten the practice of ethnography, especially through the bureaucratization of ethical and other regulatory devices. Drawing on the parallel history of folklore studies in the Balkans, and utilizing models derived from the study if craft apprenticeship, I discuss the ways in which writing practices both reproduce and challenge the prevailing hegemonies. On this basis, I suggest that closer attention to the artisanal dimensions of academic writing might provide a strong counterweight to past and present hegemonies, from nationalist archaeology and folklore to discourses grounded in calculations of profit and cost and a publication regime that answers to “impact factors” rather than to the social value of new knowledge.