The Structure and Agency of Uppsala Anthropology

by Anita Jacobson-Widding

One of the youngest departments at the 500-year old university in Uppsala is that of Cultural Anthropology. Its current name and general orientation were adopted in the late 1970s, when - after some turbulent years of student protests - the professorial chair was renamed and reoccupied. The first holder of the chair, professor Sture Lagercrantz, retired 1975, and was succeeded two years later by Anita Jacobson-Widding.

Professor Lagercrantz had by then occupied his chair for 15 years, although he began to teach what was then called "General and Comparative Ethnography" already in the late 1940s. Surrounded by a small, enthusiastic group of students he pursued his teaching obligations for about 12 years without any department, office or secretary. He did not even have a desk or a telephone, but borrowed a lecture room in the main university building three days a week, while using his own bedroom to receive the students for oral exams and thesis supervision. This provisional arrangement lasted until 1960, when, at last, a chair was created for him, and with the chair a small department as well.

Those who were his students during the first 15 years of his teaching were all drawn to the subject for more or less irrational reasons. To study "ethnography" was supposed to lead nowhere in terms of career or any other merits. It was not even supposed to give us any useful information about the world. The curriculum was entirely focused on African culture history, which was taught in the diffusionist vein of thought that was characteristic of German ethnology during the first decades of this century. But to us - his students - this did not matter so much. We just enjoyed the informal atmosphere of learning, and felt as if we were included in a very learned man's select company. Those of us who wished to take a different path when writing our doctoral theses felt entirely free to do so, and would struggle along on our own, while picking and choosing among the "new" anthropological literature from France, Great Britain and the United States. In this way, we could all pretend that we were anthropological pioneers, without feeling bogged down by the burden of the old German culture historical school.

However, by the end of the 1960s, a new generation of students flocked around some young teaching assistants at the Department of Ethnography. In 1968 they decided to revolutionise the subject (and the society as well). They wanted to throw out the books by Frobenius and Baumann, and study what they considered to be contemporary social problems, rather than the distribution of mouse traps in Africa. In order to achieve their ends, they left the Department of Ethnography and opened up a "department" of their own, which they wanted to call the Department of Social Anthropology. But since the year of these happenings was 1968, nobody was interested in the functionalist, British school of social anthropology. Instead of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, the students and their young teachers together introduced the marxist anthropology that was becoming popular in those days. marxist ideology and student protests were part of the "cultural structure" of intellectual, North European society in the late 1960s, and I think it is important to view the particular developments in Uppsala in that perspective.

But even if certain cultural structures were "given", the particular responses to them among Uppsala anthropologists had their own specific developments that were largely determined by the personalities and situations that happened to dominate the Uppsala scene at this point. There was, on the one hand, a professor who was not in the least interested in what might be "politically correct", but who insisted on his own interpretation of what anthropology was all about. On the other hand, there were some unusually ambitious student leaders, whose enthusiasm for marxist ideology and political revolt was paralleled by their rapture over their sudden power. This all led to a formal split between the Department of Ethnography, where professor Lagercrantz was left with a handful of students, and a new Institute of Social Anthropology, where almost 200 students flocked around their new leaders. Those who did not fit anywhere, neither among the "revolutionaries", nor among the "reactionaries", just left the university. I myself was one of them.

In 1977, the professorial chair of "Ethnography" was renamed and reoccupied. The new name was "Etnologi, särskilt utom-europeisk" (Non-Western Ethnology), and the new holder of the chair was brought in from the outside. Having left the university altogether in 1969, I was, in a certain way, an outsider to the university, and to the political conflict as well. This is probably one of the factors that contributed to the later developments in anthropology in Uppsala. While regarding myself as an outsider, I felt free to develop a "third way". There would neither be the strictly sociological, or marxist approach to the study of culture, nor any obsolete, diffusionist paradigms. Instead there would now be a focus on culture as a system of shared values and symbols, and an attention at how people were handling these values and symbols in everyday life.

Within a couple of years, the old department began to take a new shape. In 1979 it was renamed, and turned into the Department of Cultural Anthropology. At the same time, the Institute of Social Anthropology in the Sociology department was closed down. Some of its resources were relocated to the Cultural Anthropology department. We could hire new teachers, invite visiting professors, and, in 1983, move to another building at Trädgårdsgatan 18.

The research that began to develop from about 1980 covered a wide spectrum of socio-cultural anthropology. While the first two dissertations had adopted structuralist and socio-economic system theories, respectively, many of the new doctoral students found that various poststructuralist versions of symbolic anthropology came closer to their minds and hearts. The poststructuralist version of symbolic anthropology was also to become the leitmotif of a research program on African Folk Models that was started in 1981. This research program, which was sponsored by HSFR (the Swedish Council for Research in the Humanitites and Social Sciences), made it possible for ten Africanists to pursue field work and write up their research results over the next six years. This research program was officially terminated in 1987, with an international conference on "African Folk Models and Their Applications", but the reverberations of its theoretical and methodological developments can still be noticed at the Department of Cultural Anthropology. Some of the conference proceedings have been published in the series Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology.

Beside the scholarly focus on symbolic anthropology, many Uppsala anthropologists have also developed a particular interest in issues connected with identity and personhood. One of the first manifestations of this particular research interest was the international symposium "Identity, Personal and Socio-Cultural", which took place in Uppsala in 1982. This symposium was a co-arrangement of the Academy of Letters, the Multi-Ethnic Committee at Uppsala University, and the Department of Cultural Anthropology. Being the convenor of this symposium, I have ever since felt increasingly preoccupied with the issue of how to develop anthropological approaches to identity problems. This has led myself and some of the other Uppsala anthropologists to begin to explore psychological anthropology as a supplement to mainstream socio-cultural anthropology.

Thus, if the 1980s was a decade for poststructuralist explorations of symbolic models, the 1990s seem to be a decade that is opening up for a more experience-oriented kind of research. However, psychological anthropology is only one of the frames that we have chosen in order to explore the span between culture and experience. Several of the young anthropologists at the department are also trying to adopt new methods of discourse analysis and systematic observation of interaction, in order to come to grips with the issue of how "structure" and "agency" may relate to each other in various cultural contexts.

However, no matter how eagerly many of us try to come to terms with the new experience-oriented paradigms, none of us has given up our basic focus, which is that of culture. We have taken up certain postmodernist issues in order to enrich and modify the perhaps too naively conceived "culturological" approach that marked our research in the 1980s. But we have not yet thrown out the baby with the bath water - and I hope we will not do that as long as we call ourselves cultural anthropologists.

In my view, cultural anthropology is a discipline that must always take the concept of culture into account - culture as a matter of shared understandings about the world that we act upon. However, taking culture into account does not necessarily mean that one regards people as cultural automatons, who are entirely moulded by the values and structures of their own society. The great challenge of the new postmodernist, existentialist, and experience-oriented approaches in anthropology is that they force us to reflect upon how lived experience and unforeseen situations may result in different kinds of responses and reactions to what is culturally given.

To analyse the interplay between culture and experience, ideology and reality, structure and agency may not only be a fruitful approach to the study of "the other", it may also be a way to come to grips with our own lives, as we go on reflecting upon how to figure out the puzzle of our social and personal existence. It is in this vein of thought that I have tried to give an account of the development of anthropology in Uppsala. It is, I think, a development in which the personal and the cultural blend in a pattern of interplay between structure and agency.


| Last update March 12th, 1997 | URL | WebMaster |