Myron Cohen interviewed on his work in Chinese anthropology
July 20, 2020
Professor Myron Cohen was recently interviewed on “Collaborations, Legacies, and Shifts in Chinese Anthropology” for the International Sociological Association’s e-Symposium July issue on his long career studying Chinese anthropology.
In the interviewer’s words: “I had approached Myron Cohen who, to my knowledge, is the longest-practicing Chinese anthropologist today, for an interview on his early professional experiences. They include his fieldwork and collegiate collaborations, and his views on intellectual exchanges, legacies, and shifts in Chinese anthropology from the 1960s to the present. I had hoped for us to learn about broad shifts in the sub-discipline and its institutional culture. Unsurprisingly, Cohen’s responses exceeded what I sought to find out. You will read about, for example, Cohen’s thoughts on traditionalism, which he situates in historical context (i.e. the inability of anthropologists to do fieldwork in Maoist China); the different kinds of issues that piqued the interests of scholars of the 1960s and 1970s, working ‘in the spirit of those times’; and the shrewdness with which he approaches fieldwork in the past and present. While he spoke about ‘waving gongwen (公文official documents) in people’s faces’ during fieldwork in the 1960s (which may raise eyebrows today), he also reminds us that, even in the face of state-imposed obstacles, ‘you put anthropologists anywhere for long enough, they will see interesting things going on, for local life has its own quality.’ Lest we assume that we can criticise the anthropology of yesteryears given our advantage of hindsight, his experiences and reflections also, in my view, help us appreciate these as intellectual developments situated in their own contexts and existing in their own right.”