Bruce Kapferer: The Hau complicity: An event in the crisis of anthropology

Hau is a phenomenon. It burst on the scene of the relatively small academic scholarly world of anthropology capturing scholars from around the globe into its spirit. Hau rapidly established itself as a premier journal in the discipline with an increasing defining role for anthropology. It was becoming a power in the field legitimating reputations and concerned with building them. Perhaps most surprising (but less so on reflection) was the speed of its ascent within the academic community largely through the efforts of its inspiration, the founding editor whose journey describes a kind of Rake’s Progress (or threatens to do so). The ambiguities and hesitancies in defense and attack, reported injuries, moral ire that are surrounding the characterization of his alleged behavior refracts critical features of Hau’s rise and not least the complicity, intentional or otherwise, of those who aided and abetted the rise of Hau (David Graeber’s public confession being an egregious example). The whole sad story (in some ways reflecting the current tragedy of anthropology as a discipline) manifests the sociopolitical crisis affecting global realities that has particular effect and expression in the plight of Hau. The progress of Hau embodies a critical moment perhaps a turning point in the history of the discipline that is not reducible to the responsibility of the editor (although he might be described as anthropology’s Trump), regardless of the fact that so much blame seems to be piling up around his feet (see also Kalb, Murphy, and Neveling on Focaalblog).

Hau is the creature of increasingly digitalized realities and the associated political economic transitions, transformations, reconfigurations, reassembling, or whatever of social life and its institutional orders (including those of academia and scholarship) that is occurring. Its editor proudly trumpeted the advantages of open access publishing and its democratizing potential, especially the ability of an open access Hau to break the control of the major publishing houses and to force a greater unity of the anthropological collective in the context of transnational global realities and the sense of marginalization that many in the discipline scattered across the globe felt: much of this being the legacy of a discipline born in the heat of the imperialist expansion and invention of the West.

The promise of Hau in the early days of its organization was of a journal that would set the highest standards of quality (not a feature of many online journals) that would meet the career interests of individuals in the global anthropological community and reinvigorate the importance of the guiding traditions of the subject whose importance for many had declined. Hau, as the title implied, bridged the old into the new, a continuity from the traditions of the subject’s foundation into a concern and relevance for the problematics of the present and future. There was a democratizing promise in the journal and perhaps an overcoming of the restrictions inherent in the hierarchies of the discipline. Sadly, however, such a promise seems to have been defeated, the journal often appearing to be an agency in the shoring up of the powers that be, as Don Kalb has pointed out.

There is no doubt that Hau was/is a brilliant idea thoroughly appropriate to the historical moment. Its editor-inspirator was certainly up to the task. Skilled in the digital world, he was/is a networker par excellence. A postgraduate at Cambridge, he was close to influential scholars in the discipline and already, if somewhat marginal (he had not completed his PhD), in a circle that brought him into contact with prominent anthropologists. He engaged his position to his idea attaching himself to one influential scholar and leapfrogging to another, coursing along the lines of academic patronage and power. The flattery and pandering to academic vanity achieved bewildering heights. The editor’s digitally mediated range of extensive, virtually totalizing, information concerning the history and directions of anthropology (and cognate perspectives) was functional for his editorial claims, if more superficial than deep. It was a Wiki knowledge rather than a reading knowledge, appropriate to the Big Data information age of the present, a new kind of intelligence as it were. This is not to reduce its significance but to highlight its distinction and centrality to the creation of Hau and its rapid acceptance, and in significant ways uncritically so by influential members of the subject. Somewhat paradoxically, the founding editor, as a function of his digital expertise, bartered and transmuted his initial situation of the client into that of the patron so much so that many (often relatively senior) came to fear the editor’s power. This was based in an imagination that he could affect reputations, the most highly valued resource or commodity within academia. I heard colleagues comment to this effect when doubts regarding the aims and interests of the editor were voiced.

Hau quickly became a hub in a vast international web of influence spun by its editor, much of its appeal being that it could command the rise (and fall) of reputation (see also Kalb on Hau’s “prestige economy”). This was/is vital to the journal’s establishment, its legitimacy. The editor was far from averse to pushing this idea—a promise to advance reputations and for some anthropologists to become an instrument in their celebrity. The editor wallowed in the gossipy world of this still relatively small subject. If some anthropologists had once been household names, known outside the confines of their discipline (e.g., Bronisław Malinowski, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Edmund Leach), this is arguably less so now, possibly because the vital ideas and methodology of anthropology are less specific to it and increasingly more adapted from other disciplines especially in this age of the Anthropocene and the post-human. It is hard to have a cross-disciplinary reputation in anthropology and even harder to become a household name in the wider population. Nonetheless, there is pressure in this regard as a consequence of the change that has overtaken the universities (their corporatizing managerialization; see Brown 2011; Readings 1997; Wolin 2010), the greater premium being placed on public relevance of research in the interests of gaining diminishing public funding. Such pressure is exacerbated in an intensified climate of competition, encouraged by university administrative policy, among academic staff where increases in salary and status have become more closely tied to production and public fame.

Hau gained its potency in anthropology through its exploitation of the crisis in the subject exacerbated by changes affecting university orders that have particular affect on the discipline’s survival. The motivation to reputation and its intensified commoditization in the current phenomenon of celebrity that Hau played a role in furthering, accounts for the willing complicity of so many already well-established scholars in the discipline to support the journal (and its expansion into other areas of publishing) and the excesses of its editor, his alleged abuses of power, and other failures.

Much blame is currently being heaped on the hapless founding editor of Hau. Hau emerged from within the faults of the sociopolitical order of the subject, further excited by the changing policies of university administrations. The editor played within these faults, exposing their dangers in his exploitation of them (e.g., in the system of patronage and the processes of reputation building). Such faults continued into the sociopolitical structure that established and supported Hau and are likely to Haunt it for a considerable time still, should Hau survive. The plight of Hau is an event that displays vital problems affecting the discipline of anthropology at a critical point in the history of the subject. It is a lesson for all of us.

Bruce Kapferer is Director of the EU-supported Egalitarianism Project and Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Bergen. He has published widely on Africa, Sri Lanka, India, and Australia.


Brown, Wendy. 2011. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. New York: Zone Books.

Readings, Bill. 1997. The University in Ruins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wolin, Sheldon. 2010. Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Introverted Totalitarianism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cite as: Kapferer, Bruce. 2018. “The Hau complicity: An event in the crisis of anthropology.” FocaalBlog, 9 July.