Why I <3 Anthropology

I love anthropology — cultural anthropology, my subfield of the discipline — because it is the most human of the human sciences: the one that is the most about people. The one which thinks you can learn about how people live their lives by watching how they live their lives — not by building models of them, or having them live small parts of it laboratories. In order to understand people we study people, and is willing to embrace all the challenges this entails.

I love anthropology because it is the discipline that takes seriously the idea that our common humanity with those we study is a boon and a strength, not an impediment that distort objective judgment. It works with and works through the fact that we can be powerfully changed by our research, and that this change is a strength. I love the fact that we stick with the project of ethnography despite the fact that it is aa project of telling the stories of others, an entitlement to be earned, not a right to representative authority that can be assumed.

The other day for a project I read the tables of contents for every issue of American Anthropologist from 1900 to 1960. One of the articles I came across was called “Columns of Infamy”. I love that.

I love anthropology’s willingness to compare anything to anything else and to study anything under the sun. If people have done it — or thought about doing it — it’s not off-limits. And I love that fact that we can compare people who think they were abducted by aliens in Arkansas in the 90s with ascent to heaven narratives from Sumer written thousands of years earlier.

I love our regional, middle-range expertise: where people call soda coke and where they call it pop, how far south the cultural syndrome of the vision quest extends, and how lycra got marketed to the women’s movement in the 1960s.

But I also love our willingness to completely throw the middle range to the wind, our ability to start with a local taboo against eating bandicoots and ascending to universal theories of human anxieties about embodiment. We drive the philologists mad, which is ok with me.

I love anthropology’s protean genres — our ability to articulate with public health, philosophy, english literature, and military intelligence. When we say we will study anything, we are talking just as much about adjacent disciplines — and they are all adjacent — as we are people out in the world. At the same time, when locked into a four-field configuration like an X-Wing with foils extended into attack position, we really do have some answers to some important questions about what it means to be human. And if the physical anthropologists want to go talk to physicists about strontium isotope analysis, who can blame us for having lunch with someone who studies French literature?

Anthropologists can find anything interesting, and I love that about the discipline. You meet someone and ask what they are studying and they say “rodeos as cultural performance” and heads start nodding. You drive past a garage sale and stop the car in the middle of the street and say “they’re… selling… old lampshades…” And yet at the same time we are incredibly jaded. More fears in the Andes that aid workers are using syringes to suck the fat out of people’s bodies as they sleep? Well that’s not very surprisng, is it?

I love anthropology’s ability to take people’s beliefs incredibly seriously one minute and then to totally ignore them in the next. That’s not witchraft, you fool, that’s your anxiety about your social organization. Except, no wait, what if there are witches? Biology? You think that stuff at the bottom of the microscope is ‘reality’? Have you read Rheinberger’s book on the history of the ‘discovery’ of protein synthesis?!?! Except, actually, this whole ‘cooperative breeding’ thing does knit together what we know about primate behavior, evolution, and the human capacity for culture. Hmmm….

I love that fact that anthropologists refuse to give up on the fact that a two hundred page book has more insight and value than ten twenty page articles. I love the fact that we are willing to grasp the nettle of style instead of pretending it isn’t an issue. I love that fact that we believe our subjectivities add value to our scholarly work, rather than contaminating it.

Above all I love how anthropology, a science of the human, articulates with our lives: we study kinship, and raise children. We read about enculturation, and we teach students. We analyze power and we try to create a democratic, just world. Our discipline is connected, intimately and irrevocably, to our whole persons — and that’s what I love about it most of all.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

22 thoughts on “Why I <3 Anthropology

  1. For the past 6-months I’ve been feeling somewhat disillusioned disappointed with anthropology…like breaking-up-after-a-long-term-relationship kind of thing.

    Your post brought all the good moments back. thanks.

  2. You read my mind writing these words. Wow, what a wonderful love letter to anthropology! I think for all anthropologist out there, anthropology is not only a job, it`s intrinsically linked to who we are. Bottom line, anthropology is kind of a massive constuct of all those who study it as persons are reflected in what they study. Even if I wasn’t studying anthropology I think I would always be an anthropologist (not an official one)somehow. I would find a way to be an receptionist anthropologist! haha

  3. So, if anthropology is so great (and I don’t dispute any of your points of the overall tone): Why don’t non-anthropologists pay attention or take it seriously? I am talking about scholars of other disciplines, the media, and the public. Could it be that what makes cultural anthropology so fantastic for practitioners and students prevents it from resonating beyond our field?

  4. There are dozens of cytologists who desperately, desperately in love with their field. Could it be that what makes cytology so fantastic for practitioners and students prevents it from resonating beyond their field?

    There are dozens of chartered accountants who are incredibly committed to accounting. Could it be that what makes accounting so fantastic for practitioners and students prevents it from resonating beyond their field?

    Not everyone is interested in the same things. I think, uh… isn’t that something that’s obviously true about life?

    I guess my question is why we assume that our field should naturally and instantly appeal to everyone. Or should. I mean because we love it I can see why we think it would, but hopefully we understand that that is ethnocentric. We don’t think — am I right? — that the Big Secret of accounting just hasn’t gotten out yes. but for our particular passion we assume something different.

  5. The context for my question is that many of us think that anthropology has not done a good job communicating what we do, or why it is important, to broader audiences. Lots of ideas have been proposed about why this is the case. I was wondering whether reflection on the things you mentioned might contribute to figuring out why others fail to share our enthusiasm. Of course one can say this about any field, as you suggest. But my guess is that if one compared similar statements by accountants or cytologists to outside perceptions of those fields, there might be more continuity, a more obvious connection between what those folks love about their field and how others view the field (basing this on hearing scholars of various disciplines was poetic over the years, usually after a few beers). Maybe not, though; maybe the connections between these two domains are irrelevant and uninteresting. Just wondering.

  6. Following on what Michael said, it may be that we are being too self-centered when we focus on what we love about the field. If this were a proper branding exercise, we would be asking ourselves how others, our customers, suppliers, and investors, see us. Then, it occurs to me, we would likely hear the question, “What have you done for me lately?” It is easy to think of Malinowski coming back from the Trobriands to challenge Freud and classical economics, both of which were very much on people’s minds at the time he was writing. Ditto for Boas and race, Mead and adolescence, Benedict and Japan during WWII. But we’re talking nearly a century ago. The physical anthropologists still get press and publication in Science and Nature by coming up occasionally with new ancestors or out of Africa stories. Ditto for the archeologists when they push back the dating for agriculture or Middle Eastern civilization. Cultural anthropology? Who among us can seriously entertain the idea that anyone but a tiny group of cognoscenti care about most of what we have to say? Cytology? That’s part of biology, and biology is big business and big news these days.

  7. If this were a proper branding exercise, we would be asking ourselves how others, our customers, suppliers, and investors, see us. Then, it occurs to me, we would likely hear the question, “What have you done for me lately?”

    1) Reported some detailed on the ground information which runs counter to your expectations. 2a) Told you that God and most of humanity don’t speak English. 2b) Suggested you learn another language. 3) Suppressed a giggle when you said, “This isn’t about politics, it’s about economics.”

    In short, a lot of things you don’t need to hear.*

    *Is it this simple? No. Did one of my graduate school classmates spend a summer at the Wilson Center and invariably receive blank stares when trying to engage the political scientists and economists in residence? Yes.

  8. After checking Wilson Center and Hoover Institution fellows and scholars, I could not help but ask, “Do they take anthropology and anthropologists seriously?” I found not even one anthropologist in both lists. Maybe I was myopic, but I double-checked.

    Anyway, the post reminded me of my very first day in my undergraduate program. “Anthropology is the best,” I assured myself. After realizing I could not mediate between warring clans even though I did study “rido,” the family feud among Filipino Muslims, in political anthropology, I swallowed my initial words about my major.

    My professor embarrassingly admitted by saying that we could study war but we could not stop it. I asked why. He simply said, “Anthropologists don’t do that. We don’t meddle in other people’s culture although we study it. Anthropology does not solve a problem but studies it.” I so wanted to shift to economics right there and then but my grant would not allow me.

    If I could turn back the time, I would not take anthropology unless it would be science-based.

  9. After checking Wilson Center and Hoover Institution fellows and scholars, I could not help but ask, “Do they take anthropology and anthropologists seriously?” I found not even one anthropologist in both lists. Maybe I was myopic, but I double-checked.

    Try the website known as Google.

  10. ME Smith wrote:

    “So, if anthropology is so great (and I don’t dispute any of your points of the overall tone): Why don’t non-anthropologists pay attention or take it seriously? I am talking about scholars of other disciplines, the media, and the public.”

    While I think that a love letter to the discipline is great to bring up positive reasons why anthros do what they do, I also think that Michael brings up a good question here. Lots of us agree that there are many valuable and fascinating aspects of anthropology, and that an anthropological perspective is certainly relevant in today’s world. So why don’t people take it seriously? Why haven’t more people heard of the work of specific contemporary anthropologists?

    As I see it, the relevance is there. Lots of people find anthropology interesting, fascinating, and intriguing, once you tell them more about what people are up to. Many people just don’t hear about much of the work that’s being done. The problem is one of communication. We basically spend most of our time talking to ourselves and other academics. Why?

    Rex wrote:

    “I guess my question is why we assume that our field should naturally and instantly appeal to everyone. Or should.”

    As I see it, this moves beyond a question about “liking the same things.” You make it sound like a club or a special interest group, Rex, and I see it as something quite different. At least, anthropology isn’t JUST a club or special interest group. Not for me. I mean, isn’t dissemination of ideas and knowledge part of the overall plan? Shouldn’t we be trying to share what we are doing with audiences outside of academia (and no, this is not an argument for dumbed-down pop anthropology). As educators and intellectuals, isn’t communication of information one of the objectives?

    As I see it, it’s not really a matter of whether or not anthropology appeals to broader audiences–I would argue that it does. It’s a matter of whether or not anthropologists are going to start extending their conversations a bit by rethinking the ways in which they engage with different audiences. There aren’t many people outside of academia who really know much about contemporary anthropology…even if they might be interested in the subject. And whose fault is that? Not the “the public,” that’s for sure.

    ME Smith again:

    “The context for my question is that many of us think that anthropology has not done a good job communicating what we do, or why it is important, to broader audiences.”

    Ya, I think this is an important issue to address. I am definitely on board with Michael in thinking that anthros haven’t really done a great job of communicating what we do. I think a lot of us got into anthropology because we felt it was not only appealing and interesting, but also valuable. It goes beyond a mere hobby–or it can. We get interested in culture, history, archaeology, politics, identity, etc because we think there is value in thinking about issue from certain perspectives. So the idea of the love letter here is great to kind of rally the troops from the inside and remind everyone why they got into the field in the first place–I really like that idea. But then I think the question (at least for some) is how to translate that enthusiasm to wider audiences. Again, I’d argue that there is plenty of relevance to the work that anthropologists do. But that relevance surely doesn’t come across all that clearly in the pages of journals that are basically geared toward insular conversations.

  11. I checked current scholars and found no anthropologist. After reading Abinales, a so-so Filipino professor, in the list, it seems to me Wilson is not as difficult as Hoover to get into as a fellow/scholar. Now check Hoover. Out of so many current scholars from different fields, you will not see one from anthropology.

  12. http://www.newsweek.com/2009/01/09/not-just-urban-legend.html

    This is a Newsweek article detailing the heroic efforts of Nancy Scheper-Hughes, an academically well-published and well-regarded anthropologist, to publicize and shut down international trafficking in human organs for profit. Somehow, she has overcome the horrible disability of being educated in anthropology — and worse, participating in academic discourse — to do something extremely important, useful, practical, and public.

    I suspect that “finding someone to blame for my failures” wasn’t high on the list of how she accomplished that. May I suggest that, if you feel that you have not (yet) been able to make a difference in the world, your time would be better spent elsewhere, Izabel?

  13. [I]t seems to me Wilson is not as difficult as Hoover to get into as a fellow/scholar. Now check Hoover. Out of so many current scholars from different fields, you will not see one from anthropology.

    Why I <3 anthropology: there are sure to be a few unlikeable people at any department function or anthropology conference but the likes of John Abizaid and Edwin Meese will never be amongst them.

  14. There you go again , Andrew. If you are resourceful enough, you will find out Hughes is a medical anthropologist involved in critical studies in medicine, science, and the body. Now that to me is science-based. She is not some cultural anthropologist who has spent years and scarce university resources on studying useless, irrelevant, mundane stuff that benefits no one and solves nothing. http://anthropology.berkeley.edu/nsh.html

  15. M Izabel,

    “She is not some cultural anthropologist who has spent years and scarce university resources on studying useless, irrelevant, mundane stuff that benefits no one and solves nothing.”

    I think this is an incredibly reductive generalization about cultural anthropology, and that it ignores a lot of pretty fascinating (and important) work that’s being done out there. I can understand the fact that you have your issues with the field, but I really don’t think it’s all that accurate to keep making these claims about the entire discipline based upon your personal experiences or disappointments.

    Go look at the work of Catherine Lutz, James Ferguson, Arturo Escobar, Anna Tsing, David Price, Paul Farmer, Beatriz Manz, Leo Chavez, Karen Ho and numerous others and tell me that what they are doing isn’t valuable or relevant. There is, in fact, lots of great work out there…it’s a matter of getting that work to broader audiences and conversations, IMO.

  16. Its disappointing to see the same arguments and the same antagonisms spring up again and again in the comments section of the blog regardless of the topics of the posts — especially in this case, when apparently the only kinds of comment-related posts allowed is trufan praise :S I’m closing the comments. Please kids — don’t make me pull this car over again.

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