When talking about what I do, or about research conducted by someone I know, I often find people saying “I didn’t know you could do that in Anthropology.” I won’t go into all the stereotypes of anthropologists that people have – those have been discussed enough. Instead, I wanted to talk about my response, which usually goes something like this: Virtually any subject you can study in the university you can also study in anthropology. Instead of economics, you can study economic anthropology. There is medical anthropology, linguistic anthropology, political anthropology, historical anthropology, ethnomusicology, visual anthropology, etc.
So, how is it that anthropology has eaten up the whole university curriculum, mirroring virtually every subject within its own disciplinary boundaries? More importantly, what distinguishes what is done in the anthropological doppleganger from its more established twin?
There are several ways of answering these questions. One is to ground anthropology in its methodology. But not all anthropologists are ethnographers. Historical and literary work is perhaps not the norm, but is certainly not uncommon. Moreover, other disciplines increasingly embrace ethnographic fieldwork. Another would be to ground anthropology in a particular moral core. Still another might be to look at anthropology as an institution, tracing the history of the discipline historically and simply defining the field in terms of what anthropologists do.
But I think there is one thing that stands out, and that is anthropologists’ holistic approach. I believe anthropologists are expected to be able to talk knowingly about a wider range of subjects than other academics often are. People who feel constrained by the assumptions of economistic models, or of the narrow focus of epidemiology, or by the narrow definition of language implicit in Chomskyan linguistics, run to anthropology precisely because it eschews such reductionism. Which is not to say that the anthropological approach is necessarily superior to that of these other disciplines, just that it offers an important corrective to all forms of positivism. True, anthropology has its own positivists, eager to reduce the discipline to a set of methodological practices or narrow theoretical models; but these attempts will continue to be marginal to the discipline as a whole.
I see anthropology’s holism as deriving from the ethnographic method, which forces us to look at human behavior in its lived context. I also think that it has a moral component. John Gledhill, in his book Power and its Disguises, defines anthropology
as a social science which attempts to examine social realities in a cross-cultural frame of reference. In striving to transcend a view of the world based solely on the premises of European culture and history, anthropologists are also encouraged to look beneath the world of appearances and taken-for-granted assumptions in social life in general.
This cross-cultural perspective is historical to the discipline and applies even to anthropologists who now study their own culture. One of the central features of the positivism implicit in various other university disciplines is their claim for universality. Now, I think all the disciplines have made great strides in the past few decades, questioning, if not completely shedding, many of their eurocentric and patriarchal assumptions. But it is still a fact, for instance, that Black people seeking medical care are likely to receive less treatment and stay sick for longer. As long as issues of language, health, economics, politics, etc. continue to have a cultural component which cannot easily be reduced to the models used to study those particular phenomenon, there will continue to be a place for anthropology as a discipline.