Anthropology Is…

Rex recently asked for “anthropology creeds” but for the life of me I can’t write one. So instead I’ll write about why I think the task is impossible. An anti-creed if you like.

In short, I think that anthropology, like Christmas, or the island on Lost, is whatever you want it to be. Every discipline in academia also exists as a mirror-self within anthropology: economics, semiotics, medicine, political-science, genetics, religion, history…etc., all have their counterparts in anthropology. And not just one counterpart either. Just looking at economic anthropology, one can take a myriad of different approaches to the subject all of which are called anthropology. Just about the only approach not called anthropology would be that used by economists… and even there I’m sure you can find some anthropologists whose work isn’t too different from what you would find in an economics journal.

Some scholars have tried to do an end-run around the question by defining anthropology in terms of its method rather than its subject matter. This is what the AAA tries to do in defining sociocultural anthropology.  But that runs into two problems: First of all, anthropologists don’t own “ethnography.” Lots of other disciplines now use ethnography as a standard methodological tool. Secondly, not all anthropologists do ethnography. There are historical anthropologists and those in Foucauldian governmentality studies whose research might sometimes include ethnography but is often much more concerend with textual analysis. Then there are archaeologists, biological anthropologists, and linguists who also frequently do work which is not ethnographic (although, again, many do include ethnography). I would even add that a lot of traditional, supposedly ethnographic, cultural anthropology often uses ethnography in a very superficial way. All too often, journal articles invoke ethnography to confer legitimacy on a text which isn’t really ethnographic at all. I don’t say this as a criticism, I personally think anthropologists should be wary of fetishizing methodology. Ethnography is a big part of who we are, but I don’t think we should be defined by it.

Instead of trying to define the discipline as a whole, we are better off thinking of ourselves as social scientists, writ large. To the extent that we function within anthropology departments, publish in anthropology journals, and hang out with 6,000 anthropologists at the annual meetings, we are anthropologists. But within that there are multiple “anthropologies” which function more-or-less independently of the whole. We can (and often do) choose to wear multiple hats, defined by our training (“Temple Anthropologist”), specialty (“Linguistic Anthropologist”), politics (“Marxist Anthropologist”) etc. Sometimes all three (or more!) at the same time – including all the contradictions which come with that.

The real problem, I think, is the way institutions are increasingly forcing us to narrowly define our area of expertise. This is particularly bad in Taiwan where academic evaluations can be down-graded for lacking focus, even when the scholar in question has only two or three areas of interest. I recently read a talk by James Clifford which addressed this issue. He called for “creating a multiplex, adaptive, hyphenating/connecting knowledge space that is…fundamentally interpretive, realist, historical, and ethico-political.” I think this is what anthropology needs to be as well. We shouldn’t settle for anything less.

Addendum: If one were to seriously try to define anthropology, I would probably adopt a prototype semantics approach, defining key features which may or may not be present in the work of any individual anthropologist. Umberto Eco famously did this in his definition of Fascism [PDF]. Perhaps another time…

UPDATE: Proper link to James Clifford’s talk.

27 thoughts on “Anthropology Is…

  1. On substance, Kerim may be right. In PR terms what he recommends is, like the AAA executive board statement, a PR disaster for the field. Don’t believe me? Take a lesson from religion. Compare the number of Unitarian-Universalists with the number of Southern Baptists, or the number of Bahais and the number of Wahabi Muslims. A field that claims to be a little bit of everything is a little bit of nothing and on the way to extinction.

  2. In a more positive vein, allow me to suggest a look at

    Pay particular attention to the explanation of the journal’s title:

    Imponderabilia; ‘a series of phenomena of great importance which cannot possibly be recorded by questioning or computing documents, but have to be observed in their full actuality’ – Malinowski, B. [1922] (2002:18) ‘Argonauts of the Western Pacific’. Routledge: London

    That is, to my mind, a great positioning statement for anthropology, a bold and compelling assertion of the value of protracted fieldwork experience as something that includes but also transcends both interpretation (based on questioning) and scientific analysis (based on computing), while fully embracing both.

  3. As I said above, there is a lot of great anthropology which has no fieldwork component. Do you really want to define historical anthropologists out of the discipline?

  4. Heavens, no. If some anthropologists want to do history, fine. If others want to produce computer simulations, fine. But I am not playing with definitions. Scholastic logic-chopping is not my bag. My concern is the PR disaster that results from a weak disciplinary brand with no discernible positive message. Without what we folks in the communication trades call a compelling elevator speech, funding will dry up, smart students will go elsewhere, the current generation of tenured faculty will die. By the middle of the current century, someone who asks what anthropology is will have to turn to intellectual historians with an esoteric interest in short-lived intellectual fads to find out what people used to believe it was all about.

  5. Certainly easy to understand. Sociology=study of society….social….social….social. The prototype has a focus. There is no shying away from “social science” or “the scientific study of social aggregations.”

  6. @John: It seems more and more clear that this has been a ‘PR disaster’ only because some folks have wanted to gin up a controversy where there actually was none, and because people like N Wade (NY Times) have wanted to wedge this into a ‘science wars’ framework. Comments at IHE by Gusterson, and detailed commentary at Neuroanthropology by Mary Gray and others, have clarified the actual processes through which the statement in question was generated, discussed, and approved. To me the real story here is not ‘anthropology: science or not?’ nor ‘AAA: democratic or not?’ but ‘look how easy it is to clap your hands and create a brouhaha these days.’


  7. Strong, you may be right. If so, how would you recommend that the discipline define itself in its communication with the publics on whom it depends for both funding and new generations of anthropologists? It is not as though we live in an ivory tower, forever protected from competitors for the resources we need to survive. If it were just us, we could all be accommodating. Is that the world we live in?

    I remember a conversation with John Murra at Cornell in the late 1960s. We were discussing a colloquium in which two speakers seemed to speak past each other. Murra observed that the debate would remain inconsequential until it affected serious matters: office space and whose students got grants.

    I recall a quarter spent as a visiting instructor at Berkeley in 1972. American academia was already facing the end of the Baby Boom expansion in U.S. higher education. Berkeley, which had been open to all sorts of things, with faculty who studied primates and African folklore and Mexican villages….all getting along amicably, had become to resemble the closed corporate community described by George Foster in his work on “the image of limited good,” complete with functional equivalents of treasure tales and witchcraft accusations.

    “Can’t we all play nice together and not worry about what people think?” sounds very nice, indeed. But it’s no way to run a business, no way to build a brand, no way to ensure the survival of a discipline divided by internal factionalism and pressed by skepticism on the part of the publics whose support it needs.

  8. The prototypic approach is an essentializing one, and as such suffers from the same problem as when one tries to essentialize cultures. I would instead go in the direction of symbolic anthropology, or existentialist anthropology, and look at the border-lines. It is not to be confused with a dichotomization, since it doesn’t say that one should look at “what anthropology is not”, but instead it says that one should look at “when is something not anthropology”. Compare with the phenomenological argument about quale, one doesn’t look straight at the redness and go from there, one looks instead at where the redness is not redness but orangeness or yellowness.

    Though, even with a prototypic approach, finding some anthropologists who doesn’t utilize ethnography isn’t actually an argument against the prototype of anthropology as an ethnographic science.

    So, I don’t know, what’s the argument about here really? 🙂 Some clearness couldn’t hurt. Pragmaticism is the foundation for (modern) anthropology after all.

  9. John Cole said somewhere that what sets anthropology apart from the other social sciences is its commitment to holism. I like that idea, and that’s part of why I really dislike the AAA statement, which seems to take holism and make it into a particulate list of phenomena.

    And yeah, @John is right. If we can’t define our discipline in a simple, concise way, we not only have a problem, but we also have no right to take up the public’s time or money.

  10. @John: Apparently, AAA’s definition of anthropology in fact remains unchanged, as do most of its representations of what anthropology is about and what anthropologists do. For example:

    That sounds just fine to me, though I would also hasten to add that AAA does not in fact uniquely define anthropology globally. (There are other distinct traditions, and it is a bit US-centric to worry about the repercussions of this AAA debate for ‘anthropology’ as a science.)

    Generally, I think the importance of anthropological work for the public is negligibly influenced by planning documents. What matters is the work that anthropologists are actually doing.

  11. Kerim: “The real problem, I think, is the way institutions are increasingly forcing us to narrowly define our area of expertise.”

    Speaking from a department that is going through this exact problem, I think Kerim has hit the nail on the head here. At an institutional level it makes sense that they would want each department to have a “unique selling proposition,” and it’s not easy to convince people that breadth of approach fits that bill.

  12. And yeah, @John is right. If we can’t define our discipline in a simple, concise way, we not only have a problem, but we also have no right to take up the public’s time or money.

    It’s really not that hard to do. Sense 1 from the OED article is quite succinct: “The science of man, or of mankind, in the widest sense.” “I study human variation” is concise, as well.

    Regardless of the degree of difficulty, astrophysicists get their share of both attention and money without burdening themselves with the mandate.

  13. @Strong. I agree, planning documents per se rarely have any discernible effect. But that ignores the public noise already made about this case. When the NY Times carries the story, it is no longer an intellectual quarrel to be settled just among ourselves. That is why I bring up the PR angle.

    But, going on to your second point, if it is true that, “What matters is the work that anthropologists are actually doing,” can you point to some examples of work more recent than Geertz and Levi-Strauss (both of whom were, at least, public intellectuals on what I think of as the New York Review of Books circuit) that has actually changed public opinion on some important issue?

  14. @John: I’m not sure that our garlanded figures of Geertz and Levi-Strauss could be said to have ‘changed public opinion on some important issue’ actually (especially Geertz… Levi-Strauss’s anti-racist writing for UNESCO being pretty important). But anyway, there are lots and lots of examples of anthropologists who are doing just fine, thank you, including Paul Farmer (global health issues), Nancy Scheper-Hughes (organ stuff), Karen Ho (cultures of Wall Street), Caitlin Zaloom (financial markets), Tom Boellstorff (online worlds), Paige West (conservation politics), Ronald Niezen (indigenous rights), etc etc.

    However, I don’t see how that matters to the present discussion. If anthropology is in decline, it isn’t because of a decision taken at the November 2010 AAA conference… evidently, if your take is that anthropology doesn’t get good PR, this has been a problem for a very long time. As we’ve been fond of noting elsewhere on SM, it’s been a problem since, say, 1935:


  15. @MTBradley–I don’t think we disagree about definitions (I always say that I study human variation), but just for the sake of argument…

    I think that the reason that Astrophysicists

    “get their share of both attention and money without burdening themselves with the mandate”

    is that they’re differentially situated in the reproduction of the social world that we live in. Anthropology, at this moment, isn’t particularly central to state power (warts and all), while astrophysics has all kinds of direct implications for the reproduction of the nation-states in which it is practiced (defence and surveillance pop into my head). The state can tolerate a level of paradigmatic pluralism and discord in anthropology that would be unthinkable in astrophysics. Hence, we get our own little crisis of definition, while they get DOD, NSF, and NASA money.

  16. numenetics, I completely agree that Kerim’s statement that: “The real problem, I think, is the way institutions are increasingly forcing us to narrowly define our area of expertise” is the much more important issue here. And ironically, it’s also contextualizing the problem (in an oh-so anthropological way).

    From my limited experience, just as the rhetoric of multidisciplinary engagement is reaching a fever pitch within many aspects of (at least) American Academic culture, a counter effort is going on to increasingly redefine the boundaries of each discipline. The next result has been a number of very interesting young scholars whose work is fundamentally and deeply anthropological ending up landing outside the discipline because they don’t fit neatly enough into perceived disciplinary boundaries.

    Couple this with the increasing competition for limited resources on campus (a topic brought up in a previous post) and the discipline’s continued struggle with the loss of “culture” and “ethnography” as a unique differentiators (though I am not claiming for a moment, that either is or should be unique to anthropology) and it’s easy to see where at least some of this angst is coming from.

  17. @Strong. Now we are talking. What can we do, individually or collectively, to better publicize the work of these authors, to move past increasingly sterile academic debates about now ancient issues, and project a stronger vision of what anthropology is and might be?

  18. You know, you can only ask “why” so many times before people realize that asking why, or “whose,” isn’t deep, it’s a parlor trick used by con men that can’t answer the question. It was needed back when no one was asking the question, but it seems like that’s been fully covered as of 2010. When the words, “All men are created equal,” were written, it was a truly ironic statement, however people didn’t sit around and whine about it, they fought, and bled, and now a couple of hundred years later it’s looking a lot less ironic. It will never be a total fact, but that’s no reason to give up on it, it just means we have more work to do. It’s a goal for which we strive, as we should toward science. Anthropology will never be physics, and in my opinion, economics was ruined by people who thought they could turn a social science into a physics. Hell, with primitive, unproven axioms at it’s foundation, physics isn’t even a physics, so why the hell would we hold ourselves to a higher standard?
    Anyone who says that science is just another way of knowing, should flip a switch and see if all that light is coming from any other way of knowing. It’s on those folks to tell the rest of us what other way is just as good. Then they can write an NSF grant using shamanic methods and see if that works out for them.

    In understanding human variation, it’s pretty clear that in-group/out-group dynamics are formed not due to a lack of variation among in-group members, but by defining one group in some opposition to another. Without science that last statement would never be more than intuition, BTW. So, let’s strip away that which we are not, and it’s should be clear what anth isn’t.

    We are not, for example, journalists, which is seems many anthropologists would like to be. We don’t just tell people what happened in one place and time in unconnected terms but, using the above example of social theory, look for patterns and similarities across culture, time and place, in order to predict and test. That is a difference of science, not discursive induction alone. Part of the problem comes from academics who don’t work with people outside the discipline, which has a bit of a superiority complex. There are plenty of people can can tell a great story about what’s ‘really going on in a place’, from an ‘insider’s point-of-view’. I’ve seen people without graduate degrees, or social science backgrounds, write amazing articles that could easily rival anything in AA. They can’t, however, create a proper research design for systematic data gathering and preplanned analysis, using theory as a guide. Two philosophers can argue forever with each other, precisely because they don’t have a way to test what they are saying in a way that is credible to everyone.

    The amazing intuition of individual anthropologists to figure out what’s going on in a single place or situation, doesn’t add to the discipline as a whole. All those anthros that seem to do just that whose names are getting thrown around, were all still classically trained and still attempted to contribute to the discipline as a whole. This is why even if some individual academics are not themselves scientists, the discipline must be. The best jazz players usually know all the rules well enough to choose to break them; whereas, I’m not convinced that some anthros that get by on their own inductive intuition, like any smart person can do, ever bothered to learn the rules well enough to consciously break them.

  19. John said,

    can you point to some examples of work more recent than Geertz and Levi-Strauss (both of whom were, at least, public intellectuals on what I think of as the New York Review of Books circuit) that has actually changed public opinion on some important issue?

    This, and Strong’s response with some names of contemporary good work, brings up two recurring issues for me:

    1) anthro is beleaguered in some institutions, and ignored by the public, mostly because it doesn’t want to help the status quo and no one likes to have themselves problematized… in other words, what other disciplines have public intellectuals influencing public opinion? Economics and sociology, whose pop sci books, articles, and public figures, tend to support the status quo with all they say. Also evo-psych, which also tends to reinforce privilege.

    2) I’ve heard it said a few times that it seems to take 40-60 years for anthro work to percolate into general public consciousness. e.g., Avatar is stuck back in the mid 20th C.

    Maybe #1 is part of the reason for #2 – it takes a long time for society (and individuals) to absorb contrary or non-reinforcing complex ideas; not so long to absorb self-reinforcing narratives.

  20. I want to vote up what I understand Adam P to be saying. I don’t think the discipline and those within it tend to do the best job of selling it. But would a better sales pitch might not net many more buyers. Knowledge generated from within the disciplines of poly sci and economics is certainly more apparent in public discourse than is knowledge emerging from anthropology but it is not at all clear to me to what degree poly sci and economics can be said to actually inform that discourse. You know the metaphor about the drunk man and the lamp post, right? He uses it for support, not illumination.

  21. Adam, there is some truth in what you say, and it does make a good excuse. I don’t, however, find your case entirely convincing. Consider the evidence of political blogs of which I read several from the left end of the spectrum every day. Consider the public prominence of such figures as Edward Said, Talal Asad, or Cornell West. Consider the ratified, if too rarely implemented text, of the UN Statement on Human Rights. There seem to be plenty of people out there pushing ideas that closely resemble those of politically engaged anthropologists, who have found substantial audiences and won international acclaim. Why, then, are anthropologists, whose ideas about race, gender, class and environmental issues are not, truth be told, all that different from those now common on the liberal-left, progressive end of the political spectrum, so rarely cited, or even acknowledged, in public debate? Your analysis fails to account for these elephants tromping about the room. How would you improve it?

  22. “1) anthro is beleaguered in some institutions, and ignored by the public, mostly because it doesn’t want to help the status quo and no one likes to have themselves problematized… in other words, what other disciplines have public intellectuals influencing public opinion? Economics and sociology, whose pop sci books, articles, and public figures, tend to support the status quo with all they say. Also evo-psych, which also tends to reinforce privilege.

    …it takes a long time for society (and individuals) to absorb contrary or non-reinforcing complex ideas; not so long to absorb self-reinforcing narratives.”

    I think this statement is a very important, and currently overlooked, aspect of the debate. This lies not in university politics, but between academics and practicing folks. Anthropology as currently taught is a very chauvinistic, and elitist discipline. I think there are many academics that are afraid to leave, because they are afraid of having to deal with people that just can’t come to their level in understanding complexity. Some academics entering the applied world often can’t deal with the fact that they actually have to contribute to solutions, and work on teams, and answer questions; that people get so frustrated with them that they either fire them, or lose faith in what we can bring to the table.

    I can promise you that the above statement is not only wrong, but totally without evidence. It’s a narrative that only exists in our minds. It was in my mind to when I was a student, but I was cured very quickly. In fact, I think it’s us that have trouble dealing with the fact that people understand complexity all too well, but that they are also busy actually dealing with it on a day-to-day basis. It’s not only lazy, but damaging to assume you know what’s going on in complex situation in simple, pomo-leftist terms. I’d be happy to give ya’ll detailed first hand accounts of the kind of complexity that good, well-intentioned people have to deal with in making hard choices in the world. The politics of univ depts is closer to high school politics, than it is actual politics.
    It’s easy to sit in the cheap seats and toss shit at others. People with other educational backgrounds are not stupid. Hell, I’ve worked with people without degrees that I’d rather have on my team than PhD anths. I can get the global thinking without the attitude.
    I think much of the heat over this, applied work, or even the HTS can be boiled down to simplistic narratives of either stupid people or evil people, misapplying or misusing anthropology. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    I think I’ll clarify more of what I mean, with some detailed examples in a Part II, blog post on applied work on

  23. Speaking up for historical anthropology which in many ways defines itself in distinction to history by being ethnographic. Historical anthropology may or may not involve ethnographic fieldwork per se, but definitely uses an ethnographic or anthropological approach to the reading of textual documents. For example, Ann Stoler’s work on “ethnography in the archives” or Nick Dirks’ “biography of an archive,” both of which are rooted in anthropological approaches not normally a part of historic thinking or method.

    Kerim, what I find interesting in your initial post, and also in the discipline and beyond currently, are the range of new meanings given to “ethnography” as a noun. Ethnography is no longer (just) the written monograph, but has become a method unto itself, often one quite distinct from what ethnographic fieldwork might look like (i.e., observation in a natural setting vs. participant-observation). How does it change things to say we do ethnography vs. do ethnographic fieldwork, to shorthand a noun for an adjective? I can hear my own voice speaking to students as I type this, saying you need to “do ethnography” but in reflecting on things what I really mean is ethnographic research.

    Thanks for the prompt on this, and I think you’re right in posing the question in terms of method, subject method, and the discipline–good food for thought.

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