Over at Neuroanthropology Greg is asking how anthropology can best brand itself. Its a long entry, but don’t worry, you can just make a point of only reading the passages which have been bolded. I’ve argued for some time that anthropology’s brand is diluted by popular representations of it but I’ve never really sat down and attempted to reduce to a few bullet points what exactly that brand is or ought to be, as Greg has done. Greg focuses on five main things that anthropologists do: make discoveries, interesting stuff, fieldwork, science, and advocacy. I like many of these but I think I’d like to offer a twist on some of them here, and if I had my druthers for a central message out of anthropology I think I’d go with this instead:
Human Nature: It’s Not What You Think
I like this motto because it, like a forty pack of pudding cups from the pak-n-save, be broken out into separate containers which can be sold separately:
Anthropology: We Own Human Nature
Anthropology is a four-field discipline, and the main reason it needs to stay that way is to keep what we know about human nature from being forgotten. Other congeries of disciplines have their own take on human nature, often derived from models of how they imagine people work, or people in highly artificial lab-based experiments. We need to emphasize that our models are reality-based: empirical, from a wide sample of places and times, and based on naturalistic human behavior. Lab work is great for some things but in the final instance actual human behavior should be used to explain actual human behavior: this is a central Boasian lesson. I personally work far away from the seam where biology meets culture (or rather, where those two terms are no longer analytically useful because they collapse into one another). But I, like all anthropologists, need to attend to that boundary and have a basic idea what goes on there. We started out as human nature experts and we need to stay that way.
Masters of the Unexpected
The fundamental insight of anthropology is that most people mistake convention for necessity and that our intuitions about what humanity as a whole are like come out of day-to-day experiences which are quite parochial. This should make us masters of the unexpected, purveyors of surprises and strange twists on common sense: the very stuff of headlines. Too often, however, we use our awareness of cultural relativism as a cudgel, telling people how ‘limited’ and ‘blinded’ they are by their culture. How much press is there in that?
This is a bit like Greg’s idea of ‘making discoveries’ but I really think we need to embrace — without fear of exoticism — the idea that people can find our work interesting without us becoming bad people. On this point I’m in agreement with Greg: we need to get over knee-jerk fears of exoticism even as we take seriously realistic critiques of the colonial and colonizing origins/impulses of our discipline.
Greg emphasizes that we need to embrace fieldwork as distinctive. However for me what is amazing about anthropology is not that we go places to study people — it’s where we go and who we study. Anthropologists know we study everything from Polynesian outliers in Micronesia to investment bankers in wall street to sky divers to people who eat their dead relatives to hip hop in Brazil. We love our freewheeling ability to take absolutely anything seriously. We need to play not only the “I’ve Been To Burma!” card (to quote an Eric Overmeyer line) but also that we study things that people didn’t think you could study because they are so close to home: Walmart. Guitar Hero experts. Graffiti. Corgie fanciers. Close-up magic. Pro-anorexia websites. We think of it as a committed comparativism, but it is a short step (often, the walk between the lecture hall and the local pub) from comparativism to this-is-to-cool-to-not-study. Anthropological careers have been launched with the sudden insight “I didn’t even know you could study that” and I bet public interest would be as well.
Science? Yes. But more than science, too.
For most reasonable, un-shirty definitions of science, cultural anthropology is a science. The other three fields are even easier to brand as science. Greg is right that incredibly subtle discussion about the status of Reality and Truth need to take a back seat to public professions that we actually know what we are talking about since we do (or at least we should). At the same time, what makes anthropology unique is that we go further than just facts and theories — the type of knowledge we offer is further, deeper, different. This “bonus insight” is not an alternative or criticism of ‘science’ (I am all for criticisms of shirty definitions of science) but an addition: the extra mile we go to that makes what we do even richer and more valuable than a ‘just the facts’ lab-coatism.
People are not stupid. Unfortunately, most science education takes the form of teaching students that people in lab coats know The Truth and that they should shut up and not ask any questions because they wouldn’t be able to understand the answers anyway. And by and large people do do so. But we all know that we learn with our hearts, that our knowledge of the world is enriched by time and experience, that key events in our lives broaden our perspectives, that there is something you get out of a great work of fiction that should be counted as insight.
Anthropologists should be honest with the public and admit what we ourselves have known all along: that fieldwork provides both data and personal transformation, that cultivation and knowledge are broader than just an analysis of cultural systems. Of all the social sciences anthropology (and perhaps certain of the more outré versions of symbolic interactionism) is willing to recognize different and broader forms of knowledge. And even, at times, provide them.
Call it the Carlos Castaneda pathway to fame and fortune, but I think we need to grasp the nettle on this one and point out that beyond science there is an additional kind of insight we provide — one which people might more intuitively recognize as similar to a kind of understanding they are pursuing. And let’s be honest — the great ethnographies provide us with this bonus insight without having to fabricate shamanic visions or choke down jimson weed smoothies.
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Greg focuses on activism as a hallmark of anthropology, which just doesn’t spring to mind for me. I believe that activism — like diversity — has a special history in anthropology and needs to be protected as a main part of our big-tent tradition of inclusion. But I think you can be an anthropologist without being an activist. I don’t know I could be wrong. I think I just came up with four bullet points and then pooped out. In the end I think that Greg is right about one particularly important point: we need to ‘do anthropology’ in public, whether that is fieldwork or just presenting arguments from the ethnographic record so that people can watch us doing anthropology, rather than just describing what goes on behind closed doors. Speaking of which, I have to get back to my book manuscript…