Anthropology, Dialog, and “Intellectual reconstruction”

Over at the “Democracy in America” blog at The Economist, M.S. has a new post that replies to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s recent “we don’t need no anthropologists” statement.  The author provides a rehash of the whole debacle, and then quotes Arizona State University president Michael Crow’s response to the situation:

[R]esolving the complex challenges that confront our nation and the world requires more than expertise in science and technology. We must also educate individuals capable of meaningful civic participation, creative expression, and communicating insights across borders. The potential for graduates in any field to achieve professional success and to contribute significantly to our economy depends on an education that entails more than calculus.

Curricula expressly tailored in response to the demands of the workforce must be balanced with opportunities for students to develop their capacity for critical thinking, analytical reasoning, creativity, and leadership—all of which we learn from the full spectrum of disciplines associated with a liberal arts education. Taken together with the rigorous training provided in the STEM fields, the opportunities for exploration and learning that Gov. Scott is intent on marginalizing are those that have defined our national approach to higher education.

M.S. argues that Crow’s statement is “a solid response,” but that something more is needed: “What it lacks are rhetorical oomph and concrete examples.”  So what can provide that extra OOMPH and rhetorical power?  Actual examples of anthropologists putting their training and knowledge to work:

Some of the best analysis of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, and of the ongoing follies on Wall Street these days, has been produced by the Financial Times‘ Gillian Tett. Ms Tett began warning that collateralised debt obligations and credit-default swaps were likely to lead to a major financial implosion in 2005 or so. The people who devise such complex derivatives are generally trained in physics or math. Ms Tett has a PhD in anthropology.

M.S. then links to a 2008 profile of Tett by the Guardian’s Laura Barton.  Here’s a key selection that quotes Tett speaking about how she put her anthropology background to work:

“I happen to think anthropology is a brilliant background for looking at finance,” she reasons. “Firstly, you’re trained to look at how societies or cultures operate holistically, so you look at how all the bits move together. And most people in the City don’t do that. They are so specialised, so busy, that they just look at their own little silos. And one of the reasons we got into the mess we are in is because they were all so busy looking at their own little bit that they totally failed to understand how it interacted with the rest of society.”

The Economist article ends with a little chiding of our dear Governor Scott, saying that it’s never too late to learn, and that maybe he should take a course or two in anthropology for good measure.  He could, of course, just ask his daughter.  Sorry, I couldn’t help that one.

The broader point here is about liberal arts education, society, and anthropology.  Interestingly, what a lot of this comes down to is a perceived clash between SCIENCE and other perspectives that are, according to some, less worthwhile and meaningful.  If you take a look at the comments section for the article, you’ll see evidence of this version of events (some comments mention the supposed division in anthropology about the whole “science” issue).  The basic argument for folks who make this sharp science vs humanities division is that the former is useful and important to society (because it supposedly produces jobs directly) and the latter is nice, but not really all that necessary.  I think Rex did a pretty good job of explaining why a well rounded liberal arts education does indeed, matter.  And he used Thomas Jefferson’s words to do it.  Nice work, Rex.

So what does Gillian Tett add to the picture?  I think she’s an excellent example because her work illustrates what anthropology can bring to the table when it comes to everyday processes and behaviors that get taken for granted.  Economics is just one area where anthropology has a lot to add to the discussion–the discipline has a deep history of empirical and theoretical research on human economic systems (Malinowski was, after all, questioning arguments about “Economic Man” way back in the 1920s).  Business, finance, and economics are all issues that get a lot of attention, day in and day out, from the general public, politicians, and pundits.  The financial crash of 2008 has made these issues even more important.

But if you look at a lot of business and economics and finance books, theories, and models, there’s a lot missing.  History is one key ingredient, as Jason Antrosio argues.  A recent article called “Economics has met the enemy, and it is economics” points to other glaring issues in the discipline.  Anthropology is certainly well-placed to contribute to a rethinking of economics…in theory and actual practice.  There are, in fact, lots of economic anthropologists doing just that.  It would be nice to see more of their names in the pages of publications like The Economist, for starters.

But there’s another important point here.  In their 2011 book Economic Anthropology, Chris Hann and Keith Hart write, “The project of economics needs to be rescued from the economists.  Economic anthropology, in dialog with neighboring disciplines, as well as with more flexible economists, could be part of that process of intellectual reconstruction” (2011: 162).  Hart also argues that anthropological critiques and contributions to economics have to move beyond simply bashing on individual economists or the discipline as a whole:

It is convenient to beat up on the economists, but I wouldn’t be an economic anthropologist if I didn’t believe in the historical project of economics which has been debased by the economists, especially in the last half- century. We should not allow our disgust with the blatantly ideological uses of neoclassical economics in producing undemocratic outcomes in our societies to lead us to discount the marginalist revolution (Hutchinson 1978) which launched modern economics in its present form. We should remember that economics was the first social discipline to introduce a subjective theory of value. There are all kinds of problems with this particular theory, especially its reliance on prices as a proxy for value. Nevertheless, it provoked and encouraged some of the most progressive social thought that we still rely on today, such as Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Talcott Parsons and others (Hart 2011: 7).

What this means to me is that increased engagement from anthropologists requires something more than just critique.  It requires actual participation in debates, and well-argued contributions.  For me, this is a crucial point, and it applies across the board.  Anthropologists can and should add to wider, more public debates about issues like economics–and other critical subjects such as race, culture, human nature, and so on.  Jason Antrosio makes this case pretty powerfully in a recent post about how a critically informed and yet morally optimistic anthropology can challenge many contemporary economic assumptions.  Absolutely.

I appreciate Antrosio’s combination of critical anthropology with the morally optimistic arguments of Michel-Rolf Trouillot.  In his 2001 book “Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value,” David Graeber makes a similar argument when he balances the relentless criticism of Marx with the moral optimism of Marcel Mauss (Graeber 2001: 255-56).  Unending critique, Graeber argues, can lead to “a picture of the world so relentlessly bleak that in the end, criticism itself comes to seem pointless” (2001: 256).  Hann and Hart focus their argument on the idea of interdisciplinary dialog and–the part that I find most appealing–intellectual reconstruction, rather than critique alone.  Teaching, as Alex Golub and many others point out, is a fundamental part of that reconstructive project.

Politicians such as Governor Scott wave the banners of science and technology in the name of producing jobs.  Scott seems particularly enamored with engineering, technology, and mathematics.  Anthropology, which is uniquely positioned between the so-called hard sciences and the humanities, can illustrate the fact that science does matter.  Engineering matters.  Physics and biology matter.  Mathematics is indeed important.  The larger point here is that it’s not an either/or choice that we need to make.  Science is fundamentally important…but that’s not all we need.  Economists, for example, love to spend their time with numbers, statistics, and complex models. What anthropologists can add to the discussion is not just a critical assessment of how such models play out on the ground, but also what those numbers actually mean in particular social, cultural, political, and geographic contexts.

Anthropologists can add to these discussions through teaching, and through their research.  The main objective is to find ways to share such discussions about both of these aspects of the discipline with wider audiences–and to do this in creative, dynamic, informative, and challenging ways.  The best counter to ill-informed, instrumentalist arguments against liberal arts education, social science, and anthropology is, as the post on The Economist blog illustrates, with concrete evidence.  The proof, the saying goes, is in the anthropological pudding–all the way from Franz Boas to Gillian Tett.



Graeber, David.  2001.  Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value.  New York: Palgrave.

Hann, Chris, and Keith Hart.  2011.  Economic Anthropology.  Malden: Polity Press.

Hart, Keith.  2011.  Building the human economy: a question of value?  Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society.




Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

2 thoughts on “Anthropology, Dialog, and “Intellectual reconstruction”

  1. @Ryan- “What this means to me is that increased engagement from anthropologists requires something more than just critique. It requires actual participation in debates, and well-argued contributions.” I agree that this is a crucial point. It is something that anthropologists have not done well. Books like Besteman and Gosterson’s Why America’s Top Pundits are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back consist of critique that is not placed where anyone will read it (see John Ingham’s comments on this:

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    We need more op-ed pieces, more blogs that present our findings to a wider audience (Neuroanthropology approaches this), and more emphasis on the fact that anthropology has developed solid, empirical knowledge about how the world works. Critique and interpretation and relativism won’t cut it in this arena.

  2. Thanks Michael.

    I am going to check out Ingham’s article right now. Thanks for the link.

    “We need more op-ed pieces, more blogs that present our findings to a wider audience (Neuroanthropology approaches this), and more emphasis on the fact that anthropology has developed solid, empirical knowledge about how the world works.”

    I could not agree more!

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