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Which humanities?

Alfred Kroeber always used to say that anthropology is the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences. But which humanities? After all, ‘humanities’ covers an awful lot. How anthropologists do anthropology is probably deeply shaped by how we imagine ourselves to be similar to other disciplines — and that imagination has changed over time. 

For instance: Classics. Anthropologists have a long history of working with classicists, and imagining their discipline to be similar to the study of classical antiquity. At Oxford, it was the classicist R.R. Marett who helped anthropology gain a foothold. And really, until recently most of higher education just was the study of Greek and Latin texts.

Boas and other early American anthropologists imagined their work to be similar to philology. Boas’s method of interlinear translation of texts, for instance, was borrowed from the anglophone study of Hebrew texts. On this account, anthropology was like the other great Victorian orientalisms — but instead of Sanskrit, it studied Iroquois.

History has also been a common source for anthropology’s disciplinary imagination. I suspect it was like classics in the sense that everyone in the early twentieth century took it at some point. When Evans-Pritchards was casting around for a humanistic model for social anthropology, history was ready to hand. Anthropologists are attracted to it by its particularism. Indeed, a good portion of the 1980s was about the rise of ‘historical anthropology’. It was a potent combination of disciplines that produced some great ethnographies.

Anthropology emerged from geography — Boas had a degree in geography — but they have had their rapprochments over the years. Owen Lattimore was a favorite of Eric Wolf and others. In some sense geography is the spatialized study of particularity. Today, of course, geography is one of the disciplines that has been anthropologized, and you are as likely to find geographers doing fieldwork as anthropologists these days. Geography’s own theoretical turn produced authors like Neil Smith and David Harvey whose work has been influential in our discipline.

Finally, anthropology changed profoundly when we began imagining ourselves to be critics and interpreters of literary texts. Our sense of what it meant to ‘interpret’ developed at a time when criticism itself was developing rapidly and in many directions. The idea that an obscure Russian Dostoevsky critic living in Kazakhstan would become a central thinker in anthropology would have seemed absurd in the 1960s. But today Bakhtin is central to our discipline.

Over time, however, our discipline has shifted from imagining itself as one of the humanistic disciplines which studies human creativity. Increasingly, we identify ourselves more and more with disciplines that are about creating cultural forms, not studying them. The ‘crisis of representation’ (really, just a pointing out that there is such a thing as representation) invited anthropologists to think seriously about what it meant to be writers.

Of course, anthropologists have tried their hands at poetry and fiction for as long as the discipline has been around. And when they write ethnography they’ve always been aware of the rhetorical skill that is central to the writer’s craft. Malinowski didn’t invent fieldwork or ethnography, but he did manage to produce an ethnography which convincingly took credit for them. Sapir and Benedict wrote poetry, but they didn’t write poetry as ethnography. Ethnographic fiction and ambitiously styled ethnography have been around forever but (unfortunately) go in and out of favor. If anything,

Performing arts have had an even tougher time of it. Anthropology and dance — Katherine Dunham, Elizabeth Chin, Katerina Teaiwa — has been around for a long time but not really had the impact it should. I think this is because, scandalously, university students are not taught to dance. Theater has informed anthropologist’s imagination as spectators but few anthropologists really have imagined themselves as actors. There are exceptions. Victor Turner was Catholic — he knew what it was to do ritual. I sometimes feel that he did the anthropology just so he could do the theater, not the other way around.

I’m struck by how many anthropologists have turned to film making recently. Historically speaking, there’s always been a connection there. Modern media and ethnography came of age at the same time. But mostly, I think mobile phones are responsible. Anyone can make a film now, and everyone has. And… uh… yeah I’m not really sure how history is going to judge some of them. There’s also the growth of various forms of multimedia installation work — for instance at the AAA meetings. Increasingly, it seems like anthropologists are making the “Bowie turn” in theory, and imagining themselves as part of a restlessly conceptually mobile avant-garde.

There is more to say here — the rapprochement between game design and anthropology probably peaked with McKim Marriot’s ‘Samsara’ — but my point is just this: It’s not enough to say that anthropology is a ‘humanities’ and not a ‘science’. Things only really get interesting when you begin asking: ‘which humanities’? I think anthropology’s willingness to ask itself that question, over and over again, is one of the main things that separates it from ethnographic sociology. It’s a source of vitality and novelty for our discipline.


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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

2 thoughts on “Which humanities?


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    Bookscrounger.com says:

    Interesting approach. But if anthropology is the study of how we express our humanness, these all seem reasonable. Anthropological work in graphic novels is something that interests me. Comic books/graphic novels portray us in attenuated form, pictorially and behaviorally, and say so much about we see ourselves.


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    John McCreery says:

    Philosophy and history, one for “theory,” the other, far more important, for context. To which I would add good non-fiction, e.g., Tracy Kidder or John McPhee, for writing models.

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