Imagine this all too common situation, you’re out for drinks in a social context, and the topic of work arises. You’re asked what you do, this is usually followed by a simple answer, your job title. Which is generally followed by an empty remark about the nature of your work.
“I’m a Nurse” my girlfriend answers, “That’s such a tough job” is the standard response.
With expectant gazes lingering, I answer, “oh, I’m an Anthropologist…”
“What the fuck is Anthropology?”
In short, Anthropology is legal stalking…
In long it’s the scientific study of human behaviour, but let’s not confuse this with psychology or social science. You see, Anthropology centres on human diversity across time; using holistic and comparative approaches to study the whole of the human condition, while trying to avoid explanatory bias. Ethnographic fieldwork is usually how this is achieved, which I will touch on in another post (yes I’m talking about stalking…).
Some areas we work in include: Archaeology, Biology and Linguistics. Others specialise in subfields such as:
Cultural Anthropology — focusing on world view, symbols and interpretation, ritual and experience; or Social Anthropology — which focuses more on social structures, and the roles and regulations of people throughout history.
But let’s not limit ourselves there! There are many more sub-fields, ranging from medical, to political to economical, regardless of the field of expertise, applied anthropology is both academic and hands-on.
Personally, for me, Anthropology is the long-term interest in other peoples and cultures. It is the sharp critique of any received ‘wisdom’ and of the attitude that “things are just the way they are” (always ask “why?”).
It’s also the belief that there is too much arrogance in education and Western civilisation.
“Anthropology alone amongst the sciences strives to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange” — Anthropologist Horace Miner
Clarifying the concept of ‘Culture.’
There seems to be some ‘slippage’ between Culture, Ethnicity and Race, let’s see if we can clear some of this up really quick.
Culture, while arbitrary, becomes deeply felt; it inspires judgement and aversion; it’s historical, political and economical; however, it’s not always explicit or conscious… stay with me now…
For the Germans, during the second world war, ‘Kultur’ was a project pursued out of anxiety of the unknown. It attempted to find an essential shared nature, this shared culture was in turn legitimation of the nation-state and assisted in making the concepts of union and distinction seem natural.
You see, groups will often have an interest in insisting that their culture is unanimous, distinct, unchanging and eternal. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case, particularly in the question of religious ‘traditions’… wishing does not always make it so…
The popular notion of ‘culture.’
Is that it’s the opposite of modern. It is clearly bounded and defined. It is static, homogeneous and compulsory. Yet, it is still perceived as consensual, something we choose to accept (and are often punished for not).
This fashionable understanding essentialises difference…
As an anthropologist, I argue that culture is a way to understand the types of differentiation.
Time for a little thought experiment…
What is considered the ‘culture’ of your country?
· Is it timeless?
· Does everyone participate?
· Is it compulsory?
· Uncritically and widely accepted?
The truth is that even if some elements of ‘culture’ are shared and deeply felt, it can still be ambivalent and a source of conflict among members. Hell, even contemporary anthropologists can’t agree on an all-encompassing concept of ‘culture’, so don’t sweat it. Generally, culture is seen as continually being produced rather than being a ‘thing-like’ structure.
· It is unbounded — often constructed of global-local hybrids
· Historically fluid — changed from within as much as from external forces
· Usually contested — different groups fight over the nature of the identity
· It is creative — with individuals affecting the form
· It holds power and resistance
Cultural Relativism vs Ethnocentrism
Cultural relativism is the consideration of how ‘worldview’ affects peoples actions. Thinking relativistically is about understanding ‘that practice’ or ‘that belief’ in its context. It’s about checking our own brackets concerning our own assumptions and seeking to truly understand the perspective of others, it’s about listening to local dissent… but understanding that it’s always political.
The problem in the world is NOT that there is insufficient judgement; often that people do not examine their OWN views and actions.
“ It is somewhat difficult for us to recognize that the value which we attribute to our own civilization is due to the fact that we participate in this civilization, and that it has been controlling all our actions from the time of our birth; but it is certainly conceivable that there may be other civilizations, based perhaps on different traditions and on a different equilibrium of emotion and reason, which are of no less value than ours, although it may be impossible for us to appreciate their values without having grown up under their influence.” — Anthropologist Franz Boas
Due to developmental relativism, all of us, invariably, start out as ethnocentric… yeah, that’s right, I just called you a racist, but before you start jumping up and down…
These cognitive biases are not to be confused with moral judgment, although if left unchecked, will ultimately become just that. The point isn’t that you can never judge; instead, we too often rush to judgement before we understand. And as demonstrated, that racism card is often unhelpful and too easy to play.
Anthropology allows us to see human potential more clearly. By confronting unexamined ethnocentrism, we have the opportunity for more imaginative solutions to the world’s bigger problems.
Hello, my name is Crystal, and I’m an anthropologist.