Anthropology: Reflections on the Field

Several great pieces on the nature of anthropology appeared this weekend on the  Anthropologies Project website, reflecting on the purpose of anthropology, its strengths and weaknesses, and its future. I recommend the whole series of essays, but two in particular caught my eye early, in part because they are written by biological/biocultural anthropologists with whom I’ve had at least some interaction in the past.

The first is written by Daniel Lende, who gives his view of anthropology’s audience and purpose:

Anthropology for me is applied, academic, and public. There is no necessary separation between the different strands; indeed, I only see the potential for synergy and for advances. I see an anthropology that makes a difference in ideas, in people’s lives, and in how we understand prominent issues and problems of our time.”

I particularly liked Lende’s take on how anthropology needs to move past old dichotomies and synthesize the cultural and the biological, the theoretical and the applied. He provides examples, such as his experiences and that of his colleagues at the University of South Florida working in applied settings, while also suggesting that anthropology could have much to add to everyday life including in the study of psychological stress.


The second essay comes from John Hawks, who argues that anthropology needs “a kick in the pants” and questions why our field finds itself so marginalized:

Isn’t it strange? Anthropology, supposedly engaged deeply in diverse communities around the world, is almost totally disengaged with the American public. Long ago, anthropologists spoke out on our origins, history, and diversity. Now, the public is much more likely to hear about human relationships and diversity from popular books and television programs hosted by amateurs. The most celebrated (and most watched) television program today touching on anthropology is Ancient Aliens. Not good.”

Hawks makes many strong points on how anthropology came to be a much more obscure discipline than it should be. He also suggests ways to improve upon this, including by increasing its visibility online, engaging more with the public, speeding up publication times, embracing science, and doing a better job of supporting students.

Like most academics, anthropologists have a love for their chosen field, and we want to see it succeed. Lende and Hawks are giving us a wake-up call.

9 thoughts on “Anthropology: Reflections on the Field

  1. As an old anthropologist I have heard it all many times before. No surprise in that: anthropology teaches that evolution/revolution and change follows patterns and that these patterns (or to use that awful word: paradigms) are equally subject to change. Anthropologists who work in several ‘alien’ settings do get a feel for what it is all about — it takes them a lifetime — and they often fall out of love with the subjects of their study. Normal people, plus army officers and politicians, don’t have time or inclination to come to terms with what takes a committed anthropologist a lifetime. The answers are there, or hinted at, but anthropologists are not in control, they do not control Man — they simply observe his peculiar folly. Attempts to group ‘concerned anthropologists’ have all foundered, since anthropologists are themselves just men and women. So academic theory begets academic theory and wars beget wars and the taxpayer gives his money to promote the bombing and killing and torture; the survival of the least intellectual. If Peace were the aim, not war and victory and one-upmanship, we could have achieved it long before the slaves built the pyramids. But the conclusion must be that Man does not aim for peace — that, my young friend, is why anthropologists speak only to other anthropologists, agreeing with some, disagreeing with others; part of an unholy alliance based on coming together to destroy. I await the next guru’s academic worst-seller ‘The Anthropology of Anthropology’.

    • Hi Robert,

      I’m more optimistic. It’s true that anthropologists are not in control and too often seem content to toil in obscurity and talk mostly to each other. But this is not completely true. We’re making headway in communicating to non-anthro and non-academic audiences, even through small blogs such as this one. We teach classes filled with ‘normal people’ (mostly) who tell us they go home excitedly and tell their roommates or family members about what they learned that day. Maybe one day anthropology will be common knowledge, and college students will have encountered some of these ideas before entering the classroom. But you’re right that these things take time, maybe even a lifetime, and we’re not there yet.

      It’s also true that humans are filled with flaw and folly. We are evolved apes, after all. But we can look for patterns and discover from where these flaws derive. We can borrow from psychology and see where our blind spots are in cognition. Jason Antrosio, an anthropologist at Hartwick College in New York, has written that harnessing anthropological knowledge could help counter the narrative that the way the world is today (or the way many people *think* the world is today) is the only way that it could be.

      Maybe I will see things differently with the passage of time, but I imagine that my perspective will be colored by unforeseen experiences that affect me personally. For now, I remain a hopeful, cockeyed optimist. Here are some reasons why I think this way:

      • Patrick. I’ve read all the links you sent and commented on them. You are a perceptive, coherent and enthusiastic young man and I hope you make it in the declining world of Anthropology. You are perhaps part of the new breed of committed. I am part of the old breed that accepts Man is not all good and not all bad and that really the ideas of what makes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are simply another way of saying ‘values’. Anthropology studies Man (subsuming woman). It details and analyzes Man’s culture i.e. what he thinks and does. Alliances and enemies. Ritual and Rebellion. Right and wrong don’t come in as objective concepts. They are universal concepts, but what is right in one culture or situation is wrong in another and vice-versa. This is the interesting aspect of anthropology — any action only makes sense in the holistic environment of which it is but part. If you really think we should be concerned to change Man, what do you want to change him into? Just try to understand why Man does the ridiculous, cruel and seemingly irrational things that make Man what he/she is: Man. Try to change things and you end up flying a plane into the World Trade Centre or bombing Libyans to protect them.

        Anthropology used to have a place. That place was the Sudan. Each extended family group along the Nile had its cows. It kept them in corrals to stop the neighbours from stealing them. It really valued those cows. An important man had lots of cows (same with the Hmong by the way). So when British imperialists were faced with uprisings by the Dinka etc, they listened to anthropologists — most of whom were knighted, which meant they were listened to — and did not bomb the Dinka (it was early days and they didn’t want to lose a biplane). So they flew higher than an arrow and bombed the cattle corrals. Subversions were ended with a minimum loss of human life. I would guess a lot of Dinka cried for their cows. We observe, we participate only to allow us to observe, we are objective spies, we do not decide what is right or wrong — although we can have our own thoughts on the subject, and a quiet good riddance when another tyrant bites the dust — even ‘though we know yet another is galloping to take his place. Good luck to you and good luck to anthropology. For that matter, Good luck to the world. Have a beer; you know it makes sense. Robert

  2. Dear Patrick and Robert,

    Very interesting exchange here, and thank you for a link to my attempt to elaborate on anthropology’s “moral optimism,” an idea I’m borrowing from Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Global Transformations.:
    I definitely sympathize with where Robert is coming from: after many years of people trying to teach and promote anthropological understandings, it doesn’t seem to be making much headway, and we sometimes seem to be losing ground. As Thomas Hylland Eriksen begins his Engaging Anthropology, “Anthropology should have changed the world, yet the subject is almost invisible in the public sphere outside the academy” (2006:1). It’s a situation that calls for re-evaluating both message and tactics.

    As I see it, the goal is not necessarily to “change Man” in Robert’s phrasing, but precisely to use anthropology’s understandings of human variability to underscore human possibilities–and that people can indeed make choices and changes.

    As Trouillot puts it, the idea of “moral optimism” does not have to be (and cannot be!) equated to liberal naivete. And I figure if Trouillot, who was basically exiled from Haiti for political protests against a dictatorship, or Antonio Gramsci, sitting in an Italian jail, can maintain this optimism, then I can too.

    For more on this, and a free customizable PowerPoint, see:

    Thank you again for an interesting dialogue,

    • Hi Jason,

      I enjoyed the PowerPoint. Very uplifting. And the point you make about underscoring human possibilities, rather than trying to change humanity, is a good one. I wouldn’t know what to change people into anyway, and wouldn’t trust anyone else with that task.


      • On changing people. An unknown number of wise people have started with themselves. At least you know where you are and can get in touch with yourself without power-point and you-tube.

        There is perhaps a contradiction between objective-anthropology and participation that has been under-rated or deliberately ignored by academia. As I put it to Jason: every photograph includes the photographer.

        • Hi Robert, that’s my aim – starting with myself. Finding where the weaknesses are and work them out (or keep them; quirks sometimes are just as valuable as a source of individuality). I’m not sure how good of a job I’m doing, but a lot of smart people in history viewed themselves as very fallible and still managed.

          “I am still learning.” – Michelangelo

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