What is Anthropology?

A nice primer, by Jason Antrosio: “What is Anthropology?” 

10 thoughts on “What is Anthropology?

  1. Hi Patrick. I have not been in touch for some time, although I remain active in the anthropology threads that continue — usually they go nowhere but provide an intellectual start to the day. Overwhelmingly, contributors to such internet debates are N. American. This is regrettable for reasons obvious to anthropologists, but we don’t change what’s there, we just note it.

    Atypically, my Laos internet connection allowed me with few breaks to watch the Youtube presentation on ‘What is Anthropology?’. I have no substantive comment or critique of what is a deliberately limited and basic introduction to Anthropology. My critique applies more to this type of ‘information sharing’ — on the face of it democratic and useful for those who want a quick-fix definition of something in layman’s terms. It is also very American and perhaps American audiences would be culturally aware enough to accept its limitations. I am not American at all, but I am an anthropologist and can’t help but submit any public presentation to some sort of analysis — it’s what anthropologists do.

    Such presentations are as notable for what they miss out as what they include. A few names are mentioned, but the only one that sticks in the mind is Boas — a German of the 19th century German game-play thatgave us Hegel and Marx etc., and a German who became/converted to American and studied Inuit. Time after time on those ‘anthropology threads’ I mentioned, Americans who are studying, have studied or are practicing one of the great many types of anthropology (far more than four), refer to Boas as something like the Father of Anthropology, and even the first anthropologist. Of course he was not, but American anthropology has either allowed this myth to flourish or done nothing much to correct it.

    The history of ‘Anthropology’ as an academic discipline is quite clear and like all histories is chronological. Tylor was not a prototype for the first anthropologist, he was/was the first academic anthropologist. Of course he did not have a degree in Anthropology, since he was the first. He was however the first Professor of Anthropology — at Oxford, UK, the first university to create a Chair. It is Tylor who cleared religious dogma out of thinking’s way and gave clear definition to words like ‘animism’ and ‘culture’ that remain unchanged in today’s post-modern world of changing meaning to language and accepted individual interpretation of anything and everything. Tylor was English but studied Mexican civilisation — his conclusions would have presumably been the same had he studied Southeast Asian civilisations. I have no problem with Boas’ contribution to Anthro and it is not a question of either-or. But when presenting a necessarily limited Intro to Anthropology, it makes sense to my non-American mind to mention the man who created the discipline. If time restraint means a choice between Tylor and Boas, there is no doubt in this mind that Tylor should be there as apical ancestor. It explains the ‘cultural anthropologist’ mentioned power-point style as one of a random-picked typology of four.

  2. Hi Robert,
    Thank you for this analysis–you definitely make an important case for including Tylor, and I need to think more about that. I do realize the presentation is very U.S.-centered, but I’ve tried to be quite explicit about that rather than disguise a U.S.-centered approach as universal. Since I began blogging, I’ve been thinking about an article by Andre Gingrich, Transitions: Notes on Sociocultural Anthropology’s Present and Its Transnational Potential (2010) which discusses the U.S. hegemony in anthropology but our need to transition into a transnational anthropology.

    My own biggest influences are from Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Tim Ingold, and I try to include Boas more as “one of the founders” of anthropology. My other goal is to get people to think about *reading* more anthropology, and not just as a self-contained show.

    Thanks again!

  3. Jason. Re-reading my comment, it sounds a bit pompous. My unreasonable fear of power-point presentations. Such are de rigour in Vietnam and I experienced there months and years of hard work and good thinking by many people reduced to a few bullet points flashing at an audience. It has left me very careful of the presentation of data to the public — which of course was the big ‘Marxist’ thing of the late 19th and 20th centuries (that the mass media can change the course of history, and that while the mass media is ‘mass’ in reception it is tiny in terms of power behind the media — possibly a single presenter/dictator — the aptly named ‘power point’). I guess any advertising necessarily follows the same process and I appreciate any attempt to advertise Anthro. My personal feeling is very much that Anthropology has lost its way and is in decline. Perhaps it has accomplished what it set out to do and is now a ‘fossilised discipline’, perhaps it still has mileage. Whatever the situation in enrolments at US universities, I doubt this is reflected world-wide (although that is a totally spontaneous statement based on no fact or analysis). Certainly I do not feel that numbers attending the AAA are indicative of popularity — although that’s again just the way I feel. I do appreciate that such short ‘museum’ type presentations can bring a somewhat snobbish discipline to a wider audience and possibly initiate that spark of interest by ‘demystifying’. If money were no object and I was doing such a short film, I would try to show anthropologists at work rather than write four of many occupational names: bio, cultural, etc. The field anthropologist is still hero — whether in the jungles of Borneo or the Amazon and a shot of people in grass huts is not out of place, as would be a forensic anthropologist sorting through corpses in Kosovo etc or Lucy’s skeleton and gorillas. Whether we should take the name Anthropology into the world of the ‘psychological anthropologist’ is itself debatable, but anthropologists do work in business, development, aid programs and even national banks (micro-finance). Perhaps the important thing to get across is that Anthropology offers a way of thinking — asking and seeking to answer questions devoid of presumptions and dogma (religious or political) is itself a ‘new’ (1870s+) way of looking at morality and that loaded term ‘democracy’. Anthropologists don’t say . They also don’t say . They might say

  4. Robert and Jason, thank you for the discussion. I like Robert’s take that Anthropology offers a way of thinking, or multiple ways of thinking, relatively apart from dogma. Or at least, that is the goal, by turning the lens on ourselves to better understanding why our species is the way it is. Personally, once I was exposed to anthropology it was impossible to turn that way of thinking off. Not to say that I understand our species completely. There are so many areas of knowledge about which I feel ignorant, but I am grateful that those who came before me (Boas, Tylor, and of course many, many others) dared to ask the hard questions.

    As Jason mentioned in his video, Anthropology is more than observation, but also about the possibility of change. The Boas quote is a great one: “How can we recognize the shackles that tradition has laid upon us? For when we recognize them, we are also able to break them.” Of course, not all traditions are shackles, but anthropology helps us to at least consider that possibility.

  5. Patrick/Jason. To tell the truth, I have long thought that ‘shackles’ quote from Boas very much part of Boas’ German ideological heritage. ‘Man is born free….we have nothing to lose but our chains’. Very Marxist for the father of American anthropology! I doubt any anthropologist doing fieldwork would really see tradition in terms of ‘shackles’. Culture can be a prison but it is also a playground and the meaningful expression of humanity. Not that we should allow or promote Anthropology as a new religion — plus jamais ça.

    There is a technical point that is certainly a problem with WordPress. One doesn’t normally read one’s own contributions after posting them, but I notice the last line of my last contribution above has been truncated in a way that makes it nonsense. I did NOT write:

    “Anthropologists don’t say . They also don’t say . They might say ”

    What I wrote was something like:

    Anthropologists don’t say, ‘Burn the witches’. They also don’t say, ‘Don’t burn the witches’. They might say, ‘Having dismissed all presumptions and studied the situation objectively, I can find no logical reason to burn the witches.’

    Since I intended to present Anthro as objective and non-partisan, the corruption by WordPress is to be condemned. Accidental or technical censorship can have the same effect as any other type of editor’s ‘rewriting’. It may be part of the modern world and reliance on computers, but it is a dangerous part I will try to be aware of in future.

    • It’s been a while since we left this thread, but wanted to return a bit to that Boas quote. I include it not to enshrine Boas, but to provide an early wake-up call that anthropology never necessarily included an “I love traditions” lapel pin. If Boas were drawing on Marx, he certainly didn’t do very well at it–his historical particularism went quite against the stages-of-history model that Engels had been developing. I rather associate the “shackles” quote with Boas’s turn to studying race in the U.S., a poignant reminder of the enduring legacy of race and those who arrived in shackles.

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