Anthropology Changed the Way I See the World

9 thoughts on “Anthropology Changed the Way I See the World”

  1. “It is up to anthropology to continue to be a science of humanity; to, as Ruth Benedict said, make the world safe for human differences.”

    Ruth Benedict never said this. It is a paraphrase based on a misquote that has been passed around American anthropologists endlessly. And it doesn’t fit history. In Ruth Benedict’s time anthropology was a science, not a political action committee. The purpose of anthropology was to understand the human species. The misquote is repeated only by having less concern for the truth, more concern for the political mission. That needs to change.

  2. It was a delight to read this essay. I experienced much the same set of profound revelations when I began to study anthropology 40 years ago. I would like to respond by voicing a few concerns that I have now – a kind of retrospective on Anne’s prospective perspective, as it were.
    It always seems to me that many anthropologists – especially socio/cultural anthropologists – get diverted into “advocacy” – some combination of social work and underdog support group activities. I am not saying that people who advocate for indigenous rights and take that fight to the limits of international law are doing anything wrong, only that they are NOT doing anthropology.

    I attended several sessions at the Vienna hunter-gatherer conference last September – sessions where many of my friends and colleagues were eager participants… and I was – more bored than I expected. It was politicking and the papers were about the struggles of this or that community for land rights etc. Papers were essentially about outcomes of political advocacy, usually presented as a series of events. This is valuable work but it is not anthropological science. It tells us nothing about how we evolved, how economic and social change happens. (It would have been far more interesting had any of these papers touched on these events as tests of some hypothesis about how communities alter their tactics and internal values when faced with loss of land.. but it was just accounts of legals cases and political setbacks and victories..)

    It was historical social work. Anthropology is a social SCIENCE. The research undertaken in our field would not be nearly as much fun if it did not frequently get up the noses of the establishment: admit it, it is true! And advocacy is fun for the same reason. But advocacy is far more effective if there is some science to back the case for recognizing indigenous rights, and social welfare reform in general. In fact, there was at least one anthropologist (Ashley Montagu) involved in developing some of the articles in the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights.

    People, who resist the received wisdom arising from anthropological consensus often seem to be rejecting science. They are like those who rant on about how climate change is a hoax, or persist in not vaccinating their children because of a debunked theory linking vaccines and autism. Those who persist in assuming some “races” of humans are more intelligent than others are similar – they resist scientific findings on the effects of poverty, malnutrition, disease and exposure to toxins (like lead poisoning) on human cognitive function.

    Well, tough. If we accept the science, then our excessive burning of fossil fuels is causing climate change, if we accept the science, then humans are the product of evolution, not creation, if we accept the science, then most of the world’s people are basically descendants of a small bunch of folks who survived 100,000 years of horrific periodic drought in Central and southern Africa – and who were anything but racist when they encountered finally spread out and other remnant populations of “more archaic” humans elsewhere in Africa and Eurasia.

    You can do scientific research that lends support to the common humanity of people engaged in many different economies, and thus strengthen arguments against the colonial mindset. This mindset dismissed all non-industrialized market economies as “primitive” and even has been known to suggest that the people are just too uneducated or lacking in innovative skills to get beyond these subsistence economies. In international development circles, there is a widespread belief that most of these subsistence economies were generally inadequate and prone to leave people malnourished, undersized, and short-lived. For this reason, it was a watershed moment when foraging was confirmed as tenacious because it was anti-fragile and a slam-dunk in even the most marginal ecosystem. The idea that this kind of economic system – even in the face of encroachment by other economic systems like farming and pastoralism – would persist and adapt, demolished smug theories about how farmers invented a “better” or “more secure” way of life. It still rankles in some circles, as shown by the peculiar travesty of logic enhanced by Ed Wilmson and Jim Denbow, the one that caused the so called Kalahari debate.

    That DOES become political. It can be, obviously, nasty. We are doing some unpleasant intellectual infighting over such issues within anthropology too: Lawrence Keeley’s apparent confusion of Lee’s !Kung homicide statistics with deaths from internal raiding among tribal groups, and then with war-related deaths in nation states, is a case in point. Unfortunately this misled others, particularly in evolutionary psychology, who mistook Keeley’s thesis – which was mainly about warfare and feuding tribal societies, for proof of Hobbes quip that life among “savages” was nasty, brutish, and short”.

    The anthropological evidence, indeed, tends to line up against the “war forever” theory just as strongly as it lines up against the racist and elitist dismissal of colonized and/or impoverished people, and above all, against denial of equal rights, to anyone else, on the basis of gender, ethnicity, beliefs, politics, or poverty.

    What has been something especially obvious to anthropologists, as time goes on, is that a model of human evolution that insists on a warlike human nature, is, like racism, a political tool. This kind of mentality is even, one might say, under certain circumstances, a form of terrorism. If people who are different – who adhere to “communism” rather than “capitalism” or believe in “Allah” rather than “God”, or are “Black” rather than “white”, It has also become clear, especially form the archaeological record and the studies of modern hunter-gatherers, that an old and still-popular story about how humans have been making war on each other “since the beginning” is, well, bogus. And that the two sets of ideas are related, via a model human evolution where intergroup competition and warfare was a medium for “group selection” in which certain “races” come out as the fittest and smartest and most “technologically advanced” and “behaviourally complex” or “modern”. Guess who is who?

    It does not suit the people who are on top of our present economic and social system, to be told these things. Their minds are filled with a future full of jets and container shipping and digging for oil and expanding their money-making “enterprises” – and they don’t want to be told that these must all be curtailed if mankind is to have a decent future. They don’t want to stop, they don’t accept the science, and they don’t care about poor minorities or refugees any more than they care about indigenous people or any other persons, animals, or the health of ecosystems that are standing, as they see it, in the way of making more money.

    Science is in the service of all of humanity, and maybe I should say, it is probably the only thing that can save our species, as well as thousands of others, by this current war-promoting and money-grubbing global free-for all. Social advocacy is vital in getting this message across, and encouraging governments to protect the rights of the poor, the marginalized, and the minority cultures, especially in the aftermath of a brutal colonial – and, sadly, post-colonial – history.

    Advocacy without solid science is much less likely to prevail against the still dominant mythologies of our industrial world. It is up to anthropology to continue to be a science of humanity; to, as Ruth Benedict said, make the world safe for human differences. You cannot do that purely by encouraging good will toward all – that has been tried. It takes hard factual evidence to counter the myth of a superior race, the myth of a chosen people, the myth of “manifest destiny”, the mythical “tragedy of the commons”, the myth of “better living through chemistry” and BOTH the myth of the brutal barbarian and the myth of the noble savage… in fact, all the myths and metaphors that keep resurrecting themselves – the assorted Walking Dead haunting the long shadow of the Enlightenment, zombies that stalk the landscape of Global Industrial Civilization.

    Yes. Ideas are the real zombies among us. Only the rigour of testing such myths to destruction can free us, even if it sometimes hurts. Furthermore, you cannot, dare not, ever, do bad science, skewing results just so that the Military-Industrial service community and their polical goons are happy OR giving life to romantic delusions of some golden age. That besmirches the one true thing we humans have going for us: curiosity and the desire to understand our world and ourselves.

  3. This piece better explains to my followers why I often refer to anthropological dimensions of social/political questions in my blog (:-)

  4. Obrigada pelo texto! É muito bom relembrar nossas motivações: eu gosto do que faço, eu gosto de trabalhar com antropologia!!


    2016-07-06 15:34 GMT-04:00 Welcome to the AAA Blog :

    > Anne Kelsey posted: “This post was submitted by Veronica Sirotic, a high > school senior and anthropology student interning with the AAA. For the > longest time, I thought anthropology was a chic boutique for women’s > clothing. Little did I know, anthropology would change the way” >

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