Wherefore Anthropology?

What are students supposed to learn in an intro class on culture? This question should be fundamental, but it sometimes seems that it gets lost. Maybe it’s too fundamental?

Bronislaw Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands (1918)Unlike, say, 150 years ago, we (the bulk of Westerners) don’t spend our lives isolated from the “other” in agrarian communities. Before most of the population moved to cities, we spent our time with like-minded people and married those of similar culture — language, social status, race, and religion.

A bare five generations later, things are now very different. Each and every day, we’re exposed to people who belong to other ethnicities and cultures. We interact with people who have different beliefs. Where difference was once rare and exotic, now it’s incredibly common.

Intro to Anthro

On the head of that, we can hardly say that the purpose of an introductory anthropology class is to expose us to difference. We’re constantly exposed to the “other.” Turn on your TV, open a webpage on the Internet, or just go out on the street and look around. The “other” isn’t somewhere in far-off lands overseas; it’s right here, and always around us.

That doesn’t mean that anthropology is irrelevant; it just needs a new elevator speech. Anthropology doesn’t just teach us that difference exists, any more than math courses only teach us that numbers exist. Anthropology teaches us new ways of thinking about difference. It goes beyond “difference is okay” and actually leads us to new mental processes for dealing with situations that are outside of our own cultural expectations.

In other words, introduction to anthropology, world cultures, and similar courses don’t simply give us information about other cultures. Instead, they model new mental processes. The purpose of these courses isn’t to tell us that some people in the world practice polygamy and other such “strange” practices. Anthropology teaches new ways of thinking about aspects of our own cultures and, by extension, new ways of thinking about people.

But That’s Weird

Anthropology is not just a subject; it’s a discipline. It doesn’t just give us new things to think about. Anthropology teaches us new ways to think about things, or more specifically, people.

When we’re raised, we learn about our own culture in a process called enculturation. We accept what we learn as some kind of fundamental truth — it becomes our baseline of thought. As we get older, and learn more about the world, we see that it’s a much bigger place than we were taught. That’s not surprising, and it’s a normal part of maturation.

Still, when we’re confronted with things that disagree with our initial enculturation, they cause cognitive dissonance. We see something “weird” and think “that’s weird” or “that’s cool.” But that’s usually as far as we go.

What anthropology teaches us to do is to step outside of our own culture for a moment. Without anthropology, we see difference and recognize it, but that’s often the end of the matter. Anthro teaches us to follow the difference and see it in its own context.

As it turns out, the little differences we see aren’t just small, isolated individual things. They are part of whole systems of difference that, taken together, make up entirely different ways of seeing the world — cultures. Anthropology isn’t just about knowing disparate facts about peoples around the world. Anthropology is about being able to understand entirely different ways of thinking.

Cosmopolitan 2.0

Does that mean that each and every student who completes Introduction to Cultural Anthropology should be able to engage in the mental gymnastics necessary to not only think outside of their own culture but also develop mental frameworks for understanding these patterns of thought?

The short answer is “no.” Being able to do that takes years of training and professionalization. So what can we hope students will learn? What’s the first skill that anthropology teaches?

NYC subway riders with newspapers
Difference is one of the fundamental experiences of city life

Since the time of the first cities, people who lived in them were more exposed to others of different cultures than those who lived in small-scale groups. The words “cosmopolitan” and “sophisticated” might seem outdated, but  the ideas behind them aren’t — they’re more relevant than ever.

When students finish an Intro to Anthro class, they should be better able to take the differences in the wide world in stride. When confronted by difference, they should be able to think rationally about culture and recognize people’s fundamental humanity.

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2 thoughts on “Wherefore Anthropology?”

  1. Very true! Anthropology is extremely important because it’s all about thinking differently, about moving beyond bias and prejudice and transcending that Us/Them categorization. We have to appreciate and value other people’s cultures and realize how formed we are by our own. I wish everyone learned about anthropology and cultural relativism…

  2. I agree. It could (or should) be part of a proper Liberal Arts education. I also believe that the move away from liberal arts and toward pre-professional programs is a short-sighted trend at a macro level. In other words, it might be good for students in the short term, but will serve the U.S. poorly in the long run.

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