But how can that be? After all, we all know people and interact with them every day. We all understand the people around us, more or less.
Anthropology’s not hard in the same way as math, or medical school, or engineering. Anthropology looks at a different kind of data. It requires a different kind of thinking.
Anthropology’s challenge doesn’t come from its esoteric subject matter. It comes from taking something so familiar that we think we know it, and really laying out what we know and what we don’t.
Anthropology takes the familiar and begins to examine it closely and carefully. It takes those underlying assumptions, like “people always act in a self-interested way,”* and examines them to see if they’re true. More than that, it asks if that’s true of people the world over.
Why Does Anthropology Get a Bad Rap?
Anthropology is a social science that asks tough questions, makes tough calls, and tells people that what they always thought was true is really just true some of the time.
Take the concept of “race” for instance. We’re all taught that “race” is true, right? Race is “real” and “natural.”**
Well, as it turns out, if you shine the light of science on the darn thing, race turns out to be a cultural construct. Now, that doesn’t make the struggles and injustices people have faced unreal, it just means that it doesn’t have to be true. There are other cultures with other ways of seeing “race,” and there’s variation in our own culture, too.
When people get faced with the idea that their own culture, like all other cultures, is just a system of thought, rather than the bedrock of reality it seems to be, that’s scary–sometimes downright terrifying–on a cognitive level. We use our own cultures to function in the world, and it’s an unpleasant feeling to realize that they’re not True…they’re just “good enough for government work.”
How Should We Apply Anthropology?
Anthropology asks the unaskable, challenges the unchallengable, and moves us closer to reaching the root of the question, “Who and what are humans?” Where other disciplines might declare the answer to this, anthropology takes those answers and asks, “is this true in all times and places?”
But we can’t all just spend our lives on the big questions. Training in anthropology gives a certain kind of insight into people. It gives us a more honest view that is at the same time powerful and uncomfortable.
Anthropology, as a discipline, works very hard at using this perspective for the power of “good”–even while recognizing that such “good” is probably a cultural construct itself. The American professional association for anthropologists (AAA) has put out statements against the use of anthropology in assisting the U.S. military in their work. Further, anthropologists are often leery of using what they (we) know to assist marketers, or otherwise use our perspectives to promote intra-cultural ideals.
Anthropologists often study dis-empowered and under-served populations, and handing the keys to those cultures to people with lots of pull, and widgets to sell, is a tough ethical decision.
At the end of the day, we need to engage culture (even, and especially, our own) so we can try to high-mindedly try to change it, or even draw a steady paycheck.
That being said, what is the proper role of anthropology?
*This is the assumption of the rational maximizer in economics.
** As someone trained in anthropology, even writing this sentence pains me. On the other hand, if you believe we live in a post-race world, then please sign up for Anthropology 101.