Why Is Cultural Anthropology So Hard?

A portrait of a monkeyThat’s right. Cultural anthropology, the study of humans across cultures, is hard.

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.


7 thoughts on “Why Is Cultural Anthropology So Hard?”

  1. As a freshman Anthro major I am coming to find the misconception about the easiness of Anthropology to be really prevalent. In reality though I think it is one of the hardest disciplines to study. After all we are trying to discern truth about ourselves, about humans, whom we all know to be complex and driven by many different influences.
    There are times where I feel that I won’t be able to unravel any of the mysteries about people and other times where I know I am in the right field.
    I loved this post 🙂
    Have a great day

  2. One thing that surprised me to learn about anthropologists is the field’s desire to be a neutral observer, rather than an agent for change. (I feel like this might be one of the differences between anthropology and sociology – some sociologists are explicitly trying to effect change.) So I almost get the feeling that the decision to not help the military isn’t completely coming from not wanting to further the military agenda, so much as not wanting to further anyone’s agenda.
    While there are some scientists who also want to be neutral in that way, I think many of us have realized that it is not realistic to take the position that “Oh, I am just studying this theory/trying to understand how this thing works – what people do with this knowledge later has nothing to do with me so I won’t worry about it.” Some scientists study new materials that could make better solar cells. Others are looking at more efficient ways to find oil deposits. You have to think about whether your work is what you want to be doing with your life. One can’t completely control how one’s research is applied later, but at least thinking about that question is a responsibility we shouldn’t duck out of.

  3. Yeah, I think it gets more complicated for anthropologists. We have to be neutral in the lab (okay, field, but still–the place research happens) but that doesn’t have to make us neutral when we’re out of it.

    On the one hand, there is a branch of “activist anthropology” that is pretty explicit about their social agenda. I think UT Austin has a program.

    Now here’s what I find the interesting part of the story:
    Anthropology didn’t always avoid such entanglements with the military and intelligence community. But during the war in Vietnam, apparently U.S. intelligence debriefed some anthropologists and then used the gathered information and notes to have a bunch of specific people “taken care of.”

    You can imagine that this made it difficult to actually do anthropology in those areas anymore. Or, really, anywhere that heard about what happened. Because a lab-scientist who works for the government is still a lab-scientist. But an anthropologist who collects actionable information for government agencies isn’t a scientist anymore–that job has a different title.

    So, that’s the flip side of the story. When I was in Indonesia in 2001 (pre-September 11th!) that was still an issue. There were definitely people who would not talk to me because of worries over who I might share my notes with.

  4. Great post today. The clarification of race as a social construct and not a biological one is often a great launch pad for introducing anthropology into a conversation. I am a Chief of Police, who also has a PhD in Anthropology. The challenge of remaining a non-participant observer is difficult, but the ability to see the culture and report on its condition is critical.

    Interesting post andcomments and thank you for promoting the cause of anthropology, especially “cultural”

    1. You’re welcome. As you probably know, I’ve been following your blog for a while. Interesting stuff!

      It’s difficult, but necessary for anthropology, to professionalize the ability to intellectually distance from one’s own culture. It harder, however, to learn how to rejoin one’s culture at will–not just learning to maintain the distance, but to be able to control it.

      I suspect that there is a certain synergy between the “liminal” anthropologist and the “sheepdog around the edges” referred to in your recent post on the role of police.

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