What Anthropologists Know (and you should, too)

Sure, anthropologists know lots of disparate facts about far-flung places, like those anthropologists we see on TV. In our professional training, we study other cultures, and eventually go to live in places that are not so familiar to us. We know lots of details that make fun conversation starters at cocktail parties.

We know that the San (who don’t like to be called Bushmen) were traditionally hunter-gatherers who were moved to a farming lifeway as a result of government intervention.

We know that the Jivaro followed a similar path, moving from their famous, head-hunting, traditional way of life to something more influenced by modernization.

Balinese Performer in MaskWe know that Indonesian religion (agama) interplays with the country’s many cultures in interesting and unexpected ways, and for that reason the semantic category hardly ever means the same thing twice.

We know that “traditional” lifeways are being heavily impacted by Globalization.

Culture Is Something We Do

But we also know that while these lifeways are changing, cultures always change; that’s what they do. Through anthropology, our understanding of the word “culture” has changed. “Culture,” as an idea, has gone from something relatively static to something that, through the choices and will of members, changes in relation to the rest of the world.

In other words culture, while a noun in the English language, isn’t simply a thing that can be poked, prodded, examined, and stored. It’s something that people do. It’s the choices we make, but it’s also something that’s tied into how we’re wired.

Culture changes through “organic” processes, and can’t just be changed with the flip of a switch. Attempts at social engineering are met with resistance, negotiation, and unexpected results.

Culture Is Deeper than Belief

ChimpanzeeWhen people talk about what one culture or another “believes,” we’re taking a system of actions and beliefs and reducing it to only beliefs, as if we know for certain that belief precedes action. Yet we can also see that even that assumption is probably a result of Western beliefs about the nature of the world (e.g. orthodoxy and Neoplatonism).

In other words, we’re grossly simplifying the situation so that we can function in a complex world. Anthropologists, on the other hand, are trained professionally to delve into that complexity and see where the holes in our everyday models are. Otherwise, our models get old and stale. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.


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