Anthropology is the study of human cultures, but it’s also the study of the “other.” The “other” used to be pretty hard to find, when most people tried to live within homogeneous groups and travel was dangerous and expensive. Seeking out the “other,” people of other cultures, was something that few people did. But that isn’t nearly as true as it used to be. Now, we see difference just by walking down the street, turning on the TV, or going to work and school.
Seeking the “Other”
Anthropology was born of the colonial era. The people of Europe, and of European descent, ruled much of the world in far-flung empires. It was more than a cute saying that, “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” With these extensive empires came colonial rule, and colonial rule required an understanding the people who were being ruled.
For much of the colonial era, Christianity and racism shaped the government views and policies regarding the people being ruled. But with the rise of science as a way of understanding the world, and Christianity’s loss of complete authority, science had to develop ways of addressing the questions that plagued colonial decision making.
While political science tries to answer such questions as “what is the relationship between the ruler and the ruled?”, anthropology seeks to answer more basic questions, such as “what is the nature of those who belong to other cultures?” We can now say with certainty that culture rules these differences. Yet such knowledge was not always self-evident; it is at least partly a product of the scientific work of anthropology.
In order to understand the value of anthropology, we need to take a long, hard look at our own culture and its history. We might wave off such ideas as racism and eugenics as old-fashioned, out-of-date, and downright ignorant and evil. But this ignores a couple of basic facts.
First, the history of racism in Western thought goes back pretty far, and is planted pretty deeply. We might be trying to tear it out by the roots, but those roots are intertwined with other ideas. We might note that “race” is tied to social stratification, but we still enjoy a movie where the “noble savage” works alongside the good guy in a lesser role. But he’s a good guy, so that’s okay. Right, Tonto?
Second, many aspects of Western culture are still racist. It is true that, within academia, racist ideas have lost their shine. In fact, being called a racist is pretty damning. But when we talk about the everyday knowledge of Western culture, then we can see that racism is not yet vanquished. It is possible to argue that it never will be, and that racism itself is a part of Western culture–a temptation to simplify the world that must be struggled against.
The Only Game in Town
To paint anthropology’s detractors with a broad brush (and I recognize that anthropology maybe should be very careful doing that), many of the critiques today come from people who are unwilling to look for meaning and value outside their own culture. Anthropology studies something that many Americans don’t really believe exists–other cultures.
Sometimes it seems like studying other cultures is seen as just one step away from studying parapsychology. Maybe people think they saw the “other” once, and it makes a cool story. But it’s not something for polite conversation.
But at the same time, we’re buffeted on a daily basis by the “other.” Every day we deal with the “other” and, in a democracy, make political decisions and commentary on how we should deal with it.
Today, people from other cultures have significant, daily influence on our lives. The West engages in wars around the world, invests in businesses in far-flung regions, and imports goods made by other cultures who understand our needs all too well.
Further, we live side-by-side with the “other.” Anthropology is no longer a science devoted to exotic places and ways of thought. It is much more basic: a way of understanding our culture’s place in the world. This knowledge isn’t just relevant–it’s critical. It’s a big world out there.