What is Anthropology?

Since this is a blog that looks at the world through an anthropological lens, then I think this is the logical place to start.

I teach intro to anthropology and the first thing I have my class do, before the obligatory syllabus trek, is to fill out a notecard. I ask them their major, their year, why they are taking the class, and finally, what they think anthropology is. They are inevitably taking the class because their advisors told them to for some undergraduate requirement. But the more interesting question is their understanding of anthropology as a field. The most common responses are: “the study of human evolution”, “the study of fossils”, “the study of humans”. Some students think anthropology is only archaeology. Others think we study dinosaurs- to which I reply… “if you find dinosaur fossils while doing archaeology, you’re doing it wrong!” Long story short, students that come into their first anthropology course really don’t know what they are there to study.

Most intro anthropology textbooks (for example: Kottak) define it as the holistic study of humankind through space and time. Jon Marks (An Alternative Introduction to Biological Anthropology, Tales of the Ex-Apes, Why I’m Not a Scientist) scores it as the study of humans as group members. And while Marks’ definition does differentiate anthropology from things like psychology and other social sciences that focus on individuals, it does little to differentiate it from sociology. I’ve heard some people say that sociology uses quantitative measures while anthropology, qualitative. But this isn’t true. My partner, a sociologist, is a qualitative sociologist, and anthropologists often use quantitative data in their research. I think the difference still lies somewhat in the methods used.

As a graduate student, I was tasked with writing a paper with the prompt: is anthropology science. The seminar included 6-7 other students and I was the only one to argue no, anthropology is not science. I argued that anthropology uses scientific methods, but also uses hermeneutics, discourse analysis, interpretation, historical analysis and other methods derived from the humanities. To call anthropology a science, therefore, limits the kinds of questions that anthropology can ask. Herein lies the difference; anthropology uses all the tools available to understand the human condition, what it is to be human.

Historically, this has been done by studying exotic, non-white peoples of the world, as they were viewed as being closer to nature and closer to our primitive past. Europeans were viewed as the pinnacle of civilization and culture. Anthropologists don’t think about the peoples of the world in that way anymore and are increasingly studying their own societies, as I do. I am interested in the reproduction and maintenance of the class system through scientific racism and race studies in the United States.

You may notice that I completely left out primatology, the subfield that I did my thesis research in. That’s because primatology’s inclusion in anthropology took place by Sherwood Washburn (“A New Physical Anthropology”) in 1951. The study of primates was suppose to shed light into our deep human pasts. While I disagree that studying extant primates can tell us much about what it is to be human today, we can see divergence and evolutionary trends that are important. As Jon Marks says (Tales of the Ex-Apes, ix), we are interested in who we are and where we come from. Part of who we are is our close relationship to the other primates (yes, you are a primate). People derive meaning and value from this evolutionary relationship.

Anthropology, as a field, isn’t so simple to define but its goal is noble: who we are, where we come from, and what does that mean. I believe that the world needs a little more anthropology in times like these. We need to understand the complex web of relationships between structures, agency, kinship, culture, religion, beliefs, gender, race, class, and on and on and on. Science continues to drift into the dark depths of reductionism and determinism, all the while anthropology has become more reflexive. Anthropology teaches us the importance of being anti-reductionist and anti-determinist, instead taking a holistic approach to understanding the human condition.


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