A Major Value of the Anthropological Project (as I see it)

As a graduate student these days, I find myself at tension between the traditional avenues of anthropological study – traveling to some far away ‘exotic’ place for long-term ethnographic research and then writing a monograph about a people and their interaction from some theoretical standpoint that advances our understanding of ourselves – and the urgent need for anthropological work to help unravel the contemporary experience and globalized world I’ve grown up a part of, that I see characterized by such phenomena as economic domination, debt, environmental degradation, inequality, and war.

In some ways this urgency has come full circle. Going “out there” brings us so much closer, with more clarity, to “in here” in ways impossible were we to just stay put “in here”. The anthropological project of studying, classifying, and documenting the myriad ways people organize their social, physical, economic, mental, and spiritual lives began as part of the colonial endeavors of Europe (and later somewhat through the United States) in order to, as James Scott would say, make people “legible” for the nations which wished to know them. Unfortunately this at first went hand in hand with colonial exploitation and domination. But anthropology grew up and became a social science in its own right and shucked off (though still struggles with the specter of) the shackles and thought processes of colonialism, thanks to the efforts of anthropologists like Franz Boas and Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and later Claude Levi-Strauss, just to name a few.

A major value in anthropological thinking comes from our slow work in the field – living for months or years among and getting to know, often becoming close friends with, the groups of people with whom we work and research. I find this work to be both a challenge and a privilege. (More on fieldwork later.) This slow work is valuable for a few reasons:

First, anthropology can be seen as an act of translation, making previously unknown peoples, parts of the world, and ideas known, providing a venue for their voices, ideas, passions, fears, needs, and wants to be known in other parts of the world. But not simply to know them for knowledge’s sake nor so that ‘we’ may know ‘them’ as part of some narrowly academic agenda – more on this in point 2. Once where the anthropologist purposed to speak for the native, nowadays, the ‘natives’ often speak for themselves, they read the books and articles we produce; often times they play an active role in the production of these writings. We work back and forth with our research associates to make sure we are explaining ideas and concepts in ways they find acceptable and that capture the heart of their expressions (as best as one can hope to do in an act of translation).

Second, because coming to know deeply another way of life is profoundly important for our own reflexivity; it informs our lifeworlds, enriches them in ways that are so crucial to our well-being as humans. People around the world arrange their lives in so many different ways – different economic arrangements, different religious practices, different ways of socializing and marriage practices. In this enormous variation and diversity, we also, amazingly, can see what we hold in common, what we share as a species. We all need food, water, shelter, to be cared for and to care for others, and sex (among other things). From this angle, all of us have much to learn by coming to know other peoples and other ways of life. Indeed what we share also are not only these needs, but the physical space we inhabit on this planet. That things are interconnected across the globe through economic trade, exploitation, colonial enterprise, labor movements, etc. is a given. But if we just stop there, we miss something vital – the actual stories and lives of the people, all of us really, who live our lives together on this planet everyday. Why does this matter?

Cultures often mediate how our human needs are expressed – when it is ok and with whom one can (or not) have sex, how food is prepared and what food is appropriate on what occasion, which god is the true god, how to best get water from the ground. Anthropology learns from these stories told by people around the world by experiencing life in many, many places and slowly we build accounts, narratives, and collect stories to build a coherent translation of the different ways humans live. My point is that as certain forms of thinking that have become dominate on this planet – such as economic exploitation of the environment, gender and sexual inequality (or as Joss Whedon, among others, asks us to use the term “genderist” thinking), and racism – these forms of thinking can overwhelm our senses with their massive scale and deployment across the globe. Every day in the news, online, you can read or hear someone say “well that’s just human nature to dominate like that…” or something along those lines. Anthropology dismantles these narratives because we work with people across the world who tell very different narratives, different stories, that work for them, in the same way we hold our dominant narratives to often be the true and real understanding of how the world works. Do instances of racism or genderism appear in many cultures? Sure they do. But we also find numerous examples of peoples living in ways that are more committed to well-being, to equality; here in the United States is no exception. No, there is no ‘perfect’ culture in which everyone is treated exactly equal and with unyielding compassion. But the point isn’t to find some perfect example of a culture, whatever perfect might mean, and then apply it to the rest of the world. And because, probably, that kind of ‘perfection’ doesn’t exist among humans (though it would be nice to find).

What anthropology shows us is that as humans living in the world, all of our perspectives are partial, filtered through our respective traditions, ideals, heroes, and villains that populate the places in which we grow up, move or run away from, or find ourselves. But because of this, because we humans have so many stories, and ways of telling them, anthropology seeks to understand the human condition ‘on the ground level’ with all peoples and to share these stories, these translations, with others. Partiality doesn’t mean ‘not true’ – it simply means we must understand that our perspective is one among many, and while some of our practices might seem to be the best in the world, others certainly feel the same way too. Rather than succumb to violence over these differences, anthropology can help us to remember the basic things we all share as a species and as inhabitants of this planet. Anthropology reminds us that precisely because everyone’s view of the world is partial to their own groups, we have the capacity to leverage what we might call the ‘best practices’ of humanity. As we run into a problem – whether of governance, sexual inequality, religious fueled hatred – we have resources beyond our borders, we have shared stories of people dealing with the same issues in different ways for different reasons across the world. These stories can help us. Sharing our stories with others too, can be helpful, as long as we are able to also understand views as partial, as one among many, and as long as we allow the space for multiple stories, even if contradictory, to exist at the same time. While each of us might not be able to change the world, we can at least change ourselves. Anthropology, for one, has helped teach me this. I don’t live in a world where economic domination, debt, and violence are the only realities. Yes those are real parts of the world that affect me directly. But, there is space for more than one story. And life is richer for it.

If you’ve read this far, and especially if you’re an anthropologist, you might be thinking this sounds naive or optimistic. To a claim of naiveté I would rebut that no, this is not naive because by focusing on a positive possibility, by recognizing our capacity to learn about one another and how to ask questions about how we ourselves choose to live on the planet not only does not ignore power inequalities, violence, sexism, etc, but in fact requires us to actively engage with the ugly sides of humanity too. This view does not downplay violence and inequality, but by being honest about these realities alongside others, we can in fact share in promoting the well-being of ourselves and others. In my short time as an anthropologist I’ve met enough people, parents, grandparents, and children alike that would completely challenge the dominant narratives of violence towards others, the ‘rationally self-interested human’. I bet even you have too. Second, that this perspective is optimistic – to that I say yes it is. And why not? If anthropological work has shown me one thing, it’s as I said above, that we each have a perspective; our view on the world is partial. Some views are more globally dominant that others. But that doesn’t mean they are somehow more correct or more true. Particularly when these views entail actions that are clearly damaging to a population (of humans or nonhuman animals or plants), promote violence and aggression we ought to remember that they are partial views. Not everyone lives this way, and indeed since many people would choose not to (whether they can is another question for later), or have created worlds that are in opposition to globally violent actions, we ought to take notice. We ought to share those stories, build a coalition of multiple narratives. To remember, to empower ourselves and others that another world is possible.

Note: Much of my thoughts in this piece may come across as vague as I don’t use many specific examples. In this light I intend for this blog to be kind of a raw attempt at promoting public intellectual conversation about anthropology and anthropological thinking. And because of this the majority of posts I (I won’t speak for my co-authors) will be rather raw in form, open to debate and constructive criticism. Please feel free to comment, refute, (constructive) criticize and offer alternate perspectives.

As a follow up to this piece, I will write some more direct reflections on the notions of development and human rights as I know this piece is fairly vague, but I hope the larger ideas are nonetheless somewhat coherent.