What is anthropology? Funny you should ask. The writing of this essay couldn’t come at a better time, as I find myself struggling with this very question - or really a variation of it. What makes my work anthropology? I’m sure we’ve all asked ourselves that question at one time or another, but it comes with particular urgency for me at the moment. I’m writing my dissertation proposal, and given my topic, urban agriculture as an alternative economic development practice in Detroit, I read a lot of economic geography - things on Fordist crises and the alterity of alternative economies. It’s wonderful stuff, thought provoking, stimulating, challenging, relevant. But after a two to three day bender with it, I find myself, well, lost. Not lost as in “I don’t know what this stuff means,” (though that does happen). But lost as in existential crisis lost. Is this where my intellectual project lies? Is this the academic conversation I’m going to contribute to? “No,” I whisper to myself, “I really hope not.”
Now, I’m not trying to slam geographers. I know them and love them, and their work is very valuable to what I do. Nor am I trying to make a pitch for hard and fast disciplinary lines. My work certainly doesn’t respect them, and frankly I find disciplinary boundaries to be artificial at best. The truth is, though, after several days sojourning through the work of geographers or sociologists (again, no put down intended), I find a good old-fashioned anthropological ethnography very refreshing. Why is that? What makes Goode & Maskovsky’s (2001) The New Poverty Studies so very different from Amin’s (1994) Post-Fordism? Well, okay, a lot of things. But for me, one thing in particular stands out right now.
People. Anthropology hits me like a cool glass of water because of the people. That’s not to say that geography (or sociology, or any other discipline) doesn’t have people. It’s not to say they don’t have ethnography. They do. But anthropology starts with people, real people, who move around and interact in complex and fascinating ways. The practice of anthropology begins with these complex and fascinating movements and interactions. They’re described, interpreted, contextualized, and then, and only then, are they put in relation to more abstract processes. Yes, there are exceptions (remember, no hard and fast boundaries), but as far as I can tell, only in anthropology is this approach the rule.
I don’t start with economic crises or alternative economies. I start with a group of people growing collard greens and hot peppers on an abandoned lot in Detroit and selling them at the local farmers’ market. Economic crises and alternative economies are things I just pick up along the way. Tools for telling a story - a story that moves beyond the growers of collard greens in Detroit, but never leaves them. I’m sure anthropology is more than that, and in some ways far less than that too. For me however, anthropology is a story that, regardless of where it may end - and it ends in some very interesting places - begins with the lived experiences of people.
Megan L. Maurer
Megan L. Maurer
Ph.D. Student, Anthropology, University of Kentucky
Research interests include: people eating greens, growing chickens, and living in the Rust Belt