Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Whole New Anthropology

The world is changing. This fact is so obvious that it has become cliché, but regardless, most of us resist changing with it. In my experience, this is particularly true of many academics. Scientific disciplines are entrenched in years, sometimes centuries, of theoretical traditions and methods and can have a difficult time adapting to a world which no longer needs precisely the same science that it did 50 years ago. Additionally, due to the nature of scientific knowledge—layers built upon layers over many years and many researchers, by necessity our most contemporary research is very specific and entrenched within many levels of sub-disciplines. For most researchers in anthropology, it is no longer possible to set out with a moleskin journal, a tent, and some quinine tablets and discover an unstudied culture. Most of us have probably fantasized about doing so but after 500 years of Western expansion, 150 years of which featured anthropologists gadding about, there aren’t many surviving cultures that are undocumented. Even the first level of specific studies in culture (gender, rituals, religion, and marriage customs) is mostly tapped out. Boas, Malinowski, and Mead all paved the way for a new anthropology, but in doing so they also made their roads inaccessible to future researchers. So where does that leave us, the late comers to the study of human diversity?

The future of anthropology as a discipline lies in its applications. Much as we may try to pretend otherwise, anthropology is largely a discipline of privileged scholars studying those without privilege. Western researchers generally disperse to the far corners of the globe to study cultures in developing countries, cultures that are usually marginalized due to poverty and everything that comes with it. As studies of human culture become more complex and specific, it is no longer as easy to ignore the inequalities and injustices faced by our research populations, who, if we are doing it right, are also our friends. The old idea that anthropologists should only observe the cultures they study and then take their conclusions back to their universities is based in a world that doesn’t exist anymore, a world where globalization had not yet affected every aspect of life in undeveloped countries. We can continue to hide our heads in the sand and pretend that the cultures we study are untouched and that the inequalities we document have nothing to do with us, but to do so is unfair to ourselves and the research populations to whom we owe our careers.

As anthropologists, we are uniquely situated to advocate for positive change and fight against the injustices we document. The skills of the anthropologist are invaluable to budding social movements and creating ethical public policy. Our training in ethnography and our lack of association with the typical conduits of relief and humanitarian aid work (religious, governmental, and civic organizations that often operate under ethnocentric models) means that those we study are able to tell us what they need and how they need it. Change has a better chance of originating from within the culture, rather than as another foreign imposition. Our theoretical training in political ecology, cultural materialism, and structionalism, among many others, helps us to find the root of the challenges faced by marginalized populations and design a plan to counteract it. Finally, our ability to straddle both worlds—the culture which hosts us for periods of time, teaches us about the beautiful diversity of humanity, and forces us to expand our own minds and intellects to accept The Other as just Another; and the culture that we were raised and educated in, where our families and friends and work are, where our homes are—allows us to fight both sides of the battle. We can work in the field, doing crucial work advocating for individual victims of genocide and working to make them safe, but we can also write internationally syndicated articles, serve on UN advisory committees, and use our positions as scholars to apply political pressure to our governments.

Our new world calls for a new anthropology—applied anthropology. For decades we have studied the effects of our culture on other cultures and the lives of marginalized peoples, but only recently have we begun to try to mitigate the damage. It is time for anthropologists to use our skills for more than just the advancement of our own careers. Our responsibility to our research populations must extend beyond just the direct impact of our own personal work. The code of fieldwork has always been “Do No Harm”, but it is time to take that one step further. The code of the anthropologist should be “Do Good”.

Sarah Williams


Caitlyn M. said...

Wonderful article! But I need to ask, what is 'good'? Is 'good' protecting the indigenous culture (let's say the Tojolab Maya) and preserving their ways at the risk of barring them from entering the globalized, Western world? Or is it teaching them Spanish at the risk of diluting their culture with Western beliefs in order to allow them to have a voice and place in their political sphere, economy, etc..?

Anonymous said...

Or forcing French Canadians to speak English . lol

John Hawks said...

Let's start with some common ground. It is good to give people information that improves their children's health. It's good to bring information about disadvantaged people to agencies who can help protect their rights and economic opportunities. It is good to give people tools to preserve their cultural heritage without giving up their place in the future.

Anonymous said...

Right to the point. Anthropologists, if they're going to build their careers (of which they generally comment on meager salaries despite making several thousand times as much as their 'informants') on the backs of the world's poorest (which they do more often than not), should at least be frank and forthright about it, if not be seriously dedicated to advocacy, social change, and alleviation of poverty.