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Why I love Anthropology

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A selection of thoughts on the study of Anthropology

I really believe that anthropology can play a role in meeting the enormous challenges our species now faces. Diversity is the foundation of adaptation and adaptation is always local. Understanding how different people in different places and different times solve(d) real problems provides the raw material for finding adaptive solutions to a rapidly changing world. Despite all the rhetoric one hears about living in a global world, the need for multiculturalism, blah, blah, blah, ethnocentrism and imperialist conceit are so pervasive in the contemporary academy that I seriously doubt any other discipline is likely to pick up this particular challenge. So it�۪s up to anthropology. However, to make this vital contribution, anthropology needs to care about the larger picture of humanity and the planet in which we are enmeshed, and anthropologists need to have the confidence to make their marks. Maintaining love after the first blush of passion has passed takes effort. Whether my discipline/lover and I are up for the joint challenge is an open question, but regardless of the outcome of couples therapy, our early relationships shape who we are and who we can become. At the very least, I will always have this vision of a grand anthropology to help guide whatever I become.

I went home one of those days and pulled out my course catalog, ��_ I looked up Anthropology in the catalog. This word was new to me ��� ... It was not a program anyone I knew was in. I read the two paragraph description of the discipline.
Never had I read such wonderful words. I do not remember the original words, but I can tell you how I translated them in my head ���Dear Megan, there are people who spend their lives researching what it means to be human. They go to all the different regions of the world to spend time with people, to look at the remains of our ancestors, and try to understand how we got to be so interesting and different from one another, but at the same time so similar. Humans are amazing! And unusual! And you can combine your love of history, geology and political science by becoming an anthropologist! If you can connect your interest to humans, you can study ANYTHING YOU WANT in anthropology! And you can study all of it! There is a discipline just for you! We�۪re sorry no one told you about us before. Since we interweave with so many other fields, sometimes people do not even realize they are studying anthropology. But we are here, come love your species with us!�۝ ��_

I love anthropology ��� cultural anthropology, my subfield of the discipline ��� because it is the most human of the human sciences: the one that is the most about people. The one which thinks you can learn about how people live their lives by watching how they live their lives ��� not by building models of them, or having them live small parts of it laboratories. In order to understand people we study people, and is willing to embrace all the challenges this entails.

I love anthropology because it is the discipline that takes seriously the idea that our common humanity with those we study is a boon and a strength, not an impediment that distort objective judgment. It works with and works through the fact that we can be powerfully changed by our research, and that this change is a strength. I love the fact that we stick with the project of ethnography despite the fact that it is aa project of telling the stories of others, an entitlement to be earned, not a right to representative authority that can be assumed.

The other day for a project I read the tables of contents for every issue of American Anthropologist from 1900 to 1960. One of the articles I came across was called ���Columns of Infamy�۝. I love that.

I love anthropology�۪s willingness to compare anything to anything else and to study anything under the sun. If people have done it ��� or thought about doing it ��� it�۪s not off-limits. And I love that fact that we can compare people who think they were abducted by aliens in Arkansas in the 90s with ascent to heaven narratives from Sumer written thousands of years earlier.

I love our regional, middle-range expertise: where people call soda coke and where they call it pop, how far south the cultural syndrome of the vision quest extends, and how lycra got marketed to the women�۪s movement in the 1960s.

But I also love our willingness to completely throw the middle range to the wind, our ability to start with a local taboo against eating bandicoots and ascending to universal theories of human anxieties about embodiment. We drive the philologists mad, which is ok with me.

I love anthropology�۪s protean genres ��� our ability to articulate with public health, philosophy, english literature, and military intelligence. When we say we will study anything, we are talking just as much about adjacent disciplines ��� and they are all adjacent ��� as we are people out in the world. At the same time, when locked into a four-field configuration like an X-Wing with foils extended into attack position, we really do have some answers to some important questions about what it means to be human. And if the physical anthropologists want to go talk to physicists about strontium isotope analysis, who can blame us for having lunch with someone who studies French literature?

Anthropologists can find anything interesting, and I love that about the discipline. You meet someone and ask what they are studying and they say ���rodeos as cultural performance�۝ and heads start nodding. You drive past a garage sale and stop the car in the middle of the street and say ���they�۪re��_ selling��_ old lampshades��_�۝ And yet at the same time we are incredibly jaded. More fears in the Andes that aid workers are using syringes to suck the fat out of people�۪s bodies as they sleep? Well that�۪s not very surprisng, is it?

I love anthropology�۪s ability to take people�۪s beliefs incredibly seriously one minute and then to totally ignore them in the next. That�۪s not witchraft, you fool, that�۪s your anxiety about your social organization. Except, no wait, what if there are witches? Biology? You think that stuff at the bottom of the microscope is ���reality�۪? Have you read Rheinberger�۪s book on the history of the ���discovery�۪ of protein synthesis?!?! Except, actually, this whole ���cooperative breeding�۪ thing does knit together what we know about primate behavior, evolution, and the human capacity for culture. Hmmm��_.

I love that fact that anthropologists refuse to give up on the fact that a two hundred page book has more insight and value than ten twenty page articles. I love the fact that we are willing to grasp the nettle of style instead of pretending it isn�۪t an issue. I love that fact that we believe our subjectivities add value to our scholarly work, rather than contaminating it.

Above all I love how anthropology, a science of the human, articulates with our lives: we study kinship, and raise children. We read about enculturation, and we teach students. We analyze power and we try to create a democratic, just world. Our discipline is connected, intimately and irrevocably, to our whole persons ��� and that�۪s what I love about it most of all.
I love anthropology for the questions it asks, the way anthropologists search for answers, and the importance of the answers to our world. Anthropology asks big questions, root questions, origin questions. Anthropologists listen, look, and explore���doing anthropology means having humility and openness to discovery. What anthropology has discovered is world-changing: that there are more possibilities than the way things are; what seems so natural and permanent is not the way it has to be.

1. Anthropology�۪s questions

Although I was woefully unprepared for graduate study in anthropology, I knew I had found my home when I heard the discussions. The questions anthropology asks are fundamental to the human condition: How did we get here? What are the material bases and social conditions for different ways of life? How do people make sense of their world?

For a research-based discipline, anthropology may be unique in questioning its own questions. Often the best anthropology comes not from the initial research question, but from the research that calls into question the terms of the research question. As John Comaroff recently put it, anthropology conducts a
critical estrangement of the lived world . . . thus to pose the perennial question: What is it that actually gives substance to the dominant discourses and conventional practices of that world, to its subject positions and its semiosis, its received categories and their unruly undersides, to the manner in which it is perceived and experienced, fabricated, and contested? (2010:530)

In contrast to other disciplines:

For the most part, they are not given to critical estrangement or the deconstruction of their ur-concepts. Political scientists, by and large, study political institutions and processes, conventionally understood, just as economists study economic institutions and processes. They rarely ask what politics or economics actually are. Anthropologists do, repeatedly. Unlike political scientists, we also spend a great deal of time trying to discern what taken-for-granted terms like democracy or the rule of law might mean for ���natives,�۝ both as signifiers and as species of practice, which often turns out to be anything but obvious. (2010:533, in ���The End of Anthropology, Again: On the Future of an In/Discipline���)

This can certainly be a frustrating process, even resulting in some paralysis. It can lead to accusations that anthropology is too insular or has too much jargon (and I quote from the more readable parts of the Comaroff article). However, what keeps bringing us back is that

2. Anthropologists listen

Anthropologists ponder and anthropologists read, but anthropological research is about listening. As Sidney Mintz described the ���traditional anthropological catechism�۝:

Study what you can see and hear; record everything you can, do not expect it to be entirely consistent; listen; count the ancillary blessings of discomfort. If those items in the catechism do not add up to a methodology for other, sterner disciplines, so be it. They have, I believe, nonetheless helped to reveal worlds otherwise hidden or unimagined. (1982:186 in Afterword: Peasantries and the Rural Sector���Notes on a Discovery)

Anthropology requires a basic respect for people and working with them, not just studying them. Looking for answers means being humble and open to this process. This stance of listening, studying with people, applies not just to cultural and social anthropology, but to how archaeology is attentive to artifacts, how primatologists study with non-human primates, how forensic anthropology understands the context of bone measurements, how anthropologists read historical documents to coax hidden meanings.

3. Anthropology�۪s answers

I found anthropology because of the questions it asks, and I appreciate how anthropologists listen and study with people, but what keeps me hopeful and loving anthropology is the empirical documentation of human possibility. This is not simply neutral documentation but a counterpoint to dominant narratives, what Michel-Rolph Trouillot terms anthropology�۪s ���moral optimism.�۝ In an age when neoliberal market discipline has become a religion, at a time when versions of determinism have been gaining ground:

We owe it to ourselves and to our interlocutors to say loudly that we have seen alternative visions of humankind���indeed more than any academic discipline���and that we know that this one [neoliberal capitalism] may not be the most respectful of the planet we share, nor indeed the most accurate nor the most practical. We also owe it to ourselves to say that it is not the most beautiful or the most optimistic. (2003:139, in Global Transformations)

The issue is one of making sure anthropology has a honed message, identifies who needs to hear the message, and is speaking loudly enough. I am heartened by the recent efforts to brand and provide a vision for anthropology. Although John Comaroff has a point for the internal health of the discipline that ���what is most likely to assure the Future of Anthropology is that those who inhabit its Very Small Planet continue to argue with one another�۝ (2010:533), anthropology cannot persist unless we engage with the rest of the planet. Loudly.

I love anthropology because it�۪s interesting, but I stick with it because it�۪s important.

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