I guess the first post on this blog should explain what Anthropology is actually about. I must admit that if you’d asked me that question about four and a half years ago I would have had no idea. None whatsoever. So now I don’t blame others for not knowing. If there is anyone responsible for that situation it’s most probably anthropologists themselves.
The whole idea of creating this blog is strictly connected with me having to explain, time and again, what I actually study. Anthropology? Do you dig out bones? Do you learn about ancient history? Every time I heard these questions I struggled to answer. How to convey the nature of arguably the broadest of academic disciplines in one or two sentences during a small talk? After a year or two, I realised that virtually no one knew what anthropology did. Even if people had some sort of faint idea what it could be, they were usually wrong. I got used to seeing empty gazes when I introduced myself as an anthropology student and got into a habit of instantly providing a few word of explanation, regardless of whether or not I was asked for it. It’s about time to make up for the crime of negligence I repeatedly committed over the years and once and for all inform anyone who cares to read it about what Anthropology is all about. Let’s start with the obvious – in contrary to common assumptions, no bones are involved. In Britain, Social Anthropology is most often, a part of the school of social sciences. In the USA on the other hand, biological Anthropology, which studies physical evolution of humans, is also popular. Hence, I presume, the common misunderstanding.
Wikipedia defines anthropology as a study of the past and present of the humankind. It is about as precise as one can be without omitting anything. This is also a reason why it is so difficult to explain to anyone what I studied. One could add that Anthropology is concerned with culture or society, but I don’t believe that really brings us any closer to a clear definition. I think that closer to the truth is the statement that Anthropology, through ethnographic research, gathers information about cultural practices, unequal power relations, and social problems of peoples around the world. Traditionally, an ethnographer would spend a year, or even a few years, living with a particular group of people, whom typically could be described as indigenous and living in a remote part of the world, detached from western influences. He or she would learn the local language, study social and cultural practices, and get as close as possible to see the world through the eyes of the studied people. One may ask what the use of that kind of knowledge is and why anyone would do that. Initially, the task was to gather knowledge about societies which, as it was thought at the time, were about to disappear from the face of the earth. The other goal was to prove or disprove the evolutionary theory, which claimed that some races were further ahead on the evolutionary scale than others. This theory claimed that, for example, by studying Australian Aborigines one could see how the ancestors of civilised men looked like (it was later proved that not only evolutionary theory was wrong, but also that genetically distinctive races do not exist). In its early stages, Anthropology eagerly collaborated with colonial agents, and that left a mark on the discipline until today. Later on, in order to make up for contributing to colonial practices, Anthropology began to pay more attention to empowering the people it studied. It started to be more preoccupied with giving a voice to indigenous people and unveiling the impact of colonialism on current situation of the Aborigines around the world. With time, also the need to travel to remote locations disappeared. Anthropology can just as well be done round the corner as in a hamlet in the middle of the Amazon jungle.
Frank Furadi wrote about how an intellectual should be dedicated to the search for the truth and knowledge, without paying much attention to whether or not said knowledge would provide any financial or consumable benefits. I think that sentence can be seen as a second description of Anthropology. Furadi provides a critique of modern times, claiming that the knowledge in and of itself is not valued, and that we only care for its applications and use values. It seems to me that Anthropology, or at least its part, values the knowledge more than ways of applying or using it, just as Furadi would like to have it. Thus, I believe it is as much a blessing as a burden to the graduate (myself included). Anthropology provides students with an insight into social problems in different places around the world. It also teaches them, theoretically, how to gather data and analyse said problems. There is, however, very little with regards to providing practical solutions, reaching definite conclusions, or engaging general public and raising media attention, not to mention giving students a hands-on experience of any of that. Some of the best monographs do not provide any sort of conclusion or closure; they describe a group of people or a community, sometimes in a great detail, but without even a slightest attempt to provide a solution for the issues they face. I remember quite well one of the departmental seminars I attended back at the university, when an Anthropologist from Australia presented her paper on the difficulties the Aborigines faced when they became wage labourers. Her portrayal of the situation was impressive and the analysis insightful; however, when asked by one of the post-grad students if she saw any way of improving the current situation, she stated that it had never been her intention. The reason for that is, I believe, one of Anthropology’s preoccupation with being objective and completely neutral. Ethnographic research often provides insights into perspectives of various people of different social, economic, and political positions. An ethnographic story often does not give two but four or five sides, and how to take a stand about anything if one wants to be fair to all the points of view of the situation. Anthropology too often falls prey to its own obsession with truth and objectivity. Its avoidance of having to face a problem heads on and its tendency to give extremely ambiguous answers greatly diminish the potential the discipline has in tackling many social issues; from homelessness and social exclusion in Western countries to the unfair treatment of the communities in remote locations of Borneo or Southern Mexico.
Anthropologist deserves to be known and present, and anthropologists deserve to be heard, but for that the discipline must change; there needs to be more engagement in the current social, political and even economic issues and definitely more unequivocality.