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What is American Anthropology – 4 July 2012

For a July 2013 update see Public Anthropology and Bill Gates: We Cannot Abandon Humanity


What Is American Anthropology

Image: A.Ashkuff

For most of the world, 4 July 2012 was a midweek Wednesday. How most of the world shares that calendar is another important story for anthropology, but for now I write from the United States of America, where many people took the day off to celebrate the Declaration of Independence. Some of us who call ourselves “Americans” are surprised to learn this is not a global holiday. And indeed, it’s a reasonable guess that more of the world knows when the U.S. celebrates its independence than Americans know about the holidays of any other nation, just like much of the world will be considering the implications of the Obama-Romney race long before most U.S. voters decide whether to go to the polls. That’s power.

Beginning with the appropriation of a name that should apply to The Americas, many Americans are blissfully unaware of how American they are. This includes anthropologists. Indeed the United-States based American Anthropological Association continues that tradition in its name. Since the U.S. generates a lot of anthropology, it’s problematic for an undertaking that seeks to comprehend humanity.

It has been gratifying to get a lot of “likes” and shares for my attempt at What is Anthropology. It’s the section that has most fulfilled the purpose of Anthropology Report by ascending search engine queries. However, I do recognize that this is an American perspective on anthropology, something I was taken to task for in response to the YouTube version of What is Anthropology.

I’ve tried to make adjustments and tweak my own American perspective on anthropology. I advertise this blog internationally on Facebook, and as a result get readers from outside the usual places. The people I consider my most important influences for understanding what anthropology is–Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Tim Ingold–are not Americans.

Nevertheless, it is important to be mindful of these issues. And so, as I was preparing an update for the What is Anthropology section using the blog-posts below, I did want to note that they are all (to my knowledge) American anthropologists. To broaden the perspective a bit, I include a summary of the 2011 American Anthropological Association Presidential Address by Virginia Dominguez, who urged the AAA to take better account of its international membership. I also include a link to an article by Andre Gingrich regarding the need for anthropology’s transnational transition.

Happy 4th of July!

FOR ANYBODY TO CARE ABOUT ANTHROPOLOGY, THEY’LL NEED TO KNOW WHAT IT IS! (a pilot marketing study)
“Nobody gives a damn” about anthropology, because nobody knows what it is. To varying degrees, other anthropologists understand this challenge. I’ve read similar woes in journals like American Anthropologist, and on blogs like Savage Minds. When Gov. Rick Scott criticized anthropology schools, USF responded with a presentation titled “This is Anthropology,” suggesting that people mustn’t already know about anthropology. However, from a marketer’s perspective, a title like “This is Anthropology” only earns the attention of people who’re already interested in anthropology. Despite its thousands of views, Google reveals that “This is Anthropology’s” most relevant backlinks come from other anthropology websites. Essentially, it’s a presentation made by anthropologists, popular among other anthropologists.

Note: Ashkuff sent me a message about this after I posted it from the Ethnosnacker blog. His study is freely available and includes a suggested image to brand anthropology (I’ve borrowed it for this post). Ashkuff demonstrates many people do not know what anthropology is, even students of related disciplines, but suggests the antidote is to introduce anthropology indirectly. Ashkuff was interested in feedback, so please sign up and let him know what you think. My take–after trying more direct approaches–is that there is truth to what Ashkuff reports. However, it is also true that people who think they might be interested in anthropology tune out once they hear what anthropologists have to say. As Jonathan Benthall, an early editor of Anthropology Today put it: “Although some aspects of anthropology appeal to various sectors of the public, the fact is that a large part of what anthropologists have to say requires intellectual effort, and moreover is often rather disturbing to people’s peace of mind” (Enlarging the context of anthropology: The case of Anthropology Today 1996:136).

Franz Boas and Neuroanthropology, Daniel Lende
Neuroanthropology is anthropology. And part of a Boasian tradition of anthropology, but needing a renewed consideration not just of the historical links and origins of a particular way of doing anthropology, but even more importantly, a re-invention and re-interpretation of how to do Boasian anthropology in ways that can draw on human difference and similarity, biology and culture, experience and history.
Neuroanthropology, 29 June 2012

Too Smart, Too Dumb
This is why anthropology matters. It has nothing to do with understanding tribes or rites of passage. All of that is just kind of decoration and metaphor. Anthropology matters because, no matter which side of the tracks we grew up on, most of us find ways of bullying each other every single day–of putting people down and imagining that we are better than them, better than their politics, their values, their grammar. Anthropology matters because your ego has gotten away with this sneaky shit for too long, and it’s about time that somebody finally cried ‘mercy.’
Kate B. Harding, 29 June 2012

Transitions: Notes on Sociocultural Anthropology’s Present and Its Transnational Potential, Andre Gingrich
In this article, I address the 2009 AAA conference theme by arguing that sociocultural anthropology is going through a unique process of transitions. Although these transitions do not indicate the “end of anthropology” as such, they certainly highlight that the era of national traditions is coming to a close. In the difficult phases of advanced globalization that we are going through, our field is in a relatively good position to further develop its transnational potential, which is crucial to coping with the emerging challenges of the present and the future. For sociocultural anthropology’s continuing transformation along transnational lines, I argue that we have to seriously engage with the transnationalization of two main dimensions: the institutional and the epistemological. This requires the transnationalization of some among the relations of production of anthropological knowledge and also of this field’s epistemological foundations.
American Anthropologist. 2010.

Anthropology Textbook Review: What Does It Mean to Be Human?, Jason Antrosio
For a four-field introductory course, my preferred anthropology textbook is Lavenda & Schultz, Anthropology: What Does It Mean to Be Human?
Living Anthropologically, 3 July 2012

Virginia Dominguez, Anthropology’s Challenge: We can be better, Jason Antrosio

Update July 2013: The Virginia Dominguez lecture discussed was published as Comfort Zones and Their Dangers: Who Are We? Qui Sommes-Nous? Interestingly, to my knowledge it is not open access, nor has it been discussed in the anthropology blogosphere, which is telling for an address that really tried to push the members of the American Anthropological Association out of their comfort zones.

For the presidential address, outgoing AAA president Virginia Dominguez did celebrate these signs of growth, but she deliberately framed her address as more provocative than previous presidential talks. The address, titled “Comfort Zones and Their Dangers: Who Are We? Qui Sommes-Nous?,” pushed anthropologists into “zones of discomfort,” challenging anthropology, and particularly the AAA membership, to step outside what can sometimes be comfortable anthropological refuges.
Living Anthropologically, 22 November 2012

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  • Ashkuff

    Hey! Thanks for reviewing my research!

    I agree that some people might feel interested by anthro, only to lose interest with its deeper principles. However, we can say the same about lots of other — more popular and respected — disciplines. Physics and psychology, for example. Both fields have their “pop” media that engage the public, distinct from their intellectual journals and textbooks.

    — Ashkuff | http://www.ashkuff.com | Bored with hearing about others’ adventures? Burning to venture out yourself? Let this applied anthropologist remind you how!

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Ashkuff,
      Thank you for the comment, and apologies for not getting back to you sooner. Things became crazy just after I posted this.

      My feeling is this is not just about complexity or deeper principles–it’s about how people will reject what anthropologists have to say because they are anthropologists. I am thinking here of Anthropology on Immigration or the kind of anthropological interventions of Michel-Rolph Trouillot. That is to say, people dismiss this kind of stuff not because it is complex, but because they don’t like the message. So, for example, if someone does empirical fieldwork on undocumented immigration and tries to change policies based on that fieldwork, they are dismissed as “anthropology shouldn’t be doing that.” I just don’t think other disciplines–like physics–get dismissed because they are physicists, even if few people understand the complexity.