Anthropology is Growing
Anthropology is steadily growing, with more undergraduate anthropology majors, a three-year ever-growing attendance record of over 6500 participants at the 2012 meetings of the American Anthropological Association, and predictions of a faster than average, or 21% job growth in anthropology. Anthropology boasts a rich and varied collection of more than 100 active Anthropology Blogs.
Over one million people each month search for an answer to What is Anthropology? They can now find This Is Anthropology–a big thanks to Jason Miller, Charlotte Noble, and Janelle Christensen for their work, and see their Neuroanthropology – This Is Anthropology commentary
Anthropology: What Does it Means to be Human?
Anthropology is itself a search for what it means to be human, a documentation of human life and possibility. Anthropology is the study of humanity and its origins: “a scholarly discipline that aims to describe in the broadest possible sense what it means to be human” (Lavenda and Schultz, Anthropology, 2012:5; this is my preferred anthropology textbook for a four-field Introduction to Anthropology). Anthropologists ask the big questions about human life–and are famous for interrogating the basis for these questions, constantly examining not just the research questions but whether we are asking the correct questions.
Anthropology and Holism
Anthropology includes human evolution, primatology, biological aspects of human beings, archaeology, sociocultural approaches, and language. In the U.S., anthropology emphasizes a four-field approach of biological anthropology, archaeology, socio-cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology, as outlined by the American Anthropological Association’s page on What is Anthropology? (and see the commentary on What is Anthropology from Neuroanthropology). Anthropology takes a holistic approach, examining the inter-relation and integration of human biological and cultural life, as well as a holistic and ecological approach to humans in dynamic relation with the environment and other living beings.
Anthropologists do Fieldwork
Anthropologists emphasize empirical study with extended periods of data collection or ethnographic fieldwork. More than simply studying people, anthropologists study with people, becoming students and collaborators with the people investigated. Anthropologists seek the meaning of data and bring interpretive skills to the analysis and presentation of data. Anthropologists pioneered techniques to uncover hidden stories, such as Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, which examines how certain stories become available for history-making. [Sadly, this brilliant anthropologist passed away July 2012. See In Memoriam, Michel-Rolph Trouillot]
Anthropology: Science and Humanism
Thinking about humans and others is as old as humanity, but as an academic endeavor, anthropology only became an institutional, degree-granting discipline in the past 100 years. In 1964, Eric Wolf’s Anthropology drew on Alfred Kroeber to summon an anthropology that would be “the most scientific of the humanities, the most humanist of sciences” (88).
This appeal to become humanistic science and scientific humanism continues to inspire anthropologists, as featured in the discussion of Science in Anthropology.
Contemporary anthropologists revitalize anthropology’s core concerns and holistic perspective. Anthropologists penned Anthropology Love Letters, reflecting on these commitments and disciplinary potential. Blogs like Neuroanthropology combine biological and cultural approaches (for more, see the list of Anthropology Blogs 2013).
Another contemporary effort to address the question of “What is Anthropology?” is the web-journal anthropologies, with its inaugural issue devoted precisely to essays on What is Anthropology? Later issues feature short essays about various aspects of anthropology, including Anthropology with Purpose: Applied, Public, Academic and The Neoliberalized, Debt-plagued, Low Wage, Corporatized University.
Anthropology is International
Anthropology has always been an international discipline. Important founding figures like Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski were immigrants, and their outsider-insider perspective became crucial to building anthropology as an academic discipline. Anthropologists have done fieldwork all over the world and there are now trained anthropologists in every country. But there have also been strong nationalistic traditions in anthropology and Euro-American anthropology has been dominant. Anthropologist Andre Gingrich writes that anthropology is now “going through a unique process of transitions,” but “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.”
Similarly, in a presidential address titled Who Are We? Qui Sommes-Nous?, outgoing American Anthropological Association president Virginia Dominguez challenged the association to take account of its international membership. Dominguez moved the association to greater acknowledgement and partnership as an international organization.
Anthropology Makes a Difference
More than a subject matter, set of questions, and research techniques, anthropologists aim to make a difference in the world. Anthropologists document both tradition and change. Founding anthropologist Franz Boas wrote in 1938: “My whole outlook upon social life is determined by the question: how can we recognize the shackles that tradition has laid upon us? For when we recognize them, we are also able to break them” (“An Anthropologist’s Credo” in The Nation, 202).
More recently, anthropologist Jeremy Trombley writes of Anthropology and making a difference and The Purpose of Anthropology. Anthropologist Tim Ingold similarly sees an alliance across the disciplines of anthropology, art, and architecture:
The truth is that the propositions of art and architecture, to the extent that they carry force, must be grounded in a profound understanding of the lived world, and conversely that anthropological accounts of the manifold ways in which life is lived would be of no avail if they were not brought to bear on speculative inquiries into what the possibilities for human life might be. Thus art, architecture and anthropology have in common that they observe, describe and propose.
–Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, p.ix
Other recent statements about anthropological purpose include Anthropology is the best major to change your life, which draws on Anthropology and Moral Optimism (see sidebar). What these pieces share is a conviction that observation and analysis goes together with participation and making a difference.
Anthropology Needs You
In Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture, anthropologist Elizabeth Chin writes of how the children she studied with had sophisticated commentaries on race, class, and marginalization, and how discovering these commentaries is “like pinpricks in a large piece of paper: invisible from a distance, but if you put your eye close upon it, you can get a pretty good view of what’s on the other side.” Chin calls these moments “tiny vistas opening onto possibility” and how “taking account of such tiny vistas has long been the work of anthropologists.” But Chin importantly reaches out from there: “Enlarging them is work for all of us” (2001:179).
Anthropologists provide tiny vistas onto other possibilities. Please join us to make those possibilities real.
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