What is Anthropology: What It Means to be Human
Anthropology is a search for what it means to be human, a documentation of human life and possibility. Anthropologists ask the big questions about human life. As Rick Salutin writes in August 2013, The hour of anthropology may have struck:
“I keep encountering anthropologists who help more in understanding how the world works today than other experts do, even in their own fields.”
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 & Schultz, Anthropology, 2012:5; see four-field Introduction to Anthropology).
What is Anthropology? Anthropology is Growing
Anthropology is growing! There are more anthropology majors, more anthropology programs, more anthropologists all over the world. The American Anthropological Association just announced the Largest Membership in AAA History and a record-setting paper and panel submission for the 2013 Anthropology Meetings in Chicago. Anthropology job growth is predicted to be faster than average: 21% more anthropology jobs by 2020.
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. It’s been a Great Year for Anthropology despite dire pronouncements.
Anthropology, Science, Holism
Anthropology includes human evolution, primatology, biological aspects of human beings, archaeology, sociocultural approaches, and language. Eric Wolf in 1964 drew on Alfred Kroeber to summon an anthropology that would be “the most scientific of the humanities, the most humanist of sciences” (Anthropology, 88). In the United States, 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?
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 have recently re-integrated anthropological subfields–the August 2013 volume Biosocial Becomings: Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology is an exciting statement advancing anthropology’s holistic approach, and see also the post on Interdisciplinary Anthropology and Biocultural Approaches. Anthropology reaches beyond the dualism of nature and society, of biology and culture, proposing a unique and integrated view of human life as a process: humanity is neither given in the nature of our species nor acquired through culture but forged in the process of life itself.
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. [See the Trouillot Bibliography for a vision of anthropology in the modern world.]
Anthropology’s Future: Transitions to Transnationalism
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, the first point in the plan for the future of the American Anthropological Association is “supporting global scholarly exchange through innovative forms of publication and meetings.” Or, as Ulf Hannerz writes, it is time for Anthropology’s World: Life in a Twenty-First Century Discipline. This is a point Virginia Dominguez raised in her departing speech as president of the American Anthropological Association:
I want to ask–and to have us all ask–what it would mean for the AAA to recognize in full that at least one in five of its members does not live in the United States, and is not joining AAA in order to move to the United States. I want to ask what kind of association AAA would be if we were to embrace the idea that it is no longer de facto really a national association, even if it is headquartered and incorporated in the United States. (Comfort Zones and Their Dangers: Who Are We? Qui Sommes-Nous? 2012:402)
Contemporary anthropologists revitalize anthropology’s core concerns and holistic perspective. This is perhaps best seen in the growing Anthropology Blogosphere, where anthropologists have crossed traditional boundaries and form a network of collaborative interests.
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 Making 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. 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.xi
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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