#WhyWeAnth: Answers on World Anthropology Day 2018

One of the great debates in Anthropology is whether humans have agency – do we choose to do what we do? Or is our every thought and action simply a response to societal norms and pressures (that neuroscientists might further write off as pre-conscious and pre-programmed)? It’s called the structure vs agency debate, and if you’re not familiar with it then you may want to go and have your mind blown here or here. But in the meantime, just for this post, we’ve decided to assume that humans DO have agency (at least insofar as they feel it). So we’ve asked a community of excellent humans from across the web a simple question, in honour of Anthropology Day 2018: “Why do YOU anth?”

Here’s what they told us.

Anthropology lets the world be as messy as it IS.

Let’s face it. The world is just not as clear-cut as we’d sometimes like it to be. And while the positivists slave away trying to depict the world through nice, neat numbers, anthropologists know that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun” (Clifford Geertz), and it doesn’t get much stickier than a metaphorical web of individual and societal significance! So one of the top things we love about anthropology is its commitment to depicting the world as the hot mess we all know it is:

“Why do anthropology? Because it’s the only discipline that takes in the full breadth of human experience while asking us to consider ourselves not through the lens of certainty, but the realm of doubt.” (Simon Theobald, PhD Candidate in Anthropology at ANU, via Facebook)

“Anthropology doesn’t shy away from the messiness of society. Rather, it actively embraces and seeks to unpack it, on the ground, and from the cultural perspective of within rather than outside. That’s why I do anthropology.” (Kirsty Wissing, PhD Candidate in Anthropology at ANU, via Facebook)

It helps make the world a better place

Anthropologist Sally Engle Merry (2005) argues that the boundaries between anthropology and activism are porous at best, and anecdotally it would certainly seem that many of us enter anthropology because we see so much wrong with the world and are hoping this discipline will give us the tools to make positive change. Not everyone will agree with that motivation, and that’s okay too (for a fascinating debate about the pros and cons of activist anthropology, check out this reddit thread) because differences of opinion and intellectual debate are the cornerstones of academia! But for many anthropologists, anthropology is a way to try to do some good in the world, in our communities, and with and for our participants:

It gives us tools to think with

Full disclosure – this is part of the mission statement for The Familiar Strange! We’ve always thought that the best thing about anthropology is the way it teaches you to think differently. The way it teaches you to see things that non-anthropologists sometimes don’t see. We’d all had experiences of talking to non-anthy friends and making a comment from an anthropological perspective, like ‘race is a social construct’ or ‘all science is biased’ and having those friends look at us like…

mind blown

And we thought, huh, maybe this stuff is not as commonly understood as we thought. Maybe there’s something here that others could use to unpack the disaster that is Trump weird world we’re living in right now.

“I find anthropology exciting because it shakes me up; it doesn’t let me get too comfortable in the world. I remember one of my teachers said at some point: “anthropology is dangerous”. He wasn’t referring to doing fieldwork in some faraway place, with malaria infested mosquitos, although that’s dangerous too I’m sure. I think he was thinking more about the anthropological imagination, which can change the way we see the world: now that, for some, can be really unsettling.”  (Dr Assa Doron, Associate Professor of Anthropology & South Asia at the Australian National University, via email).

 (Translation from Catalan to English: “I’ve already said a lot on this: studying Anthropology has been the only certain decision I’ve made in recent years. I needed to understand others to understand myself”.)

What do I want to highlight about anthropology, that eclectic thing we call home? Caroline Humphrey said somewhere she got a new angle of vision in a class she took long ago in Russia, where Malinowski was recognized as having done something worth talking about, but was presented as a bourgeois anthropologist. (Maybe that epithet was meant to apply to the whole field).

Eric Wolf observed that he took notice of more than just `individuals’ when, at age 17 and recently arrived at an ‘Alien Detention Centre’ in Liverpool where all refugees of his ilk had to be interned, he listened to Norbert Elias talking on networks of social relationships.

Or myself, as a young child, when my parents, who were friendly with an Archuleta family at Taos Pueblo, occasionally left me there for weekends to work things out for myself with them.  I could multiply examples. But what I think is most interesting about anthropology includes taking account of things from new angles, its comparativism, its groundedness, and not only the challenge to received ideas, but the further challenge to acknowledge and grapple with the problems that those received ideas present. (Professor Francesca Merlan, Anthropologist at the Australian National University, via email).

It’s the BEST discipline for exploring both differences and commonalities

This is a bit of a contentious one, right? We know that the early anthropologists dwelled in alterity, exoticising ‘the other’, either to show (and perhaps marvel over) “the other’s” inferiorities, as Edward Said claimed in Orientalismand/or to seek themselves in “the other” in order to perform “a harsh purification” of themselves, as Susan Sontag put it. More contemporary anthropology, on the other hand, has been accused of naively universalising all peoples as an anathema to these early accusations (see Johannes Fabian’s ‘The Other Revisited” for an interesting discussion of this).

There is, of course, a middle ground, perhaps described best by Clifford Geertz when he said that ‘understanding a people’s culture exposes their normalness without reducing their particularity.’ Respondents to our question seemed to agree that, rather than today’s anthropology trying to claim an exotic other OR claim universal human truths, it had the capacity for nuance, and for seeing nuance, in what gives us a common sense of humanity:

“I love anthropology because it treats all humans as inherently interesting. My family didn’t move around when I was a kid–I basically grew up in the same house for the first eighteen years of my life, and then went to university nearby. Maybe because my life was somewhat static, I was always thinking: there’s an incredible world out there, which is very different from New Jersey, and I want to see as much of it as I can.

When I got to uni, I was amazed to learn that there was this whole discipline, anthropology, devoted to taking people–all people, people radically different from you and me–seriously.” (Dr Matt Tomlinson, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Australian National University, via email).

“Anthropology is crucial in our attempts to come to terms with a globalised world and in building more tolerant societies. It shows us that almost unimaginably different lives from our own are meaningful and valuable too, that a different world is possible, and that even people who seem to be very different from you and I are, ultimately, like ourselves.” (Justine Chambers, PhD candidate in Anthropology at ANU, via Facebook.)

But while anthropology has immense power to unsettle established societal structures such as racism and cultural divisiveness, it can only do that via its absolute commitment to empirical inquiry, as Dr Neil MacLean, Editorial Member of Australian Anthropology journal Oceania pointed out:

“…We have a strong ethical foundation in the critique of racism, and this remains a powerful idea built into our contested core concept, culture. However these claims are only as good as the empirical foundation on which they are built, and the forms of empirical inquiry that they motivate. The mission of Oceania is the publication of such empirically grounded empirical inquiry. Our mission is also proudly regional. We love the diversity and vitality of Australian and Pacific Island cultures. We believe that any genuinely valuable anthropology has to be bound to a deep appreciation of the people with whom we work.” (Dr Neil MacLean, Oceania Journal, via email.)

It says, ‘You Do You’

One of the things that perhaps sets anthropology apart from other disciplines, and particularly from disciplines that other people mix us up with (*waves to Sociology from across the lunch room…*) is our commitment to an emic, rather than an etic perspective. Emic research can be defined as “phenomena considered from the functional point of view of the ordinary actor in everyday life,” (Erickson 1977, p. 60 – apologies, it’s not open access), although Geertz found that definition a little unfriendly and talked about it more as ‘deep hanging out’ with a view to understanding the answers to your questions from the perspective of your participants. An etic analysis, on the other hand, superimposes the researcher’s worldview onto the data that is collected, in order to try to be more ‘objective’. Yeah, we generally try to avoid doing that.

“Anthropology allows us to understand others on their own terms, by demanding that we pay attention to the ideas and values that they find most important to their lives.” (Benny Tong, PhD Candidate in East Asian Studies at ANU, via Facebook.)

Me (in first year of Ph.D.): I just want to talk to people (children), find out what they think. Just reading about groups of people and then writing about them seems wrong.
Senior Academic: Well, that’s Anthropology.
Me: No it’s not, that’s just talking.
Senior Academic: Yes it is
Me: Oh f*ck.
(Dr Annie McCarthy, Anthropologist at the Australian National University, via Facebook)

But our love is not blind

As discussed above, anthropology has a checkered past, a history that influences its present in multiple ways, and we as anthropologists have a huge, collective responsibility to remember our discipline’s colonial heritage and the damage that we can so easily do because of the power we wield. Some respondents hastened to remind us to love, but love critically, not through rose-coloured glasses:

“I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Anthropology. As a Pacific Islander and African American, I feel little kinship with a discipline predicated on alterity, on becoming experts on “the other.” But I am grateful for the work and care of individual anthropologists, and for the wonderful thing that is ethnography, especially the story-telling and visual varieties.” (Dr Katerina Teaiwa, Associate Professor, School of Culture, History and Language, via email).

They do say that the best way to overcome a fear is to face it head-on, and the key to not repeating the mistakes of the past is to keep confronting them in the present. We love anthropology, we champion anthropology, but that should never mean we forget the harm that anthropology has inflicted and can still inflict. With great power, comes great responsibility (apparently this quote was used during the French Revolution, long before Uncle Ben said it in Spiderman, therefore making it okay to quote in an academic blog post).

Last but not least, we anth because it’s THE BEST JOB IN THE WORLD…

If you’re hoping that having a job you love will mean you’ll never have to do a hard day’s work in your life, well, sorry, anthropology is probably not for you. Anthropology can be HARD. But if you want to have an incredible career that can span multiple fields and industries, if you want to travel, experience different ways of being, strive to be a decent human being AND have your mind blown on a close-to-daily basis, then climb aboard the anthropology train, friend! Because anthropology may well be the best job there is.

Poonatree anth image

“…Studying anthropology is my passion, being a professional anthropologist is my current happiness, but being an anthropologist who can change the world is something that I dream about.”(Poonnatree Jiaviriyaboonya, PhD candidate in Anthropology at ANU, via Facebook)

Image by Poonnatree Jiaviriyaboonya: Telling fortunes in Cambodia.

Ginger Donuts for Breakfast in Sudan

“Why do I anth? So I can have Sudanese ginger coffee and doughnuts on the street in Khartoum every morning.”  (Paul Hayes, PhD candidate in Anthropology at ANU, via email.)

Image by Paul Hayes: Ginger Coffee and Doughnuts for Breakfast in Khartoum, Sudan.

“I have always had a curiosity about how people put in their 24 hours a day so when the opportunity came up to live with people still hunting and gathering in Arnhem Land, that jelled with my enjoyment of being in the bush and so I jumped at registering for a PhD.” (Professor Nicolas Peterson, ANU, via email.)

…although maybe not if you’re motivated by material matters… 😉

Happy Anthropology Day!

So from all of us here at The Familiar Strange, we wish you a very happy #AnthroDay for 2018. Thanks to the American Anthropological Association for organising the event so that we can all join in the fun, and MASSIVE thanks to all you wonderful humans who responded to our question on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and email (and apologies if your missive didn’t make it in – we ran out of word count, but that doesn’t mean you’re not awesome.)

If you’ve been inspired by this blog post to read more about anthropology, check out these other posts, also written for World Anthropology Day!

Did your motivation make it into this post? Anything you want to add? Let us know in the comments 🙂


**Special thanks to ‘friend of the blog’ Justine Chambers for suggesting we do a post like this for Anthropology Day! Where would we be without a supportive community? Justine has written for TFS on the Rohingya crisis. 

[Image by Paul Hayes]

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