Why Anthropology?

Why Anthropology?
Thomas Hylland Eriksen

A generation ago, anthropology was scarcely known outside of academic circles. It was a tiny university subject taught in a few dozen countries, seen by outsiders as esoteric and by insiders as a kind of sacred knowledge guarded by a community of devoted initiates. Anthropologists went about their fi eldwork in remote areas and returned with fascinating, but often arcane analyses of kinship, slash and burn horticulture or warfare among ‘the others’.

With a few spectacular exceptions, the interest in anthropology from the outside world was modest, and its infl uence was usually limited to academic circles. Only very rarely did it play a part in the public life of the anthropologist’s own society. This has changed. Growing numbers of non-academics in the West have discovered that anthropology represents certain fundamental insights concerning the human condition, applicable in many everyday situations at home. Its concepts are being borrowed by other university disciplines and applied to new phenomena, its ideas about the need to see human life from below and from the inside have influenced popular journalism, and student numbers have grown steadily, in some places dramatically. For example, at the University of Oslo, the number of anthropology students grew from about 70 in 1982 to more than 600 a decade later. In many western societies, anthropology and ideas derived from the subject became part of the vocabulary of journalists and policymakers in the 1990s. This is no coincidence. In fact, it can be argued that anthropology is indispensable for understanding the present world, and there is no need to have a strong passion for African kinship or Polynesian gift exchange to appreciate its significance.

There are several reasons why anthropological knowledge can help in making sense of the contemporary world. First, contact between culturally different groups has increased enormously in our time. Long-distance travel has become common, safe and relatively inexpensive. In the nineteenth century, only a small proportion of the western populations travelled to other countries (emigrants excluded), and as late as the 1950s, even fairly affl uent westerners rarely went on holiday abroad. As is well known, this has changed dramatically in recent decades. The fl ows of people who move temporarily between countries have grown and have led to intensifi ed contact: business-people, aid workers and tourists travel from more economically developed countries to less economically developed ones, and labour migrants, refugees and students move in the opposite direction. Many more westerners visit ‘exotic’ places today than a generation ago. In the 1950s, people may have been able to go on a trip to Rome or London once in their lifetime. In the 1980s, people could travel by Interrail to Portugal and Greece, and take similar trips every summer. Young people with similar backgrounds today might go on holiday to the Far East, Latin America and India. The scope of tourism has also been widened and now includes tailormade trips and a broad range of special interest forms including ‘adventure tourism’ and ‘cultural tourism’, where one can go on guided tours to South African townships, Brazilian favelas or Indonesian villages. The fact that ‘cultural tourism’ has become
an important source of income for many communities in the less economically developed world can be seen as an indication of an increased interest in other cultures from the West. It can be a short step from cultural tourism to anthropological studies proper.

At the same time as ‘we’ visit ‘them’ in growing numbers and under new circumstances, the opposite movement also takes place, though not for the same reasons. It is because of the great differences in standards of living and life opportunities between more and less economically developed countries that millions of people from non-western countries have settled in Europe and North America. A generation ago, it might have been necessary for an inhabitant in a western city to travel to the Indian subcontinent in order to savour the fragrances and sounds of subcontinental cuisine and music. Today there are large numbers of Indian restaurants in many western cities, ranging from four-star establishments to inexpensive takeaway holes in the wall. Pieces and fragments of the world’s cultural variation can now be found on the doorstep of westerners. As a result, the curiosity about others has been stimulated, and it has also become necessary for political reasons to understand what cultural variation entails. Current controversies over multicultural issues, such as religious minority rights, the hijab (shawl or headscarf), language instruction in schools and calls for affi rmative action because of ethnic discrimination in the labour market testify to an urgent need to deal sensibly with cultural differences. Second, the world is shrinking in other ways too. Satellite television, cellphone networks and the Internet have created conditions for truly global, instantaneous and friction-free communications. Distance is no longer a decisive hindrance for close contact; new, deterritorialised social networks or even ‘virtual communities’ develop, and at the same time, individuals have a larger palette of information to choose from. Moreover, the economy is also becoming increasingly globally integrated. Transnational companies have grown dramatically in numbers, size and economic importance over the last decades. The capitalist mode of production and monetary economies in general, globally dominant throughout the twentieth century, have become nearly universal. In politics as well, global issues increasingly dominate the agenda. Issues of war and peace, the environment and poverty are all of such a scope, and involve so many transnational linkages, that they cannot be handled satisfactorily by single states alone. AIDS and international terrorism are also transnational problems which can only be understood and addressed through international cooperation. This ever tighter interweaving of formerly relatively separate sociocultural environments can lead to a growing recognition of the fact that we are all in the same boat; that humanity, divided as it is by class, culture, geography and opportunities, is fundamentally one. Third, culture changes rapidly in our day and age, which is felt nearly everywhere in the world. In the West, typical ways of life are being transformed. The stable nuclear family is no longer the only common and socially acceptable way of life. Youth culture and trends in fashion and music change so fast that older people have diffi culties following their twists and turns; food habits are being transformed, leading to greater diversity within many countries, and so on. These and other changes make it necessary to ask questions such as: ‘Who are we really?’, ‘What is our culture, and is it at all meaningful to speak of a “we” that “has” a “culture”?’

‘What do we have in common with the people who used to live here 50 years ago, and what do we have in common with people who live in an entirely different place today?’ ‘Is it still defensible to speak as if we primarily belong to nations, or are other forms of group belonging more important?’ Fourth, recent decades have seen the rise of an unprecedented interest in cultural identity, which is increasingly seen as an asset. Many feel that their local uniqueness is threatened by globalisation, indirect colonialism and other forms of infl uence from the outside, and react by attempting to strengthen or at least preserve what they see as their unique culture. In many cases, minority organisations demand cultural rights on behalf of their constituency; in other cases, the state tries to slow down or prevent processes of change or outside infl uence through legislation. Our era, the period after the fall of the Berlin wall and the disappearance of Soviet-style communism, the time of the Internet and satellite TV, the time of global capitalism, ethnic cleansing and multi-ethnic modernities, has been labelled, among other things, the age of globalisation and the information age. In order to understand this seemingly chaotic, confusing and complex historical period, there is a need for a perspective on humanity which does not take preconceived assumptions about human societies for granted, which is sensitive to both similarities and differences, and which simultaneously approaches the human world from a global and a local angle. The only academic subject which fulfi ls these conditions is anthropology, which studies humans in societies under the most varying circumstances imaginable, yet searches for patterns and similarities, but is fundamentally critical of quick solutions and simple answers to complex questions.

Although the concepts and ideas of anthropology have become widely circulated in recent years, anthropology as such remains little known. It is still widely believed that the aim of anthropology
consists in ‘discovering’ new peoples, in remote locations such as the Amazon or Borneo. Many assume that anthropologists are drawn magnetically towards the most exotic customs and rituals
imaginable, eschewing the commonplace for the spectacular. There are those who believe that anthropologists spend most of their lives travelling the world, with or without khaki suits, intermittently penning dry, learned travelogues. All these notions about anthropology are wrong, although they – like many myths of their kind – contain a kernel of truth.

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