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Anthropology: A Bittersweet Love Story

February 16th, 2011 · 7 Comments · Anthropology

Rex from Savage Minds laid out a St. Valentine’s Day challenge. He asked for love letters to anthropology, in part, as a follow-up to the #aaafail fracas of December last. He notes “there is a strong chance that I’m opening the flood gates for endless cynical, bodice-ripping parodies.” But I’ll play it straight. It just so happens that the topic plays into many of the ongoing conversations I am having with friends and colleagues these days.  So, here it goes in all earnestness…
For me, anthropology is the science charged with explaining the origin and maintenance of human diversity in all its forms. To acheive this end, anthropology must be unapologetically grand in its scope.  How can we explain human diversity without documenting its full extent,  through both time and space, and across cultures? This is the thing that drew me to anthropology, the thing that really made me fall in love with it. The great story of humanity. Our great story.  Where did we come from?  What makes us human? Where does the tapestry of human diversity come from and how is it that we continually manage to resist powerful homogenizing forces and hang on to our diversity? What commonalities transcend local difference to unite all humanity? How is it that civilizations rise and fall?  And what is the fate of humanity?
This vision of anthropology relies on a simultaneous focus on difference and universality — reminiscent of Scott Fitzgerald’s famous take on true intelligence, “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” It isn’t about making hyperbolic claims on flimsy or otherwise highly situated evidence. It is about relentlessly examining the commonplace with an eye to universal, the grand.
As a practitioner who came of age after the worst of the anthropology culture wars was over, what breaks my heart about the current state of our discipline is its smallness.  Anthropology has become substantially less ambitious yet so many practitioners seem utterly satisfied with this state of affairs, in large measure because we fail to engage with other disciplines. We ask trivial questions about absurdly particularistic topics.  We hesitate to make even the most unproblematic generalizations or, worse (?), make absurd generalizations on the most meagre of evidence.  We complexify rather than analyze. We theorize rather than understand. We demonize and pigeonhole our colleagues. We prefer the clever to the correct, a trait that our know-nothing discipline ironically seems to share with our hyper-rationalist colleagues in economics.
I worry for my beloved discipline’s future.  If we continue failing to connect with humanity’s big questions — if we fail to engage a broader community — we are relegated to doing poorly-funded and theoretically unsophisticated biology, literary criticism without any texts, and telling stories that no one outside our immediate circles either believes or even cares about.
For anthropology to thrive, we need to not be afraid to learn the tools that help us answer questions we want answered, rather than simply the ones that are expedient. Better still, we should have the confidence to create our own methods and develop our own theories, rather than perpetually borrowing them from our ostensibly better-endowed cognate disciplines.
One of my great intellectual heroes is Gene Hammel. Gene is an anthropologist who has published in all four subfields of anthropology; an anthropologist who gave talks to statistics departments; an anthropologist who developed new computational tools to analyze kinship and social structure long before any social scientist had a computer on his or her desk. Gene is also an anthropologist who left his anthropology department after 40 years to join a demography department because he could no longer stand the nonense of anthropology.
I wonder if this isn’t also my fate.  Was my infatuation with the immensity of anthropology simply a passionate affair of youth?  Does the mature me move on to a more sane, more stable disciplinary home? It’s a question to which I’ve given no small amount of thought recently…
…But, as I’ve said before, and I imagine I will say again, I really believe that anthropology can play a role in meeting the enormous challenges our species now faces.  Diversity is the foundation of adaptation and adpatation is always local. Understanding how different people in different places and different times solve(d) real problems provides the raw material for finding adaptive solutions to a rapidly changing world. Despite all the rhetoric one hears about living in a global world, the need for multiculturalism, blah, blah, blah, ethnocentrism and imperialist conceit are so pervasive in the contemporary academy that I seriously doubt any other discipline is likely to pick up this particular challenge. So it’s up to anthropology. However, to make this vital contribution, anthropology needs to care about the larger picture of humanity and the planet in which we are enmeshed, and anthropologists need to have the confidence to make their marks. Maintaining love after the first blush of passion has passed takes effort. Whether my discipline/lover and I are up for the joint challenge is an open question, but regardless of the outcome of couples therapy, our early relationships shape who we are and who we can become. At the very least, I will always have this vision of a grand anthropology to help guide whatever I become.

Rex from Savage Minds laid out a St. Valentine’s Day challenge. He asked for love letters to anthropology, in part, as a follow-up to the #aaafail fracas of December last. He notes “there is a strong chance that I’m opening the flood gates for endless cynical, bodice-ripping parodies.” But I’ll play it straight. It just so happens that the topic plays into many of the ongoing conversations I am having with friends and colleagues these days.  So, here it goes in all earnestness…

For me, anthropology is the science charged with explaining the origin and maintenance of human diversity in all its forms. To achieve this end, anthropology must be unapologetically grand in its scope.  How can we explain human diversity without documenting its full extent,  through both time and space, and across cultures? This is the thing that drew me to anthropology, the thing that really made me fall in love with it. The great story of humanity. Our great story.  Where did we come from?  What makes us human? Where does the tapestry of human diversity come from and how is it that we continually manage to resist powerful homogenizing forces and hang on to our diversity? What commonalities transcend local difference to unite all humanity? How is it that civilizations rise and fall?  And what is the fate of humanity?

This vision of anthropology relies on a simultaneous focus on difference and universality — reminiscent of Scott Fitzgerald’s famous take on true intelligence, “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” It isn’t about making hyperbolic claims on flimsy or otherwise highly situated evidence. It is about relentlessly examining the commonplace with an eye to universal, the grand.

As a practitioner who came of age after the worst of the anthropology culture wars was over, what breaks my heart about the current state of our discipline is its smallness.  Anthropology has become substantially less ambitious yet so many practitioners seem utterly satisfied with this state of affairs, in large measure because we fail to engage with other disciplines. We ask trivial questions about absurdly particularistic topics.  We hesitate to make even the most unproblematic generalizations or, worse (?), make preposterous generalizations on the most meagre of evidence.  We complexify rather than analyze. We theorize rather than understand. We demonize and pigeonhole our colleagues. We prefer the clever to the correct, a trait that our know-nothing discipline ironically seems to share with our hyper-rationalist colleagues in economics.

I worry for my beloved discipline’s future.  If we continue failing to connect with humanity’s big questions — if we fail to engage a broader community — we are relegated to doing poorly-funded and theoretically unsophisticated biology, literary criticism without any texts, and telling stories that no one outside our immediate circles either believes or even cares about.

For anthropology to thrive, we need to not be afraid to learn the tools that help us answer questions we want answered, rather than simply the ones that are expedient. Better still, we should have the confidence to create our own methods and develop our own theories, rather than perpetually borrowing them from our ostensibly better-endowed cognate disciplines.

One of my great intellectual heroes is Gene Hammel. Gene is an anthropologist who has published in all four subfields of anthropology; an anthropologist who gave talks to statistics departments; an anthropologist who developed new computational tools to analyze kinship and social structure long before any social scientist had a computer on his or her desk. Gene is also an anthropologist who left his anthropology department after 40 years to join a demography department because he could no longer stand the nonsense of anthropology.

I wonder if this isn’t also my fate.  Was my infatuation with the immensity of anthropology simply a passionate affair of youth?  Does the mature me move on to a more sane, more stable disciplinary home? It’s a question to which I’ve given no small amount of thought recently…

…but, as I’ve said before, and I imagine I will say again, I really believe that anthropology can play a role in meeting the enormous challenges our species now faces.  Diversity is the foundation of adaptation and adaptation is always local. Understanding how different people in different places and different times solve(d) real problems provides the raw material for finding adaptive solutions to a rapidly changing world. Despite all the rhetoric one hears about living in a global world, the need for multiculturalism, blah, blah, blah, ethnocentrism and imperialist conceit are so pervasive in the contemporary academy that I seriously doubt any other discipline is likely to pick up this particular challenge. So it’s up to anthropology. However, to make this vital contribution, anthropology needs to care about the larger picture of humanity and the planet in which we are enmeshed, and anthropologists need to have the confidence to make their marks. Maintaining love after the first blush of passion has passed takes effort. Whether my discipline/lover and I are up for the joint challenge is an open question, but regardless of the outcome of couples therapy, our early relationships shape who we are and who we can become. At the very least, I will always have this vision of a grand anthropology to help guide whatever I become.

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7 Comments so far ↓

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  • Clara B. Jones

    "Understanding how different people in different places in different times solve(d) real problems provides the raw material for finding adaptive solutions to a rapidly changing world."

    Well, not really; understanding adaptation requires demonstration that your phenomena are genetically correlated, that the genetically correlated traits in question vary in a population, and that they lead to differential reproduction, enhancing direct and/or indirect survival and/or reproduction. I was taught in graduate school that it is not a good idea to fall in love with one's work lest one lose objectivity or the capacity to minimize error in one's judgments about one's research questions and results. Perk up; there is much to investigate about the evolution of human behavior, hopefully by viewing this species as one of many in a network of ecosystems and not as a thing apart.

  • jhj1

    Yes, I teach evolution too. You see, humans have this thing called culture. When human ecologists use the term "adaptation," they often (though not always) mean something a bit different than an adaptation by natural selection which requires the 3NS4NS you mention (phenotypic variation, heritability, differential RS based on this variation). Julian Steward coined the term "cultural ecology" to describe the study of adaptive response of culture to environmental stressors. This is the sense of "adaptive" that I was invoking in the post. This sense of adaptation is quite pervasive in the contemporary climate-change literature. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change defines adaptation as "Adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities." Given that a human generation is approximately 27 years, adaptations to rapid environmental changes had better be cultural. We don't have time to wait for natural selection!

    You will note that the process by which such cultural adaptations come about resembles the process by which adaptations are formed by natural selection. There are variations in people's (or even groups') responses to environmental stressors. These variations are transmitted through language, tradition, and active teaching (note that transmission can be vertical, horizontal, and oblique in this case, leading to a potentially much more rapid spread of an advantageous trait). Some responses stick, persist, and increase at the expense of others. Preferably, this differential cultural fitness is based on some rational criteria for success. This is why I see understanding the panoply of human cultural (and, of course, biological) response to environmental stressors so fundamental for the future of our species (and those with whom we share this planet). People come up with real solutions to real local problems when their lives and livelihoods depend on such solutions. I'm guessing these solutions are frequently much better than any that arise from a bunch of affluent politicians who have never faced the real possibility of hunger, the loss of their property or even their children. People can be extraordinarily rational when their decisions really matter.

    Regarding "falling in love with one's work," I agree that one should never be too pleased with one's own theories. This is surely the cause of so much nonsense in science, and anthropology in particular. I am all for productive stupidity and believe quite strongly that, if we really think what we are doing is science, we need to be ready to concede that our hypotheses are wrong when they are not empirically supported. You need to understand the challenge to which this post was a response: why do you love the discipline. This is quite distinct from falling in love with one's own work.

    I also agree that there is much to investigate about human behavior, but I am less sanguine that the politics of anthropology departments will permit these investigations to proceed at the pace that they deserve. That pesky culture thing again...

  • Clara B. Jones

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful and highly informed reply. You have drawn my attention to a number of issues/ideas/features related to human behavior and social organization that I don't think about as often as I should. Your reply, also, motivates me to read your blog on a regular basis.

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