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.