Answering the question “what is anthropology?” should be easy enough for someone who has been studying it for the past year. If friends and family ask me to explain what I study, I usually say: “how humans evolved in what way and why they did so”, but it is also much more than that. This essay is not meant to come up with a definitive, let alone simple like the above, explanation of anthropology. Rather, I would like to showcase different approaches anthropology can take to answer big questions of our contemporary world. There are many discussions taking place within anthropology, but I have decided to only discuss a few concepts – anthropology’s colonial past, a bio-social approach to culture, and public anthropology – to show why anthropology matters.
A Look into the Past
Anthropology as an academic discipline first emerged in the nineteenth century and continued to evolve throughout the twentieth century to what is today. In trying to understand why anthropology matters in the contemporary world, we first need to look into the discipline’s history to understand what motivated scholars in the past to produce anthropological knowledge. One of the defining dichotomies then was the paradigm of the self and the ‘other’. Early British anthropological societies dealt with questions of race and slavery – and how to advance the European expansion into Africa. As colonial rule had been established in Africa, anthropology gained in importance. At the turn of the century, Anthropological thought revolved around the administration and rule of colonial subjects; in Britain, the discipline was promoted as being a crucial part of enacting the imperial mission. Ethnographic data and materials, describing and analysing local customs and social organisation, were employed by colonial officers to better control the native population (Stauder 1974). As examples of anthropologists aiding colonial governments in dealing with problems in colonial matters, Stauder (1974) names Evans-Pritchard – whose ethnographical work on the Nuer people was requested, funded, and published by the Government of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan – and Radcliffe-Brown, employing structural-functionalism to understand power relations and institutions of the Bantu peoples in South Africa. In other words, anthropology was a tool to justify and enforce colonial rule.
As many other anthropologists do, Jemima Pierre (2018) looks at the local level, to understand larger contexts. In her research in Ghana, she analyses how a post-colonised space is dealing with ‘racecraft’ and continues to state that those spaces are “invariably racialized”. European ideas of race and in particular ‘blackness’ have affected all modern societies. Through slavery and imperialism, African people were classified as the Other or the ‘savage’, in contrast to the European or ‘civilised’. In Ghana, the imperial conquest is responsible for the self-recognition and perception of others as a particular race. In other words, race is not just a mere social construct, but a constantly changing and evolving set of historical processes (Pierre 2018). This becomes clear in the light of current events, such as the death of George Floyd through police brutality, which sparked a global conversation on institutionalised racism, and the call to actively be anti-racist1. It exemplifies how race evolves, is made and remade through time.
Another discussion related to this is what it means to be an anthropologist today, and how valid it is to go say as a European person into sub-Saharan Africa to conduct field work. As more people around the world have access to education, the idea of ‘native anthropologists’ becomes popular. Within the paradigm of ‘native’ and ‘regular’ anthropologists, Narayan (1993) criticises the assumption that a native anthropologist can represent an unproblematic and authentic insider’s perspective. In the past, Western anthropologists would set out to Other societies to understand and study the natives; Franz Boas argued for participant-observation and to have a selected native “chief informant”, which could provide “unbiased and authentic insights” into the social organisation and culture of the Other. Similarly, a native could be westernised and trained in anthropology to reveal a society from within (Narayan 1993). However, this bears several problems. The assumption that all natives are of one mind and of a general, exchangeable (male) point of view appears ignorant. Through Globalisation ‘multiplex identities’ have emerged, making it impossible to have a true native anthropologist, as they likely would need to undergo training through a (colonialised) higher education system, further constituting their identity through class and education, possibly separating them from the other ‘natives’ (Narayan 1993). While anthropologists conducting fieldwork need to acknowledge their personal background in their writing, we also need to understand that it is impossible to truly give objective, unbiased insights into societies, others and our own.
An Evolutionary Perspective on Culture
While many sociocultural anthropologists are concerned with why there is such an extent and saturation to forms of human life, biological anthropologists are trying to answer how humans are able to create the social realities they are living – or culture – in the first place. Carrithers (1990) argues that sociality gives humans an evolutionary advantage, thus enabling them to create, maintain and manipulate social structures. Sociality consists of a set of abilities and qualities such as language, intentionality, pedagogy, creativity and narrativity. Carrithers continues to state that sociality originally allowed for the transmission of knowledge – giving a selective advantage and being responsible for the sociocultural variability and diversity we find in human societies today. It allowed for an increased division of labour – the foundation of large-scale societies – ultimately leading to the creation of political, economic, and cultural systems and institutions (Carrithers, 1990).
That being said, culture is not a phenomenon unique to humans, but can also be found in other vertebrates, especially the great apes. As our closest evolutionary relatives, they can tell us a lot about our own phylogenetic history. Whiten (2017) argues that culture can be seen as a ‘second inheritance system’, building upon the primary genetic inheritance system. It acts as an extension to biological evolution, allowing for much faster adaptation to novel environments than genetic adaptation could. An example of this are chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus), which have learned to use different hammer materials to crack nuts, complementing their diet during the dry season when their preferred fruit diet is not available. However, this kind of behaviour is not found in all chimpanzee communities and varies significantly in its execution, suggesting that it is a transgenerational transmitted learned behaviour, rather than genetically ingrained (Whiten 2017). Similar to humans social and cultural learning is heavily influenced by other factors within the chimpanzee community such as the social rank of the chimpanzee – or prestige – demonstrating a particular practice (Horner et al. 2010) and the personality of the observing member (Carter et al. 2014). These socially learned behaviours can include foraging, hunting and food processing techniques, use of tools, grooming and customs of sexual reproduction and social life (Whiten 2017). To what extent this can be seen as culture is debatable, but it shows that anthropologists need to take a holistic approach towards subject matters such as culture. Sociocultural and biological anthropology has reached a point where it can give coherent and informed insights into these matters.
Anthropology covers much wider topics which have not been addressed in this essay, such as the relationship of tradition and modernity, and the role of globalisation. This becomes clear in Amita Baviskar’s (2018) ethnographical account of the role of industrial food in India, a country highly divided by religion and caste. She argues that industrial foods – such as Maggi instant noodles – create a ‘consumer citizenship’, as consumption of these cheap and as neutral perceived food items transcend cultural barriers, religion, social class, and caste (Baviskar 2018). This shows one of the primary examples of why anthropology is important. It can tell us something about the real world, and more importantly highlight the various ways human social life and identity can be constituted.
The practical application of this knowledge is widely known as public anthropology. It is the idea that anthropology should not only matter in academic terms, but also as a tool to engage with the world in practical ways. This can be achieved through making anthropological writing accessible to broader audiences and raising awareness about the particular and local (Eriksen 2015; see also Vine 2011). Anthropologists have always engaged with the world they are studying and should continue to do so in order to make anthropology matter.
At the first glance, the addressed issues might not appear to be directly connected, however each of them represents a fracture of what anthropology is and what it can be, though it is a limited account. From its beginnings as a racial and colonial science to tackling issues of modernity, anthropology has remained a practical science recording human variety in all its forms. It needs to remain self-critically of itself and its past. For me, the most important insight I gained by being a student of anthropology is to critically engage with and question the social structures and cultural norms around us and comparing them with the extensive knowledge about other societies provided by the discipline.
1 BBC News. 2020. ‘Pandemic Of Racism’ Led To George Floyd Death. [online] [Accessed 28 June 2020].
- Baviskar, A. 2018. Consumer Citizenship: Instant Noodles in India. Gastronomica, 18(2), pp. 1-10.
- Carrithers, M. 1990. Why Humans Have Cultures. Man, 25(2), p.189.
- Carter, A., Marshall, H., Heinsohn, R. and Cowlishaw, G. 2014. Personality predicts the propensity for social learning in a wild primate. PeerJ, 2, p.e283.
- Eriksen, T. 2015. Small Places, Large Issues. 4th ed. London: Pluto.
- Horner, V., Proctor, D., Bonnie, K., Whiten, A. and de Waal, F. 2010. Prestige Affects Cultural Learning in Chimpanzees. PLoS ONE, 5(5), p.e10625.
- Narayan, K. 1993. How Native Is a “Native” Anthropologist?. American Anthropologist, 95(3), pp. 671-686.
- Pierre, J. 2018. Structure, project, process: anthropology, colonialism, and race in Africa. Journal of Anthropological Sciences, 96, pp. 213-219.
- Stauder, J. 1974. The ‘Relevance’ of Anthropology to Colonialism and Imperialism. Race, 16(1), pp. 29-51.
- Vine, D. 2011. “Public Anthropology” in Its Second Decade: Robert Borofsky’s Center for a Public Anthropology. American Anthropologist, 113(2), pp. 336-339.
- Whiten, A. 2017. A second inheritance system: the extension of biology through culture. Interface Focus, 7(5), p. 20160142.