What is Anthropology and Why is it Important?

By
Christina Antoinetta Vasilescu
BSc Anthropology


When you meet a person for the first time, it is common social convention asking about their name, occupation, family, and upbringing. It is only natural because in order to understand that person and who they are today, you need to know their past that has come to define their character. 

The discipline of anthropology is not different in this respect. Fundamentally, it is the holistic study of human socio-cultural as well as biological complexities1, but in order to understand its true nature, it is essential asking how and why it was born in the first place. 

Outlining the entire history of anthropology is however not the objective in this case, but having chosen a very specific topic of interest, I here introduce one of many aspects of this rich discipline. Bringing together both social anthropology as well as material culture, I hereby explore its capacities to demonstrate its importance in a world dominated by human agency and material subjection.

Knowledge, Truth, and Power

In 1940, the English anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard published his famous ethnography on the Nuer of Southern Sudan in which he seeks to discern African political structures. As with other anthropological enquiries during this period, it is a common example of how the discipline was initially utilised by European colonialists to understand ‘the other’ in their pursuit of political control. 

Using a Western tradition of categorising knowledge based on the principle of an ‘absolute truth’, Evans-Pritchard did not only make the false and prejudiced assumption of the Nuer being representative of all African subcultures. He also forced their socio-political practices to fit into his own preconceptions, thus reproducing their culture from his own Western point of view. As such, many early anthropological enquiries were far from flawless, although they have taught us some important lessons that have come to shape the discipline as we know it today. 

The ways in which knowledge is produced and perceived affects the production of truth and hence the subsequent exercise of power itself which was fundamental to the process of imperial domination (Foucault 1980). That is, truth and power are mutually constitutive entities which initiated one of the most important discourses within anthropology. 

Underlining the potential and strength of the discipline, the ambiguous notion of power can be addressed in multiple ways depending on one’s epistemological approach. Since the colonial era, social anthropology has instituted new and various perspectives to the study of humankind one of which is material culture: the study of our material world and its relation to the human being (Buchli 2002b). 

So, how can these two subdisciplines collaborate to expand our conception of how power was produced and utilised by colonialists? What did their political measures entail, where do we identify them in our contemporary world, and why is their legacy continuously important to the discipline itself?

Structuring Structures

In his revolutionary analysis of the Berber house, Bourdieu (1970) famously emphasises domesticity as being subjected to ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu 1977: 72), our individual world view constructed by social experience. His theory had important implications for our understanding of imperial means of control in that he reinterpreted the home as being the spatial and contextual embodiment of social life whose ‘structuring structures’ (Bourdieu 1977: 72) produce and reproduce the individual as well as their culture as a function of inherent social practice. 

Architecture should therefore not be perceived as a physical entity detached from human cognitive space, but rather a social blueprint that mirrors the cultural understandings of social interrelations in a given society (Buchli 2002a). Hence, the built environment is not only a powerful tool of individual introspection (Garvey 2001) – it is also a potential means of political agency in controlling collective mentality (Buchli 1997; Mitchell 1988). 

In his case study of how the colonialists sought to contain and control Egyptian daily life by transforming the material infrastructures, Mitchell (1988) demonstrates this application of ‘disciplinary power’ (Foucault 1980: 549). Even though it did not eventually produce the desired effect, the political programme nonetheless suggests that our homes do not merely serve as extensions of our identity as traditionally perceived. Rather, they are mediums in which our identities are produced and transformed while shaping the very mediums themselves (Garvey 2001). 

As such, this process of co-production is the very manifestation of the symbiotic interdependence of our existence and the surrounding world (Richardson 2003) which underlines our potential vulnerability in case we are unaware of this underestimated power of materiality. That is, by enforcing an alternative way of perceiving space and thus personhood in Egyptian society, the colonialists sought to manipulate and construct a very specific experience of social reality (Mitchell 1988).

This alternative conception of power, extending beyond mere occupation, imposes great implications because power is not merely executed by a physical sovereign entity from which it descends on the subjugated people. It is however articulated and circulated within and beyond society meaning that power, in this instance, is rooted in networks of material coercions from which it ascends (Foucault 1980). In other words, it is about the invasion of epistemological space and the application of disciplinary practice rather than mere intention and appropriation of resources. 

Considering these implicit mechanisms of power, how do we apply the insight extracted from colonial experience to dissect contemporary tendencies of potential social control?

Who — or should I ask what — governs our lives? The various subdisciplines of anthropology may help you realise what structures implicitly entrap you, subjecting you to the production and reproduction of the very mechanisms controlling your being. Photo by Anne-Sophie Ofrim

Cultural Imperialism

Realising that humans are not the only agents in producing and reproducing power relations (Foucault 1989), the synthesis of social anthropology and material and visual culture has shown to be essential in properly examining the ways in which humanity constructs its social realities – especially in terms of agency and political control. That is to say, using a single scientific standing point is unsatisfactory whereas combining the theories and methodologies of multiple subdisciplines enriches and reimburses our conceptions. 

While Foucault (1989) presents power from a holistic point of view – as non-possessive ‘capillary power’ (Foucault 1989: 544) ascending from its extremities – Gell (1992, 1996) on the other hand complements his theory by emphasising the artefactual exertion of ‘efficacy’ (Gell 1992: 44). That is, by virtue of their containment of not only cultural values and beliefs but power itself, objects ‘entrap’ (Gell 1996: 34) humans as a result of their being the very materialisations of agency which extends beyond time and space (Buchli 2002b). This realisation has fundamental implications for our subjective perception of our own contemporary lives dominated by the dispersion of consumerism that has been associated with an actual ‘cultural imperialism’ (Tomlinson 1991). 

Hence, as Gell (1996) underlines, objects are not merely about aesthetics but complex factors of production, distribution, and circulation of power whose multifaceted functions and practicality subject the human being to implicit forces of social, political, and economic agency (Tomlinson 1991). Thus, modern power relations shape our understanding of personhood and transform the cultivation of social interrelations in that they constitute a complex network of intentionalities that are not solely executed through mere human actions – they are likewise contained in practical objects embodying global macro-forces of self-perpetuating consumption (Buchli 2002b). 

Knowing what the material world represents as well as being aware of our own subjection to such global tendencies is a fundamental task that may offer rich proposals as to how humans attend to the world (Mercier 2020). Therefore, anthropology is not only about understanding the human being in light of scientific interest and curiosity. It is also about questioning our realities and helping people realise how they engage with and are affected by the surrounding world, deeming the discipline a powerful means of potential social change.

Disclosing Government

Anthropology is an important discipline in that it opens our minds in terms of our understanding of the surrounding world and our own subjective role within it. With its many subdisciplines and associated methodologies, it is a fundamental aid of discerning our individual as well as global realities upon which we can act to improve conditions of unjust.

By virtue of their efficacy (Gell 1992, 1996), it is essential recognising the structuring structures (Bourdieu 1977) embodied in our material world which seems to impose an indirect power that moulds human behaviours and actions (Bourdieu 1970; Foucault 1989). Such power relations are crucial to identify and acknowledge, but they are only visible if investigated from various epistemological perspectives as demonstrated by the rich body of anthropological knowledge. 

As such, the real threat is not the implicit distribution and circulation of power in itself – it is however our own unconscious reproduction of the very mechanisms underlying it (Foucault 1989; Lévi-Strauss 1965). On that account, the discipline of anthropology, initially born to assist such purpose, has now become an essential means of understanding and addressing indirect social control that might govern our lives.

1 Anthropology. (2020). In Lexico.com dictionary.

Title image: Too much seems to be never enough. Illustration by Christopher Dombres

  1. Bourdieu, P. 1970. The Berber house or the world reversed. Information (International Social Science Council), 9(2), pp. 151-170.
  2. Bourdieu, P. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Buchli, V. 2002a. The Material Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg.
  4. Buchli, V. 2002b. The Material Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg.
  5. Buchli, V. 1997. Khrushchev, Modernism, and the Fight against Petit-bourgeois Consciousness in the Soviet Home. Journal of Design History, 10(2), pp. 161-176.
  6. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940. African Political Systems. London: Oxford University Press.
  7. Foucault, M. 1980. Power, Right, Truth. In: R. E. Goodin and P. Pettit, eds. Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 
  8. Garvey, P. 2001. Organised Disorder: Moving Furniture in Norwegian Homes. In: D. Miller, eds. Home Possessions: The Material Culture Behind Closed Doors. Oxford: Berg.
  9. Gell, A. 1996. Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps. Journal of Material Culture, 1(1), pp. 15–38.
  10. Gell, A. 1992. The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology. In: J. Coote, J. and A. Shelton, eds. Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
  11. Lévi-Strauss, C. 1965. Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books.
  12. Mercier, D. 2020. Looking at Things. In: T. Carroll, A. Walford and S. Walton, eds. Lineages and Advancements in Material Culture Studies: Perspectives from UCL Anthropology. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  13. Mitchell, T. 1988. Colonising Egypt: With a New Preface. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  14. Richardson, M. 1982. Being-in-the-Market versus Being-in-the-Plaza: Material Culture and the Construction of Social Reality in Spanish America. American Ethnologist, 9(2), pp. 421-436.
  15. Tomlinson, J. 1991. Parallax: Re-Visions of Culture and Society. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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