In one of our final seminars of undergrad last year, Monica (Minnegal, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UniMelb) turned to the class and asked: so what is the point of anthropology? What is its purpose? The most obvious answers were of course that the discipline allows you to walk in the shoes of others and understand how your world could also be an Other.
But, she said, those answers won’t change the world or put money on the table.
And in amongst all of the jokes along the lines of ‘an Arts degree won’t get you a job’ (untrue), and ’the social sciences are useless’ (who are they to determine the worth of a discipline?), what does anthropology, then, serve to teach you? Imogen has written about where anthropology can take you in a more practical sense, but what is the point of taking it as a major over something more “useful”? It’s an answer you will be constantly searching for throughout your time in the discipline, but to begin to find it, we need to strip anthropology down to its bare bones.
Anthropology and ethnography begin with a concern with sameness and difference; ethnocentrism and relativism; or the Other. This difference becomes the focus of study, yet it is simultaneously also grounded in an awareness of commonality on the basis of a shared humanity (Wardle & y Blasco 2006).
Many argue that anthropology has two main, if not contradictory, aims: to document and valorise the richness and diversity of human ways of life, and to expose, analyse and critique structures of human inequality; they are not always equally balanced (Robbins 2013).
David Graeber (2007), in the conclusion of his ethnography Lost People, analyses the purpose of the anthropology and what he thinks it should achieve. He states that in his writing he tries to emphasise that we do inhabit the same world and sees no issue in subjectivity. To him the “desire to seem objective… has largely been responsible for creating the impression that the people we study are some exotic, alien, and ultimately unknowable Other” (Graeber 2007, p. 381). As an anthropologist and ethnographer, Graeber sees it as his duty to represent the people he studies in such a way that a reader “can recognise them as a human being who they might not know, but they could know” (Graeber 2007, p. 387). Anthropology to Graeber is ultimately a medium (however incomplete), that if utilised well is the best basis on which to build a broader sense of human commonality (Graeber 2007).
Part of determining the discipline’s worth then is on you, as intelligent adults who have come from and participate in a particular experience of this world and are more-likely-than-not just beginning to figure out who you want to be in it. How can anthropology and the skills it teaches you serve you for what you want to achieve in this life?
Anthropology is undeniably entangled with an unethical and dehumanising past that we as a discipline are still trying to navigate and work past. Nevertheless, the skills of anthropology are first and foremost best for working with people from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, and for negotiating and engaging with change and diversity.
How do you use those skills for good?
Well, that’s up to you to figure out.
Graeber, D 2007, Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
Robbins, J 2013, ‘Beyond the suffering subject: toward an anthropology of the good’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological institute, vol. 19, pp. 447-462.
Wardle, H. and y Blasco P.G. 2006, How to Read Ethnography, Routledge, London.
Earl, C 2017, ‘The researcher as cognitive activist and the mutually useful conversation’, Power Education, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 129-144.
Scheper-Hughes, N 1995, ‘The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology’, Current Anthropology, vol. 36, pp. 409–440.
Strang, V 2009, What Anthropologists Do, Berghahn Books, Oxford.