What is Anthropology?

An Anthropology Student’s Response to Familial Interrogation

by Deanna Ikari

Last weekend I went to my aunt’s birthday party. I don’t often go to family gatherings, and as a consequence of my frequent absences, my family – aunts, uncles, cousins, all older – felt entitled to the standardized interrogation regarding my current and future plans, naturally beginning with what I’m studying in school. I told my relatives that I’m majoring in anthropology.

“What’s anthropology?” was, unsurprisingly, the first response.

“Is it the study of bones?” was the second, equally expected query.

Speaking with fellow anthropology classmates, I have found that my family’s ignorance is not atypical. It is from a desire to alleviate this ignorance, perhaps an anthropological pursuit in itself that this article stems.

Anthropology as defined by American anthropologist Franz Boas, consists of four main subfields: archaeology, physical anthropology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology. Archaeology concerns the material remains of human cultures. Physical anthropology or biological anthropology as it is also known, looks at human evolution and is perhaps the reason for my relative’s question about bones. Linguistics seeks insight into culture by examining language structure, and cultural anthropology, arguably the largest field, takes a holistic view of the myriad of human activities and beliefs subsumed under the heading “culture.”

Cultural anthropology began as a discipline almost exclusively concerned with studying peoples who were then referred to as “primitive” and were largely located in the colonies of European countries. Colonies in Africa, Asia and South Asia and indigenous groups in North America were seen as ideal field sites for participant observation, a characteristic technique of anthropology and the primary means for cultural anthropologists to gather their information. Participant observation involves the anthropologist living among the group being studied. In doing so, he or she participates in activities and observes what is taking place while thinking critically about the interconnections between the various activities.

Many anthropologists have voiced the opinion that by learning about other cultures, we, the anthropological community that was until recently primarily situated in the West, can use our knowledge to critique our own habits and culture. This notion is expressed by Marcus and Fischer in their book, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Perhaps the most famous anthropologist to advocate such practice was Margaret Mead whose work on adolescence in Samoa is entitled Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. Margaret Mead’s ethnography was published at time when the nature versus nurture debate was a major topic of academics, and Mead’s work placed her firmly in the “nature” camp. In Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead explains how Samoan girls experience adolescence as far less antagonistic than Westerners, and consequently that the turbulence of adolescence was not a biological phenomenon but a cultural one. Her findings influenced Benjamin Spock, a well known paediatrician.

In the past, groups residing in the colonies, such as the Ju/’hoansi in the Kalahari Desert were seen as pristine, untouched by Western civilization. For that reason they were considered to be prime candidates for ethnographic research. Today anthropologists take a very different view. Anthropologists now recognize the interconnections that exist between all cultures, and have become especially keen in exploring the effects that colonialism, the practice that initially facilitated their research. Here anthropology can be interdisciplinary, explicating practices that outsiders such as political scientists or aid agencies might not fully comprehend. Consequently, anthropologists are often seen working in tandem with such policy makers in former colonies such as Africa. For example, in South Africa it has been suggested that the spread of HIV/AIDS is related to the relative lack of agency that women possess to refuse sexual advances. A number of anthropologists have explored this relationship and its historical and cultural qualifiers. Their work demonstrates why a simple solution, such as making condoms more readily available, is not in itself sufficient.

Anthropology began as the study of what were then perceived as strange and primitive peoples, and as some have argued, aided and abetted the implementation of colonialism. Since then, anthropology has broadened its horizons of research, and in doing so has encountered and correlated efforts with other disciplines such as sociology and political science. Whether with application to the anthropologist’s country of origin or that of the people being studied, anthropological insight can be used to knowledgeably determine public policy. When my family asked me what anthropology was, my own response was somewhat less than eloquent; my definition was vague at best. Having taken time to carefully consider what exactly I am studying and to what end, I believe in the future I will be much more prepared to answer the inevitable question, “What is anthropology?”