What is Anthropology?

by Beth Penny (Anth 300 2011)

Upon telling people that I study anthropology, I am generally met with one of two responses: either intrigue about the idea of digging up dinosaurs or envy at the possibility of travelling to faraway “exotic” places. These responses embody the commonly held misconceptions about what anthropology really is. Ideas that the discipline has relevance only in shedding light the past, the exotic or the extinct (or the non-human) neglect to realise the discipline’s significance in contemporary Canadian society.

As a most simplistic definition, anthropology is the study of humanity. This subject matter encompasses all aspects of the human experience, everything from social structure to environment, kinship to politics. Though once considered to be the “handmaiden of colonialism”, anthropology has long since rejected this characterization. No longer solely focused on studying “exotic” peoples of foreign lands, anthropologists have expanded the scope of their subject matter to include peoples and cultures closer to home. Anthropological research has played an increasingly pertinent role in issues, policies, and debates in local, everyday society.

Canada is not culturally homogeneous; the idea of a melting pot society has been replaced with renewed interest in maintaining and celebrating cultural differences seen within people comprising one nation. Cultural difference, however, is not found without some degree of conflict. The issues arising from the cultural heterogeneity are where the role of anthropological study gains relevance, particularly with respect to First Nations.

First Nations have been and continue to be at the forefront of anthropological research in Canada, as historically marginalised and displaced peoples. The colonial process disrupted existing cultures, with lingering effects that are still felt today. In our seemingly modern, equal-opportunity society, not a day passes without a news article bringing to light an issue involving First Nations peoples in some respect. This alone should illustrate the still very present division between commingled peoples and cultures.

Anthropology can serve as a much needed cultural translator to open a dialogue and promote mutual understanding between historically distinct cultures. The need for this translation became very apparent in cases such as the Delgamuukw land claims of the 1990s, and persists today. This case saw two cultures at opposition: claiming ownership of the same land through different culturally practiced forms of documentation. The Delgamuukw case was essentially a ruling on validity of tradition and culture; although it was later overturned, that the initial judgement ruled against oral documentation as evidence keenly illustrated cultural miscommunication and marginalisation that continues in the postcolonial era. These are not issues of the past; a simple Google search for news articles on this topic will consistently yield articles that are merely days old.

Land claims cases such as this bring to light some of the tangible effects of an often unrealised cultural divide within what many consider to be a unified Canadian culture. Understanding the historical and cultural processes behind these cases is paramount in resolving these conflicts that have persisted far too long. In working closely with communities, developing relationships, gaining cultural knowledge, and expanding understanding, anthropologists play a key role in preserving cultural diversity and resolving conflict.

Humanity is fluid, constantly changing as the world changes; cultures evolve, politics vary, relationships transform. These changes present anthropologists with an infinite subject for study. Anthropology is not simply focused on the past or the foreign. Carrying out anthropological research at home is of relevance not just to the narrow world of academia but for communities being researched, policy-makers, and the general public. Developing mutual understanding and replacing the dominant colonial voice in favour of an open dialogue can help bridge this outdated but still prevalent cultural gap.