What is anthropology?

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Tue, 23 Apr 1996 16:11:50 +0900

Here I would like to address Holly Swyer's question, "What is
anthropology, really, and why are we doing it?" To me
anthropology is is part of the great conversation that began
during what German philosopher Karl Jasper's calls "The Axial
Period" in human history: roughly speaking, the 5th-6th
century b.c. when Greek philosophers and Hebrew prophets at
what end of Eurasia, the Buddha in India, and Confucius and
Lao-tzu in China all began to discuss the nature of humanity
and human society in universalistic terms. During the 18th
century the conversation took a fateful turn when enlightent
authors like, say, Montesquieu (in The Persian Letters) began
using the non-European "Other" as literary foil for exposing the
artificiality of the monarchical/church regimes that governed
European societies. At this point it was not unusual for the
"Others" in question to be presented as more, not less, civilized
that their European counterparts. The 19th century saw the
emergence of evolutionary schemes in which European societies
were seen as the pinnacle to which unilinear progress was
tending. Two World Wars, the collapse of European empires, the
rise of the Asia-Pacific Rim and other recent developments have
thoroughly discredited that particular aberration.

What, then, of anthropology? Historically, the discipline is a
product of the 19th century, where the evolutionary views
described above, supported the emergence of scholars who
combined (a) a holistic view of human nature and (b) the
scientific objective of accounting for the fullest possible range of
variation in human custom in time as well as space. Then came
"fieldwork," the attempt to amass the relevant information
through first-hand experience in "exotic" and "primitive" places
that included not only the villages where linguists and cultural
anthropologists worked but also the deserts, jungles and
tundras where archeologists and physical anthropologists
searched for clues to prehistory and human evolution.

At this point, it is useful, I think, to remember a critical fact.
Those who called themselves anthropologists were very few in
number and the world they sought to understand is very large.
Coverage was necessarily thin, and more often than not the
fieldworking anthropologist was, in fact, the only person with
his or her particular scholarly interests to go where noone
similar had ever gone before.

Now things are rather different. At the AAA meetings in
Washington last November, I discovered that there are now at
least 80 anthropologists with Ph.Ds, who have done their
fieldwork in Japan. I don't have a figure in hand, but I suspect
that there are nearly as many of us who make China a regional
specialty. And in both cases, we work in places where the
"native" anthropologists may number more than the foreigners
and are very much part of the scene. There is much that needs
to be done to promote interchange among us, but clearly the day
of the one-and-only expert on a large part of the world is gone

What is, perhaps, even more pressing for us is finding ways to
speak with interest and impact to the numerous other scholars
who also study "our" peoples: specialists in every other social
science and humanity. Our danger is being seen as folks with an
odd taste for exotic trivia, instead of as colleagues who bring
something substantial to discussions of what may be, in strict
reality, global issues indeed.

What, then, of "science" as a model? I refer you to my earlier
remarks on Geertz. To which I will simply add here that the
minimum needed for persuasiveness in dealing with colleagues
in other fields seems to include (1) reference to shared realities--
texts, statistics, artifacts--stuff that allows all parties involved
to agree that we're seeing and (2) shared definitions of sufficient
precision to support logical reasoning. To which I would add--I
am after all in advertising-- (3) good stories and (4) powerful
metaphors. In a world inundated with information (1) and (2)
alone gather more dust than disciples.

John McCreery
April 23, 1996