Re: Anthropology

Richard G. Calo (rgcalo@EDEN.RUTGERS.EDU)
Tue, 23 Apr 1996 17:29:37 EDT

On Monday the 22 I received a private communication from Holly
Swyers. I thought my reply might be pertinent to discussion on the list.

Hi Holly. I'm sorry I couldn't reply before now. Also, I hope you don't mind,
but I'd also like to post the following to the list. You wrote, refering to
my post of April 20:

> At the end of your post, you state:
> "A different procedure might suggest trying to learn about ourselves as a
> means for beginning the dialogue that might lead to learning about others."
> end quote
> As an undergraduate, when I proposed this line of reasoning, I was routinely
> told that 'yes, that might be so, but you'll never get a job in anthopology
> thinking like that.'

The most important stuff: jobs and the line of reasoning that says
'know thyself.' I was told pretty much the same thing-- and it's not so long
ago that I was an undergraduate, also wondering where and how I should
be heading. At the time, though, I listened to my wiser elders, and so I put
away the idea that I should know a little about myself and world before or
concurrently with learning about that of others. And you know what? it
turned out that I didn't learn a thing about others. True, I learned a good
deal about kinship structures and all kinds of other interesting and
'scientifically' demonstrable things. I received an excellent store of
concepts like culture and relativism. I even learned a number of
very good techniques and procedures, or analytic tools, for recording
and handling qualitative data. But it turned out this was only the
precondition (necessary, perhaps, but definitely not sufficient) for
learning about human beings and human groups who often have
radically different ways from one's own. For me, the problem became:
what on earth can I learn about others' ways if I don't know enough
about my own ways to compare and contrast, and even deduce what
may be common-- particularly since the latter is what moves us toward
the 'universals' which are the building blocks of scientific theorizing?
Holistic theory and method showed me what was common between
that society, that society, and that other one over there. So where was
my society? Particularly since, as far as I could tell, all the comparisons
were being made from the initial starting point of 'my' society?

At the moment (since I will almost certainly revise this) I think this
'get to know others' procedure worked fine only on two counts. First,
it worked only so long as the anthropologist strove to remain aloof,
or divorced from the plight of the human beings with whom he or she
came into contact. This is a leftover from the belief in scientific activity
as a dispassionate gathering in of data, and today, it is certainly no
longer tenable, not in the hard sciences, and certainly not in the social
sciences. But second, it could work only on the condition that we thought
we had a fairly homogenous culture back home, a belief which
a) would help elide the differences between the major cultural groups
(I'm thinking of the U.S, primarily), and b) would make it such that we
would not have to address the problem of the variety and coexistence
of cultures at home (not classes, but cultures, each with their own
classes)-- a problem which looms ever larger today.

The difficulty we've encountered in addressing Dwight Read's question
on the two articles may, I think, be taken as a case in point. Had we
encountered this problem in a different society, I'm almost certain we
would have had no end of recommendations to make about it, and
certainly no end of explanations for the why of the situation. As it is,
I don't think anyone on the anthro list so far has tried to give a) a reason
for why the situation in the two articles exists, or b) a recommendation for
handling that situation. The latter may be due to the often ongoing belief
in anthropology as dispassionate recording, or rather, disinvolved
recording-- i.e., we can be participant observers, but we should not be
counsel and guide to parties of those whom we observe. As for the
former, I don't know why it should be the case.

Anyhow, as the climate of our beliefs about how anthropology should
proceed, and where it should be applied, changes, so, I think, will the
type of jobs we can get and create, change. Let me show you one
possibility by quoting something from Susan D. Greenbaum, chair
of the Department of anthropology at the University of South
Florida-- a Department explicitly dedicated to applied anthropology:

"The debate currently raging over curriculum on university campuses
has received such extensive media coverage that the issues risk being
rendered meaningless by overexposure. Buzz words substitute for
definitions or analysis, as constituencies line up around vaguely
articulated political agendas on both ends of the spectrum. The concept
of culture has been expropriated and distorted, and notions about ethnic
differences and the significance of gender are debated in a jargon that
largely obscures understanding. Anthropologists clearly have a role to
play in this debate: the integrity of the discipline, the material interests
of faculty and departments, and larger issues of social peace and justice
in a pluralistic society are all at stake in the outcome.
"A few anthropologists have become involved, but rarely have they
exerted intellectual leadership in framing the debate, especially at the
national level. This role largely has been deferred to vocal scholars in
such unlikely areas as literary criticism, or in departments with implicit
sectarian interests like Women's and African studies. My purpose in
writing this essay is to call on my colleagues in anthropology, especially
those with applied proclivities, to take up the challenge of defining
multiculturalism and its implications....
"....My plea is not, however, for anthropologists to take a political
stand, or to be counted on the 'correct' side of the roster. Rather, I am
urging that we make use of the basic concepts and data of anthropology
to strip away the demagoguery and correct the rampant misuse of terms
like culture and ethnicity, which the legions of our discipline have so
painstakingly devised and refined over the course of many decades.
"It is puzzling that anthropology has not been in the vanguard of this
issue on campus, especially in view of the dramatic growth of applied
anthropology in the past ten years. I think part of the explanation is that
those anthropologists who view the campus as their world tend not to
be applied, and are more likely to remain aloof from the distasteful
squabbles that are the stuff of social change. Avowedly applied
anthropologists are more likely to focus outward, concerning themselves
with problems in inner cities or distressed third world communities."

There are at least two avenues here which would provide not only jobs
for future anthropologists, but a way of overcoming this belief in scientific
'disinterest' which I have often noticed in the field. The first of these,
according to Dr. Greenbaum's article, is to join in the mutlicultural and
other diversity debates at the university (where we do most of our
teaching, and much of our work). As she writes, "University campuses
today are microcosms of the society at large, moreso now than at any
time in their history." The other avenue is definitely to go in the applied
direction-- not only learning about self and others, but helping out where
one can.

In my own work for instance, I have developed a course where I specifically
intern my undergraduate students in service-learning environments for
the duration of the semester. They not only go about the business of
gathering notes and applying concepts learned in class, but are expected
to contribute to the communities within which they are interned. They work
for these communities-- 40 hours over the semester. Some of the sites
this Spring have included the Hyacinth Aids Clinic, a Soup Kitchen, the
Adult Learning Center, Alive With R.A.P.S (an afterschool study center
for teenagers "who are at risk"), and every conceviable type of minority
program, from health, to education, here in the inner city portions of
New Brunswick.

Thus, in its applied aspect, I think there is no reason why anthropology
should not develop a set of structures to bridge the difference between
theory, and the greater society and societies in which it participates.
Such structures-- all of them potential jobs and job sites-- may include
anything from consulting and advising for institutions concerned with
multicultural issues, to working in alliance with government bodies as
translators for those dimensions of communication which exceed the
purely linguistic, to help in educating groups and cultures (at home and
elsewhere) on any issue-- in particular those issues that have to do with
individuals learning to communicate their needs as a first step toward
the fulfillment of those needs. Colonial rule stipulated, "we rule by shutting
them up"; the reverse is, "let's find a common language" (and not, "let them
speak"). I believe the anthropologist is uniquely placed to attempt to
develop such common languages-- both by virtue of education, and by
virtue of whatever makes one want to become an anthropologist.

Holly, you also wrote:

> I am looking into graduate programs, seeking one that will let me "work
> backwards." Is the anthropological community ready to support this way of
> thinking? Or is it too threatening to individuals who have based their
> life's work and reputation on learning through the other instead of
> ourselves?
> Just wondering about your thoughts. Where is anthropology going? And is
> there any good reason to study/practice anthropology (a demon I am still
> wrestling with - no offense intended)?

My only answer to that is-- I don't know if the anthropological community
is ready to support this thinking (though I clearly am). As for its being
threatening, I don't see why it should be, since a good anthropologist
should always be able to broaden his or her field of vision,
especially if it is to include him or herself somewhat in the
traditional 'view from afar'-- after all, the possibility for
broadening the vision is, I believe, built into the foundation
of (cultural) anthropology. And as for there being good reason to
study/practice anthropology, yes, I think today more than ever there is
good reason, both because others matter, and because we matter. And
to make sure we do not elide either others, or ourselves, we need
anthropologists, who are uniquely qualified (I believe) to help all of
us understand, not that value systems and definitions of humanity are
relative, but that we all have value systems and definitions of humanity.
This being the case, the question is what are we going to do about it
without treading upon either self or other?

Hope this helps.