Nature of anthropology

Ronald Kephart (rkephart@OSPREY.UNF.EDU)
Fri, 9 Feb 1996 13:03:48 -0500

Hello everybody,
For what it's worth, what attracted me to anthro in the first place was that it
covered so many of the things I was always interested in: human evolution,
language, different cultures, etc. Although I eventually settled on linguistics
as my subfield, I maintain an abiding interest in the other "sub" fields and I
deeply enjoy teaching "intro to ant" and "culture & society" whenever I can (but
see below). Indeed, thinking abaout the evolution and nature of language makes
it impossible to ignore either the physical side or the "cultural" side.

I for one (I know I'm not totally alone) was sorry to see anthropology drift
away from linguistics. Language is what makes culture possible, and I really
don't think you can fully understand the nature of culture without understanding
the nature of language. I could also go on and on about the application of
linguistic methods to the study of (the rest of) culture, but Maybe I'll save
that for later.

The point is, anthropology is unique precisely because (as one of my professors
once said) we study aspects of humanness that are often studied in other
disciplines (psychology, political science, religious studies, etc.) but, unlike
(usually) these other disciplines we always have in mind the possibility that
we'll need something from another perspective to help us understand what we are
looking at.

As for getting jobs, I guess I did what (too) many of us have to do. I was
hired to teach Spanish in a language and literature department. Because of the
untimely death of a colleague (Lawrence Carpenter, whom some of you may have
known) I now regularly teach an intro to linguistics. In addition, I teach a
Peoples of the Caribbean course and, now and then, I even get to do an
anthropology course. All the courses I teach, even beginning Spanish, are
informed by the anthropological perspective. I think this makes them more
valuable to the students. And it means we can get our message out, even if we
have to do it unofficially.

Finally, I wish we as anthropologists were a little more militant about getting
out to the public what we know. For example, every time I see a talk show about
"race" it crazes me that the "experts" are either psychologists or (worse yet)
lawyers who, as you can tell after 5 minutes, don't have a clue. They accept
the US folk model of "race" unthinkingly and then proceed to draw biological
conclusions from data on sociocultural categories (as was done in The Bell
Curve). Why do we let them get away with this??? For my part, I write letters
to the local paper (the Florida Times-Union) when they say anthropologically
dumb things, like listing Vodoun along with illiteracy and malnutrition as
things Haitians suffer from.

I know this was too long; I hope it was worth it! QRon

Ronald Kephart
Dept of Language & Literature
University of North Florida
Jacksonville, FL USA 32224-2645
Phone: (904) 646-2580