What is anthropology? Re: another topic please

Rod Hagen (rodhagen@netspace.net.au)
Thu, 16 Feb 1995 11:13:45 +1000

In article <3homk3$8lb@oac4.hsc.uth.tmc.edu>,
sph1099@utsph.sph.uth.tmc.edu wrote:

> This could be a useful or interesting group if people would talk
anthropology and not argue about race and evolution. Let's try something
else, say economic sytems among Meskito indians? Divination and healing
among the Nilotics of Africa?

Well, I'll agree that the discussion of "race" has probably overflowed too
much from other Newsgroups such as alt.discrimination into
sci.anthropology, with too much polemic and not enough "sci." becoming

On the other hand it seems to me that the discussion of "race" is clearly
a matter of some importance in anthropology. Interpretation of "other"
groups of humans, of the culturally established boundaries between "us"
and "them", of the legitimations which different people use in
establishing and maintaining such boundaries, seem to me to be matters at
the very core of the discipline.

Anthropologists probably also have something of an obligation to pursue
such issues a bit further than they have done in recent times, given the
obsession which many of our intellectual ancestors had in providing
pseudo-biological justifications for "white supremacy" in the 19th
century! I am not suggesting that we should plough back into an
examination of physical aspects of race (the biologists have done an ample
job of debunking most of the junk that our forebears trotted out). Rather,
that anthropology has the opportunity, and perhaps, the duty, to provide
its own perspective on socio-cultural aspects of human divisions more
effectively than it has so far done.

I must confess that I am one of those who likes to see anthropology in the
broadest possible terms, the science of humankind, and social anthropology
as the science (or perhaps "study of" - the "ology" has always seemed a
bit dubious to me) of human culture, rather than simply accepting it as a
field circumscribed by questions of methodology, or as a discipline
confining itself to the study of groups such as the "Meskito indians" or
the "Nilotics of Africa" though such issues fall clearly within its
bounds. A "real" anthropology for me incorporates much that passes for
sociology, demography, and psychology (though the latter sub-disciplines
tend to be so heavily western-centric that they often obscure as much as
they reveal).

Perhaps then, a useful starting point for a new thread, is a discussion of
the bounds of the discipline itself. Where does anthropology stop and
start? Why? How much do the bounds which we impose on ourselves limit the
discipline's utility and its ability to come to genuine grips with the
issues that arise within it?

Rod Hagen