Anthropology's insight

Ronald Kephart (rkephart@OSPREY.UNF.EDU)
Mon, 22 Apr 1996 12:39:44 -0400

Dwight Read asks: "Is anthropology, as a science, without insight on
what are very real issues in our society, where the issues relate
to topics that are part and parcel of what anthropology has
traditionally studied?"

I for one strongly believe that anthropology is NOT without insight into our
very real problems. The problem is that not enough of us take the time to turn
our attention to those problems. Also, I think it is a dirty shame that, in not
commenting on our modern problems, we leave the field wide open to
psychologists, lawyers, talk show hosts, politicians, etc. to analyze and
prescribe for the the ills that beset us.

For example, there's the recent "discovery" that it takes a village to raise a
child (say, wouldn't that make a good book title??). Haven't we known that ever
since we began participant observation among small-scale cultures? The
"discovery" that good day-care, along with reasonably decent parenting, produces
healthy children should not surprise US; we've seen it in practice all over the
globe. It only surprises everybody else because they have been brain-washed
into believing that parents are the only important and valid influence on
children (linguists know that in terms of language development, peers and
children slightly older are always more influential that parents).

Let me stick to what I know best. Shirley Brice Heath (Ways with Words) was
able to tease out ethnic differences in the kinds of questioning children are
enculturated into in the Peidmont region of the US southeast. She was then able
to apply these anthropological insights to the very real problem facing Black
children in that area: that the type of questioning style Black children
acquired did not match the school (White) questioning style, and that therefore
Black children tuned out because they thought the teachers were trying to
ridicule or trick them with questions like "what color is this piece of chalk?"
which the teachers already knew the answer to. (I know that sentence is
awkward, but I'm in a hurry.)

The point: yes, no doubt about it, we have insights that are relevant to the
understanding of things going on around us. I am not speculating, nor am I

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