What’s the purpose of anthropology?

Are we to be “custodians” of a body of “cultural knowledge”? Or, rather, a body of knowledge about cultures written from a particular (white, colonial, male…) perspective?

Sure, I find it interesting and worthwhile to learn about the many different ways that people live and survive in a harsh world. And I think we have important stories to tell, as well as some useful insights we can share. But is the purpose of doing all of this ethnographic research simply to add to that pile of “cultural knowledge” so that we can preserve it for future generations and rattle it off in lectures to our students? I don’t know about you, but that’s not the anthropology I am interested in pursuing and building.

When I think about the purpose of anthropology, I always go back to an excellent lecture by Ghassan Hage (who has his own take on the Sahlins post) in which he suggests we are left with a question: “…how can we make a bad relation a good relation?” In other words, how can we work on improving relationships between and among the very different kinds of people who must share the world today? That’s as good a purpose for anthropology as I can come up with, and I think it’s the mode of anthropology that I see many of my colleagues striving for today.

In that sense, what is the role of that body of knowledge that we might love or despise, but with which we are nevertheless burdened and/or blessed? It either helps us on our relational work or it hinders us – maybe sometimes both. It’s stupid to bemoan the fact that graduate students are “ignorant” of something like “matrilineal cross-cousin marriage.” That, in itself, is not something to bemoan, since knowing about those cultural practices is not an end in itself. What would be truly tragic, however, is if anthropology students and their instructors lost an interest in making a better world for all of the people who live those cultural lives today simply to preserve a static body of knowledge. Our task, then, is to understand the legacy of that knowledge, listen to the critiques coming from those who were the subjects of its production, and consider the kinds of relationships we compose and maintain by acting as its uncritical “custodians.”

6 thoughts on “What’s the purpose of anthropology?”

  1. studying a subject (finding out what is the case) might be quite helpful in deciding what one should do going forward but I don’t see any skills in anthropology that I know of (certainly could just be ill informed) that give one some kind of know-how/authority as to the making of such decisions, what class or methodology from yer anthro education would/could supply such answers?

    1. You’ll have to be more specific about what you mean about studying a subject… I see the core of anthropology being ethnographic methods – a set of skills for encountering and engaging with others, buildings rapport, etc. I think those are exactly the skills we need going forward.

      1. well the subject being human doings, isn’t it?
        lots of fields/disciplines teach engagement and rapport (do they have classes in this specifically in anthro?) hell the whole service industry is built on it, but what about ethnography lends itself to a shift from learning about what is happening to deciding what should be happening, from social social science to social engineering?

        1. Haha, so you’re saying I should’ve just gone to school for restaurant management? I would have gotten the same ethnographic skills that I have now? I find that a little insulting, but I know you don’t mean it that way. I don’t know of another discipline whose goal is to teach students how to immerse themselves in another set of cultural relations and practices, work with those people, transform oneself radically to become part of that community (as best one can at least), and use that experience to build connections with others around the world…

          Responding to your other question… I’ve written before about how ethnographic methods can be conceived and used to build relationships not only with others but between different groups of people who wouldn’t necessarily work together otherwise. I’ve made that argument for at least six years now… it may or may not result in a definitive answer to what needs to be done – assuming there are definitive answers to that question – but it’s a necessary first step, right?

          I’m not saying anthropology is uniquely equipped to deal with the world’s problems, nor is it always successful, but I also don’t think it’s worthless either, and I honestly don’t think anyone else has anything more to offer… all we can do is try to find our different ways of trying to work together…

    2. That is, not in terms of dictating “what one should do” in any kind of narrow sense but in terms of working collectively to figure out “what is to be done” more generally

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