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.”