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1.4: Why is Anthropology Important?

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    As we hope you have learned thus far, anthropology is an exciting and multifaceted field of study. Because of its breadth, students who study anthropology go on to work in a wide variety of careers in medicine, museums, field archaeology, historical preservation, education, international business, documentary filmmaking, management, foreign service, law, and many more. Beyond preparing students for a particular career, anthropology helps people develop essential skills that are transferable to many career choices and life paths. Studying anthropology fosters broad knowledge of other cultures, skills in observation and analysis, critical thinking, clear communication, and applied problem-solving. Anthropology encourages us to extend our perspectives beyond familiar social contexts to view things from the perspectives of others. As one former cultural anthropology student observed, “I believe an anthropology course has one basic goal: to eliminate ethnocentrism. A lot of issues we have today (racism, xenophobia, etc.) stem from the toxic idea that people are ‘other’ We must put that idea aside and learn to value different cultures.”[8] This anthropological perspective is an essential skill for nearly any career in today’s globalized world.

    ANTHROPOLOGIST PROFILES

    Some students decide to major in anthropology and even pursue advanced academic degrees in order to become professional anthropologists. We asked three cultural anthropologists – Anthony Kwame Harrison, Bob Myers, and Lynn Kwiatkowski – to describe what drew them to the discipline and to explain how they use anthropological perspectives in their varied research projects. From the study of race in the United States, to health experiences on the island of Dominica, to hunger and gender violence in the Philippines, these anthropologists all demonstrate the endless potential of the discipline.

    Anthony Kwame Harrison, PhD

    Image of Anthony Kwame Harrison, PhD
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Anthony Kwame Harrison, PhD., Cultural Anthropologist, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Photo by Jim Stroup.

    I like to tell a story about how, on the last day of my first year at the University of Massachusetts, while sitting alone in my dorm room waiting to be picked up, I decided to figure out what my major would be. So, I opened the course catalogue—back then it was a physical book—and started going through it alphabetically.

    On days when I am feeling particularly playful, I say that after getting through the A’s, I knew Anthropology was for me. In truth, I also considered Zoology. I was initially drawn to anthropology because of its traditional focus on exoticness and difference. I was born in Ghana, West Africa, where my American father had spent several years working with local artisans at the National Cultural Centre in Kumasi. My family moved to the United States when I was still a baby; and I had witnessed my Asante mother struggle with adapting to certain aspects of life in America. Studying anthropology, then, gave me a reason to learn more about the unusual artwork that filled my childhood home and to connect with a faraway side of my family that I hardly knew anything about.

    Looking through that course catalogue, I didn’t really know what anthropology was but resolved to test-the-waters by taking several classes the following year. As I flourished in these courses—two introductory level classes on cultural anthropology and archeology, a class called “Culture through Film,” and another on “Egalitarian Societies”—I envisioned a possible future as an anthropologist working in rural West Africa on topics like symbolic art and folklore. I never imagined I would earn a Ph.D. researching the mostly middle-class, largely multi-racial, independent hip-hop scene in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    Through my anthropological training, I have made a career exploring how race influences our perceptions of popular music. I have written several pieces on racial identity and hip hop—most notably my 2009 book, Hip Hop Underground: The Integrity and Ethics of Racial Identification. I have also explored how race impacts people’s senses of belonging in various social spaces—for instance, African American participation in downhill skiing or the experiences of underrepresented students at historically white colleges and universities. In all these efforts, my attention is primarily on understanding the complexities, nuances, and significance of race. I use these other topics—music, recreation, and higher education—as avenues through which to explore race’s multiple meanings and unequal consequences.

    Image of Harrison performing as a participant-observing member of the Forest Fires Collective (the hip hop group he founded during his fieldwork.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Harrison performing as a participant-observing member of the Forest Fires Collective (the hip hop group he founded during his fieldwork). Photo courtesy of Kwame Harrison.

    Where a fascination with the exotic initially brought me to anthropology, it is the discipline’s ability to shed light on what many of us see as normal, common, and taken-for-granted that has kept me with it through three degrees (bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D.) and a fifteen-year career as a college professor. I am currently the Gloria D. Smith Professor of Africana Studies at Virginia Tech—a school that, oddly enough, does not have an anthropology program. Being an anthropologist at a major university that doesn’t have an anthropology program, I believe, gives me a unique perspective on the discipline’s key virtues.

    One of the most important things that anthropology does is create a basis for questioning taken-for-granted notions of progress. Does the Gillette Fusion Five Razor, with its five blades, really offer a better shave than the four-bladed Schick Quattro? I cannot say for sure, but as I’ve witnessed the move from twin-blade razors, to Mach 3s, to today (there is even a company offering “the world’s first and only” razor with “seven precision aligned blades)” there appears to be a presumption that more, in this case, razor-blades is better. I’ll admit that the razor-blade example is somewhat crude. Expanding out to the latest model automobile or smartphone, people seem to have a seldom questioned belief in the notion that newer technologies ultimately improve our lives. Anthropology places such ideas within the broader context of human lifeways, or what anthropologists call culture. What are the most crucial elements of human biological and social existence? What additional developments have brought communities the greatest levels of collective satisfaction, effective organization, and sustainability?

    Harrison at work hosting an underground hip hop radio show.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Harrison at work hosting an underground hip hop radio show. Photo by Craig E. Arthur.

    Anthropology has taught me to view the contemporary American lifestyle that I grew up thinking was normal through the wider frame of humanity’s long history. How does our perspective change upon learning that for the vast majority of human history—some say as much as ninety-nine percent of it—people lived a foraging lifestyle (commonly referred to as “hunting and gathering”)? Although I am not calling for a mass return to foraging, when we consider the significant worldwide issues that humans face today—such things as global warming, the threat of nuclear war, accelerating ethnic conflicts, and a world population that has grown from one billion to nearly eight billion over the past two hundred years—we are left with difficult questions about whether 10,000 years of agriculture and a couple hundred years of industrialization have been in humanity’s best long-term interests. All of this is to say that anthropology offers one of the most biting critiques of modernity, which challenges us to slow down and think about whether the new technologies we are constantly being presented with make sense. Similarly, the anthropological concept of ethnocentrism is incredibly useful when paired with different examples of how people define family, recognize leadership, decide what is and is not edible, and the like. To offer just one example, many of my students are surprised to learn that among my (matrilineal) family in Ghana, I have a distinctly different relationship with cousins who are children of my mother’s brother as compared with cousins who are children of her sister.

    Using my own anthropological biography as an illustration, I want to stress that the discipline does not showcase diverse human lifeways to further exoticize those who live differently from us. In contrast, anthropology showcases cultural variation to illustrate the possibilities and potential for human life, and to demonstrate that the way of doing things we know best is neither normal nor necessarily right. It is just one way among a multitude of others. “Everybody does it but we all do it different”; this is culture.

    Bob Myers, PhD, M.P.H.

    Image of Bob Myers
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Bob Myers, Cultural Anthropologist, Alfred University, at a statue honoring the first residents of Resolute, a small 200-person community in Canada. Resolute is the second northernmost permanent community in Canada, located in the Territory of Nunavut, far above the Arctic Circle. Photo courtesy of Bob Myers.

    My undergraduate experience significantly shaped my attitudes about education in general and anthropology in particular. At Davidson College in North Carolina I completed a German major, minored in Biology and took many courses in English Literature. I also spent one year studying abroad at Philipps Universität in Marburg, Germany, and saved some “me time” for hitchhiking and traveling around Europe. This led me to pursue graduate work in anthropology despite the fact that I had taken only one anthropology course in college. While in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I became fascinated with Caribbean history and migration and spent almost two years doing doctoral fieldwork and research on the island of Dominica. After finishing my PhD, I had a one-year post-doc in biostatistics in Chapel Hill before I took my first job at Davidson College where I taught for several years.[9]

    Observations of an impoverished health system in Dominica and family health experiences with dysentery during fieldwork led me toward medical anthropology and public health and so I completed a M.P.H. degree at the Harvard School of Public Health before receiving a Fulbright Fellowship to go to Benin University in southern Nigeria. There, a coup and other circumstances turned my one-year fellowship into a two-year experience/adventure. I probably learned more anthropology in Nigeria than in all of graduate school, including examples of the power of a traditional kingdom and the ways large families enable members to manage in distressing economic conditions. Then I went back to the U.S. and taught for two years at Long Island University before moving to rural Alfred University in western New York, where I now work. Alfred is a diverse university with a world class engineering program, a nationally ranked BFA/MFA program, small business, school psychology, and liberal arts and sciences programs, and no anthropology other than what I’ve been teaching for 32 years. To offset the absence of other anthropologists, colleagues in religious studies and I created a major called Comparative Cultures and later, with colleagues in modern languages, environmental studies, and political science, a Global Studies major, a perfect multi-disciplinary setting for anthropology.

    Anthropology is the broadest, most fundamental of academic subjects and should be at the core of a modern undergraduate education. I’m convinced that an anthropology major is not necessary for our discipline to play a significant role in students’ understanding of the messy, amazingly diverse, interconnected world after graduation. An anthropological perspective is.

    To me, an anthropological perspective combines a comparative (cross-cultural), holistic view with a sense of history and social structure, and asks functional questions like what effect does that have? How does that work? How is this connected to that? An anthropological perspective also draws from many other disciplines to examine patterns, and, of course, requires one to engage with people by talking to them (something that’s become harder than ever for many students). All this contributes to the theme I stress that everything is culturally constructed. Everything! I tell students during the first week of classes that one of my goals is to convince them that much of what they’ve learned about many familiar topics (race, sex and gender, kinship, marriage, languages, religion, evolution, social media, and globalization) is biased, or incomplete. Using an anthropological perspective, there’s no issue which cannot be better understood. Every Friday I encourage my students to “Have an anthropological weekend” and ask them on Monday to describe how this happened. Students’ examples range from describing conversations with international students, exploring the cultural and economic history of tea and coffee, to seeing an evangelical church service in a new light. This encourages students to appreciate that anthropology happens all around them and isn’t something that can only be studied in a faraway society.

    Another goal I have in my teaching is to illustrate that an anthropological view is useful for better coping with the world around us especially in our multi-culture, multi-racial society where ethnic diversity and immigration are politically charged and change is happening at a pace never before experienced. I stress themes of storytelling and interpretation throughout the semester. To this end, in my introductory cultural anthropology course, we view and critically discuss at length several famous films (Nanook of the North, parts of A Kalahari Family, The Nuer, and sometimes Ishi, the Last Yahi, among others), but also Michael Wesch’s Anthropological Introduction to YouTube. One of the most effective writing exercises I give students allows them to examine an essential part of their lives, their cell phones. The assignment “Tell me the story of your relationship with your cell phone” has resulted in some of the best papers I have ever received. Students have described how their personal relationships evolved as their phone types changed; how social media connections reduced isolation by enabling them to find like-minded friends; one described a journey exploring gender, another how the new technology expanded his artistic creativity. I use Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook in different ways including Daniel Miller’s Why We Post studies to show that anthropology isn’t just about the past or the exotic. To illustrate how thoroughly we are globalized, my students do an exercise called “The Global Closet” in which they go through everything in (or near) their closet, reading tags to see where the item was made. Most are surprised at the far-flung origins of what they wear. Yes, anthropology helps to see the familiar in a new light.

    I oftentimes use non-anthropologists’ work in my classes to anchor our discipline in liberal education. At the beginning of each course we read environmental historian William Cronon’s “‘Only Connect’…The Goals of a Liberal Education” (he has a great discussable list—be able to talk to anyone, read widely, think critically, problem solve—at the end) because anthropology is about breadth and making connections (with others, and seeing patterns). We listen to and discuss the late writer David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” commencement address emphasizing empathy and awareness because anthropology fosters these qualities as well. Lots of what we do in class stays with students beyond graduation. For all of these reasons, studying anthropology is the most broadly useful of undergraduate disciplines.

    Lynn Kwiatkowski

    Image of Lynn Kwiatkowski
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Lynn Kwiatkowski, Cultural Anthropologist, Colorado State University, (second from left) celebrating Tết, the Lunar New Year, with a family in their home village in rural, northern Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Lynn Kwiatkowski.

    Living in societies throughout the world, and conducting research with people in diverse cultures, were dreams that began to emerge for me when I was an undergraduate student studying anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in the early 1980s. After graduating from college, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer where I worked in primary health care in an upland community in Ifugao Province of the Philippines. Following my Peace Corps experience, I entered graduate school in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Berkeley and became a cultural anthropologist in the mid-1990s, specializing in medical anthropology.

    While I was a graduate student, I returned to the community in which I lived in Ifugao Province to conduct research for my dissertation which focused on malnutrition, particularly among women and children. I studied ways that hunger experienced by Ifugao people is influenced by gender, ethnic, and class inequality, global and local health and development programs, religious proselytization, political violence, and the state. I lived in Ifugao for almost four years. I resided in a wooden hut with a thatched roof in a small village for much of my stay there, as well as another more modern home, made of galvanized iron. I also periodically lived with a family in the center of a mountain town. I participated in the rich daily lives of farmers, woodcarvers, hospital personnel, government employees, shopkeepers, students, and other groups of people. I conducted interviews and surveys and also shared daily and ritual experiences with people to learn about inadequate access to nutritious food, and social structural sources of this kind of health problem. Participant observation research allows anthropologists to obtain a special kind of knowledge that is rarely acquired through other, more limited research methods. This type of research takes a great amount of time and effort but produces a uniquely deep and contextual type of knowledge. I published an ethnography about my research in Ifugao, titled Struggling with Development: The Politics of Hunger and Gender in the Philippines.

    Influenced by my study of gender power relations surrounding hunger and malnutrition in the Philippines, and also by the political violence I witnessed by the Philippine government and the Communist New People’s Army, I took up a new research project that focuses on gender violence. I am exploring the impacts of this violence on the health and well-being of women and the intersecting global and local sociocultural forces that give meaning to and perpetuate gender violence in Vietnam. To address these issues, I am researching the abuse of women by their husbands, and in some cases their in-laws as well, in northern Vietnam. I also explore the ways in which abused women, and other Vietnamese professionals and government workers, contest this gender violence in Vietnamese communities. In Vietnam, I have had the opportunity to live with a family in a commune in Hanoi, and in nearby provinces. I learned about the deep pain and suffering experienced by abused women, as well as the numerous ways many of these women and their fellow community members have worked to put an end to the violence. Marital sexual violence is an important but understudied form of domestic violence in societies throughout the world, including in Vietnam.

    Image of Lynn Kwiatkowski
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Family members gathered at their home in Ifugao Province, the Philippines.
    Photo courtesy of Lynn Kwiatkowski.

    In recent decades, anthropologists have been reflecting on the significance and relevance of anthropological research. This has included anthropologists who are working in each of anthropology’s four subfields. Some anthropologists have called for greater efforts to share our anthropological findings with the public in order to try to solve significant historical, social, biological, and environmental problems. Examples of these problems include the impacts of climate change on the health and welfare of diverse peoples throughout the globe; and social structural reasons for nutritional problems, as well as cultural meanings people give to them, such as undernutrition, and illnesses related to increasing weights of people in societies globally. I hope my research on wife abuse will contribute to the emergence of a deeper understanding of the social and cultural sources of gender violence in order to end this violence, and greater awareness of its scope and its negative effects on women.

    Through their research, anthropologists contribute unique and important forms of knowledge and information to diverse groups, including local communities, nations, and global social movements, such as feminist, racial, indigenous, environmental, LGBTQ, and other social movements. Cultural anthropologists’ research is unique because it often involves analysis of the intersection of global social, political and economic forces and the everyday experiences of members of a cultural group. The fieldwork and participant observation research methods provide cultural anthropologists the opportunity to live with a group of people for several months or years. They learn about the complexities of people’s lives intimately, including their social relationships, their bodily and emotional experiences, and the powerful institutional forces influencing their lives. Applying the results of our ethnographic research and making our research accessible to our students and the public can make the research of anthropologists useful toward alleviating the problems people face in our society, and in countries globally.

    The particular way that cultural anthropologists do their research is important to our results. Through my research experiences, I have participated in the rich daily lives of farmers, woodcarvers, hospital personnel, government employees, shopkeepers, students, and other groups of people. I conducted interviews and surveys and also shared daily and ritual experiences with people to learn about inadequate access to nutritious food, and social structural sources of this kind of health problem. Participant observation research allows anthropologists to obtain a special kind of knowledge that is rarely acquired through other, more limited research methods. This type of research takes a great amount of time and effort, but produces a uniquely deep and contextual type of knowledge. Ethnographic research can help us to understand the extent of a global problem such as gender violence, the everyday experiences of those facing abuse, and the struggles and accomplishments of people actively working to improve their societies.


    BIBLIOGRAPHY

    Harrison, Anthony Kwame. Hip Hop Underground: The Integrity and Ethics of Racial Identification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009.

    Kwiatkowski, Lynn. Struggling with Development: The Politics of Hunger and Gender in the Philippines. Boulder: Westview Press, 1998.


    NOTES

    1. This quote is taken from a survey of students in an Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course at the Community College of Baltimore County, 2018.

    Adapted From

    "Introduction to Anthropology" by Lara Braff, Grossmont College and Katie Nelson, Inver Hills Community College. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.


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