Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

1.4: Specialization—A Wide Range

  • Page ID
  • In the mid-twentieth century, Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth (1928–2016) challenged the British school’s work on Africa and their position that social systems transcended individual actors. On the contrary, Barth argued that political systems were generated by individual actors seeking to maximize their positions. In his ethnography on the Swat Pathans in northern Pakistan, Barth (1959) was moving away from the functionalist equilibrium analysis toward examinations of processes of change. Others followed suit in their arguments. According to Talal Asad, the notion that individuals strategize to maximize power is a distortion of history. In Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (1973), Asad notes that Barth’s conclusions were accelerated by British colonial practices in India and the northern frontier. Asad’s critique made a critical point: the political system must be seen as part of a wider system that is based on a historical perspective that also includes class as an important variable but does not nullify individual choices. Control is both political and economic. The conversations about Barth’s work were to continue later in the work of Pakistani anthropologist Akbar Ahmed. Anthropology can now be said to be a cosmopolitan dialogue.

    As the number of anthropologists expanded so did the number of specialties, especially in large departments. Indeed the small departments are most likely to teach anthropology from a generalist point of view. While kinship and religion were the major specialties more than half a century ago, we now find professors specialized in fields like tourism, political economics, law, gender, folklore, as well as areas such as the Middle East, for example, or southern Africa, or Mexico (previously Mesoamerica), and so forth. In addition, there are many kinds of anthropology, such as applied and practicing. These specializations are found in dedicated journals for cognitive anthropology, law and politics, and musicology while general reports may be found in the British journal Anthropology Today or in Anthropology News in the United States, and in journals such as American Anthropologist or JRAI, the journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. The following examples give some insight into the general range of questions being addressed.

    Political Economy

    A political economy approach contextualizes the world as an open system, as process not statis. To understand how power works in the world today requires comparison, paying attention to the intersection of power and culture. One example of this approach is found in the work of Ashraf Ghani, whose research focused on the history of power, particularly in Afghanistan, and who later became president of Afghanistan.7 To understand how power works requires attention to disintegration as well as integration, on a local and global levels, which are then compared in terms of process, not essentialized societies. Work in this area has brought radical changes to traditional ethnography. An economic system such as corporate capitalism is treated as a type of economy that may change in particular context, such as contemporary China, in direct contrast to world system theorists who track the distribution of a system across the globe. There are many kinds of capitalism—penny capitalism, regional capitalism, and corporate capitalism. In Worked Over: The Corporate Sabotage of an American Community, for example, Dimitra Doukas (2003) covered dramatic changes in northern New York mill towns in the Mohawk River Valley with the move from regional to corporate or global capitalism. She documented the impact of hit-and-run corporate capitalism on the American workers on whose back American industry was built. Over 100 years, these vibrant industrial centers had become impoverished deindustrialized communities. Earlier still, Anthony F. C. Wallace, in his underappreciated book Rockdale (1978) wrote the story of Rockdale: “An account of the coming of the machines, the making of a new way of life in the mill hamlets, the triumph of evangelical capitalists over socialists and infidels, and the transformation of the workers into Christian soldiers in a cotton-manufacturing district in Pennsylvania in the years before and during the Civil War.”

    Power and Politics

    Continuing examination of power centered on control as the dynamic of power. Laura Nader’s early study, “Controlling Processes” (1997), focused on means of exercising power, a catalyst for analyzing the role of free will in power relations in American society. Examples were taken from the alternative dispute-resolution movement in U.S. law, which diminished the civil justice system in the United States and then went global, the standardization of definitions of beauty, which has spread globally, or the content of museum exhibits, or examining how marketing firms influence teenagers’ perceptions of parental authority. The study of controlling processes enabled readers to understand control as indirect means to power and to recognize the fragility of both culture and its human carriers. In Buddha is Hiding – Refugees, Citizenship, The New America, Aihwa Ong (2003) followed the everyday lives of Cambodian refugees in California as they dealt with American values that contradicted Cambodian values in a story of Cambodian Americans experiencing American citizenship, a bottom up study about the impact of U.S. medical, social welfare, judicial, religious, and economic institutions of citizen making. This ethnography is about Cambodian Americans and about the types of controls operating across American institutions seeking to mold a certain type of citizen and the book is a tour-de-force examination of the reconfiguring of citizenship in a world of wars and movements.

    World events are critical to academic pursuits, and anthropology had successes in World War II because of previous anthropological work in areas that became war zones. The Cold War following World War II also wrought critical changes. The number of anthropologists expanded, as did funding, and access to military technology revolutionized our methodologies in all fields, although differently. For socio-cultural anthropologists, the Cold War raised issues of race, war, genocide, counterinsurgency, and natural resources. We realized that anthropology was not an autonomous pursuit; instead, all of academia was embedded in politics. Anthropologists such as Hugh Gusterson (1996) and Joseph Masco (2006) began to write about nuclear laboratory cultures.8

    During a decade in which nuclear and alternative energy systems have played critical roles in world events, a wide-angled anthropology was a requirement. Anthropology has integrated holism, appreciation of history and the depth of time, and the consequences arising from how language frames thought. The discourse of energy specialists, for example, was rooted in models of growth that assumed an unlimited supply of natural resources and undervalued ecosystems. The idea that energy experts might be part of the problem was novel, as was the idea that energy problems have human dimensions, a theme explored in works such as The Energy Reader (Nader 2010), Cultures of Energy: Power, Practices, and Technologies (Strauss, Rupp and Love 2013), and “Energopolitics and the Anthropology of Energy” (Boyer 2011). All of us were influenced by campus struggles in the 1960 and 1970s over militarism, multi-national capitalism, scientific racism, and the politics of gender. But a larger question remains: What makes people human?

    Subdividing and Specializing

    Expanded funding in the four basic fields and in medical anthropology led to specializations and topical expertise. In socio-cultural anthropology, these include specializations in the law, politics, the economy, religion, ecology, medical issues, art, and education. Anthropologist Eric Wolf (1923–1999) was critical of the tendency to specialize: “We subdivide and subdivide and call it anthropology.”9 The history of anthropology now goes far beyond disciplinary boundaries to include the impact of national policies, militarism, and priorities in funding. Credit goes to David Price, who singlehandedly examined the history of anthropology in its widest context in his book Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War (2008). After all, our nationalities are reflected in the work we do. However, as anthropologists specialized, the concept of culture spread beyond the discipline to sociology, psychology, business schools, law schools, and beyond. Culture as a concept was loose on the streets! We now have cultural sociology, cultural psychology, cultural geography, cultural law. Changes in the field, which included fascination with French philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida and French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, stimulated vigorous critiques. Others used the changes to enrich ethnography. People built on June Nash’s ethnography of a Bolivian tin mine, We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us (1979), which followed industrial mining that came with Spanish conquest, still causing internal problems today since controls continue to operate on Bolivia from beyond its borders. Some call this global development theory.

    Because of all of this intellectual ferment, we now realize that anthropology has much to say about our own lives. Our ethnographies are written about the Shanghai stock market and the invention of derivatives on Wall Street.10 Examinations of law and finance have moved from the earlier intersections of anthropology and law primarily associated with resolution of disputes in small locales to connecting legal knowledge (that is, state-level knowledge) to global financial markets and their legal and regulatory practices in which traders deal with probabilities and legal fictions.11 Also in the vein of banking is the interest in Islamic banking. Though Islam forbids collecting interest, Islamic financial concerns operate in some 70 countries and have assets in the range of $200 billion.12 Studies of the alternative currencies of Islamic banks are part and parcel of law, economics, and finance and the anthropologist’s subject goes beyond the tribe, village, state, and even geographic region. The anthropology of policy worlds is an emerging field that covers the politics of financialization, the rise of audit cultures and their impacts on culture and society, and the spread of diseases such as cholera epidemics.13 In Global Assemblages, Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems (2005), Aihwa Ong and Stephen Collier integrate issues that are globalizing, including concern with ethics. Anthropologists are asking, for example, why some informants waste time with anthropologists and what exactly the collaborative engagement of anthropologists and subjects is in terms of ethics.

    New concerns with dichotomies of nature and culture led to studies of mythologies of menopause in Japan and North America and the pharmaceutical business. Can menopause really be a disease if it happens to all women? Similar questions are asked of aging in India.14 The examination of energy use in culture and society is rapidly expanding along with studies of emerging industrial businesses that use bio-power for commercial and regulatory purposes.15 Thus, anthropologists like Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Loïc Wacquant, are are studying the buying, selling, and theft of human body parts, the significance of the concept of “brain dead,” and who owns the body in books like Commodifying Bodies (2002). Building on ethics and human rights issues are decades of research by Nancy Scheper-Hughes. In Death without Weeping (1992), she addressed violence in everyday life and how violence and even death become normal and routine. She has made her work public by sharing with journalists wherever possible, testifying in court regarding crimes against humanity, and working hand in hand with Israeli colleagues. The work is multi-sited, sometimes conducting research undercover while examining criminal networks and transplant tourism. Though power need not be the central theme for all anthropology, it is critical for understanding central dogmas.

    Audiences for Anthropology

    Our audiences are unpredictable. Anthropologists who speak to a public wider than members of the discipline often have a greater immediate impact outside the discipline than in it. When I began writing and speaking about coercive harmony, interest among anthropologists was slow to develop (for reasons I examine elsewhere) while those who had felt the sting of being coercively harmonized—our public—quickly recognized its power in the workplace with quality circles, with “facilitators” in environmental movements at loggerheads with Clinton-style negotiation, and on Native American reservations when dealing with negotiations over nuclear waste. Grade schools regularly taught harmony ideology dispute-resolution and in global arenas lawyers were up against new international negotiators selling psychology rather than the rule of law.16 And in the 2016 presidential election, the Republican candidate used language that would be considered uncivil under the harmony model but received positive responses from voters.

    If we remain ignorant of debates outside of academia, we will increasingly find ourselves talking mainly to each other, trapped in a diminished space and working in cramped quarters.17 It took an anthropologist, David Graeber, to notice that debt was on the mind of many, especially economically insecure Americans and the young who were in heavy debt for their costs in higher education.18 Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011) was an instant bestseller worldwide. Debt is a problem that affects all societies that employ money. His analysis helps us understand the present economic situation by means of a long-term perspective. In similar critical efforts, Graeber has moved to other issues on people’s minds. In 2001, he published Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value (2001) and more recently he explored political ideologies and exotic practices by self-destructive tribes in The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (2015). Though Graeber is thought of as a specialist in studies of the Occupy Wall Street movement, his initial fieldwork was conducted in Madagascar.

    Some of the most distinguished anthropologists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were effective spokespeople for the demarcation of science from other forms of knowledge such as magic and religion. As represented by Boas and Malinowski, who were trained in physics and mathematics, anthropological work in the late twentieth century was grounded in the ethnographic study of the practice of science, which did not always privilege western science. Modern scientists are crossing paths with indigenous peoples; biologists are side by side with indigenous peoples whose ecological knowledge they covet. Rapid globalization makes considerations of intermingling of knowledge systems inevitable. There is power in juxtaposing how traditional knowledge is produced in very different cultures, such as comparing our own culture with that of the Inuit or with peoples of the Amazon. We study not only Amazonians’ indigenous plants and Pacific marine biology (and their appropriation of that knowledge) but physics and biotechnology laboratories and immunologists as well. Malinowski wrote about magic, science, and religion among the Trobrianders; we (following Leach’s advice) examine magic, science, and religion in national laboratories.


    Emerging ethnographies of science are having as powerful an effect on contemporary anthropology as earlier studies of political economy and colonialism. Comparison of American high-energy physicists with Japanese high-energy physicists or Japanese and American primatologists show that science is not free of culture but, rather, is full of it.19 Meanwhile, anthropologists working in African agriculture have noted the devastating effects of a cultural preference for universal explanations that override ecological particularism and site-specific knowledge.20 It sounds counterintuitive, but “based on measures of energy expended per calorie of food produced, industrial agriculture is the most inefficient form of food production in the history and prehistory of humankind.”21 The principles of a physical model may not be true at all times or in all places since, even in Europe, there are many scientific traditions. When western approaches and technologies are transferred elsewhere, there can be downsides. In Naked Science – Anthropological Inquiry into Boundaries, Power, and Knowledge (1996), Laura Nader discusses the power of western science over other sciences around the world, revealing a cultural framework for understanding “what science is really like.” Ethno-science and techno-science are examined comparatively rather than hierarchically.

    Even the science of race has changed dramatically in the past 50 years. During the post-Civil Rights movement, many scholars and scientists thought of race as nothing more than a social construction. By the twenty-first century, race as a social, legal, and medical category had been explored as a result of the Human Genome Project. Degrees of variation came to be debated. One example is Ian Whitmarsh and David Jones’What’s the Use of Race – Modern Governance and the Biology of Difference (2010), which examines the uses of race in the courtroom, law enforcement, and scientific views in attempts to address human diversity in relation to inequities in health and disease without using race as a basis for discrimination. Matters of race are not settled yet. Forensics, ancestry, testing, and medicine are hopefully innovating pathways to better medical treatments and health outcomes—and simultaneously advancing our conversations about “race” as a useful category.

    Anthropological contributions to science debates can be critical in relocating and rethinking the future of western science traditions for variations exist there as well. The issues relate to the function of western science, its cultural ascendancy, its ethnocentricity, and its universality as they pertain to the charting of more-productive science paradigms.22 As previously mentioned, anthropologists working in African agriculture have observed the devastating effects of a scientific preference for universal explanations that override ecological particularisms and site-specific subsistence knowledge. The assumption that western science functions autonomously is contradicted by findings in archaeology and ethnology, such as the observation that science does not develop independent of the influence of non-scientists. Is the anthropology of science a scientific effort or a humanistic one? Does it matter since “humanistic” and “scientific” are adjectives of convenience that are not mutually exclusive? The notion that people in a particular political context could consciously construct a cultural tradition should be important to the structurally minded, along with conscious linguistic code-switching for those interested in the consequences of differences in school settings.

    Violence and War

    The search for explanations for violence—especially the kind of intercommunal violence seen in places like Rwanda, Northern Ireland, Israel, Sri Lanka, and the former Yugoslavia and now seen throughout the Islamic world in the Middle East—involves the understanding of a holistic ethnography. Does it relate to competition for scarce resources, such as oil in the 2003 U.S. war on Iraq, or to dislocation of colonial legacies as seen in Waziristan in northern Pakistan? How do such forces translate into violence? Some scholars have invoked identity politics as a prerequisite to intercommunal violence, the implication being that it depends on identity formation that contrasts with another group. An alternative approach might be to examine the role of the international arms industry and of regimes that encourage hostilities. What kept Iraq together under Saddam Hussein? In a word, nationalism. When Saddam Hussein was at war with Iran, all Iraqi citizens—Shia, Sunni, Kurdish, and Christian fought together as one Iraqi people. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, American forces used the old colonial technique of divide and conquer by pitting Shia against Sunni. A decade later, we have seen the rise of an Islamic Caliphate (ISIS) waging war on Iraq and Syria. Gillian Tett refers to the peril of expertise as The Silo Effect (2015)—an inability to “connect the dots” as one consequence of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.

    Certainly, no agreement has been reached among anthropologists on issues of violence and aggression, especially between those who stress biological origins of aggressive behavior and those who note that humans are not uniformly aggressive and warlike. Human populations can be peaceful or almost continuously engaged in aggressive encounters. The violence between East and West Germany, for example, is explained not by old antagonisms but by new phenomena—the ideologies associated with the Cold War and the Soviet Union. A nation can change from warlike to peaceful in a remarkably short period. Consider Sweden, which, particularly under Gustavus Adolphus, was the scourge of Europe but now has been largely peaceful for many decades. France under Napoleon was the most feared country in Europe, but a century later, the aggressive position had shifted to Germany. On the other hand, however, humans can also learn to be aggressive, as the record of feuds, raids, tortures, and wars amply testifies. There is no empirical evidence that individuals in warlike nations are genetically more aggressive than individuals in peaceful nations, and the complex institutions of war, which depend on uniquely human organizations, cannot be understood in terms of individual aggression (although conflicts in animal societies can be so understood). Only human animals make war, and only human animals kill themselves.

    The current violence in the Middle East cannot be explained without implicating states and history. Afghanistan was invaded first by the British Empire, then by the Soviets, and by the Americans in 2001. All three stated that they wanted to bring development to the Afghans, a better life. What followed instead was violence continuing to this day in the case of American invasion. Thousands have died and sectarian violence has erupted. The word jihad is commonly used in reference to the Islamic state and is sometimes translated as holy war. Perhaps all of the contemporary wars in the Middle East from Afghanistan to Somalia are holy wars—Islamic, Christian, and Jewish—all monotheistic religions emanating from the Middle East. What we may be experiencing in the early twenty-first century are religious wars posing as secular for Christians and Jews and as jihad holy wars for Muslims.

    It behooves anthropologists to unveil the contemporary scene that has been appropriated by politicians and pundits because the consequences of failing to do so are so great in terms of mass killings and destruction. For some Arabs, Israel is a western beachhead in the Middle East; for some Israelis, it is a return and compensation for the Nazi killings of Jews in World War II. In 2001, President George W. Bush referred to a “crusade” against terrorism. Terrorism is a general word, not specific, but used in carrying out American drone strikes in Waziristan, Somalia, Yemen, and Palestinian Gaza. Explanations such as resource wars have been generally avoided, except in joking that if Iraq grew broccoli instead of having oil we would not have invaded. As comparatists, anthropologists are well-equipped to contribute to the public’s understanding of these issues by connecting the dots.23


    In the 1960s, anthropological research on law and anthropology involved ethnographies of particular peoples such as the Barotse, Tiv, and Arusha in Africa, the Cheyenne in the United States, the Trobrianders in Melanesia, and the Ifugao in the Philippines. The first generation of scholars—Bronislaw Malinowski, Max Gluckman, Paul Bohannan, Philip Gulliver, Karl Llewellyn, and E. Adamson Hoebel—had a local world view. They examined the functions of law, its presence or absence, processes of negotiation, mediation, adjudication, or retaliation. The generation that followed wanted to increase the number of quality ethnographies and local ethnographies such as those on the Zapotec of Oaxaca, Mexico, or the Zinacantan of Chiapas, Mexico, and new locales from Africa to New Guinea and Hawaii.24 Variation was examined within these places but, when teaching anthropology of law in the early years, the central core was ethnography in place.25

    However, as peoples who had been colonized by European powers gained independence, the number of new states worldwide increased rapidly, and those states were incorporating the local people into state law. Attention turned to globalization, the diffusion of legal ideologies such as the rule of law to new states and law and modernization. Research and teaching changed and by the latter part of the twentieth century and particularly after the end of the Cold War, students were eager to learn about the new states, legal imperialism, military law, and legal rights. The war on terror was also on their minds after the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in terms of due process, fairness, and imposition of foreign laws. Thus, teaching law and anthropology in 2016 bore little resemblance to such teachings in the 1960s although documentary films such as Little Injustices (1981) and Losing Knowledge (2012), give students a sense of how much has changed with the loss of local sovereignty. Assigned readings have also changed. One of the favorites is Leach’s Custom, Law, and Terrorist Violence (1977).

    One anthropologist who has tried to analyze the fantasy sources of terror wars is Joseba Zulaika, a Basque anthropologist, author of many books on terrorism. His most recent is Terrorism – the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (2009). Well into his argument about counter-terrorism producing terrorism, Zulaika refers to a medieval component of U.S. policy. He invokes the fear of witches prevalent historically in Europe to understand current counter-terrorism behavior and a premodern type of thinking that denies contrary evidence and sees all as either black or white, as good or evil. Zulaika refers to Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande (1937) to help us understand the belief in the mystical power of some individuals to harm others. Finally, he notes that what was normal and unquestionable in medieval Europe gave way to skepticism.

    Wherever anthropologists have studied witchcraft and witch-hunting, fear is present—fear of sickness, fear of violence.26 In contemporary Africa, according to Elizabeth Colson, witchcraft accusations have increased along with apparently unexplainable HIV deaths.27 Questions of “Why me? Why us?” must be answered. In explaining the fear of “terrorism” in the United States, some have argued that connecting those dots may be a new challenge for anthropologists working in the West. Witch-hunting in more-complex settings require broader contexts than that of pre-literate societies in which witchcraft may be taken for granted. In complex societies such as the United States, beliefs based on irrational or illogical thinking are not accepted as part of being modern, or so it is said.

    Urban Anthropology

    The interest in violence and war might be connected to the growing interest in urban spaces. The proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas has been increasing over the past 200 years, starting, some would say, with the Industrial Revolution. In 1800, only about 3 percent of all humans lived in cities. By 1900, 13 percent lived in urban areas. A mere 80 years later, the proportion had risen to 40 percent, and today it stands at more than 50 percent. The percentages of urban dwellers are highest in highly developed societies. One source suggests that in 1900 the world had only 16 cities with more than a million inhabitants, while by 2015, the number had grown to over 300 such cities and still increasing. New cities are being built as in Brasília.28 Thus, it is not surprising that there has been comparable growth in urban anthropology. A stunning find in urban archaeology is that of Cahokia, a city of 83 hectares at the convergence of the Missouri, Mississippi, and Illinois rivers, a city once occupied by some 20,000 people, larger in the eleventh and twelfth centuries than London and Paris.29

    Urban anthropology has both theoretical and applied dimensions and the topics range from immigration, poverty, class, ethnicity, drugs, and urban violence and investigates societies in Canada, the United States, Africa, Brazil and other locales. The work is comparative as well as deeply ethnographic and documents the bringing of rural customs to cities and urban traits to rural areas. For instance, Erik Harms’ Saigon’s Edge—On the Margins of Ho Chi Min City (2011) shows how people live in zones of urban-rural divides in the wasteland of urban industrial expansion, between worlds and transformations linked to global markets. Los Angeles has the largest Samoan immigrant population anywhere outside of the Pacific region. Different customs influence questions of law, such as individuals who commit crimes when In Search of Respect, the title of an ethnography of crack dealers in Harlem, New York, by Philippe Bourgois (1995). Gangs and gang violence make headlines and inspire applied anthropologists, as do new interests in drug and sex trafficking and widespread stress caused by debt and inequalities.

    Health and Medicine

    As the reader can see, all behaviors, institutions, and ideas related to human populations are of interest. For example, all societies construct beliefs about the causes of illnesses and systems for preserving health. The sub-specialty of medical anthropology includes anthropologists from all sub fields. In many areas of the world colonialism, warfare, diseases, and changes in diet contribute to health problems. Hunter-gatherer societies have been relatively isolated from other groups and have not suffered from the epidemics of infectious diseases that have affected agrarian and urban societies, especially in this age of widespread travel. The spread of malaria, for example, has been linked to population growth and changes associated with food production. Obesity and diabetes have spread with economic development and globalization, and diseases such as HIV infections appear more in Africa than in other parts of the world.30 Cultural factors enter as HIV spreads more often among men who are circumcised than those who are not. Then there are emotional diseases such as susto, an illness caused by anxiety or fright, or widespread stress caused by debt and inequalities. Underlying explanations of human behavior are based on unstated assumptions.