Do anthropologists study everything?

Update: This 2011 post was an attempt to reorient the popular view that was circulating on the anthropology blogosphere that “anthropologists study everything.” I instead argued for anthropology as important and that “anthropology is necessary” using especially the work of Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History. For my most recent attempt at what anthropology is and why it matters, see Why Anthropology?.

Anthropology is Necessary

Anthropologists sometimes like to say anthropology studies anything and everything. Certainly this is part of our disciplinary heritage, celebrated in the 2011 collection of Anthropology Love Letters, and there are some very positive aspects to anthropology’s openness. However, as we think about the future of anthropology, we should be cautious: the idea that anthropology studies everything can be harmful to public presentation. It’s better to concentrate on why anthropology is necessary.

In recent decades, a number of other academic disciplines began competing to “study everything.” They look trendy–they get newspaper features and they sell. But they are trivial and stupid. With the correct critique and an emphasis on anthropological strengths, anthropology can rise above the mess.

This post provides examples from 2011 of people who “study everything,” and reasons why anthropology should dissociate from these approaches, instead emphasizing an “anthropology is necessary” paradigm.

Anthropology is certain market economies did not come from oxytocin

In reply to the blog-post Anthropological responsibilities on bin Laden celebrations, an economist asked if I was excluding anthropology from the “new science,” resulting in an interesting back-and-forth on the Economics and Ethics blog. One example of this “new science”: “Paul Zak, for example, a neuroeconomist, is doing fascinating work identifying how the experience of market interaction releases the same kind of hormone (oxytocin) as does breast feeding.  In both cases oxytocin serves as a bonding agent to create long run trust needed for group success.”

From Zak’s website in 2011: “Dr. Zak’s lab discovered in 2004 that an ancient chemical in our brains, oxytocin, allows us to determine who to trust. This knowledge is being used to understand the basis for modern civilizations and modern economies.”

And from the preface to his edited volume:

The constraint restricts analyses that connect morals and markets to be consistent with evolution and behaviors in closely related species such as apes. . . . The rationale for this approach is to provide convergent evidence that modern market exchange is inconceivable without moral values. Although this idea is not new–scholars from Aristotle to Adam Smith have made related arguments–the revival of this idea and the modern evidence for it is controversial.

The controversy arises from the Marxist residue that invades our daily thought and language… (Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy, 2008:xi)

Zak is correct that the idea is hardly new, although it is somewhat surprising he stops with Adam Smith, as Max Weber would be a much more obvious choice (Weber is mentioned in only one chapter, “The Evolution of Free Enterprise Values” by Richerson and Boyd). Anthropologists have also been talking about morals and markets for years. But I really don’t like where this seems headed: oxytocin is the basis for trust, especially trusting strangers, leading to market transactions and moral markets? And we haven’t understood this because of a “Marxist residue”?

No, if we want to know about how market economies were instituted, we don’t need to know about oxytocin, evolutionary mechanisms, and non-human primates. We need to revisit the Marxist-inspired Eric Wolf and understand the often violent imposition of a market economy, both internally to developing nation-states and externally through colonialism: “Europeans and Americans would never have encountered these supposed bearers of a pristine past if they had not encountered one another, in bloody fact, as Europe reached out to seize the resources and populations of the other continents” (Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History 1982, 18; for more see Eric Wolf – Geography, States, Empires).

Another parallel is Sidney Mintz on sugar. Certainly, as Mintz discusses, there is a human biological taste for sweetness, a taste we share with other primates. But biological predilection does not explain sugar colonies, plantation slavery, and buying sugar by the pound. For that, we need Sweetness and Power.

Of course, it is also hardly a new trend in economics to look for the biological basis or evolutionary mechanism that “explain” our current institutional structures. As archaeologist Michael E. Smith complained, many economists and political scientists prefer to imagine what they think “tribal society and early states were like rather than look at any data from ethnography or archaeology.” Smith is absolutely correct–we now have a whole bunch of people trying to “explain” the market or the state without any recourse to data. It’s great to do research on oxytocin, great to do primatology–but when it comes to understanding markets and the state, bring in ethnography, history and political economy (see also Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism: A Four-Field Manifesto).

Anthropology is sure sex/gender is more than ovulation detection

There is a lot of silly stuff circulating about issues of sex and gender. Kate Clancy should get her salary doubled–in addition to her scientific research, in 2011 she had to

  1. critique a study trying to show women choose sexier clothing during ovulation
  2. dismantle an evolutionary psychology study about “relationship maintenance” featured by John Tierney
  3. add some sense to a study on whether deep voices trigger infidelity jitters in USA Today, and
  4. take to task a so-called study claiming semen is an anti-depressant.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Clancy had time to debunk The Tricky Chemistry of Attraction:

The females given the contraceptive became overall less appealing to the males than before getting the injection, says Christine Drea, a professor in Duke’s evolutionary anthropology department and senior author on the study. The contraceptive erased all the normal information the odor signals conveyed, she says. Though the study would need to be conducted in humans to draw direct conclusions, there are potential parallels to people, Dr. Drea says. Birth control “could be mixing up your own [signals] and others aren’t smelling the real you,” she says.

That’s just embarrassing. I am very grateful for the work Kate Clancy and others have done in public-sphere commentary. But evolutionary psychologists are starting too many brush fires. There are not enough anthropologists to douse them, especially when some of that work gets associated with anthropology.

I miss the 1970s plain talk of Gayle Rubin:

Gender is a socially imposed division of the sexes. It is a product of the social relations of sexuality. Kinship systems rest upon marriage. They therefore transform males and females into “men” and “women,” each an incomplete half which can only find wholeness when united with the other. Men and women are, of course, different. But they are not as different as day and night, earth and sky, yin and yang, life and death. In fact, from the standpoint of nature, men and women are closer to each other than either is to anything else–for instance, mountains, kangaroos, or coconut palms. The idea that mean and women are more different from one another than either is from anything else must come from somewhere other than nature. Furthermore, although there is an average difference between males and females on a variety of traits, the range of variation of those traits shows considerable overlap. . . . The idea that men and women are two mutually exclusive categories must arise out of something other than a nonexistent “natural” opposition. Far from being an expression of natural differences, exclusive gender identity is the suppression of natural similarities. It requires repression: in men, of whatever is the local version of “feminine” traits; in women, of the local definition of “masculine” traits. (The Traffic in Women pp. 179-80)

Again, let’s study hormones, relationships, birth control–but with a feminist analysis to get past these silly “studies.” See also Anthropology, Sex, Gender, Sexuality: Gender is a Social Construction, and for a 2018 re-statement of Rubin’s position, see Gender and Mental health: The need for a wider lens on The Familiar Strange: “As the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby powerfully put it, it would help if we didn’t start by seeing females and males as being from different planets.”

Getting cited by David Brooks does not make a study socially relevant

When I read through studies David Brooks features, such as the 2011 Social Science Palooza II, my usual response is, “who cares?” Some of them seem interesting, but I end up skimming along. It is true Brooks went on a kick to show the social side of human behavior, including his Nice Guys Finish First. But that’s an ancient anthropological point–see the section Evolution and Natural Selection, Anthropologically).

Some readers have shown similar disdain for Brooks in the comments section. I hesitate to endorse the complaint about “what a waste of tax dollars,” as this is the same kind of backlash levied against an anthropologist in the Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa (see blog-post Anthropology, Ambushed). Still, I’m not convinced we should spend money for a study that “gave people sweet-tasting, bitter-tasting and neutral-tasting drinks and then asked them to rate a variety of moral transgressions” (from Social Science Palooza II).

Quick dissertation is not an adequate sample size

In the Economics and Ethics blog-post mentioned above, Jonathan B. Wight did admit a problem with the new science: “There can be deep criticism of the experimental methods used–which in psychology and economics often relies on 20-year old college students in Western countries–making inter-cultural (or inter-generational) comparisons suspect.  Much work will have to be redone to overcome these biases.”

Yes, there is a problem with generalizing those experiments–a point which has also been made by Clancy with regard to the hormonal surveys, and by Greg Downey in We agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD enough? But here’s the deal–anthropology does not have to re-do our work because we did not make such false generalizations and comparisons in the first place. We do our work in context. We also gather data that cannot just be run-as-numbers: just because you have a sample, numbers, and a computer program, does not mean you have data.

Freakonomics went past the Tipping Point to become Outliers

Obviously mixing my pop-academia here, but another downside to the anything-and-everything approach is getting a reputation for flitting about and not really knowing what you are talking about. Superfreakonomics got hilariously panned. And although Gladwell will probably always be on the best-seller list, Maureen Tkacik’s review Gladwell for Dummies is very helpful, calling out “Gladwell’s refusal to engage meaningfully with the world of ideas at all.”

When it was good that anthropology studied everything

In the old days, back when economists just crunched numbers from industrialized nation-states, back when political scientists just studied so-called democracies, back when no one cared about women or gender, the assertion that anthropology studied everything had several positive aspects. We were the people studying the full spectrum of humanity, in and out of markets and states. We studied people no one else cared about, and corrected biases. We emphasized a holistic approach and the inter-relations of biology, language, material culture.

But these days there are lots of people competing to study anything-and-everything, and their trivial output threatens the academic enterprise. Let’s concentrate on doing necessary anthropology.

For an update on how anthropology is necessary, see the YouTube lectures based on Tim Ingold’s Anthropology: Why It Matters:

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Anthropology is Necessary: Anthropologists Don’t Study Everything.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 17 May 2011. Revised 2 June 2021.