For a 2018 “What is Intro to Anthropology?” class, we read the “What is Anthropology?” chapter in Anthropology: What does it mean to be human? For a 2021 update, see the YouTube lecture on “What is Intro to Anthropology”:
The references below use the 4th edition of Lavenda and Schultz Anthropology: What Does it Mean to be Human?
What is Intro to Anthropology?
Perhaps more than any other established academic discipline, there is less general knowledge of what anthropology is. People sometimes think anthropologists study everything from ants to dinosaur bones. This lack of knowledge can be seen in a short clip from Community (Season 2 Episode 3):
What is anthropology? Seriously does anyone know?
It’s the study of humanity!
Wow. Wow. I thought psychology was a racket.
Indeed, at times anthropology can seem like an overwhelmingly ambitious project. For this class we used the chapter to break the question into several parts.
Part 1: Subject Matter & Orientation
For Lavenda and Schultz, anthropology is “a scholarly discipline that aims to describe in the broadest possible sense what it means to be human” (2018, 5). I used this quote in my own attempt to write a short page on “What is Anthropology?” aimed primarily at outside audiences.
Lavenda and Schultz emphasize that anthropology is holistic. That it is comparative. And studying anthropology involves studying evolution, which simply means change over time. Crucially, they write that “one of anthropology’s most important contributions to the study of human evolution remains the demonstration that biological evolution is not the same thing as cultural evolution” (2018, 6).
Founding Issues of Anthropology
One of the founding issues of anthropology was to compare human similarities or universals with human differences and particularities. In some ways, human universals and similarities–what we seem most to share–are also what make us most different and particular. I’ve posted about this in Human Nature and Anthropology.
Lavenda and Schultz begin with the example of their experiences eating termites. Obviously food and eating are human universals. Yet what seems like tasty food to many humans can be the embodiment of disgust for others. (However, see also Edible Cleveland Does A Beautiful Job Reporting Their Experience With Serving Insects On The Dinner Table for an example of how edible insects may be presented not simply as shock or disgust followed by a relativistic injunction, but as something beautiful and tasty.)
Four Fields (Lavenda and Schultz 2018, 8-14)
Lavenda and Schultz describe anthropology in the United States as emerging from a “four fields” approach:
- Biological Anthropology (8-11) formerly called physical anthropology.
- Cultural Anthropology (11-14) also called Social Anthropology, or Sociocultural Anthropology.
- Linguistic Anthropology (13-14).
- Archaeology (14).
Part 2: Principles & Methods
Lavenda and Schultz stress that anthropology is a field-based discipline (2018, 5). Anthropologists do fieldwork and participant-observation. For sociocultural anthropology, this often produces an ethnography (Lavenda and Schultz 2018, 12).
One of the principles involved in anthropological fieldwork is of “cultural relativism” which Lavenda and Schultz briefly introduce here. This is a tactic which toggles between the familiar and unfamiliar (2018, 5). Or, as the Australian blog-podcast launched in 2017 puts it, anthropology is about The Familiar Strange.
Although some anthropologists conceived their discipline as the study of people, many anthropologists prefer to think of what we do as studying with people (Lavenda and Schultz 2018, 12). James Fernandez in an essay titled Anthropology as a Vocation: Listening to Voices (excerpted in Lavenda and Schultz 2018, 9), discusses anthropology and “conviviality”:
By listening carefully to others’ voices and by trying to give voice to these voices, we act to widen the horizons of human conviviality. If we had not achieved some fellow feeling by being there, by listening carefully and by negotiating in good faith, it would be the more difficult to give voice in a way that would widen the horizons of human conviviality. Be that as it may, the calling to widen horizons and increase human conviviality seems a worthy calling–full of a very human optimism and good sense. Who would resist the proposition that more fellow feeling in the world is better than less, and that to extend the interlocutive in the world is better than to diminish it?
Part 3: Origins & History
It is impossible to understand what anthropologists were doing and the concepts they deployed without discussing colonialism and the dominance of racial explanations. Anthropology emerged as the study of “non-European peoples, who were coming under increasing political and economic domination by expanding European and European American capitalist societies” (Lavenda and Schultz 2018, 8).
Put crudely, anthropology emerged as an academic discipline to explain “Why are they like that?” Two prevalent explanations in the nineteenth century were Racial Determinism and Environmental Determinism. Franz Boas, a founder of US anthropology discovered:
1. No evidence of racial superiority or race determinism. Even human head shape exhibits variation and plasticity.
2. Physical environment is always important, but not causal or determining.
Anthropology Proposed Culture as Explanation
The core of the culture concept:
1. Human behavior is patterned: People become human in a particular way.
2. Those patterns are learned (Lavenda and Schultz 2018, 6).
We are not determined by our biology or genes.
We are not determined by physical environment.
Learning is crucial to human survival. “Human beings are more dependent than any other species on learning for survival” (Lavenda & Schultz 2018:6). This perspective enabled anthropologists to reject hierarchical ethnocentrism. Anthropology also rejects ideas of civilized and primitive. Anthropologists “reject the labels civilized and primitive for the same reason they reject the notion of biological race” (Lavenda and Schultz 2018, 11).
How can anthropology help me?
I saw an interesting blog-post in 2018 titled How an Anthropology Degree Helped Me Become a Better CMO: “In my first anthropology class I learned what it meant to be ethnocentric; which essentially means to view our own culture as superior to others. This had a profound impact on me and has stayed with me some twenty-plus years later.” I am glad we also talked about ethnocentrism in this very first class! This post goes well with the sections on Applied Anthropology, Medical Anthropology, and “The Uses of Anthropology” (Lavenda and Schultz, 15-17).
For a 2020 version of “What is Intro to Anthropology?” see this YouTube lecture accompanying the textbook Through the Lens of Anthropology: