anthropology will only matter if it evokes a purpose outside of itself

Update 2017: This 2013 post on the “Purpose of Anthropology” has seen renewed attention in 2017. This may be due to people searching for the supposed quote from Ruth Benedict: “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” As Ryan Wheeler details, Benedict never said exactly those words. I’ve left a comment there: “I have always felt that the ‘purpose of anthropology’ quote is more of an encapsulation of Benedict’s last paragraph of Patterns of Culture. You are correct that it shows up more closely in Chrysanthemum, but there it takes on a strange almost nationalist hue.”

I have never been entirely comfortable with Benedict’s quote as a complete encapsulation for the purpose of anthropology. This post was my attempt to spell out the larger “purpose of anthropology” from Trouillot’s Global Transformations.

Purpose of Anthropology

Before teaching the first class of Cultural Anthropology in 2013, I was thinking about the purpose of anthropology, especially sociocultural anthropology. In previous versions of the class I have used Carol Delaney’s Investigating Culture: An Experiential Introduction to Anthropology. Delaney’s book is fun, interesting, and works well since this course occurs after a prerequisite four-field Introduction to Anthropology.

However, as I outlined in Doubling Down on Culture in Anthropology, Delaney never diagnoses the idea of culture. Delaney does not help us navigate a world in which culture is now everywhere.

In 2013 I decided to go directly to the book I’ve been trying to use as a back-text for Cultural Anthropology since 2003. I assigned Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Global Transformations. It was a somewhat insane idea. I am pretty sure that only Gina Athena Ulysse and I are the only ones who assign Trouillot’s book to undergraduates. But Trouillot’s message, if not the text, should be part of our cultural anthropology courses, even at the undergraduate level.





Purpose of Anthropology: Gap between the Here and the Elsewhere

As I was preparing to teach my first class, got a comment on the Living Anthropologically Facebook timeline: “Anthropologists are or were working as spy agencies for military and imperialism around the world. They think that they can speak on behalf of people and their cultures. It is a joke.”

What would Trouillot say?

Anthropology emerged in the nineteenth century as a separate discipline specializing in the occupants of the Savage slot. To put it differently, anthropology as a practice is part of the very geography of imagination that it seeks to understand. Anthropology as a discipline emerges from the projection of the West, from the gap between the Here and the Elsewhere, in ways that no other discipline does. No wonder it has been accused of being an inherent tool of North Atlantic power in ways that no other discipline has been charged, as being a child of both colonialism and imperialism. These charges are deserved only to the extent that many anthropologists have ignored the duality of the West and thus the global inequalities that make their work possible. (Trouillot 2003:2)

Purpose of Anthropology: Question Universal Claims

Yet if the West is a claim to universal legitimacy, it is fair to say at anthropology’s partial discharge that no other discipline has sustained such an explicit questioning of that claim. Thanks in part to anthropology, many humans inside and outside of the North Atlantic now accept the proposition that there may not always be one way for collectivities to do the right thing, that goals and values, truths and practices deemed to be self-evident and therefore universal in one place are not necessarily accepted as such elsewhere. (Trouillot 2003:3)

Which is a good set-up for the first book of the class, Ruth Benedict’s 1934 Patterns of Culture. Benedict’s book is certainly flawed, but the strength of her relativizing mission cannot be underestimated. (For more see Benedict and the Concept of Culture.)

Purpose of Anthropology: Border between Humanities and Social Sciences

2013 was a time when debates between the sciences and the humanities were raging. Steven Pinker had just put out an essay called Science Is Not Your Enemy. But anthropology knew about these tensions long ago. “Because of their discipline’s location at the borders of the institutionalized divide between the humanities and the social sciences, anthropologists have had the leisure to look both ways–and often enough took advantage of this duality. What we need to do today is to systematize the benefits of that doubly ambiguous location at the border between the humanities and the social sciences and between the Here and the Elsewhere” (Trouillot 2003:3).
In this quote there was an intersection with a First Year Seminar I taught on Tim Ingold’s Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description:

The truth is that the propositions of art and architecture, to the extent that they carry force, must be grounded in a profound understanding of the lived world, and conversely that anthropological accounts of the manifold ways in which life is lived would be of no avail if they were not brought to bear on speculative inquiries into what the possibilities for human life might be. Thus art, architecture and anthropology have in common that they observe, describe and propose. (Ingold 2012:xi)

Purpose of Anthropology: Addressing Rise of the Financiers

“In no way can a symbolic analysis of globalization today avoid addressing the rise of the financiers” (Trouillot 2003:3). See the essay series and bibliography posted by Keith Hart and Horacio Ortiz, The anthropology of money and finance: from ethnography to world history. See also Public Anthropology and Bill Gates: We Cannot Abandon Humanity and Rick Salutin’s The hour of anthropology may have struck in The Toronto Star.

Purpose of Anthropology: Dispelling Savage Illusions

2013 featured the hubbub of Napoleon Chagnon’s Noble Savages. Trouillot had urged us to attack the Savage Slot. “Anthropology must adapt to a world where none of us can take refuge in the illusion that we have found the uncontaminated Savage, the bearer of that pristine culture supposedly untouched by its Western alter-ego” (Trouillot 2003:5). (Unfortunately, see my assessment of Anthropology’s Unfinished Revolution for how this message has been diluted in current textbooks.)

Purpose of Anthropology: Relations and Processes, not Essences

There is no stateness to states, no essence to culture, not even a fixed content to specific cultures, let alone a fixed content to the West. We gain greater knowledge of the nation, the state, the tribe, modernity, or globalization itself when we approach them as sets of relations and processes rather than as ahistorical essences. (Trouillot 2003:5)

Here again, another connection to Ingold’s Being Alive. We must see life as process and relation:

[It is my ambition] to replace the end-directed or teleonomic conception of the life-process with a recognition of life’s capacity continually to overtake the destinations that are thrown up in its course. It is of the essence of life that it does not begin here or end there, or connect a point of origin with a final destination, but rather that it keeps on going, finding a way through the myriad of things that form, persist and break up in its currents. (Ingold 2012:3-4)

Ultimately, anthropology will only matter to the populations that we study and to most of our readers if it evokes a purpose outside of itself (Trouillot 2003:5)

On this point, Gina Athena Ulysse did a great 2013 series in the Huffington Post on Why Anthropology Still Matters. Ulysse featured Paul Stoller, Arlene Torres, and Faye Harrison. For 2017 see Anthropology Matters & Anthropology Blogs.

Updates on the Purpose of Anthropology

2016: I wrote this post on the “Purpose of Anthropology” in 2013 when I first decided to adopt Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World as a text for my Cultural Anthropology course. I tried using the book in 2013 and 2014. In 2015 I took a break because it seemed too difficult. However, I immediately missed Trouillot, as I described in my post on How Did Anthropology Begin? In 2016 I returned to use Trouillot as required reading. Please see the Cultural Anthropology 2016 course.


To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2013. “Purpose of Anthropology: Must Evoke a Purpose Outside of Itself.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/purpose-of-anthropology/. First posted 4 September 2013. Revised 15 November 2017.


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  • Helga Vierich

    Thank you Jason, for yet another challenging and thoughtful essay. I myself got very depressed after spending some years working for one of the institutes of the Green Revolution. I wrote about it years later, and, at the risk of taking up too much of your space here, would like to share two points from that paper.

    “… Gradually, a staggering realization burst upon me: the entire collection of scientists I was working with viewed all the indigenous sub-sistence economies within the semi-arid tropics as unsatisfactory and in need of ‘improvement’. This was not so much to improve the diets and overall ability of these farmers to adapt successfully to their environments, as it was so that they could generate numbers to bring up the GDP of the nation state in which they found themselves.

    These kinds of subsistence economies did not ‘grow’ very much in the sense of increasing outputs to the larger market economy … and for most
    economists and policy makers directing ‘development’ efforts, this kind of growth was the prime measure used to evaluate the health of an
    economy.

    What this meant to me, as an anthropologist, was that many of the cultures we have studied were not, generally, admired for being self-sufficient. Rather, they were deplored for being poor, having ‘low life expectancy’, being illiterate, practicing animist beliefs, polygamy, female circumcision, or in-fanticide. I suppose there were even a few sincere
    people who worried about them because they stand no chance of contributing to our understanding of astrophysics.

    Worse than all the soft causes which draw negative attention on the world stage, however, is the terrible indictment of them within the world of economic development: they were not efficient at producing
    commodities for world markets. Nor were they rapidly becoming driven by any desire for western consumer goods and even agricultural innovations. In one village, there were people who recalled the first
    time they had ever seen a donkey cart, and the first bicycles and radios owned in the village were still perceived as a recent event. The acquisition of simple ploughs was very recent indeed, to the point that I found many of these still sitting unused some five years after they had arrived. So why had they been acquired?

    In the case of a farmer wanting to get access to these in Burkina Fasso during this time, he could only get subsidized fertilizers and other inputs (including a plough and a pair of oxen), if he agreed togrow a cash crop – usually cotton.14

    As I learned more, I became convinced that the Green Revolution may have begun as a sincere effort to improve food supplies, but it had also become a tool of globalization, and of commercial interests.15

    Ultimately, these appeared to be aiming at complete control over food production, on this planet, through creating a world-wide dependence on fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides made from gas and oil.

    How paranoid it might sound to say all this out loud! I was deeply shaken by this. …”

    Okay that is one point. Recently I received an email from a former colleague from the institute, the agronomist, Willem Stoop. It turns out that he has spend the intervening years since rout last collaboration developing systems of crop intensification that do NOT require any special improved seeds or other inputs. And it works… yields are 48-102% higher than conventional (green revolution chemical) methods. He is having to fight tooth and claw to get funding and to find support for his students to continue their research.

    In his email to me, recently, when I brought this up again, he said:

    “… Fully agree with you and might even be more radical – – -. I have come to see the CG as a clever (political) tool in support of the commercial agro-industry sector. Food security, poverty alleviation, sustainability, climate change and global warming are just simply window-dressing to hide the true objectives that are economic power / dominance and financial gain. I have been comparing it with the “pyramid game”; the masses just don’t realise that they are being taken for a ride. It is very common everywhere and most noticeable in the financial sector – – -, but the food / agriculture sector are perhaps most serious as so few people (including many ag. scientists) nowadays really know about rural life and the challenges / risks of farming – – -.

    You mention about the “famines” being depicted as “failures of development”; to me it are largely failures of politicians and governments. There are famous examples where governments –in spite of famines—continued to export scarce food supplies – – – (Ireland, Ethiopia, China during the “Great leap forward”, etc).”

    The other point? Well, it is not shorter, but it concerns the relevance of anthropology to the near future our global economy is facing.

    Again, forgive the self-quote:

    ” If the sub-discipline of social/cultural anthropology is to remain a respectable social science with some relevance to the future of the human species project on this planet, we should be directing our attention without delay to the looming collapse of the world economy with the projected decline of fossil fuels.83

    There must be some way of achieving a model of economic systems that takes us from hunter-gatherers to Wall Street tycoons without distortions and cultural bias, without labelling one extreme as any better than the other! A model that can make predictable and comprehensible the transitions that can happen in either direction along this continuum and show how ideologies and social institutions adapt to keep the culture intact. Sort of like unified field theory in physics … Paul and Anne Ehrlich (2008)84 say “there has not yet been a Darwin for cultural evolution”, they write that this is important because behavioral (cultural) problems are the most significant problems facing humanity. I think anthropology should take the lead in this, along with our colleagues in other social sciences. We all need to give this problem some attention. And within anthropology as a discipline the drifting apart of the four sub-disciplines has been a disaster for the continuing development of holistic and evolutionary models of the science of humanity.86

    Maybe it is not too late to change our chances for species survival and finally achieve Polanyi’s visionary future once free of this ‘obsolete market mentality’, the path would be open to subordinate both national economies and the global economy to democratic politics based on ‘human values’. For those of us who have worked among the hunter-gatherers of the world, there may be hope of witnessing the return of these cultures to traditional territory and economic activities. In fact, for all the cultures currently losing their traditional land base, undergoing transitions to more sedentary ways to life, the next three decades may see a reversal of these processes. If so this will afford some unique opportunities for study of culture change.

    Nothing will ever be the same as it was before the industrial experiment. But cultures will continue to adapt and evolve. I hazard a guess that of all the human communities that will be buffeted by the coming chaos, those who will do best will be the communities closest to their previously more self-sustaining economic systems. There may be more hunter-gatherers in the year 2100 on this planet than there were in the year 2000. And perhaps some of today’s communication technologies will come with us all into that future. If the hunter-gatherers of 2100 have cell phones, and wireless laptops, to keep in touch with the rest of the human family, it will be an interesting world.”

    • Hi Helga, many thanks for writing this. You have such a wide experience and interesting insights–I’d like to see this out there in a way that isn’t just in a comment thread!

      We are certainly in need of this longer range perspective. Thank you for plugging away at it.

      • Helga Vierich

        I actually had already discovered the dancing hippo site – great ideas there. I recently saw this as well; applying Darwinian perspectives to business and market economics!

        http://www.forbes.com/sites/darwinsbusiness/2013/09/05/sears-ignores-the-invisible-band/

        It describes the disintegration of Sears corporation after the idea of selfish
        competition was put into practice:

        And I quote: “The results have been disastrous, in part because Lampert was ideologically committed to the metaphor of the invisible hand and the associated idea that people are purely selfish. Ideology is a lens – it makes some things more visible, others less so. Lampert’s ideology prevented him from seeing that he was destroying the invisible band – the bond that forms around groups that can trust each other and work together toward shared goals.”

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