Conditions & Potentials of Human Life

What is Anthropology?

In each generation, the question of “What is Anthropology?” must be answered anew. In 2017, Tim Ingold’s Anthropology and/as Education provides a summation of a discipline that strives to reveal the conditions and potentials of human life:

Anthropology is a generous, open-ended, comparative, and yet critical inquiry into the conditions and potentials of human life in the one world we all inhabit. It is generous because it pays attention, and responds, to what other people do and say. . . . Anthropology is open-ended because its aim is not to arrive at final solutions that would bring social life to a close but rather to reveal the paths along which it can keep on going. We are committed in this sense to sustainable living–to a form of sustainability that that does not render the world sustainable for some through the exclusion of others but rather has a place for everyone and everything. Anthropology is comparative because it acknowledges that no way of being is the only possible one, and that for every way we find, or resolve to take, alternative ways could be taken that would lead in different directions. No path is preordained as the only one that is “natural.” Thus even as we follow a particular way, the question of “why this way rather than that?” is always uppermost in our minds. And anthropology is critical because we cannot be content with things as they are. By general consent, the organisations of production, distribution, governance and knowledge that have dominated the modern era have brought the world to the brink of catastrophe. In finding ways to carry on, we need all the help we can get. But no one–no indigenous group, no specialist science, no doctrine or philosophy–already holds the key to the future, if only we could find it. We have to make that future together, for ourselves. This however can only be achieved through dialogue. Anthropology exists to expand the scope of this dialogue: to make a conversation of human life itself. (2017:58-59)

Anthropology is a generous comparative inquiry into the conditions & potentials of human life (Tim Ingold)Click To Tweet
Now, of course, that is quite a doozy of an attempt at “what is anthropology?”! A shorter version may be found in my preferred textbook for Introduction to Anthropology and Anthropology 2018: “a scholarly discipline that aims to describe in the broadest possible sense what it means to be human” (Anthropology: What Does it Mean to Be Human? 2018:5).

What is Anthropology: Generous

Anthropology might be in some ways considered a form of radical listening. That radical listening begins with a generous definition about what human life includes. As part of its study, Biological Anthropology includes non-human primates and human evolution. Biological anthropologists have listened and studied with all primates. Anthropologists have been at the forefront of a generous interpretation of our humanity, including Neandertals & Denisovans as part of the family. Anthropology has debunked ideas about racial separations and superiority. Biological anthropology denounces the effects of racism and those who have fought against the generosity which should characterize how we share our world.

Open-Ended Human Life

When we use Archaeology to reveal the human past, we find a broad diversity and spectrum of human economic and political arrangements. This record of human life reveals societies which have been much more sustainable than our own societies have proven to be. Although of course societies ebb and flow, the archaeological record reveals dynamic and sustainable forms of life that persist for hundreds or thousands of years.


The comparative work of Cultural Anthropology leads us to insist that no one form of human life is “natural.” There are no bedrock or natural roles for sexes and genders; for parenting; for kinship; for economic systems; for political organization. The social inequalities we observe are not inevitable. We can live differently, whether that means providing healthcare as a human right or curtailing gun violence. Cultural anthropologists have gained these perspectives through this process of radical listening and what we call participant observation. As Ingold describes, participant observation “enshrines an ontological commitment” that is fundamental to the discipline of anthropology (2017:59).

The comparative work of anthropology leads us to insist that no one form of human life is 'natural.'Click To Tweet
Or, as Alpa Shah observes:

Participant observation can be revolutionary praxis for at least two reasons. The first is that through living with and being a part of other people’s lives as fully as possible, participant observation makes us question our fundamental assumptions and preexisting theories about the world; it enables us to discover new ways of thinking about, seeing, and acting in the world. It does so by being inherently democratic not only because of its pedagogy of a two-way process of exchange between educator and educated but also because it ensures that we explore all aspects of the lives of the people we are working with, recognize their interconnections. (2017:47)

What is Anthropology: Critical

Based on anthropology’s generous, open-ended, and comparative observations, we are forced to take a critical (or even revolutionary) stance on many social positions. Participant observation as anthropology “requires, even forces, one to throw away one’s assumptions about the world and seeks to understand social life anew through our engagement with distant others and their social relations” (Shah 2017:56).

Anthropological research reveals that prejudice should not masquerade as science. But the science of anthropology must be taught again and again and again. Anthropology should be a counterpoint to the Western project that has left our world in a precarious state. “We anthropologists have tremendously important things to say, and we need to be there to say them” (Ingold 2017:24).

Human Life & Dialogue

Linguistic Anthropology has long taught us that dialogue is at the heart of being human. We can use language, and dialogue, to expand these boundaries and conversations. Anthropology is fundamentally optimistic about the possibilities of dialogue and human life. Anthropology allows us to “speculate on the conditions and possibilities of human life in this world” (Ingold 2017:24).
Here, Ingold’s thoughts on the intersection of anthropology and the university are pertinent:

I think we need to fight for the future of universities as places of tolerance, wisdom, and humanity, where ideas matter, and where people of all nations can come together peacefully to debate these ideas. But I think of this as the future for anthropology too. So my vision for the future of the anthropology is also my vision for the future of the university, and anthropology must be at the heart of it. (2017:25)

That said, it is important to realize that academia and the university have also been places of exclusion, hierarchy and intolerance. As linguistic anthropologists Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa put it, “the challenge is transforming institutions that have inherited a legacy of systemic racism into spaces that are truly anti-racist. This project of creating anti-racist institutions requires a careful examination of the fundamental logics that privilege or marginalize particular modes of institutional participation and communication” (Political Correctness Is Not the Problem, Systemic Racism Is).

Positive Anthropology

Although the work of anthropology to spur critique is enormously important, part of the mission of anthropology is to inspire what Michel-Rolph Trouillot terms “moral optimism.” Or, in the words of anthropologist Edward Fischer, we need to think about a “positive anthropology”:

Anthropology is more comfortable offering critiques than positive alternatives, but the possibility exists to combine our critical proclivities with non-prescriptive, ethnographically informed positive alternatives that engage public policy debates. If a society’s goal is to have people live meaningful and fulfilled lives–and not just increase income and consumption at all costs–then we should look to ways to help people realise their longer term goals, the moral projects of their lives, affluence (and its converse, poverty) as seen in all of its multiple dimensions. . . .

Perhaps, then, we anthropologists should more fully embrace the constructive possibilities of a positive anthropology. To fully enter into national public discourse, to exert the influence that most of us think we should have, it will be necessary to offer answers as well as critical questions. (‘Economy, Happiness, and the Good Life:’ An Interview with Edward F. Fischer, December 2017)

One of the main goals of Living Anthropologically for 2018 will be to infuse these statements into the framework of Introduction to Anthropology, and in so doing make the positive possibilities of anthropology available to wider audiences.

Resources for “What is Anthropology?”

My take on anthropology has been very influenced by Tim Ingold, and I use his The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill for my course on Cultural Ecology. For this “What is Anthropology?” essay I’ve quoted from Ingold’s contribution to Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, “Anthropology Contra Ethnography.” There are many perspectives and debates within anthropology, and the Debate Collection of Hau contains other essays which take issue with Ingold’s perspective. It seems that Ingold’s essay was a precis for Anthropology and/as Education, and so I quote from the book where possible.

My perspective on “What is Anthropology?” is also molded by the late Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s work, especially in Global Transformations. I use Trouillot for Cultural Anthropology. For more information, see the Trouillot Bibliography and the guest post on Teaching Trouillot. Although Ingold and Trouillot seem to approach “What is Anthropology?” from very different vantages, their ideas about the place of ethnography and the social role of anthropology often coincide.

The American Anthropological Association has a useful “What is Anthropology?” page which details the disciplinary subfields. I am a co-editor for the Open Anthropology project which curates articles in their journals for a one year free to read period.

In some ways, the question of “What is Anthropology?” is answered by what anthropologists do. The Anthropology Blogs page provides resources to keep up with what anthropologists do and in 2017, how Anthropology Matters.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2017. “What is Anthropology? Critical Inquiry into the Conditions and Potentials of Human Life.” Living Anthropologically website, Posted 12 November 2017. Revised 4 January 2018.

For a previous version of “What is Anthropology?” see the archived 2011-2013 page which originally appeared on Anthropology Report.

Please consider contributing to Living Anthropologically. Contributions fund ads to bring anthropology to public debates. Not tax-deductible. For more information, see Support Living Anthropologically.

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  • JuHoansi

    “Anthropology and ethnography may have much to contribute to one another, but their aims and objectives are different. Ethnography is an end in itself; it is not a means to anthropological ends.” – Ingold

    I disagree. Ethnography is not an end in itself, it is part of a process of learning about how people live, think, and reproduce their societies or institutions. Anthropology would not and could not exist without ethnography from which it draws so much of its insight.

    • Hi JuHoanisi, thank you for the comment. I am here trying to use Ingold without getting into the debate he’s opened opposing anthropology and ethnography. Personally I think Ingold has a point, but I’m really just trying to stick to the positive statements he makes about anthropology without wading into the morass.

      Oddly, at least for me, Ingold’s approach also parallels Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s statement in Global Transformations: “Only after World War II does ethnography become synonymous with fieldwork, especially in the English-speaking world, and the anthropologist become primarily a fieldworker” (2003:124).

      I think what both Ingold and Trouillot are arguing against is the *reduction* of anthropology to ethnography. Both are firmly committed to participant observation, as should be obvious in Ingold’s writing.

      • JuHoansi

        Hi Jason, thanks. Yes, I agree, Ingold does not wish anthropology to be reduced to ethnography, nor do I. I was merely taking issue with that specific quote.

        • It was probably inevitable that if I quoted from Ingold’s “Anthropology contra ethnography” that issues were bound to arise. I’ve been trying to shift my quotes to his Anthropology and/as Education in the hopes of emphasizing a positive statement. Thanks!

  • Michael Heneise

    Anthropology is, of course, a methodology, a discipline, a global scholarly community. But what no one talks about is how, despite its claims to self-conscious/reflexive intellectualism, it is a deeply ideological (and often quite cynical) global body of highly stratified scholars. To reach the heights of respectability, one buys a return ticket to miserable places to describe in exhaustive detail the marginality of less fortunate peoples, while simultaneously reinforcing the institutions that maintain and perpetuate separation (no ticket out) and marginality

    • Hi Michael, thank you for stopping by and for your comment, even if it is a blistering critique! I would not say that “no one talks about” the issues you mention, as there has been some serious self-critique on these matters. My mentor, the late Michel-Rolph Trouillot certainly discussed these issues, and his 2003 book Global Transformations specifically talks about the fetishization of fieldwork as anthropology became institutionalized.

      That said, Trouillot ultimately concluded that it was important to continue to go to these “miserable places”:

      We cannot abandon the four-fifths of humanity that the Gorbachev Club see as increasingly useless to the world economy, not only because we built a discipline on the backs of their ancestors but also because the tradition of that discipline has long claimed that the fate of no human group can be irrelevant to humankind. (Trouillot 2003:138)

      And I certainly hope that the experience of going to these places introduces some humility rather than promotes the idea that anthropologists know everything!

      • Rodrigo Ferrari-Nunes

        Sounds great on paper to say that anthropology “is critical
        because we cannot be content with
        things as they are”. The problem is when it comes to the living reality
        of academic anthropology, rarely anyone has the courage to discuss or
        talk about it openly – and woe to you if you try to have a frank debate on
        the question. It’s all about getting money and grants, and if you don’t,
        oh well, aren’t you a loser? But it’s just ‘how things are’, isn’t it?
        Things as they are, in this case, is ‘follow the leader’ and don’t
        disagree with anyone, or you will be ostracized. I remember some book on
        materiality with dozens of entries by students who all cite one person!
        One only knows this, when they voice critiques openly, instead of in
        whispers, that lead to the demise of their supposed careers. It’s quite
        ironic that people who bear ‘royal’ badges claim that “by general
        consent, the organisations of production,
        distribution, governance and knowledge that have dominated the modern
        era have brought the world to the brink of catastrophe’ – that sounds
        like the beginning of a documentary. One thing is what you say, another
        is what you do and how you act. That I learned during fieldwork.
        Academic anthropology is a double world – you get to play one role in
        the ‘field’ and then switch into ‘game and competition’ mode at
        so-called ‘home’ – which is never home, it’s only so until your contract
        runs out, or until you say something that someone high up in the
        hierarchy finds offensive… as for dialogue – just try and see how far
        you will get.

        • Hi Rodrigo, thank you for the comment. I definitely agree that far too often the ideals espoused by anthropology–especially as it is supposed to be anti-disciplinary and in Trouillot’s explanation of “moral optimism”–get lost in its institutionalization. I am sorry to hear of your experiences within academia.

          • Rodrigo Ferrari-Nunes

            Thank you Jason,
            I would like to point out that I am committed to anthropology and very grateful to the instruction and education I’ve received. My rants border on the satirical and the intentions are always to drive positive change, someway, somehow. However, over the years I have seen a lot of talk and not so much action, and observed many contradictions, and doors being closed when an opinion that should lead into a debate is mentioned in public.

            To be honest, I don’t think that people are acting maliciously, nor that anyone is to be blamed personally; rather, I think that the system and the way it is right now is taking people’s time and making them compete and contradict the principle of community that they espouse in classrooms and books. However, I believe that there are avenues for taking anthropology outside of academia. I have put a lot of thought into this during the last couple of years, and I wish I can see a little bit of it happening.

            One specific conundrum I would like to point out is that while some academic anthropologists make rhetorical use of ‘indigenous ways of knowing and being’ and claim that paying attention to those will change the ‘future’, they do not seem to act according to those ways of being in real life, and indeed make open use of what I call ‘Royal’ badges – such as being a member of the Royal Society, and being part of the ‘Royal Anthropological Institute’ – I think that wearing such a badge – in Brazil, we would say, ‘vestir essa camisa’, or ‘wearing that jersey’ seems to fly in the face of aboriginal experiences around the world, in particular the much suppressed histories of Residential Schools that were promoted by the powers to be, that is, Royal and governmental institutions. I have pointed out that, in the UK at least, these experiences are rarely ever mentioned, and people are able to get anthropology PhDs there without ever having study them or discuss them, and they go and present on Royal Anthropological Institute conferences and so on, as I did too, because it was part of my program… such discussions lead to zero discourse and engagement, because they are indeed ‘critical’ and make people uncomfortable!

            I do think that we have a huge role in helping to transform the present academic system and in taking anthropology out of academic structures, which are getting more and more rotten to the bone.

            Again, thank you for your piece and for not censoring my comment – I should take a Trouillot’s ideas. To add some notes, I’d say that books like Homo Academicus by Bourdieu and The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse should be included in any serious and truly critical anthropology program.

          • Hi Rodrigo, thank you for the follow-up. I’m grateful for your persistence and your thoughts. I hope we can stay in touch. Given what I think are your interests, you might check out a compilation I put together on the “Music of Anthropology.” I found a lot of these authors were engaged in projects outside of academe.

            Thank you again!

          • Rodrigo Ferrari-Nunes

            Hi Jason, I am grateful for your thoughts and the work you are doing here as well. I hope to learn more about this work as time moves on. Thank you for the post on music – my PhD thesis is indeed about the experience of music making, but my interests are wide-ranging. My persistence and devotion to anthropology comes from over 17 years of continuous studies, and it’s very hard to shake it off. Yet, we make up how we think within anthropology through the choices we make, and no degree or trajectory is like any other, as you know.

            The academic world has changed a lot in the last 30 years, and it’s not for the best. One of the profs that taught me at UBC used to sleep in his office sometimes, and his screensaver was simply the phrase ‘Publish or Perish’. He is now, from what I heard, a very ‘jaded’ person albeit a full-professor. Yet, the first course he taught was probably his best, because he used to care about the students and their work, and put a lot of work into being a good teacher – this was when he was teaching what was called ‘ANTH 200’. Yet, he was told by his old supervisor that this would never pay off in the long run, and that he had to think of his own career, which meant publishing anything at any cost. This meant, for a person who was not a native English speaker, selecting students who could, for the privilege, edit and fix his writings. This led to the selection of ‘favorites’ in class, and using them as part of a clique. And we have the funny world of inter-departmental politics, which is full of lamentable gossip and people elbowing one another to try and get close to the people on ‘top’.

            A few years later, when he was teaching the 300 course, students came up to me, and complained that the course readings were excessive. Another one noticed that this prof would be spending 30 minutes on a long quote, and making statements that contradicted the conclusions of the paper he was citing, which meant that he was cutting corners and not even reading the materials he was assigning. When I met him in the corridor and called that into question, he quickly said, ‘you give them the rope and let them hang themselves’, or something like that – and quickly turned his back on me – I was one of the students who was writing what they dubbed ‘French style’ at the time, and a foreigner, so I wasn’t much use for editing poor writing. Meanwhile, foreigners who hired professional editors, got away with it and were hailed as ‘geniuses’, despite the fact that they were cheating. This prof’s ‘rope and hanging’ metaphor meant that, in order to make grading easier (since student grades have to conform to a preordained ‘bell curve’, with a prescribed percentage of As, Bs, and Cs), the solution is assigning a ton of material and seeing who is able to read it, making sure that is assessed partially through multiple choice exams. Meanwhile, they might even bring up in class things like the value of being ‘dialogical’ and people like Bakhtin and Paulo Freire, which is very ironic.

            Over the years, I’ve noticed that professors are increasingly unwilling to communicate frankly, though they talk a lot about community and indigenous ways of knowing in front of other scholars. Maybe it’s because they are afraid of losing their jobs and entering someone’s ‘black list’, and have to come up with materials that count as ‘impact’ and stats for the universities that they work for or be booted, since what matters for the ideology of ‘student retention’, a huge money maker, is that the university can claim being ‘up the rank’ in relation to other universities. They are also unwilling to communicate with anyone who will bring up contradictions and other inconsistencies.

            One student from Oxford wrote to me recently saying that the situation there with contracts is ‘more precarious than McDonald’s’ and that it is an extremely sexist workplace, with females doing admin work and men being propelled into ‘the market’. As soon as I made a video talking about my own experiences, this person feared that they would be ostracized, and urged me never to mention anything.

            What I’ve observed in many so-called ‘top’ institutions in the UK and by getting to know their students in the backstages of academia, where truth is told beyond rankings and other gimmicks, such as writing one way and consistently acting another, is that students are constantly under great pressure and struggle to find any sense of community there. I attended a lecture in St. Andrews once, and when I tried to raise my arm to ask a question during the ‘question’ period, a student held my arm, and said, ‘hey – only profs can ask questions now’. The pompous UCL guest speaker, then later dismissed my question in the corridor, with the typical arrogance that is naturalized in those places as a sign of quality. In the last conference I wasted money to attend and present, one of the panelists, again from UCL, presented ‘research’ based on driving cabs around India to look at street signs, conducted over a couple of weeks, and couldn’t answer questions that were posed. Yet, they had permanent positions and all the supposed privileges of being associated with some institution of renown. The most serious presenter was Japanese, and someone spent the whole time praising ‘plastic’ in some ‘poetic’ way. The time is so limited in such shindigs, and the feedback that comes from them later usually so useless, and the cost so high, that it makes one wonder what is really going on – the associations that put them up will, of course, ask for membership money, and give very little in return. Meanwhile, greater attention is given to someone’s grants, titles, and institutional badges than the information they are presenting. Later, in the dinners that follow, some presenters were so drunk, they were falling from their chairs. Conferences are a kind of party for people to let off some steam. Of course, some people take them more seriously, because they can be added to CVs and used to get positions. I wonder why, with so much dependency on grant competitions to propel careers (that often come from shady institutions and corporations), there is, at the same time, resistance to having business models and making things ‘in the World’ (as Hesse would put it) that generate funds and long term opportunities. I think that the system is putting off creative students while selecting for ambitious ones, at the same time it produces very little value to the greater public outside the academic bubble.

            Despite our love for books and articles, we’re now moving into an era in which reading long papers is becoming unpractical, especially for the general public with whom we should communicate our knowledge. I see that some Chicago publications are now free, but can non-specialists actually read them? The question they might ask is, ‘how useful is this information’? Is it for ‘changing the future’ or for citing in a paper and getting it published for specialists, then adding to a CV in the hope of ‘securing’ a position somewhere? When the students see, over and over, more talk than action, and lots of contradictions, they go and do something else. I’ve seen a lot of miserable looking anthropology students – they may whisper a critique, and then go back into the line, because they have no sense that there is a world out there with people other than scholars who might value their skills. Yet, I see this work here as quite important, and I will continue to work to make what I believe to be valuable information available to so-called ‘lay’ people (ironically, whence ‘anthropological’ and ‘academic’ insight comes from).

            Thank you!