Circling the Wagons is not the solution to anthropology’s problems

margaret meadCindy, Cindy, Cindy! The problem with academic anthropology today (and I can only speak to cultural anthropology) is that the concept of culture is the most static and smothered at the hands of anthropologists! The problem is not that all these other disciplines are misusing culture, but that most academics in anthropology can’t accept that the study of culture has taken on a much wider, and more practical, role in understanding many parts of our lives from business to the military.

The most influential books that speak to cultural issues today aren’t written by anthropologists, they are written by journalists, physicists and mathematicians to name a few. Anthropologists didn’t lose culture; we started an endless string of post-modern debates about just what culture means that pushed the discipline away from relevance. The other disciplines went out and explored how culture interacted with their professions while anthro’s sat home and engaged in intellectual masturbation. When Former President Clinton made the famous statement “It depends on what your definition of is, is.” I am sure many cultural anthropologists nodded their heads believing that would be a perfectly reasonable and exciting discussion to have before proceeding further, given there is no such thing objective truth.

Anthropology can’t claim to own the study of culture anymore that MBA programs can claim to own the turf of business today. Plenty of anthropologists are working on questions of business, just as there are business school researchers working on questions of culture in the context of business. What anthropology can do is develop a point of view about cultures that are relevant to questions we (business, governments, and others) are asking. Many cultural anthropologists are still fighting tooth and nail to prevent the discipline from have any practical application. The latest example being the committee to form an official position on the use of anthropology in the military and intelligence communities. Good grief, the larger anthropology community is so anti-applied that some people were floating the idea that people that didn’t teaching in universities should just be called practitioners.

You see other fields as misusing and misunderstanding culture. I see it as pulling out of the bubble it was placed in by over-protective and elitist parents. You are right, those of us outside the academic world spend very little time debating the parameters of just what is culture. We’re comfortable with the slipperiness of the definition and figure that’s good and we can work with that.

Ok, now that all the blog software problems have been worked out, I can actually blog! Actually, they were all worked out by a very nice young lady in Baku, Azerbaijan that converts lot of blogs from Movable Type to WordPress.

2 thoughts on “Circling the Wagons is not the solution to anthropology’s problems

  1. Tony Waters

    Mark, Mark, Mark! I think you miss Cindy’s point which is that culture has a special role as the parent of culture. The same could be said of writing for English, government for political science, calculus for math, and the past for history. Writing, government, and the past are of course relevant to many disciplines. But, the classroom where their very nature is best evaluated, mulled, and debated effectively are staffed by people trained in those disciplines.

    During the last twenty years, culture (but not anthropology) moved to the center of many university curricula in response to very real political, cultural, and economic concerns. As a result, culture is part of many university general education programs in the same way that writing, mathematics, history, government, etc., have long been. What is different is that English, math, history, and political science departments colonized their subjects years ago, and received money to hire trained people to teach their subjects. As a result, generations of college graduates write essays as taught in English classes, believe that calculus is synonymous with college math, and have shared knowledge about the nature of American history and government.

    None of this is a bad thing—I think a history course is best taught by someone trained in history, calculus courses by people trained in math, etc. Rather, the point is that the same thing could have happened with culture and anthropology, but didn’t. Instead, as Cindy writes, culture is now an academic streetwalker without an academic home. As a result, unlike similar English, math, government, and history requirements in the undergraduate curriculum, “cultural literacy” requirements are satisfied by taking courses offered by departments ranging from English to business. But, is it really legitimate to assert a student is proficient in “culture” because they have taken marketing from the Bennetton executive who developed a “many colors” campaign in the Caribbean? I think not. I see nothing wrong with the Bennetton executive teaching marketing in a business school—indeed such a person would make a fascinating colleague and good guest speaker in an anthropology class. But I have a problem when a marketing class is used to meet a university’s general education cross-cultural requirements.

    A university that purports to require students be culturally literate should fund anthropology departments to teach culture. The academy needs to send anthropology’s wayward street walking child home. And faculty budgets need to reflect this.

    Anyway, I enjoy the ethnography.com blog. Keep up the good work, and I look forward to reading more.

  2. Greg

    Thank goodness for applied programs!

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