Musings about the Theft of Culture from Anthropology


Some years ago, I asked the question, “Who Stole Culture from Anthropology?” in a brief essay in  Anthropology News in 2006. I raised the question because many anthropologists had complained to me since about 1987, about how they had trained “too many” anthropologists with the result that they were unemployed.  The discipline seemed to be in a perpetual depression, wallowing in its own insecurities, seemingly like no other.  This bothered me though, in part I guess because I was a victim of this insecurity.  Indeed, it was in 1987 that I first applied for graduate study in Anthropology because I thought the subject of culture—which anthropology has a special claim on—was among the noblest.  My application was rejected, and I was told by some old grizzled anthropological veteran that I was lucky not to be going into the field since, after all, there were too many anthropologists, and no one really cared about culture anyway.

But when I looked around me, I  found that many many people were “doing” the core subject of anthropology, culture.  At the university, these people were found in almost any department except anthropology.  Thus there are classes on culture and marketing, multi-cultural classrooms, genetics and culture, multi-cultural social work, culture and the law, and in my own discipline of sociology classes like popular culture, and cultural contacts/conflicts.

Many of these courses are well-done, but they do not keep culture at the center of what is taught.  Nor do they keep ethnographic observation, or cultural anthropology at the center of things.  Rather, they are expressions of their own disciplines, which is perhaps as it should be.  Thus, a class on culture and marketing focuses on how to sell in modern multi-cultural societies, the multi-cultural classroom course focuses on delivering a curriculum to a diverse audience.  Social workers learn how to offer services to people who have different understandings of “the system”, and biologists speculate about how culture selects for particular genes and not others.  In sociology, where we have the closely related concept of “society” and a strong emphasis on survey research, culture is often reduced to a box checked on a survey form.  But missing are the traditions of anthropology, including emphasis on field work, ethnographic writing, four fields approach, and the rich traditions of people like Malinowski, Boas, and Durkheim.

Chico State where I teach is right now engaged in an overdue dividing up of the “general education” curriculum.  Consistent with trends in higher education, we are developing seven (or eight or ten) pathways which students can select for their general education program.  There will presumably be pathways for internationalization, sustainability, communities, technology, health, and a range of other subjects which cut across disciplines.  Culture probably will not be there, though I suppose it should be.  But I wonder, if it was there, would our student body be served any better?  The range of courses they would be required to take would come from almost anywhere except anthropology, and it is still unlikely that our undergraduates would be required to read any of the anthropological greats, or listen to someone who has experienced the loneliness and anomy of anthropological fieldwork.

Cindy van Gilder once asked on this blog when anthropology’s wayward child—that is culture—would come home.  When will anthropology’s child ever finish flirting with the Business School, Education School, Sociology Department, or Biology Department?  Or in other words, when will Cultural Anthropology be given the same weight in the curriculum of the different disciplines as Accounting in Business, Classroom Management in Education, Statistical Methods in Sociology, and Genetics in Biology.  When this happens, maybe all those under-employed Ph.D.s from Anthropology will begin to claim their discipline back.

Good News from Tanzania!

Here is some good news from a former student at the University of Dar Es Salaam:
“My daughter is growing up, she is now 9 years, though still not able to walk, sit, or talk, It is a very hard task but I am happy to be her mother and she is still my inspiration.

“On top of all that, at last I have been able to meet a man who have decided to spend his life with us, I had problems with men accepting my kid, but this time it seems different and I hope all goes well. We are working together and teach same area, and we will be getting married this month on the 29th, 2010.”

Rants, Ranting, Flame Wars, and the Like

Most of us like to rant now and then.  Usually we do this in the quiet of a bar, with the assumption that as long as we never run for political office, the rants stay in the bar.  But with the invention of the world wide web, there are new parameters to the dissemination of rants.  Witness what has happened here on during the last week where Mark Dawson shot his virtual mouth off with the rant right below this posting.  Witness too the responses over at  Two guys in virtual bars a continent apart rip into each other, calling each other “moron” and “bigoted” across cyber space, while the rest of us vicariously and anonymously enjoy the fireworks.  The good news for is that the two rants by Mark Dawson during the last month or so have sent the hit rate, the thing that counts in cyber-space, through the roof.  His first successful rant was an April Fool’s joke about the dissolution of the AAA, and in May there is the “butterfly” rant.  It seems that some people like rants much more than ethnographic commentary; I guess that it gives us déjà vu to when we were eight years old.  In contrast, Mark has done some enchanting writing about the ethnography of clowns, and some girl’s picture on his bedroom dresser which have attracted less than 100 hits even after 3 years.  All people seem to care about are his rants—which can go into four digits within a few days of posting.

Rants by definition are rooted in opinion and emotion.  They are not logical or analytical.  Good rants make us look at the ridiculousness of life.  As Max Forte has implicitly pointed out, Mark Twain was a great ranter.  On the other hand, bad rants make us roll our eyes and mumble “there he goes again.”  Mark did this for me last week with his first rant about Anthropologists for Justice and Peace.  The rant was emotional and made a big deal about other people who were making a big deal over not much.  In other words, there was ranting about others’ ranting.  Big deal.  This type of rant is common on talk radio.  If you want to hear more such ranting from the right, I recommend Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck.  On the left you can go to a Michael Moore movie.  Depending on your political views, you will find them funny or not (for the record I typically put on rock and roll when Hannity intrudes into my evening commute).

But to Mark Dawson’s credit, he caught himself in a boring rant, and posted a mea culpa about butterflies and the Anthropologists for Justice and Peace.  This riposte in my view was a really good rant, and had me laughing.  I laughed at the rant because the rant made more general fun of cultural anthropology’s tendency to put their own political views at the center of their discipline.  Max Forte has in turn responded with an astute and thoughtful paragraph about the contagion of laughter, and what it might (or might not) mean about the one person in the room who is not laughing.  If you want to read it, scroll down into the comments section of Forte’s blog—it is thoughtful.

Anyway, to stick to Mark’s version of ranting, I have seen the political self-absorption described in Mark’s rant in any number of disciplines in the academic world, and agree that is a great thing to make fun of.  Much such ranting is on the left, but over in the Business and Engineering schools, there are plenty of people doing it on the right.  Perhaps I like hearing cultural anthropology made fun because the condition is worse there, but I doubt that it is any worse than Physics, Business, English, Biology, Sociology, or anywhere else.  Maybe I enjoy seeing cultural anthropology made fun of is more likely for more selfish reason, i.e. because my own application for graduate study was rejected in 1987-1988.  Whatever. Like I mentioned earlier, rants are not about analysis, and certainly not about self-analysis.  But, speaking of Mark’s butterfly posting, judging from the hits we’ve taken to the site since the revised version was posted last Wednesday, lots of people are laughing with us, since they have been linking it to their Facebook accounts to share with their friends and family.  In the blogosphere this is a definition of success, so whoop-ti-do, and good for Mark.

I will admit to wishing that my more academic and boring comments on would be a bit more popular.  I would really like it if readers posted them to your Facebook account like you do the rants that Mark writes.  For that matter, Mark would appreciate it if you read his ethnography of clowns, and the girl’s picture on his bedroom dresser.  But warning:  Such posts tend to describe ethnographic techniques, research methods, cite guys like Erving Goffman, and talk about the British Library rather than ranting about morons, fascists, and bigots, words which I think should be excised from ranting vocabulary.

Bottom line: Such serious ethnographic postings get far fewer hits than rants.  All I can hope for is that Mark’s rants besides making some of us laugh, point people to the more serious and boring stuff that Mark, Cindy, Donna, Jennifer, and I have posted to over the last 5 or 6 years.  But I have little hope.  In our post-modern world rants work, and Malinowski doesn’t.  Just ask Glenn Beck over at Fox News.  He never cites Malinowski!

Your professors job is not to be smarter than you.

It is funny how many prof’s and students forget this wee detail, but it is true. At the end of the day, you as the student are there to LEARN and to achieve YOUR goals. The job of your instructors is to GUIDE you and show you how to be a better and more rigorous thinker. Sadly, in the real world in order to get through Grad school you are going to be kissing a lot of professor ass because, well, they got sh*t on all through grad school and so now its your turn. Yea, that sucks. If you are an undergrad? There are a lot of great profs out there that love to work with undergrads (including the authors of this blog), but there are plenty of others that see you as a pain in the ass that must be endured to get to what they care about: Yes, harassing grad students and showing them who’s boss. Look, they know a LOT more about the topic area than you. They should, that is their job. But they are not required to be smarter: they are not the source of all wisdom, major or minor. They know a lot about their obscure area of study, but they may well know -zero- about the particular historical fetish you have.

But you students are not off the hook on this deal either. You often show up in the office expecting the ultimate final answer to everything from next weeks quiz to that you should do about that rash you got during a drunken hook-up with an indeterminate number of people over spring break. (And why? WHY? do you insist on showing us the afore-mentioned rash… we believe you, we really do.) Look, your Prof’s are just as screwed up as you, maybe more so because their “eccentricities” are considered typical or even arty (read: behavior that would never be tolerated anywhere outside of a university setting with tenure). The main difference is they have done most of the screw-ups you have and survived them and thus roll their eyes that you are so wrapped around the axle about it. You really do have to take control of your education. It is not a Happy Meal where you get to say “I’ll take the number 5” and its all dealt with. Well, OK, you can… but you are really wasting a lot of opportunity. Don’t look for Gods, Guru’s or even a mentor, look to LEARN and demand your teachers TEACH. Oddly, if you do that… mentors suddenly show up.

I suggest both students and instructors take my personal hiring philosophy into play. I always want to hire someone much smarter than myself… much smarter. Why? Because I am pretty damned lazy. My life goal is to be able to walk into the office and say: “Wow, I would love to help with this project, but I’m not as smart as you, so I have to go watch a movie and maybe take a nap.” I live to be the tottering former expert that is well past his prime and keeps getting paid scads of cash out of tradition.

And if you, young student, keep following your dreams you can reach mine, and thats what is important that end of the day, my dreams, isn’t it?