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.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.