Tuesday 27 March 2012

Bonus! Anthropology Makes Normal Human Interaction Virtually Impossible

I know I'm walking a thin line when I decide to comment on someone else's commentary on some issue or other. It reminds me of the old saying, 'Those who can, do. Those who can't, write about it. Those who can't write about it, teach.' However, after reading yesterday's 'Why the Cultural Conversation Should Never Stop,' cultural anthropologist Melissa Rinehart has me musing on the impact of anthropology in my own life. 
     Dr. Rinehart writes of the emotional investment that we all make, as anthropologists and as members of the human community. She's not the first, nor I the second, to reflect on the relationship between us and our subject. For Rinehart the subject is a living, breathing people who daily endure a legacy of pain and crushing despair visited on them by the waves of Europeans that invaded the 'New World' after 1492. Hers is, at best, the tenuous relationship between oppressor and oppressed. Her realization of that dichotomy, she believes, makes her a better person.
     By contrast, my subject resides in the deep past--beyond memory. My nominal subjects lived just before and immediately after our species became human in the way that you and I are, and which I believe is exemplified in this activity. As I write and as you read we are making sense of pixels that form 'letters,' which we interpret as streams of sounds that themselves bear no significance to the matter at hand other than that of the meaning assigned them by common consent over the long history of the language we speak. 
     Unlike the author, there is no social negotiation between me and my subject. Nevertheless, my research can enrich the lives of living people, no more or less than that of Melissa Rinehart. My life is, I believe, manifestly more human because of my understanding of culture, garnered from a decades long relationship with anthropology.
     Both Dr. Rinehart and I are motivated by our emotional attachment to our 'subjects.' As she puts it, her emotional involvement with the victims of Haiti's earthquake made her realize that
My professional contributions, whether publishing or teaching are more reflexive as I've come to recognize purist objectivity is unobtainable. I am more morally grounded and have come to recognize the inherent value of respectful relationship-making whether with students, consultants, friends, or colleagues. Only by engaging in more emotionally intelligent discussions is where I find true learning takes place and this recognition has opened many new doors in my life that I would have never imagined before.
Her awareness of the variety and resiliency of culture she thinks has made her a better human being. Some might see this as self serving. 'Gosh! If I didn't know all this anthropology stuff I wouldn't be able to see the layered and intersecting present and historical forces that abide in even a simple conversation. And if I wasn't so enlightened and emancipated I'd never be able to communicate my impressions to the non-anthropological community, which is where my insights could do the most good' [reminds me somewhat of the wizard Harry's 'participant observer' relation to muggles in the Harry Potter series]. I don't see this as self-serving. I think Dr. Rinehart is on to something. And I'm not even certain I could have put it into words before I read her blog, but I know I can now.
     Anthropology, and through it archaeology, has fostered in Dr. Rinehart, in me, and in my anthropologist readers a deep and abiding sense of the connectedness of all human beings. It sounds fluffy. I know. [Why don't you go hug a tree, Rob, and leave us to the real business of anthropology!] I truly believe that an anthropological perspective is something that chemists, biologists, engineers and business majors don't get, that psychologists and other social scientists and humanities majors may not even get. It's the profound understanding that, even though we can see differences between us and 'others,' even though we are entangled in our separate tapestries of meaning and understanding of the world around us (i.e. our cultures), even with all the linguistic and other impediments to mutual understanding, twenty-first century anthropologists have the opportunity to inform others of our collective humanity. 
     As a result I believe as Dr. Rinehart does, that anthropology gives us the opportunity to be a different kind of human--one that has the ability to change the circumstances of others of our kind. Whether those changes occur in whom we teach, whom we love, whom we work with, or whom we choose to understand better by walking in their shoes, those incremental changes improve the odds that, to paraphrase William Faulkner upon receiving the Noble Prize for Literature, humanity will not merely endure, it will prevail.
     Anthropologists can help humanity prevail over its dreadful history, its inglorious present, and its uncertain future, but only if we involve the rest of humanity in our work. Like Melissa Rinehart, I believe that it begins with talking, one to one, just as you and I are doing right now. This medium--call it what you will--is making global understanding more possible than it's ever been before. Let's not squander the opportunities that we, as anthropologists, have been given.


  1. Think how different our profession would be if we all reflected more on how anthropology helps us see and understand more about others but also ourselves. We're all a part of the human mosaic and it's distressing to see how disconnected many of my colleagues (past and present) are. Thanks for sharing Rob.

  2. Hi, again melrinehart
    Nice of you to drop by! You're welcome, any time. I have to say that it's a shame your post "rounded up the usual suspects" in the other comments--bitterness, condemnation, justifiable outrage at a history of oppression, accusations of neo-colonial exploitation and worse. I guess the up side is that it keeps us anthropologists focussed on the gargantuan task we face as a species. I get some of the same invective, believe it or not. Because of my 'reading' of the archaeology of modern human origins, I'm often painted as a bigot for, in effect, denigrating (e.g.) the Neanderthal's abilities in comparison with the likes of you and me. Ç'est la guerre. Keep fighting the good fight.


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