Anthropology is Huh?

The National Geographic Effect

When I tell people I am an anthropologist, I quite frequently get one of these responses:

“So you dig up pots?”

“So you study dead people?”

“So you look for dinosaur bones?” (yes, really)

It is probably most indicative of a highly professionalized culture, in which disciplinary alignment rarely intersects with job title, that the term “anthropologist” means little to people, but smacks of something archaic enough that people assume its subject is necessarily archaic as well. Its historical reflection in the pages of National Geographic certainly contributed to this impression. It’s also partly due to the paucity of anthropologist characters in popular films and TV shows who vaguely resemble real anthropologists (i.e. not many of the hapless characters in scifi flicks on whom the writers have slapped a random scientist label — hello, Prometheus). And the few that exist, of course, engage in wildly unusual quests and work in exotic or hyper-nerdy locations: Temperance Brennan, Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon (symbologist…?).

An anthropology major is number 15 on a list of the majors with the highest unemployment (link).* It doesn’t sound too bad until you review a list of majors at major universities. I wonder if the increasing gap between academia and job placement for the social sciences is at least partly due to a misunderstanding of anthropology. How many jobs was I, looking outside academia, turned down for because someone thought I looked at things in the ground?

Anthropology has a long and, sadly, somewhat sketchy history. It wasn’t until the late 19th century and the likes of Lewis Henry Morgan and John Wesley Powell that anthropology began to be a matter of ethnology, not armchair anthropology of the exotic, nor evolutionist comparative biological anthropology. (However, National Geographic continued to exoticize non-white cultures with remarkable zeal.) Later, the blooming generations of Boasian anthropologists began to work for various government agencies, such as the Bureau for Indian Affairs. This was a good moment to be an anthropologist, if only because their insights into other cultures proved useful in native negotiations and in war time.

In the postmodernist 1980s in America, a new hyper-relativist, activist trend emerged in anthropology that marked the final phase of anthropology in the job market. We had gone from the self-assured, racist, positivist ethnographer, to the state-sanctioned, exoticist, empirical ethnologist, to the doubtful, self-reflective, cultural detectives. Bolstered by people like George Marcus and Michael Fischer, anthropology in the postmodernist flavor, like the literature and philosophy of the time, questioned everything in order to answer a few things, and managed to insult American sensibilities (both anthropologists and non-anthropologists) in the meantime. It’s my guess that this trend greatly affected attitudes towards anthropology in laypeople, such as my religious, conservative aunt, who once railed against political correctness and expected acceptance of “sinful” lifestyles thanks to anthropologists (without having asked me what I was studying in school). It probably also contributed to a characterization of anthropologists as weird or even non-cultured (like Bones, who has little psychocultural connection to the society in which she lives).

Fact is, in an increasingly globalized yet politicized world, in which most people have anywhere from an occasional to a constant connection to global markets of information and products, it’s more important than ever to understand modern anthropology’s fundamental question: why we do the things we do. The same question permeates all fields of anthropology and gives us a scientific yet practical approach to all pursuits. It may not be reflected in the resumés that land on the hiring manager’s desk, or in curricular requirements in universities, or in popular culture, but the ability to reflect on one’s own behavior and their society, to imagine oneself in another’s shoes, to communicate efficiently with someone of a different walk, and to understand the purpose of one’s own and others’ actions, can benefit people in those top-hired areas — business, medical, education — as well as people in the supposedly unhireable majors of art, architecture, liberal arts, humanities, and history.

After all, anthropology is the study of humanity, and last time I checked, every aspect of your life involves just that.

Rachel Wayne is a visual anthropologist based in Gainesville, Florida, USA.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

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