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What is the significance of the work done in anthropology? What are the unique contributions of anthropology to science and to the humanities? What principles, ideas, and practices guide the practice of anthropology? Why is it important to continue to do research in anthropology?
The answers to those questions frame what is important about anthropological work. They also highlight the contributions of anthropology to humanity and provide good reasons for continuing to do anthropological work. This research paper will summarize some answers to those questions and demonstrate that anthropological inquiry is an important human activity guided by core principles, ideas, and practices, and that has contributed significantly to science and the humanities, and further, that there are good reasons for continuing to do the work that anthropologists do.
Early anthropologists grounded the study of humanity, that is, anthropology, within the developing philosophies and methods of science in the 19th century. So, it will be necessary to briefly survey how the discipline emerged from the scientific thinking of that time. After that, a series of topics related to the philosophies and methods of science will be covered to illustrate the value of those philosophical perspectives and methods. Then, some of the major concepts, ideas, and methods of anthropology will be discussed. Finally, various contributions of the subfields of anthropology will be covered, followed by a few comments on the future and continuing importance of anthropology.
Anthropology in the 19th century developed as an extension of important and successful work then being done in the “natural sciences,” and was given further impetus by the colonialism of various nations, and by the westward expansion of the United States. While it is true that anthropology has sometimes served the political interests of various governments, that aspect of the discipline will not be covered here. Regardless of how anthropology may have been—or is—involved in Western colonialism, there remains a philosophical, scientific, and humanistic dimension to anthropology that—independent from politics— seeks to understand what it means to be human.
Scientific investigations of the 19th century typically involved collecting and categorizing large volumes of information about the world, and, from that information to then construct explanations, that is, theories, for why the world is the way it is. In 1833, Charles Lyell (1797–1875) wrote The Principles of Geology: Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface by Reference to Causes Now in Operation, the title of which illustrates well the goals of the Victorian scientists who sought to observe the world and then to explain it in terms 517 of those observations. Lyell’s work influenced that of Charles Darwin (1809–1882), whose investigations as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836 led to the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859. The observations and botanical and faunal collections that Darwin gathered during his time on the HMS Beagle resulted in a proposed explanation for why life varies as it does and how new varieties of life can emerge. Astronomers, in the 18th and 19th centuries, discovered the planet Neptune, and began to systematically catalogue the objects in the heavens. Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel (1738–1822) discovered the planet Uranus and two moons of Saturn, and he contributed significantly to the theoretical understanding of the universe and to cataloging other astronomical phenomena. In chemistry and physics of the 19th century, fundamental discoveries were made about the nature of matter and energy and their interaction. It seems inevitable that any scientific investigation into humans would follow the patterns already established in other academic disciplines, and that is exactly what happened.
Some of the earliest anthropological works that adopted methods similar to other disciplines and that take a scientific approach to the study of humans are The League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois (1851/1922), The Indian Journals 1859–62 (1959), and Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1870/1997), all by Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881). The Indian Journals was first published in 1959 from a collection of Morgan’s papers, edited by Leslie A. White. The League is a fairly detailed ethnography that surveys politics, religion, dancing, games, kinship, and other aspects of the Iroquois culture; The Indian Journals consists of miscellaneous notes that Morgan took during his travels from 1859 to 1862, which record whatever cultural and linguistic information he had access to and that he had time to record; Systems is an impressive compilation of kinship-system terminologies sampled from cultures all over the world and an analysis of that data.
The scientific approach of gathering data, looking for patterns, logical analysis, and suggesting explanations are found throughout Morgan’s work, but are, perhaps, best exemplified in the three sources just given. Clearly, Morgan is trying to systematize the study of humans in a way similar to the way that other academic disciplines of the time did their work. In fact, this effort to make humanity the focus of scientific study during the 19th century marks the beginning of a significant shift in how humans perceive themselves in the world. Up to that time, at least in the Western world, humans primarily thought of themselves as separate from nature. Anthropological inquiry in the 19th century began to understand humanity as a part of nature, and just as amenable to objective, scientific study as anything else. Anthropology changed the place of humans in the universe.
This scientific approach to the study of humanity pervades the literature of early anthropology in the late 19th to early 20 centuries. Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), in an 1860 essay titled The Social Organism, suggested that human societies can be understood analogically as living organisms (McGee & Warms, 2008, pp. 11–27). This, undoubtedly, was an effort to apply the recent successes of evolutionary theory in biology to anthropology. Even more transparent is Sir Edward Burnett Tylor’s (1832–1917) two-volume Primitive Culture (1871), the first chapter of which is called “The Science of Culture.” It is not necessary to give an exhaustive listing of examples, but a few other early writers and works of note are: Marcel Mauss’s (1872–1950) The Gift (1925/1967), Émile Durkheim’s (1858–1917) Rules of the Sociological Method (1895/1982), and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s (1857–1939) Primitive Mentality (1922/1978).
Of course, it must be mentioned that the values and overall approach to anthropology were significantly shaped by the work of Franz Boas (1858–1942). Boas argued for recognizing four different subfields in anthropology: prehistory (archaeology), linguistics, physical (biological) anthropology, and cultural (social) anthropology (McGee & Warms, 2008, p. 118). He also trained other influential anthropologists, such as A. L. Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Edward Sapir. His influence has been pervasive in anthropology. His scientific approach led him to reject race as a determining factor in cultural development (McGee & Warms, 2008, p. 119). In this, he was ahead of his time.
Early anthropologists sought to establish their discipline within the larger framework of scientific thought and research. The goal was to establish a science of humanity that would generate a particular kind of epistemology, or body of knowledge, that would lead to a better understanding of and appreciation for what it means to be human. Of course, there are other epistemologies—other ways of “knowing” humanity. Art, poetry, narrative literature, music, philosophy, and theology all suggest ways to know various aspects of the human experience. Science, however, offers an approach that transcends and subsumes those other epistemologies and subjects them to analysis within a larger context. The resulting “scientific perspective” has positively contributed to an understanding of and appreciation for humans and human behavior over the last century and a half in anthropology.
Anthropology as Science
Anthropology is sometimes described as a science and sometimes as one of the humanities. In fact, anthropology programs are located in a variety of departments across colleges and universities in the United States, usually depending on the subfield of anthropology that is being emphasized. Anthropology is probably best understood as both a science and as one of the humanities, with the former perspective philosophically subsuming the latter. There are, however, anthropologists who question whether or not it is possible to apply the scientific method in some aspects of anthropological research.
J. T. O’Meara (1989), in an article titled “Anthropology as Empirical Science,” asserted the value of an empirical approach for the study of human behavior. He refutes the claims of those who suggest that because much of human experience is subjective that the scientific method is inapplicable. Concerning the idea that the study of humans can only be done by subjective interpretation instead of by the scientific method, he concludes as follows:
While these arguments contain important observations concerning the difficulty of acquiring knowledge of human affairs, their conclusions are unnecessarily extreme, being largely based on overstatements and misunderstandings by both science advocates and their interpretive critics. (O’Meara, 1989, p. 366)
Pierre Bourdieu also sees the value of maintaining a scientific approach in anthropology. In Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), Bourdieu suggested that “third-order knowledge” can be derived from both the objective (i.e., scientific) and subjective aspects of human phenomena (p. 4). As an example, he describes the differing explanations of gift exchange offered by Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Mauss’s explanation is described as phenomenological, that is, a subjective explanation; Lévi-Strauss’s explanation is that of an objective observer outside, looking in, positing a mental principle that governs the practice. In this example, Bourdieu suggests people who have some freedom to manipulate the system act upon both the objective and subjective aspects of gift exchange (pp. 5–8). It is in the interplay between model (objective), meaning (subjective), and practice (the actions of people) that the explanation of human behavior is found. The scientific, or objective, perspective is an essential component in Bourdieu’s theory.
In June 2002, the American Anthropologist published a Special Centennial Issue that contains an article by Susan Trencher titled “The American Anthropological Association and the Values of Science, 1935–70.” In it, Trencher concludes, “Despite differences in time and circumstance, the position of anthropologists as articulated through the AAA in the 1930s through 1970 . . . was that anthropology is a science” (2002, p. 459). Of course, in the same passage, she is careful to point out that there is a great deal of variation in “research, methods, practice, professional responsibilities, and ultimately ethics” (p. 459). Those observations also seem to apply to anthropology from 1970 to the present.
The origins of anthropology are rooted in science, and anthropology continues to remain a scientifically oriented discipline. The fact that the methods and theories of anthropologists are subjected to constant critique and analyses is, itself, evidence of a scientific approach, which by its very nature, must be introspective and self-evaluatory.
Value of Science
What is meant by a scientific approach? What is gained from a scientific perspective?
A scientific approach uses the scientific method to construct a body of knowledge about things in the world and an understanding of that knowledge. In the case of anthropology, humanity is the object of the study. To do this, the scientific method employs a number of underlying philosophical assumptions that systematize the method and the knowledge it produces. In other words, the body of knowledge generated by the scientific method is framed within a set of assumptions and principles that exclude some ways of knowing, which, again, does not mean that such other “unscientific” ways of knowing are unimportant.
One important philosophical perspective underlying the scientific approach is that the world can be perceived and measured by observations through our senses. This idea is called empiricism. Another perspective is the assumption that the observable natural world and natural processes are the only legitimate focus of the scientific method. This idea is called naturalism. Empiricism and naturalism limit the accumulation of scientific knowledge to those things in the natural world that are observable and measureable by anyone. Consequently, the validity of scientific knowledge can be established through repeated observations and measurements.
In addition, the scientific method involves the formulation of hypotheses and the testing of the explanatory success of those hypotheses by gathering additional research data. Thus, scientific knowledge is constructed over time through a dynamic process of hypotheses formation and testing, and data collection that eventually results in the acceptance of theories, which are hypotheses that continue to be successful in explaining and incorporating new data. So, what is gained from a scientific approach?
While it is true that there are ways of understanding the world that are not scientific, such as in religious cosmologies, there are advantages to the scientific approach, which make it more useful, in many ways, than other epistemological approaches.
Scientific knowledge consists of data that can be verified by other researchers. Scientific research is performed under the scrutiny of a scientific community. Also, scientific conclusions and interpretations are subject to revision in the light of new data. These three things—validity through verification, social accountability, and the constant evaluation and revision of theory—generate a body of knowledge about the world that is objective. Such a body of knowledge in anthropology has been useful in applied areas such as forensic anthropology, medical anthropology, and business anthropology. The scientific approach in cultural anthropology has also been successful in describing and explaining a great deal of the behaviors manifest in political organizations, economic systems, religious beliefs and behaviors, and kinship systems.
In anthropological archaeology, the scientific approach has helped to reconstruct the social history of humanity. In linguistic anthropology, we have come to better understand the social complexities of language and the relationship of language to culture. Finally, in biological anthropology, we have achieved a sophisticated understanding of human origins, human diseases, and human genetic structure.
It is doubtful that a nonscientific approach would have achieved any of these significant discoveries and contributions.
Value of Reason and Logic
Reason, which is our capacity for various kinds of analytical thought, and logic, which is a type of analytical thought, guide the construction of scientific knowledge in anthropology. The application of a general ability to reason and the ability to apply a systematic method of logic are two important characteristics that separate science from pseudoscience. For example, there are some popular writers who suggest that the Egyptian pyramids, or other ancient monuments, could only have been built with the help of extraterrestrial beings who visited the earth in the past. On close examination, however, it is easy to see that the actual archaeological and historical evidence cannot support their hypothesis. Their argument rests on faulty assumptions, biased data selection, false logical premises, and false conclusions. They fail to reason appropriately across the data, and then derive premises from their faulty reasoning, which they then insert into the forms of logical argumentation. Of course, such an approach precludes any hope of successfully arguing to any reasonable conclusion.
Archaeological and historical sources reveal that the pyramids in Egypt are associated with a number of ancient rulers. Burial artifacts, associated funerary temples, hieroglyphic texts on the walls of some chambers in some pyramids, and other monuments clearly indicate that the pyramids were tombs intended for ancient Egyptian rulers. In addition, there are some hieroglyphic depictions of exactly how the ancient Egyptians managed to move large blocks of stone, huge stone statues, and obelisks. On the water, they moved these objects with barges. On land, they did it with sleds, rollers, a little lubrication, and a lot of people pulling with ropes. A reasoned assessment of the data must conclude that ancient humans built the pyramids for the purpose of burying their rulers. From this data, we can make many valid, logical inferences about the social structure and economy of ancient Egypt. This kind of reasoned approach, which does not make unwarranted assumptions and that incorporates all the empirical data, is able to successfully employ logical analysis to further our understanding.
On the other hand, the pseudoscientific approach begins by making the unwarranted assumptions that extraterrestrials are real and that they have visited earth. Neither assumption is demonstrable. Before someone can reasonably claim that a picture on an ancient object represents an extraterrestrial or its spaceship, it must first be demonstrated that such things are real—by discovering an extraterrestrial’s body or spaceship. After all, archaeologists have the mummies of pharaohs, so we can reasonably be assured that pharaohs are real, but the same thing cannot be claimed for extraterrestrials. Therefore, the only reasonable and logical conclusion is that pharaohs, not extraterrestrials, built the pyramids.
In anthropology, all the different theoretical approaches recognize the value of reason and logic. Reason and logic give coherence to our scholarly efforts and enable the sharing of knowledge. Reason and logic also provide a basis for the comparison and evaluation of different concepts and theories. Consequently, the ability to think in a reasoned and disciplined way and the ability to logically analyze research data are important skills that must be mastered by the anthropologist.
Value of Concepts, Ideas, and Comprehensiveness
From its very earliest years, anthropology has aspired to be comprehensive in its understanding of humanity. Every aspect of what it means to be human is considered as a possible focus of inquiry. Anthropologists look at the past, the present, and the future of humanity. They explore the biological, psychological, social, and linguistic aspects of humans. Anthropologists have studied art, literature, music, material culture, philosophy, theology, genetics, and a host of other subjects. Neither do anthropologists restrict themselves solely to a Western perspective. The comprehensive nature of anthropology makes it unique among the academic disciplines, which is probably why the general public usually has a difficult time grasping exactly what it is that anthropologists do. In spite of the breadth of the discipline, there are some key concepts and ideas that have emerged in anthropology that structure the discipline as a whole.
Some important concepts and ideas in anthropology have made their way into modern intellectual discourse across a number of academic disciplines. Perhaps the most significant and widespread of those is the concept of culture.
While it is true that there are many definitions of culture in anthropology and that no one definition is generally agreed upon, the concept of culture has proven to be extremely useful in framing the discussion of differences between human societies. Culture is a synthetic idea that is derived from the observation of a variety of human beliefs and behaviors. That is, culture is an abstraction that is inductively reasoned from the sum total of beliefs and behaviors that characterize a group. The concept of culture captures and expresses the complex and integrated nature of human social interaction within a group, and the concept of culture keys into two other important and closely related ideas.
The first of these ideas is the holistic perspective, which is the idea that everything in a culture is interconnected and that in order to study or know another culture, one must, as much as possible, look at everything. This idea causes anthropologists to eschew methods with too narrow a focus in the study of humanity, and to advocate methods that embrace all aspects of social life in a group.
Essentially, the holistic perspective calls for an integration of knowledge from all four subfields of anthropology. Some anthropologists observe, however, that anthropology has failed to achieve this perspective. Robert Borofsky, in a survey of 3,264 articles published in the American Anthropologist from 1899 to 1998, found that “only 9.5 percent of the articles in AA bring the discipline’s subfields together in significant ways” (2002, p. 463). While it is the case that very few of the journal articles published in the American Anthropologist demonstrate collaboration across the subfields of the discipline, it would be hard to conceive of archaeological projects that do not draw upon sociocultural anthropology and biological anthropology; or cultural anthropologists that would not find knowledge of sociolinguistics useful. Much of the collaboration across subfields is more implicit than explicit, but there are some shining exceptions. For example, anthropologists from all four subfields produced the American Anthropological Association’s Statement on “Race” (1998).
The second of these ideas connected to the concept of culture is cultural relativism, which is the idea that one culture’s way of doing things is just as valid as another culture’s way of doing things, and that we must suspend our own culturally based moral judgments in order to effectively study another culture. This perspective helps create a level playing field, morally and ethically, for the objective study of another culture.
Finally, the concepts of ethnocentrism and ethnicity shape the way in which anthropologists think about cultural bias and identity. Ethnocentrism is the belief held by all human beings that their particular way of doing things, beliefs, and knowledge are the best or most correct. Understanding that everyone is this way is the first step toward overcoming this bias in ourselves and to seeing past it in others. This commitment by individuals to a particular cultural perspective is an important part of how we locate and identify ourselves in the world and in relation to others. Ethnicity is the idea that the identity of a social group within a culture is socially bounded and that these social boundaries and identities persist through time. Ethnic groups are biologically self-perpetuating social groups identified by themselves, and by others, as members of that group, whose community comprises a network of communication that is socially bounded by marriage practices and other social prohibitions and prescriptions, and whose identity and social boundaries persist despite the occasional movement of people across the social boundaries, such as through marriage, leaving the community, adoption, and so on. (For more information on this topic, a key source is Frederik Barth’s Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference [1969/1998]).
The concept of culture, the holistic perspective, cultural relativism, ethnocentrism, and ethnicity are important concepts and ideas in anthropology. The principles and perspectives derived from these shape and guide the work that anthropologists do.
Value of an Evolutionary Framework
As discussed at the beginning of this research paper, evolutionary thinking profoundly influenced the work of early anthropologists, such as Louis Henry Morgan, Herbert Spencer, Edward Burnett Tylor, and others. Also, despite the fact that in the 20th century most cultural anthropologists, from Franz Boas on, have strongly rejected the application of the theory of evolution to explanations of culture change, evolutionary thought remains both useful and in some ways necessary to the study of social and cultural change.
It is true that the early unilineal evolutionary models, such as Morgan’s seven stages of cultural evolution presented in his Ancient Society—lower, middle, and upper savagery; lower, middle, and upper barbarism; and civilization—are deficient in that they make sweeping generalizations that fail to explain the variation of cultures in similar environments. However, the theory of evolution is still useful for understanding some aspects of social and cultural evolution. For example, looking at the big picture, human biological evolution and cultural evolution are clearly connected. The technological and social characteristics of Lower Paleolithic culture are manifestations of evolutionary processes—natural selection, genetic mutation, gene flow—on genetically diverse early hominids in central East Africa. The ability to manufacture Oldowan and Acheulean stone tools, to cooperate in hunting, and to live together in social groups are all adaptations brought about by the evolutionary pressures exerted on our early ancestors. Likewise, the cultural changes from the Lower Paleolithic to the Middle Paleolithic correspond to selection pressures acting on genetically diverse populations of Homo erectus. Middle Paleolithic Neanderthals are not only biologically different from Homo erectus, but their toolmaking skills and cultural behaviors differ, as well. And, finally, the cultural changes associated with the transition from Middle Paleolithic to Upper Paleolithic occur alongside the biological changes associated with the transition to anatomically modern humans. Evolution may not be able to provide a theory of culture, but the evolution of humans and the development of cultures are intrinsically connected.
The theory of evolution provides a way of understanding change. Over time, everything changes: biology, society, culture, and language. The theory of evolution not only clearly helps us understand the biological changes from early hominids to modern humans, but also, by metaphorical extension, it can be useful for talking about society, culture, and language. Concepts like natural selection, adaptation, and gene flow can be used to help organize our thinking on those topics. Phrases like “genetically linked languages” and “cultural adaptations” are examples of this kind of metaphorical extension.
In terms of the holistic perspective, evolution is the large theoretical framework within which the scientific study of humans must articulate.
Value of Comparative Methods
One of the best and earliest examples of the application of the comparative method in anthropology is Lewis Henry Morgan’s Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1870/1997), which surveys 196 kinship categories in 39 languages in Table I (pp. 79–127) and 268 kinship categories in 80 languages in Table II (pp. 293–382). From this large body of data, Morgan was able to discern that all kinship terminology systems were reducible to just a few types. This book laid the foundation for the study of kinship systems in anthropology.
The idea of studying another culture in order to learn about our own is also an important aspect of the comparative method that shows up regularly in the work of anthropologists. Margaret Mead studied Samoan culture in the 1920s because she was interested in adolescence in her own culture. By looking at the transition from childhood to adulthood in Samoa, she hoped to shed some light on that process in Western culture. In a similar way, Bronislaw Malinowski (1922/1961) tried to make the practices and beliefs of the Trobriand Islanders comprehensible by showing that the way we do things is very similar to theirs. For example, he compares native sentiments toward the objects of the Kula trade as being just like British sentiments toward the crown jewels:
Every really good Kula article has its individual name, round each there is a sort of history and romance in the traditions of the natives. Crown jewels or heirlooms are insignia of rank and symbols of wealth respectively, and in olden days with us, and in New Guinea up till a few years ago, both rank and wealth went together. (Malinowski, 1922/1961, p. 89)
Indeed, plentiful examples of comparisons of our culture to other cultures are to be found throughout the ethnographic literature.
George Peter Murdock (1897–1985) established the Cross-Cultural Survey in 1937, which was a project to collect ethnographic information for the purposes of comparison. In 1949, the project, with funding from the Social Science Research Council, became the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF). Today, there are two databases in the HRAF collection: the eHRAF Collection of Ethnography and the eHRAF Collection of Archaeology. These databases are maintained at Yale University and can be accessed by members online.
The comparative method is a key element of the ongoing ethnographic and theoretical work in anthropology. Cross-cultural comparisons give us insight into some common patterns of human behavior, such as kinshipclassification systems. They give us insight into the relationships between different classes of patterns, such as correspondences between residence patterns and economic systems. They give us insight into the relationships between behavioral patterns and the environment, such as correlations between certain religious beliefs and the ecology of where people live. The comparative method makes it possible to see through the diversity of humanity to the things that collectively define us as human.
Value of Theoretical Models
Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) seemed, at the time, to herald the end of theory in ethnographic work. Every culture was to be rendered in “thick description” and that is all that could be done. Every culture was viewed as a unique set of integrated symbols and behaviors that could not be compared to those of other cultures. Coming to the end of the 20th century, at least in cultural anthropology, theory seems to have disappeared in ethnography. The functionalism, structure and function, and structuralism that permeated the ethnographic work of early to mid-20th-century cultural anthropologists had been criticized and rejected. In other areas of anthropology, however, the development of theory has persisted. Archaeology and biological anthropology, in particular, have continued to work on theories related to the origin of the state, the origin of food production, social stratification, the evolution and adaptation of human ancestors, and much more.
Cultural anthropology has, however, turned back to theoretical constructs in order to extend its work beyond just description. The work of Bourdieu has been influential in this regard. Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), while criticizing traditional theory in anthropology, offers an alternative theoretical approach that links objective structures to the practices of people.
The construction of theoretical models is an important part of the scientific method. Such models reason across the data, linking it together in a logical fashion that results in some degree of explanatory adequacy. Collection of data and exhaustive descriptions of that data can only be a prelude to the proffering of an explanation.
Theoretical models also give us a basis and a framework for asking new questions, which can further extend our knowledge. Theory also gives us a common intellectual space within which to converse with each other. Theory is essential to practicing the science of anthropology.
Value of Relevance and Application
There are some anthropologists who view the work of anthropology as valuable in its own right, and the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. On the other hand, there are some who believe that the work of anthropology should be relevant to human concerns and have an applied component. Anthropologists who lean more toward the first view fear that the knowledge possessed by anthropologists could be used by governments or by others to cause harm to people, while those who lean toward the second view argue that the same knowledge could be applied to benefit people. Most anthropologists probably believe in both views to one degree or another.
It is true that many anthropologists are privy to sensitive information about the people they study and that anthropological knowledge could be used to manipulate people. Even so, it is also clear that similar observations could be made about other academic disciplines as well.
Journalism, political science, and biology, to name a few, have the potential for causing human harm as well as providing human benefit.
As a result of the tension caused by these two views in anthropology, applied anthropology has taken a little longer to become prominent than otherwise would have been the case. Today, business anthropology, as well as forensic anthropology and medical anthropology, have achieved some status in the discipline and there are good graduate programs for their study.
The development of applied anthropology is a natural outcome of anthropology done as science, because, in addition to gaining knowledge and understanding the world, science seeks to solve problems through the application of that same knowledge and understanding.
Anthropological knowledge is both relevant and applicable to the world in many ways. Archaeologists, practicing cultural resource management, act as the conservators of our cultural heritage. Cultural anthropologists, who advocate for the human rights of the groups they study, use their knowledge to achieve moral and political goals. Anthropological linguists, who apply their knowledge to the teaching of social aspects of second-language acquisition, make important applications of anthropological knowledge that meet educational needs. Biological anthropologists working in forensics apply anthropological knowledge to serve human needs in law and justice.
Anthropology has a great deal to offer humanity. The formal recognition and practice of applied anthropology has come about only relatively recently in the discipline— in about the last 30 years. Over time, the effect of applied anthropology will undoubtedly increase. This will probably bring about changes within the discipline itself, especially as to how anthropology is taught, and where anthropologists will be employed.
Value of Ongoing Research
What follows is a brief overview of some contributions that have been made in various areas of anthropology: biological anthropology, archaeology, sociocultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and applied anthropology. The list is certainly not exhaustive, but it does highlight some of the ways in which the product of anthropological research and knowledge has social and scientific value.
Forensic anthropology is enjoying a great popularity today as a result of books, movies, and television shows in which the characters rely upon forensic science to resolve their plot conflicts. While most pop-culture examples of forensic science and forensic anthropology are highly exaggerated, there are real forensic anthropologists whose work has made valuable contributions to law enforcement. Clyde Snow is a forensic anthropologist of note who has worked at mass graves in Central and South America and in the former Yugoslavia to identify the remains of war crime victims. William Bass, who founded the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, is probably one of the most well-known forensic anthropologists. His book Death’s Acre (2004) tells the story of how the Body Farm—a laboratory for the study of the decomposition of human remains—came into being. The book also relates some of Bass’s most notable forensic cases.
One of the most astounding accomplishments in the last century, and, perhaps, one of the greatest scientific accomplishes ever, is the completion of the Human Genome Project, which was completed in April 2003 (National Human Genome Research Institute, 2009). The Human Genome Project produced a complete map of the human genetic sequence. This genetic map has, in turn, stimulated a lot of further research, especially in medicine, that could not otherwise have been done. Many biological anthropologists participated in this effort.
In the United States and around the world, archaeologists continue to be agents of the discovery and preservation of the past. Archaeologists and archaeology organizations are active in lobbying for changes in the law for the purpose of protecting archaeological sites and artifacts, and some archaeologists are even active in law enforcement, as, for example, archaeologists who work for the Parks Service or for the U.S. Forest Service. Professional archaeologists play a key role in protecting our historical heritage and in helping to understand and appreciate it.
Early in the 20th century, when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) began building dams in the southeastern United States, archaeologists undertook the enormous task of surveying and identifying archaeological sites and excavating those that were considered most important. Their efforts recovered enormous amounts of data and material that otherwise would have been lost forever. The same thing happened in other parts of the United States, at about the same time, as dam building for flood control and power generation spread across the country’s major watersheds.
Archaeologists are also involved in museums as curators of important cultural knowledge. In addition, archaeologists teach at a large number of colleges and universities. Being positioned in museums, and in higher education, means that archaeologists have both visibility and influence. The past can help us make decisions for the future and archaeologists play a role in passing on important culture knowledge.
Anthropologists who study contemporary societies and their cultures have developed very sophisticated theories about power and power relations, social stratification, ethnicity, religion, kinship systems, economic systems, and subsistence patters, among other things. They have generated a huge body of ethnographic material, much of it in databases such as the HRAF. This huge body of literature alone is an incredible accomplishment that has yet to be fully mined for its total value.
One of the greatest accomplishments and contributions of sociocultural anthropology has been the advocacy of anthropologists on behalf of the people they have studied. Perhaps it goes a bit beyond a strictly scientific approach to practice any kind of moral advocacy for another group, but anthropology is also one of the humanities in the sense that anthropologists, as human beings, are aware of a moral responsibility to others. Many ethnographers have gone on to act as political advocates for the people they have studied. Others have even helped with development projects in the communities in which they have worked. A lot has been written about anthropologists and advocacy. A good starting place for examining this literature is an article by Samuel R. Cook (2003) that takes a look at the positive aspects, as well as the challengers, of advocacy by anthropologists working with Virginia Indians.
Many contributions by linguistic anthropologists are more abstract than concrete, but no less important. Linguistic anthropologists have looked at important social issues and have examined the linguistic phenomena associated with them. For example, language plays a role in racism, as well as in sexism. They have also contributed a better understanding of language and identity issues, especially in the case of dying languages, and in attempts to restore languages.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Linguist Joseph Greenberg (1915–2001) sorted out the relationships among the languages of Africa, and classified them into four major groups. He also worked on classifying the Pacific and Native American languages. Though his later work was somewhat controversial, his earlier work with African languages has “become the basis for virtually all subsequent treatments of the continent and its culture (pre)history” (Silverstein, 2002, p. 632).
The category of applied anthropology usually refers to business, forensic, and medical anthropology, but is not limited to these. Each of the subfields discussed in this section has applied areas; some were discussed, such as forensic anthropology in biological anthropology, but there are others, such as contract archaeology and applied linguistics. Business and medical anthropology are types of applied sociocultural anthropology.
Business anthropology and medical anthropology have proven to be productive areas in applied anthropology. The full impact of applied anthropology on business remains to be seen, but there are a fairly large number of anthropologists who work as consultants in this area. There already exists an immense literature in anthropological publications and in business publications about business anthropology.
Medical anthropology has at least two peer-reviewed journals. The first is called the Medical Anthropology Quarterly, published by the American Anthropological Association on behalf of the Society for Medical Anthropology. The second is called Medical Anthropology: Cross-Cultural Studies in Health and Illness, published by the University of Lethbridge.
As technology allows us to handle more and more information in newer and more creative ways, the holistic perspective of anthropology will, no doubt, develop a clearer view of humanity, and in ways that are not yet possible. In turn, applied anthropologists will find more ways to use anthropology to serve human needs and to solve human problems. Already there are steps in this direction. Just to mention two, the growing eHRAF files, and the relatively new AnthroSource database, which has over 100 years of anthropological publications, are changing the way in which anthropologists do anthropology. In the future, anthropologists will be able to handle more information in even shorter amounts of time than is possible now.
Despite the technological innovations that will speed up and expand some aspects of work in anthropology, there will still be a need, maybe even greater than before, to keep the discipline centered on science and its core concepts, ideas, and values, in order to maintain the discipline’s relevance and significance beyond its own boundaries.
From its early years, anthropology has worked toward a scientific understanding of and comprehensive appreciation for humanity. In its pursuit of that goal, it has embraced methods, practices, concepts, ideas, and principles that have allowed it to make significant social and scientific contributions. Anthropology is continuing to develop as a science, as evidenced by an increasing amount of applied work. Anthropologists are also important advocates for the peoples and groups they study.
The future of anthropology looks bright, and technology is poised to open new horizons for the next generation of scholars. Anthropology will continue to significantly contribute to the solution of human problems and add to our deeper comprehension of humanity.
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