Monday, November 7, 2011

What does it mean to be a career anthropologist?

Anthropology is a formal discipline that seems to affect some by awakening a spiritual sensitivity. Whether secular scientists or humanists, the anthropological ethic transcends the skepticism of agnostic secularism, by offering a alternative way to understand and accept the human condition.

To accept the anthropological ethic doesn't require the individual to be exposed to a professionally trained academic, or applied anthropologist. One can come to the discipline through introspection and informal contact with the anthropological legacy.

For these individuals, converted by the unique perspective that anthropology gives them to the human condition, it comes from a melding of humanistic science with scientific humanism. This melding transcends the tribally bound tradition of their sectarian belief systems. This perspective forms the foundation for the "career" anthropologist - the individual who lives his/her life based upon the anthropological ethic.

Not all anthropologists share this view. Some feel that only the anointed, PhD academic researcher qualify for sainthood. Others would extend the inner circle to those who teach and hold the precious PhD degree. Still others, more liberal in their theology, would extend membership to those who apply their formal anthropological training in the real world and are paid to do so -- i.e. professionals. These "conservatives" forget, if they ever knew, that at one time, none of these priestly professional classes existed in American before 1879.

The early western "anthropologists" came to their conversion through an interest, curiosity and secular acceptance of the principle of human universality often found in their own sectarian religious beliefs, but more often ignored in practice by their coreligionists. It was a conversion that came when the formal traditional ethic failed to explain to reality of life as experienced through day to day living. It cames from accepting the relativity of life, as explained by cultural differences, as against the absolute certainty imposed by religious and traditionalist formalities. For these emergent "anthropologists," this new ethic was based on the avocational pursuit of personal curiosities, interests and enlightenment rather than any vocational or professional desire for personal financial enrichment.

Today, we have a cast and class structure within anthropology. It is a system which draws a line between the academic caste and other professionals, on the one hand, and between the vocational or "professional" (class) and the avocational anthropologists, on the other.

In my mind, these are false distinctions which, unfortunately, have real negative consequences for individuals and the discipline. The true distinction between anthropologists and the general population should be based on the matter of commitment to the anthropological ethic. Such a commitment leads to a CAREER ANTHROPOLOGY. A career anthropologist is one who lives a life based on the core values of anthropology regardless of the financial rewards or costs of such a commitment.

What is this core ethic?

As I look back on the events of my life since I first encountered "anthropology" in the early 1960s; and I consider the path that I have wandered since then, I find a singular consistency. That consistency is found in the original anthropological perspective which I have come to call the Boasian Principles. These are the principles that lead to a "Career anthropological" ethic.

As an ethic for anthropology, Boas and his students established a set of 11 informal rules for anthropology. As the founder, and “god-head” of American anthropology, Franz Boas' principles became the normative ethic for future generations of American anthropologists. The 11 Rules of an Boasian Anthropological ethic form a American anthropological tradition and ethic.

These rules are:
1. a combination of humanistic and scientific values;
2. a focus on the concept of culture;
3. an emphasis on non-literate, small scale sociocultural systems as the subject of study;
4. a holistic perspective in the study of sociocultural phenomena;
5. a reliance on the comparative method of analysis;
6. a tradition of employment in a research setting associated with a museum or university;
7. an orientation toward historical particularism, i.e. understanding the role and function of sociocultural phenomena in context;
8. a tradition of participant-observation in a personal field work experience;
9. the ideal of the scientific role as a standard for judging professional status;
10. an objective and relativistic moral and ethical position;
11. a four field approach in the basic training of recruits to the profession and in the organization of the profession. (Bainton 1979: 127 - 128)

Even in our deeply segmented 21st century discipline, I find it amazing how well these rules have held up. Despite the monumental changes that have taken place in the social sciences and in the world at large, I find that most of these principles as valid today as they were when first established. However, I question the sixth principle which imposes a limitations on employment to a university or museum setting. This is like condemning all Christians or Buddhists to a lifetime in the monastery.

The strength and longevity of any belief system, philosophical or religious, rests in its practical application by providing a method for answering the questions of daily life for the individual and the community of believers.

With the exception of the sixth principle, I find this in the Boasian ethic. I have learned that we do not need to pursue our careers in the museum and/or the university even as these are still the ideal our teachers and mentors hold up to the aspiring student. But we can perform the functions that these metaphors represent by choosing to become Career Anthropologist and applying the Boasian ethic.

What has been your experience?

1 comment:

Kohanya said...

Barry, Thank you for opening this discussion more. I agree with you to "question the sixth principle which imposes a limitations on employment to a university or museum setting." So I created I would love your opinion on it. Here are some articles as well on how employment outside of the university and museum setting.