Monday, January 23, 2012

How old is "applied anthropology"?

Applied anthropology -- the application of anthropological concepts to the solution of human and institutional problems -- is, despite the biases of the academic community,seen today as the road to the profession's salvation. Applied anthropology is really no different from the academic sub-species. It just occupies a different ecological niche in today's world. Rather than the exploiter of the intellectual property of their subjects, the applied anthropologist is the translator and communicator of intellectual property of others to their clients.

As pointed out earlier in this blog What does it mean to be a career anthropologist these are somewhat different skill sets but part of the same intellectual species. We might say that "anthropology" or the "anthropological" meme emerged in the west in Classical Greece and the writings of Herodotus. The "anthropological meme" took the form of history and eventually transformed into a social science in the 19th century scientific revolution. But what about the "applied anthropology" meme?

When did the "applied anthropology" sub-species emerge?

Interesting enough, this question was addressed in an editorial that appeared in Human Organization in the Spring of 1958 entitled: Applied Anthropology in 601 A.D.. The article quotes a letter from Pope Gregory VII to his priests who were attempting to convert the "heathen" Britons to Christianity. In the letter he proposes a policy to overcome local resistance.

We must refrain from destroying the temples of the idols. I t is necessary only to destroy the idols, and to sprinkle holy water in these same temples, to build ourselves altars and place holy relics therein. If the construction of these temples is solid, good, and useful, they will pass from the cult of demons to the service of the true God; because it will come to pass that the nation, seeing the continued existence of its old places of devotion, will be disposed, by a sort of habit, to go there to adore the true God.
It is said that the men of this nation are accustomed to sacrificing; oxen. I t is necessary that this custom be converted into a Christian rite. On the day of the dedication of the temples thus changed into churches, and similarly for the festivals of the saints, whose relics will be placed there, you should allow them, as in the past,to build structures of foliage around these same churches.
They shall bring to the churches their animals, and kill them, no longer as offerings to the devil, but for Christian banquets in name and honor of God, to whom, after satiating themselves, they will give thanks. Only thus, by preserving for men some of the worldly joys, will you lead them more easily to relish the joys of the spirit

We can see today that Gregory's advice established a policy that was to serve the Church well. This was especially true when a 1000 years later it ventured into the New World. It is also an example of what today would be considered a sound applied anthropological based policy.

No comments: