Thursday, May 10, 2012

REBRANDING ANTHROPOLOGY Part 1 -- What happened to culture?

According to the American Anthropological Association

Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present.

This definition is somewhat different from the usual and traditional discourse we encounter about anthropology. The traditional approach placed “culture” at the center of the anthropological paradigm.  Anthropology’s brand and identity within the social sciences has traditionally been the concept CULTURE. Today, that is no longer true as the above definition clearly shows.

In a recent posting (October 2011) I made to the AAA site on LinkedIn I asked the following question, 
"What definition or metaphor do you find most helpful when you are defining "Culture?"

In 1963, A.L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn published a book entitled "CULTURE: A critical review of concepts and definitions" In their study of the term and it's history and use, one finds a wide range of ideas about what is the core concept of anthropology. These definitions are, in a way, a road map of the intellectual development within anthropology up to the mid-20th century. Now fifty years later, the concept of culture has changed with the times, the metaphors and the theories of  the profession and prejudices of its students.

What is your definition? What are your metaphors? How do you describe "culture" to your students, colleagues, and clients?

Since then, I have received a total of 8 responses. None of them truly addresses the question except in the most general of terms. It seems that culture is no longer the central organizing principle around which the four fields of anthropology, ethnology, physical/biological, archaeological, and linguistics orbit.

Yet when you ask anthropologists and practitioners, “What is anthropology?”, the most frequent response is “the study of culture.” As a practicing applied anthropologist for the past 30+years, I find that this response has not changed. Most anthropologists coming out of academia appear to think that the concept of “culture” is anthropology’s biggest selling point. Ethnographic research is the new and improved TIDE when it comes to applied social science.

These anthropologists seem to think, or feel, that they are the possessors of the great secret. It is a secret that every potential employer needs to know in order to succeed. As the bearers of this secret, these anthropologists seem to feel that they will be immediately embraced and employed to share this secret. The secret, of course, is – “culture.”

The problem, seen by these anthropologists, is that the potential employer lacks an understanding of the role culture plays in his/her business. What the employer needs is a staff anthropologist, or at least an anthropologically trained consultant, to research and provide answers to “cultural” problems in the business. What they don’t seem to understand is, that outside of academia, the “culture” concept no longer is the exclusive cache of anthropologists.

They are often surprised to discover that the term “culture” has long been accepted and integrated in the popular vocabulary of the employer and most other applied social and behavioral sciences serving the business community. As generally used, “culture” defines the fact that there are “differences” between Us (the business) and Them (Stakeholders).

Meanwhile within the profession, which has defined itself mainly as an academic discipline, the concept itself has lost its unique centrality and meaning.

Dating from the 1940’s, the profession has been struggling with question, “What is anthropology?”

Is anthropology the study of humanity or culture?
Why is anthropology a four field discipline and should it be?
Is the natural focus of anthropology the study of preliterate society?
What is anthropology’s role in the sciences and/or humanities?

Lacking any consistent answer other than “Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present,” it seems that American Anthropology has lost its brand identity.

It may be time to reposition the brand.


melrinehart said...

Culture as a "thing" is thrown around so easily, but when I ask others (esp. students) what it is, heads turn down and eyes look away. We all live it, and some of us study it, but we're reluctant to define it - maybe we need to define it for ourselves first? M Rinehart @

Barry R. Bainton, PhD, MBA said...

@ M Thanks for the comment. You hit the nail on the head. We ARE defining CULTURE for our own purposes and at that point we have created another anthropology rather than building on Anthropology. For me, Tylor's definition clarified by Kroeber's superorganic provides the foundation for the concept. In simple terms it is human experience through time passed on from generation to generation.