Monday, July 9, 2012

Re-branding Anthropology Part 2 -- Heart, Mind, and Pocket Book

The basic guidelines for American anthropology were laid down by Franz Boas and taught to his students and passed down as the American anthropological culture. These traditions are a powerful force within the discipline and its organization and create a set of contradictions that have plagued the profession for three quarters of a century. The conflict can be summarized as in four words: Heart, Mind and Pocket Book.

Anthropology is founded on two basic principles – its subject is the human species; and how the species adapts to the physical and cultural environmental challenges it faces. The question is how do anthropologists apply these principles in their role as a member of the human species, as a scientific and humanistic disciple, and as individuals with basic needs and self interests? That is, where do the anthropologist’s heart, mind, and pocket book interests lie?

Where is the anthropologist’s heart when it comes to his/her subjects and to his/her role in developing the discipline? Where is the anthropologist’s mind when it comes to his/her subjects and to his/her role in developing the discipline? And, where is the anthropologist’s pocket book when it comes to his/her subjects and to his/her role in developing the discipline?  Three simple questions!

These questions, however, are not so easy to answer without admitting the basic contradictions that exist in the profession between the “emic” and “etic” perspective toward the behavior of the practitioners of anthropology whether they are academicians or social engineers.

The Anthropological Heart
In our “hearts”, I think and my experience suggests, most of us are philosophical liberal in our view of humankind. It would be hard not to be when a fundamental axiom of our discipline is based on the “psychic unity of humanity.” If we begin with the belief that we are all of the same species and that collectively we share a common biological heritage, then it is not a difficult step to a second basic axiom, “cultural relativity.”
The axiom of cultural relativity leads us to the conclusion that human behavior is “cultural behavior,” and arises from a common biological and mental base in response to diverse environmental challenges.  This does not discount minor variations between individuals or groups. But it does focus our attention on the behavior as the response to, rather than the motive for, cultural actions. Thus, when it comes to a “judgment” about the actions of others, we have a built-in bias to side with “the other”. This is where our hearts are, to suspend our judgment and seek to understand differences. 

The anthropological heart reveals itself in the causes we advocate for or oppose. It is revealed in the century of debate over professional ethics and our obligations to our subjects, the use of the data we collect, and the long running battle with University IRB and government sponsors over “informed consent,” just to mention a few. It can be summed up as an ethic that favors a role as the protector and interpreter of “our” people, i.e. the subjects of our research. For better or worse, it is the origin of our humanistic impulse.

The Anthropological Mind
In our “minds,” I think and my experience suggests, most of us try to be objective with our subject and subjects regardless of our practice as scholars, researchers, or applied practitioners. We try to operate and conduct ourselves based on another foundational axiom: “the holistic approach”.  To be holistic is to be open to and look for evidence from any quarter that may contribute to our understanding of the collective behavior of the individual within the group, and the group within its environment. The holistic axiom implies that we should adopt a systemic perspective toward the evidence that we collect and use to reach our conclusions.

The holistic axiom leads to another basic axiom: Human behavior is bimodal. That is, all human behavior consists of a balance between the individual’s emotional and/or physical (emic) response to an event or context and what we observe to be the group’s interpretation and meaning (etic) attached to the event or context.  This “emic”/”etic” perspective leads directly to our unique methodological response -- participant/observer. 

This methodological bias toward both an experiencing of the affect of the phenomena we study and the detached observation of its effect on the subject is most pronounced in the central organizational structure in our discipline – cultural anthropology.  Participant - observation is extended to the other sub-disciplines of anthropology through the role we give to culture as the “contextualizing” element in interpreting in recording events and structuring their context. This is where our professional mind is, understanding human behavior in context. It is the origin of our scientific impulse, for better or worse.

A corollary to “emic”/”etic” on an individual level is the “status”/”role” at supra-organic or societal level. This implies a structural-function approach to human behavior in a social context where status limits the legitimate range of individual behavior within the group and the role describes the individual’s performance in that status as it relates to the group.
As anthropologists, we are first human beings. We live our lives as individual human beings. Much of our life is oriented around the practical problems of living, i.e. pocket book issues. While the early founders of modern anthropology were amateurs, that is, individuals who pursued their anthropological interests as an avocation, most anthropologists today pursue their anthropological interests as a vocation. They make their living doing something called, “anthropology.” 

In 1879, John Wesley Powell, in his address as the first President of the Washington Society of Anthropology and as Director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, called for a more scientific and professional approach to anthropological research. When Boas was hired to teach and head a new department of anthropology, in 1889, at Clark University, he brought with him an idea of how the professional anthropologist were to make his/her living. Boas set the standard for dealing with the pocket book issues when he proposed that the professional anthropologist pursue a tradition of employment in a research setting associated with a museum or university. Powell’s focus was on the government as the employer of anthropological researchers; Boas focused on the private university and museum as the vocational home for the research anthropologist.

Early on, the objective of a career as a professional anthropologist has been defined as basic research with an emphasis on non-literate, small scale socio-cultural systems as the subject of study. Teaching, lecturing and writing would be part of the job description following the tradition of other sciences and scholarly careers. While this career model was supposed to protect the scientist/scholar from outside influence by providing an environment that is based on the sacred principles of “academic freedom” and “freedom of scientific inquiry,” it has produced a mind-set filled with cognitive dissonance that echos through the profession and discipline today.

Anthropologists, as employees of the academy, government, non-profit sector, corporation, are staff personnel. They are hired to perform a specific set of tasks for the organization that has hired them. We are essentially bureaucrats. Despite were our heart and mind are, we consciously and unconsciously, are conservative and risk avoidant in the way we build our careers. In an earlier day, when going into the field to do our field work leading to our PhD, we might have been seen as risk takers, and even considered ourselves to be risk takers. But this has always been a risk based on the belief that some benefactor, sponsor, or employer would be there to pay the bills. 

Foundation and government grants have, as Patterson has pointed out, had as much influence on the development of anthropology in general, and in the USA in particular, as the professional development of the discipline. While today we still rebel against certain claims of control over anthropological research made by the granting sources, and we protest the use of anthropologists in such activities as human terrain analysis, basically we are bureaucrats and happy to collect our paychecks from our employers.

The overproduction of graduates at all levels is critical to ongoing sustainability of anthropology departments in museums and universities. But employing these graduates is a real problem facing the profession organizationally and philosophically. Applied anthropology, defined as the application of anthropological and other social science principles to the solution of practical problems faced by human institutions, is the solution to the employment issue in one sense and a threat to it in another. 

Re-branding Anthropology
Re-branding anthropology means identifying anthropology as a practical discipline, instead of the egghead eccentric hunter of rock and bones, the comic Indiana Jones, or the overly rationale and emotionally distant  forensic anthropologist. Anthropology, as a practical discipline, can lead students to become more critical in their thinking and their approach solving everyday problems. It can help them to adapt these critical thinking skills to whatever career they chose. To re-brand anthropology we must recognize the three dimensions in the life of an anthropologist – heart, mind and pocket book.

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