Monday, March 24, 2014

The Two Cultures of Anthropology

When we speak of anthropology, most often we are referring to the cultural sub-field or the socio-cultural sub-field, of the discipline. The question of whether anthropology is a method or science really only arises in the cultural sub-field. Here is where the dualism between mind and body, individual and society, history vs science, subjective vs objective, are played out on both the theoretical level and the practical level. This is the zone C P Snow labelled the Two Cultures.

We, as cultural anthropologist, use a method we call ethnography as our basic research method and ethnology as our analytical approach. The former is conducted, we claim, by a combination of participant-observer field research where we look for and document the emic and the etic domains of our "subjects." We practice a form of natural history. Our focus is the qualitative data, meaning we seek to describe a society and its culture rather than measure it.

Our analytical method, ethnology, is based on a set of three principles -- holism, relativism, and comparative analysis. We apply these principles when we study the similarities and differences in the ethnographies that comprise the our corpus of ethnographic data. In this regard, "culture" is the guiding concept, or filter for our analysis. Here we seek to arrive at some understanding and consensus of "cultural/social" universals and processes at work in human existence. It is here where we attempt to link our ethnographies with our discoveries from the physical, linguistic and archaeological sub-fields to obtain an overall picture of what it means to be human and what it has taken to become human. This is the goal of the academic research branch of anthropology.

The applied branch, on the other hand, seeks to apply the principles and understanding of the human and institutional processes articulated by the academic branch to the solution of practical problems confronted by individuals and society in the real world of every day life.

In this regard, the academic research branch is free to move between the two cultures of science and humanities, while "applied" branch, whether it is recognize or not, is morally, ethically and possibly legally bound to an application of techniques and principles which can withstand at least the minimal standards of good science, i.e. validity and reliability. The practitioner must balance "generally accepted 'anthropological" standards" with the academic "state of the art."

The divide between Theory and Practice within the discipline has been a costly one for both the development of the discipline and for the thousands of students trained in anthropology who have not been able to find a professional acceptance as professional equals within the broad definition of anthropology as a discipline.

 [In the interest of full disclosure, I am a four field anthropologist (and two branch "academic research" and "applied")].

No comments: