Monday, July 30, 2018


There is an often-quoted description of anthropology, credited to Eric Wolf:  “Anthropology is the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities."

This is a true definition for our discipline. It describes the basic methodological concepts that Franz Boas prescribed for the training and practice of anthropology. Anthropologist should be trained in the role of participant - observer. This is a role that requires the anthropologist to serve as a cross-cultural interpreter. 

The field anthropologist is both the observer of the peoples who are his/her subjects and is also the advocate or witness for them in her/his own native culture. For the ethnographer, and anthropology in general, this is a role not unlike that of the lawyer representing a client in civil society. Our client is "our people".

The role has been the source of the tensions we observe throughout the history and evolution of American anthropology. The tension arises from the conflict between the political and social values of the dominant social system that governs our personal world and our "professional worlds" as anthropologists. The tension leads to questions that many of us have had to answer for ourselves, but that we often chose to ignore or avoid in our professional and personal lives.

As scientists, we can ask: “Where does Culture appear in our paradigm?”” Where does Humanity appear?”” Where are the differences?”” How are these two elements related?”” How do they add to our understanding of our and other’s everyday lives?” As scientists, we seek to observe the existential reality of human evolution and existence.

As humanists, we must ask: “What are human beliefs and values?” “How are they applied to real life situations?” “How does the individual apply these to their particular situation?” “How does society interpret the individual’s behavior?” As humanists, we seek to understand the meanings of the actions we, as participant, experience in based on the meanings of those we are observing.

As "observers", these are academic questions. They are questions that professionals can discuss within the traditional academic and professional association venues. They are the subject of “professionals” debate based on their academic, scientific, and scholarly research. Their interpretations influence and are influenced by their underlying culture, their unique personal and professional experiences, and their own personal motivations. They are participants in their own cultural universe. That is, like all human activity – they behave like human beings.

As “participants”,  this role is more perplexing. “How do we distinguish between the existential experience of the trained observer and the “native” participant?” Just because we share an experience, does this mean we understand it in the same way?

“Ethnocentrism” is the term we use to describe value judgments that individuals apply to situations that they either experience or observe. That is, they base their judgments of the situation on the meaning they were taught and not necessarily about the existential or factual nature of the situation. Boas recognized this tendency and argued that the professional anthropologist should adopt a “value free” perspective.

A “value free perspective” is based on the concept of “cultural relativity”.  Like the “Theory of relativity” in physics, the human observer’s perspective of the event determines its meaning. In order to understand a people’s experience, one should examine the context of the “values and beliefs” through which they experience the situational event. 

 The challenge of ethnocentrism is unique to the understanding and study of humanity. It is at the very heart of what anthropology is about as both a science and as an humanity. It is the moral and ethical question we face personally and professionally -- one that has not yet been realistically addressed by the profession, either existentially or ideationally.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

WE ARE ONE SPECIES -- The Most Scientific of the Humanities


Anthropology, the study of Anthrop or Man, is a subject that has dominated human thought for millennia. Prior to the scientific revolution, the study of man, as an intellectual discipline, has been the province of philosophy and religion.  As a practical discipline, anthropology was found in the study of history and governance that have focused on what we might call, “proto-anthropology

Proto-anthropology is based upon human observations and practical experience as these related to the daily life and survival of human groups, aka social units. Early humankind was aware that, individually and collectively, humans are both similar to and different from one another. The more intense the individual and collective experience, the greater these similarities and difference were experienced as the existential reality. The less intense and/or less frequent the experience, they were more likely conceived ideationally and envisioned in local myths and belief systems.

Joseph Campbell, in the Hero of a Thousand Faces, is, probably, the most well known of anthropologist/folklorist. With the help of Bill Moyers,  Campbell’s observations and analysis were popularized on PBS TV series in the 1980s "The Power of Myth." Campbell documented the universality of the human themes that he found in his study of myth and folklore. Using the comparative method, he found that these folktales and stories reflect humanity’s ideals for life and their fears about the uncertainties of the universe. Over time, these themes appear to morph into new forms as a society’s socio-economic structure developed increasing complexity over time. These ideational structures also varied with humankind’s relationship to its ecological universe. One may conclude that the ideational domain of culture developed and evolved along with the organic development of humankind’s existential experience.

These myths and folklore are “ideational” representations of a world that is a mystery to the people, who hold these views. They express a statement of the unknown framed in terms of the known. They combine elements of personal experience with elements of the collective speculative. They gain their meanings from how they help to explain the unknown and uncertain. Archaeologically,  we can imagine that the famous cave paintings of  Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave  and  Lascaux, and the early carvings of the Earth Mother figurine are artifacts of storytelling. They demonstrate through the ideational representations on the walls and crafted figurines the unrecorded words of the story teller/teacher/priest. These artifacts maybe our first existential evidence of the ideational domain of Human culture in the form of religion. Today, we can speculate about their meanings, an ideational act in itself. Metaphorically, they are the tree that falls in the forest that we do hear.

The term “humanities” stands for a classification for a wide range of scholarly disciplines that include history, art, crafts, and religion. It represents a form of scholarship that emerged in Western Europe  The common feature of these disciplines is their focus and speculation about the human condition and social experience. They evolved from the human existential experience filtered through the individual’s mind and emotions. They are expressed through some manner of physical behavior a resulting physical act or structure. The important feature of the humanities is that they are a shared experience. The sharing may be a temporary fad or become a foundational belief or ritual practice incorporated into the culture.

The important part of a “humanity” discipline is the relationship that it attempts to express between the individual and the individual’s universe. It represents a structure into which the creator of the experience can express his/her feelings. These individual “feelings and insights” are converted by the individual into an ideational representation. The creator, using his or her individual skills, attempts to communicate their vision to others through his/her creation. The act of expression comes from within, as an act of self-reflection.

Self- reflection involves a conversation with one’s self. “What is this feeling that I have about this experience?” “How can I express it?”  The importance of the ideational expression is in the creative process and not the existential reality. It calls for playing with the available structural elements to create a more interesting structure. That structure becomes an analogy of the experience. The creation is the analogy that is shared with others. The individual's “purpose” is to find “meaning” in the experience. “Meaning” is the function that humanistic structures create – “personal meanings”, and “collective meanings”. Or, what we call, the “superorganic” or “culture”.

Anthropology is the Humanity that approaches its subject scientifically through the process of comparative analysis of the observations of and participation in human activity and experiencing its physical products. In this regard, the anthropologist acknowledges the uncertainty of life. They also seek to understand life by demonstrating how humans have and do attempt to take control of their individual and collective lives.  Humanists and Anthropologist seek out the ways humans give “meaning” to the unknown and their uncertainty about it.

As anthropology became more scientific in its methods and theories there has arisen a counter-movement, "humanistic anthropology" One element of this movement is something called "autoethnography" We will be discussing this method and approach in future articles here in the Superorganic Blogg.

Monday, July 23, 2018


“Anthropology is the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities”

If we are to apply our evolutionary advantage as a species, we must recognize that humanity is both the observer and participant in the evolutionary process of life on the planet Earth. This is the power of the Anthropological perspective. Anthropology, as a science, seeks to understand how we have become the dominant biological organism on the planet. Anthropology, as humanity, seeks to understand how we view ourselves as individuals and as individuals living in societies through time.

The most humanistic of the sciences means that as human beings we attempt to understand the workings of the universe that we have inherited, through human eyes. We seek this understanding by describing the elements that we experience through our human senses. From these observations, we construct mental models of the universe we discover; and in the process, we discovered a “STRUCTURE” for the universe. 

As the most scientific of the humanities, we seek to understand the dynamic of these structures through our observations and, in the process, ascribe “FUNCTION” to the elements. In FUNCTION, we discover Purpose and Meaning. However, over time and space, we discover as humans, that these elements can be combined into different patterns. We also observe that our idea of Function is relative to our experience with a given Structure. We embody our experience in the Meanings we assign to structures and their elements. We label this as “CULTURE.”  A hallmark of anthropology is Cultural relativity, i.e. the meanings of structures and events are relative to the observer’s experience.

As organic beings, we have a unique ability to be self-reflective. We share our reflections with others through Language. Language is a meta-phenomenon that encodes our experience into a set of signs and symbols that shares “Meaning”. We express our discoveries, experiences, and feelings through the physical signs and symbols we create and share with others.  Humans experience not only discover the “purpose” of structural elements, but also the part(s) they play in creating and maintaining the larger structures of which they are a part.  We, as humans, discover and seek “MEANING” to the purpose. As a self-reflective species, we seek our meanings from explanation about how these structures apply to us, personally, collectively (a part of society), and as a species (among all species).

 “Meaning” expresses “purpose” in a relativistic way. It explains the links we find in nature in terms of “cause to effect”. It provides the answer to the old philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the woods, does it matter if no one hears it?” From the Human perspective, the answer is “No.” If we cannot, or do not experience, the event, for us the event does not exist. The experience is not existential, only an ideational possibility. Scientifically, an ideational explanation of a experience without physical evidence is a hypothesis, a belief based on a “best guess.” Again, an example of CULTURAL RELATIVITY.

The recognition of Cultural Relativity is one of the greatest discoveries of Anthropology. While often underplayed in public discourse, it gives us an advantage over other disciplines by recognizing the role of ethnocentrism as a part of the human condition. Like all organisms, biologically we recognize our own species. But, as a self-reflective animal, we separate ourselves as a clad or society from others sharing our environment by attributing meanings and purposes to the other in relations to us.
While this feature of human life is so evident today, why is it that the anthropological perspective has emerged in the last three centuries in the human mind only? This is the questions that I will be addressing in future installments of this blog.

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Context of Creativity

The Question was asked " Considering the importance of creativity and avoiding repetition in science researches for the fundamental advancement of science, How do you provide a context for creativity"

I am not certain what one means here about "creating a context for creativity".

The goal of science and scientific research is to find that which is repeatable, and if not, "Why?'

Creativity can be based on the discovery of an existential reality or an ideational theory constructed to explain some phenomena. Science advances by discovery and replication, they go together. Creating a method to discover an existential reality is one way to advance science. This is the experimental branch. Creating logical/mathematical model is another way when science predicts an existential phenomenon or behavior.

Luck plays a big role in the process. Talent and initiative are important but when forced can actually become a barrier to creativity. Kuhn's "parametric shift" idea points to the role of luck when an investigator or inventor or artist has that "Eureka moment" breaking through the established or orthodox point of view and opens new avenues for study or application.

To become too specialized can be a bad strategy. Invention and creativity comes from many places and specialization tends to hide ideas that have been developed in another disciplines that can be applied to a immediate problem.

TRIZ, , is an example of basic methods and principles that have appeared all patent applications that cross disciplinary boundaries. These principles can provide insight into the creativity process.

Analogy and metaphor are valuable tools for creativity and comes from reading widely and being aware of one's environment. These are tools I have used and applied to consult with a wide range of organizations and businesses.

There is one basic context in all creative events --- a problem that requires a solution.

Based on an answer originally published in response to a question that appeared on the Researchgate in April, 2018.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Applied Anthropology and Standardization

 In the real world, the replication of uniformity (See AFC Wallace or Ward Goodenough) is what distinguishes Order from Chaos. Standardization is a goal that society and culture strive for since it provides the base from which the next step of evolution or progress begins. If you are always looking back because you can't trust the past, then you can never make any real progress to a future.

Standardization provides a reference point. It is not an end all. It is a beginning. Anthropology has benefited by the "standardization" that John Wesley Powell called for in the training of field anthropologist back in the 1870's and which Boas introduced in his training program at Columbia that created the first generation of professional anthropologist.

In recent years, it seem that we have drifted away from a set of professional standards and into the realm of the "eclectic, fashionable, stylish." This is a trend that seems to parallel the over-production of PhD graduates and the shrinking and transformation of the academic market place -- especially for anthropologists which began in the 1980 and continued. It has severed the tentative academic/applied connection where the former generated theory that the latter might test in practice. It also served to drive some of us out of academia into the real world.

Standardization and the process of helping to create (discover) best practices is a rich area for applied anthropology and applied anthropologists. Program evaluation, which is applied research, was, for me, a very profitable career path during the early stage of my own career development as a consultant and coach.

The public wants to know, "What is valid and reliable,?" not novel. "What is predictable," not innovative. 
The majority do not want "new" as much as it wants to know "what works." Standardization makes answering the latter question a lot easier. The "New", and untested, is basic research, while "evaluation" and "standardization" are respectively -- engineering and auditing. The latter are the realm of the applied anthropologist.

In accounting and legal professions -- both applied practices serving a public need -- there are basic internal standards, e.g. "general accounting standards" and "code of professional ethics" It might be suggested that anthropology become more standardized in its methods and terminology when employed by or marketing to a non-anthropologically literate clientele. But this will require major input from the practitioner branch of the discipline and acceptance by the academic branch. 

Such standardization must apply across of the many contexts in which one finds ethnographic work being applied to solve practical problems. There is a similar dimension for the other sub disciplines such as archeology. If you are always looking back because you can't trust what you did in the past, then how can you convince the public that your advice help the client to make any real choices and progress affecting their future?