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.

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