anthropology – a changing discipline

One of the goals of this project is for me to develop an understanding, and a proper answer to, the question “what is anthropology?”.  In my program, anthropology takes on numerous positions/meanings/purposes. I’m not ready to answer the question definitively, and instead I’ll try to “inform the question”.

What is anthropology?

Talal Asad discusses the way anthropology is a relatively new discipline, and that it has constantly been undergoing change. He writes:

“When Evans-Pritchard published his well-known Introduction to Social Anthropology in 1951, it seemed reasonably clear what the subject was about. “The social anthropologist”, he explained, “studies primitive societies directly, living among them for months or years, whereas sociological research is usually from documents and largely statistical. The social anthropologist studies societies as wholes – he studies their oecologies, their economics, their legal and political institutions, their family and kinship organizations, their religions, their technologies, their arts, etc. as parts of general social systems.” The doctrines and approaches that went by the name of functionalism thus gave social anthropology an assured and coherent style.

Today by contrast even this coherence of style is absent. The anthropologist is now someone who studies societies both ‘simple’ and ‘complex’; resorts to participant observation, statistical techniques, historical archives and other literary sources; finds himself intellectually closer to economists or political scientists or psycho-analysts or structural linguistics or animal behaviorists than he does to other anthropologists.”   (Asad 1973:10)

A straight answer? Not really, but it gives us a good idea what kind of specialization has occurred in the discipline. The differences in interests and methods create a confusing picture for future collaboration and ‘disciplinaryness’.

Many many more Asad quotes to come in the next few weeks… As well as more on how anthropology is taking what it’s learned online, aka, how this research is an “anthropology” project.


3 responses to this post.

  1. It’s interesting 0 comments since november until now…and the topic is fundamental I think.

    Owen’s (another anthro) blog is one of realy few which are trying to precising ‘what is anthropology?’
    I think we need more extensive debate in antropological blogs community about ‘what is anthropology?’ If we want popularize anthropological pont’s of view, we have to precise what is anthropology!

    That’s why I formulate my ‘call for precision’ to the anthropological blogs community which you can read here
    I believe that we can establish creative debate in Internet about our discipline (as we understand it). It could be also great example about Owen’s research proposal.


  2. Thanks very much for the feedback and I’m looking forward to future developments on your blog.

    I appreciate very much the need to be precise, especially after jumping between so many different definitions and uses of popular anthro terms (culture being the most obvious trouble).

    I’d also add that I’m a big fan of the advocacy/activist side of anthropology, and so I’d also push for effective use of communication. Coming up with too many precise terms is also a problem, in that no one can jump into the discussion without first investing in all the specific terminology. Also I’m a fan of poetry and fiction in anthropology. I guess poetry can be concise too.

    Here’s to finding a suitable definition of ‘anthropology’. I’ve got some more questions for ya but I’ll respond directly on your blog.

    I’ve added your blog to the blogroll and my rss feeds.



  3. […] had never happened, while imparting to his audience that this is what we anthropologists do: we study primitive, endangered others. From them we collect precious bits of unique wisdom which we assemble into a cabinet of curios […]


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