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Anthropology: Why It Matters

by Tim Ingold

Last tended to August 04, 2020

What is the point of Anthropology?

The most defining characteristic of being human, as opposed to animal or mineral or vegetable, is that our ways of life – our "ways of doing and saying, thinking and knowing" – are not pre-determined. Nor are they ever settled. "Living is a matter of deciding how to live"

Our ways of living always have the potential to branch off and change course, "no one of which is any more normal or natural than any other"

As we walk along the paths of life, we always do it alongside others. "Like the strands of a rope, lives intertwine and overlap. They go along together and mutually respond to one another in alternating cycles of tension and resolution"

Human life is inherently social; "it is the never-ending and collective process of figuring out how to live. Every way of life, then, represents a communal experiment in living"

No one solution to the myriad ways of living is the way. Each is an approach to the problem. The field of anthropology is a sincere effort to learn from as many of these approaches as it can, and then help apply that broad wisdom to the problems of how to live.

This isn't a communally agreed upon definition, it's Tim Ingold personally advocating for what he thinks anthropology should be. It's not all what people calling themselves anthropologists practice or believe.

"anthropology will always be a discipline-in-the-making: it can be no more finished than the social life with which it is concerned"

Anthropology tackles the same questions as philosophy

What is justice? How do we distribute power in society? What does it mean to live a good life?

But philosophers look for the answer by turning inwards - thinking and debating the problems solo. Consulting the texts of others like them. Mostly old white dead men. In a way that does not engage with "the messy realities of ordinary life"

Anthropologists instead try to answer those questions through "a deep involvement in observation, conversation and participatory practice"

"Anthropology, in my definition, is philosophy with the people in"

Given the current climate crisis clusterfuck, we need disciplines like anthropology to help us understand they we behave the way we do. And offer guidance on how to shift course. The answer isn't going to be found in some remote, exoticised, "native" way of life, but in paying attention to the life around us.

"History is full of monumental attempts to put an end to it, attempts that must necessarily fail if life is to continue. To find our way around the ruins is a task for all of us. That’s where anthropology comes in, and why – in our precarious world – it matters so much."
In the age of information overload, we have no concept of what is meaningful and how to contextualise what we are told.

On Similarity, Difference, and "Human Nature"

"We are forever creating ourselves and one another. Our word for this process of collective self-fashioning is history. We make ourselves historically by establishing, in the things we do, the conditions under which generations to follow will grow to maturity.

History, then, does not stand like an edifice on the pedestal of an evolved human nature. Most attempts to spell out this nature turn out on closer inspection to be but thinly disguised portraits of what their authors, steeped in the values of modernity, take to be the ideal accomplishments of humanity, including things like art, technology, science and reason"

Projecting modern accomplishments onto Palaeolithic capacities and DNA is a decidedly Eurocentric viewpoint. It claims "the ascent of man" was genetically fated to cumulate in our current western neoliberal scientifically rationalist and technology obsessed state.

This is a convenient story, but also over writes and ignores all the historical accomplishments of people who don't fit into the modern myth of progress.

"Human nature, then, serves as little more than a prop to support the belief in our own superiority."

We can only say all humans have a "capacity for culture" - we posses a limitless capacity to acquire a limitless variety of cultural practices and beliefs. And none of them genetically predefined.

In answer to Clifford Geertz's famous quote that we begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of lives but end up with only one, Ingold suggests we take a more open ended view.
Where Geertz suggests we narrow down universal options until we end as ourselves, Ingold argues “life is a movement not of closure but of opening”. A constant becoming we step into each moment as we act in the world.

We do not begin united by a universal nature and end divided by a specific culture. Convergence and divergence are continuous forces from our beginnings to our ends. We differentiate ourselves as we move through the world together.

Communities exist because we need a diversity of opinions and skills that all contribute to one another. Identity in community is "relational". Interestingly this is at odds with the idea of identity within the modern state - which demands equality of obligation and entitlements.

The modern citizen of "The West" - developed out of the historical tradition of self made rationalist scientific man - is beholden to no one, an inhabitants of no where (the "global citizen"), and committed to universal thought and expression.

"One of the paradoxes of anthropology is that while it has much to say about the lives and times of non-western peoples, it has next to nothing to say about the people of the West"

The West becomes the non specific default against which all other particular people from specific times and places are silently judged against.

"Westerners, it turns out, are always conspicuous by their absence. For in truth, they have never existed"

"Cosmopolitan, rational and uncompromisingly self-interested, belonging nowhere and to no-one, the modern westerner is a figment of our imagination."

On the Historical Roots of Anthropology

As an undergraduate Tim felt disillusioned by both the arrogant godly dominance of the natural sciences, and the esoteric impracticality of the humanities.

The widening gap brown the two felt like "the great tragedy of the intellectual history of the West."
Anthropology felt like the rightful reunion of the two sides - attempting to "reunite the human being with being human, yet in a way that never loses sight of lived experience"

Anthropology's original ambition was to forge "a unified science of man". In many ways this fell apart and requires we "rebuild anthropology for the future"

Our history is riddled with racists, eugenicists, thieves, nut jobs, and prejudiced bigots. "In the public understanding of anthropology, we are still stalked by a past that most of us would prefer to forget."

Like many other fields, anthropology emerged in the "Age of Reason" and bears its scars. - "liberal philosophers and intellectuals of the seYenteenth and eighteenth centuries" that made up the Enlightenment mission of civilising the rest of humanity from "superstition and dogma"

The downside of this goal to civilise is that it required the invention of pre-civilised people - the primitives.

This is where all the Hobbesian speculation about man's "state of nature" begins.

By the 1860s and 1870s the anthropological theories of human progress moving though evolutionary stages ending with modern Europeans was in full swing. "They included such classics as Henry Maine’s Ancient Law, Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society, John Ferguson McLennan’s Primitive Marriage, Johann Jakob Bachofen’s Mother Right and Edward Burnett Tylor’s Primitive Culture"

The original trio of anthropology branches are physical, archaeological, and social.

Functionalism grew out of social Darwinist theories in the 1920s and 30s - they shifted the focus from an evolutionary model of cultural institutions, to exploring how cultural practices work. What purposes they serve for individuals and social cohesion.

Around 1920 American and British anthropology began to develop into two distinct branches - cultural in North America and social in Britain.

Social anthropology was concerned with how people relate to one another in social life. While cultural anthropology was an offshoot off ethnology and the study of folk traditions.

Edward leach pioneered structuralism under British social anthropology - he saw human societies as vast machines with controls and dials - combinations of variables that let to different cultural possibilities. An engineering approach to how societies work. Claude Levi Strauss followed the same ideas.

Around the same time Thomas Kuhn has proposed the study of scientific revolutions and the concept of the paradigm: "The set of founding principles that, at any moment in the history of a discipline, constrain the questions it can ask and the means by which to resolve them"

  • The evolutionary stage of anthropology's history asked ' how do humans evolve?'
  • The functionalists asked ' how do social institutions work?'
  • The structuralist asked "' how do the things people say and do construct meaning?'
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