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Anthropology: Why It Matters

by Tim Ingold

Last tended to April 04, 2020

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

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 - 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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