What is Anthropology Good For?

The biocultural evolutionary perspective in Anthropology encourages students at all levels to answer really broad questions, getting at really complex phenomena. Here, I present the learning focus--that is, what students by the end of the semester should be able to understand and explain to themselves and others--that I include on my Anthro 101 syllabus ... on the first page. The ideas and methods of inquiry involved in Boasian Four-Field Anthropology are diverse, and all contribute to answering these "fairly big questions." Here, it is worth considering how creative inquiry, problem-solving, documentation, discussion, and critical reflection over answers to these questions constitute both an interdisciplinary science of humanity AND a life-long approach to addressing problems of organizational effectiveness or environmental impact in our complex, rapidly changing world. Anthropology is good for promoting problem-solving, tolerance, curiosity, and understanding today ... and well into the future.

What does Anthropology mean to you? I have often asked Anthro 101 students–virtually all of whom are first or second-year undergraduates at Oxford College of Emory University–to write a brief answer to this question on the first day of the semester. Not surprisingly, the answers reveal a range of familiarity with the discipline, from complete prior ignorance of the discipline’s existence (!!!) to keen interest in some area of Anthropology, with an intention to become and Anthro major. Occasionally, students at the start of their first Anthro course actually articulate that they are interested in figuring out how the it all fits together: where does inquiry into human biology and evolution connect with ethnographic research on cultural diversity and cultural difference? Still, even the most interested and informed students coming out of high school usually have developed a focus on one subfield within Anthropology. It is most often biological anthropology, followed by archaeology and cultural anthropology tied in a moderately distant second place. This probably reflects the dominance of intended pre-meds among our students, but it probably also reflects the more successful reach of human evolution and primatology documentaries and books with an evolutionary perspective. For the vast majority of undergraduates, then, the idea of a coherent Anthropology discipline with a conceptual foundation in biocultural evolution is not anywhere on the radar screen. Of course, as I have argued in my initial posts, the idea of such a coherent discipline is rarely encountered because anthropologists do not agree on what that coherent discipline might be … and whether we can commit to a coherent program of inquiry and debate over our shared biocultural inheritance and our diverse, ever-changing, and mutually shaped biocultural identities.

Indeed, many professional anthropologists don’t even have their own particular version of the biocultural perspective … or care about Anthropology as a coherent academic discipline. This, despite the fact that we continue to invest in the Boasian umbrella structure of four-field Anthropology in university, four-year, and two-year departments across North America, reaching the largest number of undergraduates in our introductory courses that cover the definition and some basic examples of biocultural connections (most often having to do with race or health). And this, despite the wider success–especially for producing educational materials effective at the high school level–of the truly bioculturally grounded American Anthropological Association’s public education program on race. I mean, doesn’t this actually suggest that the four-field departmental structure–in which most North American Anthropology faculty work–possesses at least a kernel of a good idea, which gets some interesting knowledge and perspectives across to a large number of undergraduates in liberal arts degree programs? I mean, isn’t the popularity of introductory Anthropology courses–and at many undergraduate colleges, Anthropology majors, minors, and interdisciplinary degree programs–an indication that students are gaining at least some significant transferable learning, communication, and critical thinking skills that prepare them for a wide range of professional careers and make at least some of them marginally more tolerant, open-minded, and engaged in social issues of fairness, justice, well-being, and sustainability? It’s as if the disciplinary structure of Anthropology–which we’ve inherited from Franz Boas’s late-19th century scientific and humanistic vision, and which supports the intellectually intriguing idea of our shared, intertwined biocultural identities–is succeeding despite the best efforts of most academic anthropologists.

Problem? Well, it depends on your point of view and interest. But I think it’s a huge problem. And it seems that cultural and biological anthropologists blogging on the topic agree. In fact, this particular post was motivated by my reading a recent essay by Ryan Anderson on his Anthropology in Public blog (which I got to via John Hawks). This bit from Ryan’s post “Anthropology: It’s Not Just a ‘Promotion’ Problem” really hit home:

What we currently produce is this: THE TENURED ANTHROPOLOGIST.  Today’s tenured anthropologist is made to do RESEARCH, attend ACADEMIC CONFERENCES, get GRANTS, write ACADEMIC BOOKS, and publish in TOP TIER ACADEMIC JOURNALS.  They also train future TENURED ANTHROPOLOGISTS.  All of this sums up the main purpose of this being.  This is what graduate programs train students to become.  This is what all new PhDs want to be someday.  Well, most of them.

In other words, most anthropological writing remains highly technical and of interest to other specialists within our various anthropological subfields. It may even be rare for archaeologists studying prehistoric hunter-gatherers to be read by archaeologists studying historical empires, and vice versa. Meanwhile, we get frustrated that the most successful books on our research topics are written by journalists or Jared Diamond. And shortsighted criteria for hiring and promotion leave us with very little time to think through why our research and resulting insights have broader relevance for students and members of the public … and here, I mean broader relevance for substantially changing how people think, learn, communicate, and engage in the world.


If you’ve read along this far, not only am I grateful that you’re this interested or curious. I would also suggest that the question of what Anthropology (and similar disciplines that also reach across the humanities-life science/qualitative-quantitative data divides and have overlapping research interests, such as Psychology, Sociology, and Linguistics) is good for is something that actually grabs you. You care about curiosity, scientific inquiry, critical self-reflection, and rigorous liberal education, with a foundation in improving your reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, integrating effective, evidence-based logical argumentation. We have to remember that with the potentially conflicting interests of undergraduate education (which helps universities and colleges to pay the bills through tuition) versus success in research (which brings in the prestige, grant money, endowed chairs, and other donor money), there are a number of logical symbolic story lines that align the attention and interests of otherwise critical Anthropology faculty members with the still-too-often shortsighted aims of deans and provosts and trustees, so that we prioritize research, publishing books and peer-reviewed articles, and sending out new PhD’s into the world. We want the best trained, most interesting, cutting-edge thinkers (or their highly recommended recent PhDs or post-docs) as faculty members in our own departments. And our administrations want faculty who will contribute to the university or college brand. Fortunately, there are so many good anthropology instructors out there–or like me, anthropologists in love with the discipline enough to work their asses off to become good teachers over time–managing great teaching material. So the other interest of having a good undergraduate courses and popular majors is also often achieved. But not in the service of a clear curricular and intellectual vision.

Now it should be clear that I think Anthropology on the undergraduate level is especially good at engaging students in developing really important transferable communication and critical thinking skills, while encouraging curiosity, critical self-reflection, and a commitment to engaging in society (rather than just consuming goods and services while avoiding democratic responsibilities). Anthropology is good for higher liberal arts education. Anthropology is good for encouraging life-long learning, open-mindedness, and democratic engagement.

But all academic disciplines should be able to engage students and the public in such general learning goals, influencing our basic communication and thinking skills and our commitment to tolerance and community engagement. I would go further and suggest that the biocultural perspective brings in something unique about Anthropology’s idea content and practical methods of inquiry. I would argue that at any level, students of Anthropology learn to rely on more varied methods of inquiry, with more varied, complex kinds of evidence, in order to figure out how parts in complex human systems influence one another and create larger patterns of organization and change. In doing so, Anthropology students can be much more creative, but also much better at documenting and explaining their questions, methods, results, and insights, while reinforcing a commitment to such collaborative, critical inquiry. The problem is that many of us in Anthropology end up becoming incredibly specialized in terms of knowledge and methodological expertise, barely able to speak with–let alone inspire collaboration with–colleagues in complementary areas of inquiry. I am not saying that I should be able to carry out ethnographic research as well as I can draw and describe an archaeological stratigraphic profile, but I should be able to provide my cultural anthropological colleagues with thoughtful, critical comments on their work, and vice versa. And although I am primarily a Paleolithic archaeology expert, I should be able to teach undergraduates the basics of ethnographic field methods … and do so in an inspired way, because of an engaged interest in my students’ inquiry into questions about the symbolic structure of social practices in interesting contexts. Anthropology needs a commitment to ideas, creative methodologies, discussion, and complex scientific problem solving for approaching BOTH very particular aspects of biocultural inquiry AND ALSO the really big picture of biocultural evolutionary emergence.

Perhaps the most effective way of illustrating the diversity and comprehensiveness of Anthropological inquiry across the subfields is in figures. Here, I summarize some of the big questions of the biocultural perspective, taken from the main content-based learning goals of my Anthro 101 syllabus (above left), along with a table outlining key areas of inquiry in the different subfields, and the methods involved in that inquiry (below). It shouldn’t be surprising that Anthropology has the potential for extraordinary insight into humanity, our biocultural origins, and our constantly changing biocultural identities … with all of the broader relevance for understanding any complex human organizational system and its impact on the environment.