This page provides all information about anthropology research paper writing: writing tips, topics, and examples. Anthropology as a discipline is concerned with human diversity. In its most inclusive conception, this is what brings together the four fields of sociocultural anthropology, archaeology, biological (or physical) anthropology, and linguistics.
How to Write an Anthropology Research Paper
How to write an anthropology research paper? This page briefly situates anthropology as a discipline of study within the social sciences. It provides an introduction to the kinds of writing that you might encounter in your anthropology courses, describes some of the expectations that your instructors may have, and suggests some ways to approach your assignments. It also includes links to information on citation practices in anthropology and resources for writing anthropological research papers. Learn how to write an anthropology research paper.
Anthropology Research Paper Topics
The list of anthropology research paper topics is divided into the following categories:
- Applied Anthropology Research Paper Topics. Applied anthropology, in its broader sense, is distinguished primarily from academic anthropology as anthropological methods and data put to use outside of the classroom. This is not to say that all anthropological methods and data put to use outside of the classroom is applied anthropology; field research also is anthropological methods and data put to use outside of the classroom, but it can be used for academic purposes, as well as for practical application.
- Archaeology Research Paper Topics. Archaeology is the study of human cultures through the study of material and environmental remains. The word, derived from ancient Greek, means “the study of antiquity.” Archaeology is one of the four subfields of anthropology, together with biological anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and social/cultural anthropology. Archaeological remains can take many forms, two of the basic ones being artifacts (any object altered by human hands) and faunal remains, or midden (food remnants such as bone and shell).
- Biological Anthropology Research Paper Topics. Biological anthropology uses the comparative method in order to understand and appreciate the evolutionary relationships among primate fossils, as well as living species. It compares and contrast fossil skeletons (especially jaws and teeth), DNA molecules, and morphologies (both anatomy and physiology), as well as psychological and behavioral patterns.
- Cultural Anthropology Research Paper Topics. Cultural anthropology is the study of human patterns of thought and behavior, and how and why these patterns differ, in contemporary societies. Cultural anthropology is sometimes called social anthropology, sociocultural anthropology, or ethnology. Cultural anthropology also includes pursuits such as ethnography, ethnohistory, and cross-cultural research.
- Evolution Research Paper Topics. Modern anthropology embraces the fact of evolution, viewing the recent appearance of humankind within a sweeping geological framework. Our biological structures and functions, as well as societies and cultures, have changed throughout time and will continue to do so. One fascinating prospect for our species is its future adaptation to and survival in outer space, whether for living on neighboring planets or elsewhere in this expanding universe.
- Linguistics Research Paper Topics. Of the many areas of anthropology that entice researchers to study, language is one that draws significant and sustained attention. As far back as 1500 BCE, individuals in India speculated about language development, derivations, and use. Similar speculation was done in Europe among Greek philosophers at the time of Socrates and his followers.
Anthropology Research Paper Examples
Applied Anthropology Research Paper
This research paper explores the subject of applied anthropology. It was found to be most productive to do this from a historical perspective in order to see the formation of the discipline from its earliest, inchoate form to its current state. This method lends a processual understanding of how applied anthropology arrived at the state in which it is found in early 21st century anthropology. See Applied Anthropology Research Paper Example.
Archaeology Research Paper
Archaeology is the study of human cultures through the study of material and environmental remains. The word, derived from ancient Greek, means “the study of antiquity.” Archaeology is one of the four subfields of anthropology, together with biological anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and social/cultural anthropology. Archaeological remains can take many forms, two of the basic ones being artifacts (any object altered by human hands) and faunal remains, or midden (food remnants such as bone and shell). Artifacts can be anything from simple flaked stone tools and pottery sherds to the most elaborate and priceless objects found in such treasure troves as the tomb of Tutankhamun. These finds constitute the archaeological record, which archaeologists then piece together to interpret as much as they can about the cultures they are studying. See Archaeology Research Paper Example.
Biological Anthropology Research Paper
Biological anthropologists focus on the organic evidence of primates (e.g., their fossils, skeletons, teeth, genetic makeup, and physical characteristics, as well as psychological and social behavior patterns). They present this evidence in a comprehensive and intelligible manner, while searching for meaningful concepts and generalizations about primate evolution in general, and our species in particular. See Biological Anthropology Research Paper Example.
Cultural Anthropology Research Paper
Cultural anthropology is the study of human patterns of thought and behavior, and how and why these patterns differ, in contemporary societies. Cultural anthropology is sometimes called social anthropology, sociocultural anthropology, or ethnology. Cultural anthropology also includes pursuits such as ethnography, ethnohistory, and cross-cultural research. See Cultural Anthropology Research Paper Example.
Evolution Research Paper
Modern anthropology embraces the fact of evolution, viewing the recent appearance of humankind within a sweeping geological framework. Our biological structures and functions, as well as societies and cultures, have changed throughout time and will continue to do so. One fascinating prospect for our species is its future adaptation to and survival in outer space, whether for living on neighboring planets or elsewhere in this expanding universe. See Evolution Research Paper Example.
Linguistics Research Paper
Of the many areas of anthropology that entice researchers to study, language is one that draws significant and sustained attention. As far back as 1500 BCE, individuals in India speculated about language development, derivations, and use. Similar speculation was done in Europe among Greek philosophers at the time of Socrates and his followers. Evidence from over 30,000 preserved cuneiform writings has consistently raised curiosity regarding the spoken language of the ancient Sumerians prior to 2000 BCE, as have discoveries regarding original language types from other indigenous peoples, such as the aborigines of Australia and New Guinea. See Linguistics Research Paper Example.
Sample Antropology Research Paper
This sample Anthropology Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. Like other free research paper examples it is not a custom research paper. If you need help with writing your assignment, please use research paper writing services and buy a research paper on any topic.
Anthropology is a study of human diversity. This anthropology research paper discusses global variations in the delimitation of the discipline, and its development from a study closely linked historically to the Western expansion into other parts of the world, to the current situation with anthropologists from varied nations studying social and cultural life everywhere. Key concepts – culture, cultural translation, comparison, and fieldwork – are identified; main dimensions of specializations and practical applications are discussed; and the future of anthropology in an increasingly interconnected world is considered.
- Terminologies and Boundaries of Anthropology
- Conceptions of the Core of Anthropology
- Anthropology Specialties and Subdisciplines
- The Practical Uses of Anthropology
- The Future of Anthropology
Anthropology as a discipline is concerned with human diversity. In its most inclusive conception, this is what brings together the four fields of sociocultural anthropology, archaeology, biological (or physical) anthropology, and linguistics. With its formative period in the historical era, when Europeans and people of European descent were exploring other parts of the world and establishing their dominance over them, and when evolutionary thought was strong, it also came to focus its attention especially on what was, from the Western point of view, distant in time or space – early humans or hominoids, and non-European peoples. In that early period, there was indeed a strong tendency to conflate distances in time with those in space: some living non-Europeans could be taken to be ‘contemporary ancestors,’ dwelling in ‘primitive societies.’ Understandings of the discipline have changed over time, however; and they are not now entirely unitary across the world. What is held together under one academic umbrella in one place may be divided among half a dozen disciplines somewhere else. A mapping of the contemporary state of the discipline, consequently, may usefully begin by taking some note of international variations.
Terminologies and Boundaries of Anthropology
It is particularly in North America that academic anthropology has retained what has come to be known as ‘the four-field approach.’ Generally, it seems to have had its greatest strength in countries where dominant settler populations faced sizable indigenous populations, and may have found it practical to assemble academic knowledge about these in a single discipline. In recent times, the continued viability of this arrangement has come under debate. Among the founders of the discipline, some were perhaps able to work (or at least dabble) in all the main branches, but with time, in American anthropology as well, it has certainly been recognized that most scholars reach specialist skills in only one of them – even as it may be acknowledged that a broad intellectual sweep across humanity has its uses, and at the same time as it is recognized that, here as elsewhere, research in the border zones between established disciplines or subdisciplines often brings its own rewards. On the whole, in any case, scholars in archaeology, biological anthropology, linguistics, and sociocultural anthropology now mostly work quite autonomously of one another, and while terminologies vary, in many parts of the world, they are understood as separate disciplines.
In Europe, varying uses of the terms ‘anthropology,’ ‘ethnology,’ and ‘ethnography,’ between countries and regions as well as over time, often reflect significant historical and current intellectual divides (Vermeulen and Alvarez Roldán, 1995). In parts of the continent, in an earlier period, the term ‘anthropology’ (in whatever shape it appeared in different languages) tended to be used mostly for physical anthropology, but since the later decades of the twentieth century, it has largely been taken over by what we here term ‘sociocultural anthropology’ – itself a hybrid designation for what is usually referred to either as social anthropology or as cultural anthropology (in German usage especially, however, ‘anthropology’ also frequently refers to a branch of philosophy). Physical or biological anthropology, meanwhile, was absorbed in many places by other disciplines concerned with human biology, while archaeology and linguistics maintained their positions as separate disciplines.
In some European countries, now or in the past, the term ‘ethnography’ has been used, unlike in present-day usage in Anglophone countries, to refer to sociocultural anthropology as a discipline. Matters of discipline boundaries are further complicated, however, by the fact that sociocultural anthropology, especially in Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe, is often itself divided into two separate disciplines, with separate origins in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One, which was often originally designated something like ‘folk life studies,’ had its historical links with cultural nationalism, and concerned itself with local and national traditions, especially with regard to folklore and material culture. This discipline mostly did not acquire a strong academic foothold in those Western European countries that were most involved in exploration and colonialism outside Europe, particularly Great Britain and France, where, on the other hand, sociocultural anthropology that focused on non-European forms of life was earliest and most securely established. The more Europeoriented, or nationally inclined, ‘folk life studies’ discipline has tended, in recent decades, to redesignate itself as ‘European ethnology’ – or, in some contexts, simply as ‘ethnology’ – in contrast to a rather more globally oriented ‘anthropology.’ In another usage, ‘ethnology’ has been taken to refer to a more historical and museological orientation (in contrast with what was for a time a more presentist social anthropology), while in other contexts again, it is more or less synonymous with ‘sociocultural anthropology.’ Yet further national variations in terminology continue to make direct transpositions of terms between languages treacherous.
Furthermore, if in its historical beginnings anthropology tended to be a matter of ‘the West studying the rest,’ with the colonial powers and their settler offshoots taking the greatest interest in establishing the discipline as an academic field, this is no longer the situation. Since the latter half of the twentieth century, the number of practitioners has grown conspicuously, and their global distribution has changed. There are now anthropologists everywhere, locals of just about all countries, based in their home academic institutions or other organizations (Fahim, 1982; Ribeiro and Escobar, 2006; Boskovic, 2008).
Yet this is not always clearly reflected in the terminology of the academic landscape. In India, where anthropology has an extended history, its distinctiveness is frequently taken to involve a particular preoccupation with ‘tribal’ populations, and perhaps with physical anthropology – while some of the scholars recognized internationally as leading Indian anthropologists, concerned with the mainstream of Indian society, may be seen as sociologists in their own country (Uberoi et al., 2007). In African universities, too, founded in the late colonial or the postcolonial period, there has often been no distinction made, at least organizationally, between anthropology and sociology. If in Africa, anthropology has also for a period had to carry the stigma of being historically associated with the evils of colonialism, it seems now to find its own intellectual base in a collaboration between local and expatriate scholars (Devisch and Nyamnjoh, 2011).
Back in North America and Europe, again, the framework of academic life is not altogether stable over time. ‘Cultural studies,’ born in Britain but expanding from there, and putting itself on the intellectual map mostly from the 1970s onward, has been most successful as a cross-disciplinary movement in the Anglophone countries but has had an impact elsewhere as well. Its center of gravity may have been mostly in literary and media studies, but insofar as it has engaged with methods of qualitative field research and with issues of cultural diversity, not least in the areas of multiculturalism and diaspora studies, it has sometimes come close to sociocultural anthropology and – in certain European countries – to ethnology, as discussed in this research paper. While some anthropologists may see this as an undesirable intrusion into their disciplinary domain, others see it as a source of new stimuli (Dominguez, 1996; Nugent and Shore, 1997).
Conceptions of the Core of Anthropology
Again, a concern with human diversity may be seen to define anthropology as a whole (Hannerz, 2010). Even when the discipline at times turns to questions of what unites humanity, and what can be seen to constitute human nature, it does so more than other disciplines against the background of its panoramic understanding of diversity. If that concern may seem somewhat airy, one can also discern its more concrete implications for many of the distinctive working realities of the anthropological practitioner. Yet there has been a somewhat shifting cluster of assumptions here of what is the core of anthropological work and thought. As we inspect it, we will concentrate on sociocultural anthropology – by now the segment of the wider field that remains, internationally, most clearly identified as anthropology.
Obviously in North America and much of Europe, the tradition of studying more exotic forms of life has remained strong, and some might still maintain that this is what a ‘real anthropologist’ does. Yet few are now likely to find it entirely defensible at intellectual, moral, and political levels to have a separate discipline for the study of the ‘non-West’ (or ‘non- North’). By the latter half of the twentieth century, past vocabulary such as ‘primitive societies’ had certainly become mostly an embarrassment. In a more egalitarian mood, many anthropologists would now undoubtedly prefer to see the practice of research among distant others in terms of a worldwide intellectual exchange effort: it is quite acceptable for North American and European anthropologists to go to Africa, Asia, or Oceania, as long as anthropologists from these regions are also welcomed to do research in the Occident. In practice, however, such a symmetrical exchange has hardly occurred on any significant scale. The professional anthropologists originating in non-Western, non-Northern parts of the world have seldom had the inclination, or the funding, to do their research abroad. They have been much more likely to conduct their studies in their home countries – where they may thus sometimes share their fields with expatriate anthropologists from Europe or North America.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, moreover, the emphasis on studying exotic others was weakening in American and European sociocultural anthropologies as well. The growing interest in and increasing legitimacy of ‘anthropology at home’ have been based partly on a sense that humanity is indivisible. The preoccupation with exploring human diversity is to a certain extent retained by emphasizing the internal diversity of forms of life (lifestyles, subcultures, etc.) of contemporary societies. The exotic may be just around the corner. Moreover, the study of one’s own society is often motivated by a sense of relevance: one may be better placed to engage actively with whatever are perceived to be the wrongs of the place where one has the rights and the duties of a citizen. In some parts of Europe, too, where the discipline was relatively late in getting established, most anthropologists from the very beginning did their research in their own countries, even as they drew intellectual inspiration from the classic studies of exotics imported from older national anthropologies. Of course, such a repatriation of sociocultural anthropology may again blur certain disciplinary boundaries, perhaps with sociology or perhaps in some contexts with an ‘ethnology’ of the European type, which could also identify itself as an ‘anthropology at home.’
If anthropology is no longer quite so committed to identifying itself in terms of exotic fields, its methodology appears, in some views, to offer another sense of distinctiveness. Anthropologists, since at least the early twentieth century, have typically done ‘fieldwork.’ They emphasize ‘participant observation’ or ‘qualitative research’ – in contrast with the handling of more or less impersonal statistical data – or ‘ethnography,’ in the double sense of the process of field study and the product of a largely descriptive account of a slice or a way of life. In this discipline, the pure theorist is an anomaly, if not entirely nonexistent. The direct involvement with another way of being and behaving, whether it is in a village on the other side of the world, in a neighborhood across town, or in another occupation, tends to become more than a methodological choice, an effective way of reaching out to something unknown. It becomes a central personal experience, a surrender with strong moral and aesthetic overtones, and a potential for rich satisfaction and lifelong memories.
Even so, placing fieldwork at the core of the distinctiveness of anthropology is also problematic. In part, the problem is that ‘doing ethnography’ has become increasingly common in various other disciplines as well, even if anthropologists sometimes complain that it is then done badly or superficially (‘ethnography lite’). It is also true that fieldwork of the most orthodox variety does not fit readily into every setting. In all field studies, anthropologists tend to do not only participant observation but other kinds of work as well. They talk to informants, elicit life histories, collect texts, conduct surveys, and engage in some variety of activities to acquire new knowledge. To what extent their observational work can really be actively participatory must depend a great deal on the contexts. But furthermore, in contemporary life, observational work is sometimes not very rewarding. Following the daily round of an agricultural village is one thing; observing an office worker at his desk, staring at his computer screen, is another. On the other hand, fields in the present-day world may involve other kinds of data than those of classic anthropology – more media use, for example. Notions of ‘field’ and ‘fieldwork’ are increasingly coming to be debated in anthropology, as the world changes and as anthropologists try to fit their pursuits into it; there are clearly also anthropologists who prefer less distinctively anthropological methodological repertoires (cf Gupta and Ferguson, 1997; Bernard, 1998; Coleman and Collins, 2006).
The idea of gaining knowledge and understanding from fieldwork is certainly not entirely separate from the issues of where, and among whom, anthropologists work either. While anthropologists have been inclined to assume, or argue explicitly, that there are special insights to be gained from combining an outsider view with immersion in another way of life, the rise of ‘anthropology at home,’ the increasingly frequent copresence of indigenous and expatriate anthropologists in many fields, and the growth elsewhere in academic life of more emphatically insider-oriented fields of study, such as some varieties of ethnic studies, leave assumptions and arguments of this kind more clearly open to debate. Some would question as a matter of principle what kind of validity an outsider’s perspective can have. Others could argue that one can never be an anthropologist and an insider at the same time, as these are distinct intellectual stances. And then, surely, such issues are further complicated by the fact that ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ are not necessarily either-or categories, and hardly altogether stable either. An outsider can perhaps become an insider – and, on the other hand, one can probably start as an insider, drift away, and become an outsider. Here is an enduring complex of problems that anthropologists and their colleagues in adjacent disciplines will continue to debate (Merton, 1972; Narayan, 1993).
One may wish to object to the somewhat unreflective inclination to put fieldwork at the center of the discipline that it would tend to make anthropology primarily a methodological specialty – perhaps, because of its qualitative emphasis, the counterpart of statistics. Undoubtedly, many anthropologists would prefer to identify their discipline with particular ideas, theories, and intellectual perspectives, and the history of anthropology is most often written in such terms. It may still turn out to be difficult to point to any single, uncontested, enduring central concept, or structure of concepts.
A key idea in the exploration of human diversity has obviously been that of ‘culture,’ not least in the plural form of ‘cultures.’ This is a key term put to many uses in contemporary life (Breidenbach and Nyíri, 2009). Most fundamentally, in its conventional but multifaceted anthropological form, ‘culture’ stands for whatever human beings learn in social life, as contrasted with whatever is inborn (i.e., genetically given). But with the idea that human beings are learning animals also goes the understanding that they can learn different things, so that what is cultural tends to exhibit variation within humanity. Moreover, the tendency has been to conceptualize culture at a level of human collectivities (societies, nations, and groups), so that members are held to be alike, sharing a culture, while on the other hand there are cultural differences between such collectivities. Culture, that is, has been taken to come in distinct packages – cultures. In the classic view of culture, there has also been a tendency to try to see each such culture ‘as a whole’ – to describe entire ways of life and thought, and to throw light on the varied interconnections among ideas and practices.
Such a basic notion of culture has allowed anthropologists to proceed with the task of drawing a panoramic map of human diversity. There has certainly also been a widespread preoccupation with showing how much of human thought and behavior is actually cultural (i.e., learned) and thus variable, rather than altogether biologically based and uniform. This emphasis has been visible, for example, in anthropological contributions to gender studies.
Yet culture has also been a contested concept in anthropology, not least in recent times. It is true that it was never equally central to anthropological thought in all varieties of anthropology. American sociocultural anthropology, which has more often been identified as ‘cultural anthropology,’ has focused rather more on it, for example, than its British counterpart, which has been more inclined over the years to describe itself as ‘social anthropology.’ By the late twentieth century, however, critics in the United States as well as elsewhere argued that the established style of cultural thought tended to exaggerate differences between human collectivities, to underplay variations within them, to disregard issues of power and inequality and their material bases, and to offer overly static, ahistorical portrayals of human ways of life. While some anthropologists have gone as far as to argue for the abolition of the culture concept, others would be inclined to accept many of the criticisms yet take a more reformist line. Whichever view is taken, it seems that debates over the understanding of culture offer the discipline one of its lively intellectual foci (Hannerz, 1993; Brumann, 1999; Kuper, 1999).
The notion of cultural translation has also had a part in defining anthropological work, and inevitably it is drawn into the arguments about the culture concept generally. Indeed, bridging cultural divides by making the ideas and expressions of one culture understandable in terms of another has been a major anthropological activity, although this linguistic analogy is certainly too limiting to describe all anthropology (Asad, 1986; Pálsson, 1993). In a somewhat related manner, it has gone with the interest in human diversity to describe anthropology as a discipline centrally involved with comparison (Gingrich and Fox, 2002). In a general way, this is clearly valid. Much of anthropology is at least implicitly comparative, in its inclination to emphasize what is somehow notably different about the ideas, habits, and relationships of some particular population. To the extent that the origins of the discipline have been European and North American, the baseline of such comparisons and contrasts has no doubt been in a general way Western. At the same time, there has been a strong tendency to use the knowledge of diversity to scrutinize Western social arrangements and habits of thought, and thus to destabilize ‘common sense.’ In such a way, anthropological comparison can serve the purpose of cultural critique, a possibility used in different ways at different times (Marcus and Fischer, 1986). On the other hand, the form of large-scale comparative studies, focusing on correlations between particular sociocultural elements across a large number of social units, which was prominent in the discipline in some earlier periods, has not been a central feature for some time, and the intellectual and methodological assumptions underlying comparison are also a more or less continuous topic of argument (Köbben, 1970; Holy, 1987).
Anthropology Specialties and Subdisciplines
If culture in the singular and plural forms, fieldwork, translation, and comparison may count as ideas and practices that hold anthropology together, not in consensus but often rather more through engagement in debate, it is often suggested that the discipline also tends to be systematically segmented along various lines – not only in terms of what is understood to make up the discipline, as noted in this research paper, but also with regard to what draws communities of specialists closer together. One of the three major dimensions here is area knowledge. Anthropologists tend to be Africanists, Europeanists, Melanesianists, or members of other region-based categories. Rather few of them ever commit themselves to acquiring specialized knowledge of more than one major region to the extent of doing field research there. It is true that if fieldwork is often highly localized, it does not necessarily lead to a wider regional knowledge either, but as a matter of convention (perhaps at least to fit into normal job descriptions in the discipline), the tendency has been to achieve specialist status by reaching toward an overview of the accumulated anthropological knowledge of some such unit, and perhaps seeking opportunities to familiarize oneself with more of it through travel. In countries where ‘area studies’ have been academically institutionalized, such regional anthropologies have had a significant role in the resulting interdisciplinary structures, and, generally, shared regional specialization has often been important in scholarly exchanges across discipline boundaries.
The second major dimension of specialization can be described as topical. Although anthropology has a traditional orientation toward social and cultural ‘wholes,’ there is yet a tendency among many anthropologists to focus their interest on particular kinds of ideas, practices, or institutions. Frequently, such specializations have tended to follow the dominant dividing lines between other academic disciplines – there has been political anthropology, economic anthropology, psychological anthropology, anthropology of law, anthropology of art, and ecological anthropology, for example. Drawing on knowledge of social and cultural diversity, one aspect of such specialization has been to scrutinize and criticize concepts and assumptions of the counterpart disciplines with respect to their tendencies toward Western-based intellectual ethnocentrism; but obviously there is also a continuous absorption of ideas from these other disciplines. Here, then, are other interdisciplinary connections. It may be added that such subdisciplines often have their own histories of growth in some periods, and stagnation in others (Collier, 1997).
Thirdly, anthropologists sometimes specialize in the study of broad societal types, based on dominant means of livelihood – hunter-gatherers, peasants, pastoralists, fishermen, and so forth. In some ways, urban anthropology may be seen as a similar kind of specialty. In fields like these, too, intensities of collective engagement and intellectual progress have tended to vary in time.
The Practical Uses of Anthropology
It has occasionally been argued that anthropology is less engaged with practical application than many other academic disciplines, and more concerned with achieving a somewhat lofty overview of the human condition, in all its variations. One factor underlying such a tendency may be a sort of basic cultural relativism – it may go with the acceptance, and even celebration, of human diversity to be somewhat skeptical of any attempt to impose particular arrangements of life on other people. This stance may well be supported by the fact that anthropologists have often been outsiders, working in other societies or groups than their own, and feeling that they have no mandate for meddling, or for that matter any actual realistic opportunity.
Nonetheless, there have always been a number of varieties of ‘applied anthropology.’ In an early period, when the study of non-Western societies was carried out in contexts of Western colonialism, it was held that anthropological knowledge could be useful in colonial administration. While some administrators had anthropological coursework before taking up their overseas assignments, and while some anthropologists did research oriented toward such goals, it seems that such connections remained rather limited, and administrators were often impatient with the anthropologists’ preference for a long-term buildup of basic knowledge. Particularly toward the end of the colonial period, anthropologists also often saw such involvements as morally and politically questionable.
In the postcolonial era, anthropological knowledge became engaged in a larger scale, and in many different ways, in development work in what had now (at least for some time) turned into the ‘ Third World.’ Many governments, international agencies, and international nongovernmental organizations have thus drawn on anthropological advice, and have offered arenas for professional anthropological activity outside academia. At the same time, with ‘development’ turning into a global key concept, around which an enormous range of activities and organizations revolve, this again has become another focus for critical theoretical scrutiny among anthropologists (Dahl and Rabo, 1992; Escobar, 1995). In recent times, particularly in the United States, there has also been considerable debate over the uses of anthropological expertise in contexts of war and other international conflict (Kelly et al., 2010).
When anthropologists work in their own countries, the range of applications maybe wider, and as already noted, practical and political relevance is frequently one reason for doing anthropology ‘at home.’ Not least as transnational migration has made more societies increasingly ethnically and culturally heterogeneous, anthropologists have been among the social scientists engaged, in one way or other, in the handling of minority affairs and multiculturalism. Educational and medical anthropology are not always involved in practical application, and research in such fields is also carried out in societies other than the researcher’s own, but often work in these subdisciplines similarly centers on the encounter between major institutional complexes and culturally heterogeneous populations. Some number of anthropologists in Europe and North America now also make use of their disciplinary perspectives as specialists on organizational culture, and as marketing analysts, in a growing field of business anthropology (Moeran, 2005). A further practical field that emerged in the late twentieth century as its own profession is ‘intercultural communication,’ which offers training and consultancy in the handling of concrete situations of cultural difference and, putting it somewhat dramatically, ‘culture shock.’ This field has links to several academic disciplines, but to a considerable degree it draws on a more or less anthropological conception of culture – of a type, it may be added, that many anthropologists might now find rather old-fashioned and clumsy.
The Future of Anthropology
In all its varying shapes, in space and over time, anthropology has tended to straddle conventional academic classifications of disciplines. In its scope of subject matter – for example, family and kinship, politics, and market and exchange, on the one side, and art, music, and dance, on the other – it extends across the social sciences and the humanities. Insofar as it has to take into account the biological givens of human thought and action, and inquires into the interactions of humankind with its natural environment, it reaches into the natural sciences as well. But its multiple affiliations are not only a consequence of its varied subject matter. They are also implied in the variety of intellectual approaches: in field research, in theoretical work, and in styles of presentation. In what ways, or to what extent, anthropology is an art or a science continues to be a matter of lively internal debate.
In many ways the enduring characteristics of anthropology, throughout this range of forms, continue to be expressions of the concern with diversity – with the highly varied manners of being human. To the global public stock of ideas, it brings such notions as taboo, witchcraft, cargo cults, totemism, or the potlatch exchange feasts of Northwest Coast American Indians. Concepts such as ‘Big man’ (out of Melanesia), ‘patron–client relationships’ (not least out of the Mediterranean area), or ‘caste’ (out of India), allowed to travel out of their areas of origin, can enrich our thinking about power, politics, and inequality in many contexts. There is a rich intellectual universe here, to be drawn on within the discipline and from outside it. And anthropology has its classic preoccupations, such as ritual or kinship, concerning which new materials about yet more variations are continuously gathered worldwide, and around which theoretical debates never seem to cease.
At the same time, anthropology goes on reconfiguring itself (cf Wolf, 1964; Hymes, 1972; Fox, 1991; Ingold, 1996; Rabinow et al., 2008). One might perhaps have thought that a discipline revolving around the diversity of human forms of life and thought would find itself in difficulty at a time when increasing global interconnectedness may lead to cultural homogenization, and a loss of local or regional cultural forms. Indeed, it is true that many people in the world no longer stick to the beliefs they used to hold, and are discarding some of their past practices, ranging from spirit possession to headhunting. In part, the responsibility of anthropology here becomes one of preserving a record of the ways of humans, past and present, and keeping that record alive by continuing to scrutinize it, interpret it, and bring it to bear on new developments.
It is also true, however, that diversity is not diminishing as much as some, perhaps fairly superficial, views of globalization might suggest. Traditions may be remarkably resilient, adapting to new influences and absorbing them in various ways; there may be more than one ‘modernity.’ Moreover, new interconnections may generate their own social and cultural forms, so that there may be cultural gain as well as cultural loss. A growing interest in anthropology with such notions as hybridity and creolization bears witness to this. In addition, however, anthropology has continuously expanded the field of social and cultural variations with which it has actively engaged. As the discipline was practiced in the earlier decades of the twentieth century, one might have discerned a tension between, on the one hand, the ambitious claims of offering a view of humanity, and, on the other hand, the actual concentration on villages of horticulturalists, bands of huntergatherers, or other exotic and small-scale sociocultural arrangements. But then by the mid-twentieth century, there was an increasing involvement with peasant societies, and the civilizations of which they were a part, and later yet urban anthropology appeared as another subdiscipline, practiced in field settings in every region. In recent times, the anthropology of science has been another growing specialization, as the practices of scientists are scrutinized as yet another kind of cultural constructs, and as laboratories are added to the range of possible sites of fieldwork (Rabinow, 1996; Downey and Dumit, 1997). It appears, consequently, that the enduring wider claims of the discipline to an overall engagement with human modes of thought and action are increasingly being realized.
Obviously, in many of its fields of interest, anthropologists now mingle with scholars from a variety of other backgrounds, and the division of labor between disciplines here may not seem obvious. Undoubtedly, there are blurred boundaries as well as cross-fertilization, but anthropologists would emphasize the intellectual potential of a conceptual apparatus trained on, and informed by a knowledge of, a great variety of cultural assumptions and institutional arrangements. There is also the commitment to close-up observation of the relationships between human words and deeds, and the strain toward understanding ‘wholes,’ which, despite its vagueness, may usefully involve a particular commitment to contextualization as well as skills of synthesis.
Anthropologists now find themselves at work in a global ecumene of increasing, and increasingly polymorphous, interconnectedness. This is a time in which that diversity of social and cultural forms with which they are preoccupied is constantly as well as rapidly changing, and where new social, political, economic, and legal frameworks encompassing and rearranging that diversity are emerging. More people may have access to a larger part of the combined human cultural inventory than ever before; conversely, whether one likes it or not, more of that cultural diversity can also come in one’s way. This is also a time when debates over the limits of diversity are coming to new prominence, for different reasons. Evolutionary biologists are setting forth new views of human nature that need to be carefully confronted with understandings of cultural variation. As people sense that they live together in one world, questions also arise over what is, or should be, shared humanity, for example, in the area of human rights (Wilson, 1997; Goodale and Merry, 2007). There would seem to be a place in the public life of this era for a cosmopolitan imagination that both recognizes diversity and seeks the ground rules of a viable and humane world society. For such a cosmopolitan imagination, one would hope, anthropology could continue to offer materials and tools.
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