In this section, we journey beyond the academy to critically explore a variety of pressing issues. From Anthropology in the corporate jungle to your favourite pair of blue jeans. From the anthropology of tourism to the role of art and science in engaged anthropology in Indigenous Australia. And much more.
Anthropology in Popular Culture
The Paleo Diet: “Cave women are so hot right now!”
Paleo Diet and the “Primitive”
The low-carbohydrate or Palaeolithic diet has gained popularity in the West since the 1990s. Known as the “Paleo Diet”, this eating regime involves consuming foods that are thought to have been eaten by early or indigenous humans living hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Such food regimes are thought to have consisted of primarily of meat, vegetables and fruit while excluding dairy, grains, sugar and other processed foods (Eades & Eades 1996). This article will unpack the ways in which the discussion around “nutritional primitivism” (Knight 2012, p. 289) is steeped in tropes around what it means to be “primitive.” Such notions are romanticised and idealised. Masquerading as indigeneity, these notions simplify our understandings of nutrition through oppositions of progress versus primitivism.
The ways we have come to understand and talk about “primitive” lifestyles through the Paleo Diet have had problematic consequences for indigenous and marginalized communities. Importantly, it seems that while we engage in this kind of banter around the Paleo trend, all the underlying assumptions are reinforced as normal and factual when they are anything but. Due to its prevalence, popularity and potential to bring us all closer to Western ideals of being trim, healthy, fit and beautiful, we are forgetting the kind of beliefs that are being taken-for-granted. We must reconsider them from a critical (and distinctly anthropological) vantage point.
“Us” versus “Them”
First of all we must question the way the Paleo Diet structures and defines two very distinct cultural groups: the presence of extra-localities (Indigenous groups) within larger localities (The West). These groups are simplified and standardised in order to be perceived as either fundamentally different and culturally marginal, or by contrast, as representing the cultural norm. In constructing the “primitive other”, twin stereotypes of the “noble savage” and “dismal savage” (Rose 2007, p. 44) are both “dead ends” (2007, p. 44) in the sense that neither reflect the complexity of local conditions and people, and therefore must be problematised as essentialist portraits. One of the most famous cultural critics, Edward Said (1978), describes this in terms of the West fetishising the East through exaggerated understandings of the East being “exotic”. Here, Said (1978) draws attention to a process of othering that exacerbates differences between us (West) and them (East) to reinforce the already precarious position of indigenous groups living on the periphery of Western society.
To give an example of how tropes can disempower marginal groups, we can look at our own Australian context. The assumption that Aboriginal Australians are exclusively nomadic and operate within a hunter-gatherer foraging economy has been used to support denials of Indigenous land rights. In some cases the belief that Indigenous Australians do not culturally recognise the concept of ownership has been used as an excuse to withhold land based on a presumption by the broader public that land rights must be unnecessary for them. And yet, the reality is that it is very hard to function let alone thrive in contemporary Australian society without having a place that is legally recognised as your own. Kuper (2003) identifies another problem with making outdated assumptions about the way indigenous groups choose to live. For instance, granting particular land and hunting rights to groups that non-indigenous people recognise as more indigenous than others has led to intensification of local ethnic frictions. These have largely resulted from interventions from government and NGOs that have not given adequate consideration to the complex cultural politics of place and belonging that exist between different indigenous groups. Perhaps this calls for more indigenous voices in policy discussion, so that we can avoid recourse to dated and reductive constructions of indigeneity and legal ownership.
Essentially, these tropes of indigeneity present indigenous culture only in relation to abstract spiritual values rather than practical material realities. Hunter-gatherer societies are stereotypically perceived as being deeply and spiritually connected to nature, while greedy industrialised consumer societies are depicted as exploiters of nature (Kuper 2003). While this may seem to reflect so-called primitive cultures in a positive light while demonising the West, it often serves to deny indigenous groups material rights in the material reality in which they live. This cliché of primitive or native cultures has been stabilised through blockbuster films that we have all likely come across such as James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). Simply consider the way the indigenous community under threat is romanticised and contrasted by the harsh unnaturalness of the West symbolised by the American military.
In a similar way, glorifying the nutritional lifestyle of American Inuits (colloquially known by what has been identified as a politically incorrect term, “Eskimo”) to support the Paleo-diet in the bestseller, Protein Power (Eades & Eades 1996), obscures the reality that American Inuits living in Canada have a mortality rate 10 years lower than the national average, as well as much higher rates of infectious disease and interpersonal violence and youth suicide (Bjerregaard & Young 1998). Here, we can deconstruct the Paleo diet in popular Western discourse by unpacking two main assumptions underlying primitivism discourse (Knight 2008). The first being the stereotype of the “noble savage”, which portrays an image of the Indigenous diet as “culturally pristine” and exceptionally healthy (Eades & Eades 1996). Another assumption is that present-day realities of disease and general health detriment are a direct result of Indigenous people being exposed to a Western diet – thereby equating Western nutrition with a decline in overall health and wellbeing despite the higher quality of living standards for most Westerners on average (Knight 2012).
Paleo & The “West” feat. Capitalism
The binary oppositions between an “urbanized Western diet” (Knight 2012, p. 298) versus a “traditional Indigenous diet” (2012, p. 298) establishes a dichotomy wherein the Westernization of food is perceived as inherently negative and unhealthy, especially for so-called primitives. Thus, present-day indigenous health problems come to be understood as a metaphor for what lies ahead for the Western world if we do not improve our unhealthy ways of living – namely, we will face a “nutritional disaster”. Such an approach elicits fear and anxiety, heightening the West’s feeling of precariousness towards its health situation despite the fact that the First-World has the lowest mortality rates, best health and medical resources, access to food varieties and other fitness resources at their disposal – much wealthier resources than the Developing World where many of these perceived primitive cultures are often traced back to.
Hence, it seems the appeal of the Paleo Diet functions as a means to manage feelings of anxiety and can be understood as an attempt to produce a solution for much larger perceived problems facing the West and its descent into “unnaturalness”. Whether this “unnaturalness” refers solely to our diet or perhaps also to other changes such as the way we socialise, technological advancements, exploitation and alienation as a condition of consumer-capitalism and late modernity. In the context of consumer-capitalism, we should also consider how this appeal to fear is employed as a compelling marketing device to position consumers in such a way that they more vulnerable to subscribe to new products where new market spaces are carved out under the guise of health and well-being.
Here, we can contemplate the ways in which our late-capitalist context, characterised by individual ownership, materialism, mass production and commodity fetishism, elicits nostalgia for a simpler, more authentic lifestyle and how this is expressed through the popularity of a hunter-gatherer diet. The positive tropes of indigeneity, or what we might call benevolent essentialism, seem to extend beyond our ideas about what is good nutrition. In fact, these notions of naturalness and authenticity can be applied to other modes of social life, including notions of revitalising community, artisanry, physicality, and creative intuition, all as ideals that challenges parts of our dominant culture that we feel are “unnatural” or harmful. For instance, we may feel alienated by the way our identities become reduced first and foremost to individual consumers and profit-makers in a capitalist society. However, in acknowledging what provokes such a revisitation of the past, we can see how we construct ideas about primitivism that have detrimental consequences. As they stem from our own agenda to alleviate feelings of internalised guilt, spiritual emptiness, and perhaps more general feelings of unnaturalness or unhealthiness, it is not surprising that they are wildly inaccurate and above all, cultural assumptions. As Kuper points out, the construction of the primitive is often employed as a “counter” (2003, p. 395) to our own current ideological debates and problems, used as a solution for Western problems.
Conclusion: The Problem with Paleo
So who is the Paleo Diet really serving? Once again, it reproduces the ongoing narrative of the West written by the West, and for the West with little consideration for the other parties involved. And coinciding with this? It would appear to serve advanced capitalism. Businesses constantly introduce new products as much needed “commodities” and yet it kind of feels like it goes against this “indigenous spirit” of simplicity and primitivism when you have to pay more for a registered Paleo-certification.
Consequently, we must pose the following questions: what will Westerner’s gain when they stop trying to lose via Paleo remedies? First we can consider that we might gain a more accurate understanding of differences and similarities Western societies may share with fellow human beings we label as primitive others. We may also minimise some of the socio-economic damage suffered by marginal, indigenous groups as a result of stereotypical and simplistic profiles about what it means to be “primitive”. One might also save some money and not feel guilty while eating naughty modern products like bread. It is food for thought, anyhow.
There’s a lot of excessive claims and hype around food these days. Think about how many likes a breakfast on an Instagram post can get (#cleaneating). If you’re interested in food trends, maybe this article on Food Activism will get you thinking…
My baby’s wearing blue jeans: An anthropology of jeans in the modern world
There is nothing better in this world than wearing your comfortable and trustworthy pair of blue jeans. They look good, feel good. They’re great for work, perfect for play. Why do blue jeans seems to fit every occasion, barring formal ones? In this small piece, we will look at an anthropology of blue jeans.
Generally, the literature on the consumption of commodities like extra clothes has suggested that this form of consumption has been to the detriment of society as a whole (Horowitz, 1985; Sennet, 2006; Foster, 2007). It tells us that we are being manipulated by companies, that consumption is an ambivalent practice, indeed that the very things we love and hold up as ideals are being co-opted by marketers in order to make us consume more.
The history of the blue jean is no different.
A recent ethnography proposes something different though. Blue Jeans by Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward (2012) describes how we can neutralise the desire for consumption. That we can change how we think about commodities to essentially put further consumption on hold. They call it the “denim theory” and it centres around a plain old pair of blue jeans.
Blue jeans have a special significance in modern society. They are a commodity that can be completely neutral. This is done in a few ways. Firstly, blue jeans are ubiquitous. They are everywhere. As Miller and Woodward describe in their experience of taking count in many major cities across the globe, more than fifty percent of people will be wearing a pair of blue jeans on any one street. They are an example of what he calls the “blindingly obvious”. They are so ubiquitous as to not be worth commenting on. That’s excluding my new pair of $3000 Gucci ‘genius jeans’ of course. Miller and Woodward, finding that almost two thirds of people wearing jeans during their London interviews were migrants, found that blue jeans were in fact so comfortable in their ubiquity as to be stress relieving.
Miller and Woodward further describe how their interviewees often agreed that blue jeans seemed to ‘go with everything’. They discovered this when asking people to describe how they chose their clothes in the morning. Many people tried on a variety of outfits in the morning. ‘Does this jacket go with this scarf?’ ‘Maybe if I change my pants’. Ultimately they would settle on a pair of blue jeans. This ‘go with everything’ quality is not, however, some special quality of denim. Indeed, it would seem absurd that one particular type of fabric, beyond its convenience to manufacture and be effectively advertised, would become the one item of clothing that “goes” with everything. This is an idea that has been culturally constructed.
Added to this is the fact that jeans do not need to stay in good condition. Imagine if you were to wear out your favourite shirt or dress, get holes all through it, maybe even buy it pre-ripped, and own the item for so long that the colour began to fade and warp. Now ask your mother if she approves of you wearing it out . Blue jeans are singularly special. They are the only item we can do this to. Indeed, manufacturers have all kinds of resins and special washes to give jeans an aged or ill-kept look. Where you would throw out any other clothing item at such a point, people do not even note when your jeans become this worn. Another odd phenomenon with jeans is that we find our pair of blue jeans to be the most comfortable item of clothing for wearing out. We hold onto them for years. Yet again, this a culturally informed practice. Why the exception for jeans?
Miller and Woodward propose that blue jeans are effectively ‘post-semiotic’. That is, they inhabit a cultural safe-zone where meaning is no longer ascribed or contested. Anybody can wear blue jeans and escape further judgement. Moreover, this ‘safe-zone’ essentially puts a pause for further consumption activities. You fit in and don’t need to purchase the latest trend. In many respects this is this antithesis of overarching fashion markets. Dolce and Gabbana wants me to buy their new embellished jeans in order to maintain my cultural prestige.
Fortunately, we have culturally constructed blue jeans as a break from this competitive consumption. So go out and wear your blue jeans. I won’t tell anybody.
Speaking of clothes.. want to know what anthropologists wear? Check out this blog post “Conference Chic, or, how to dress like an anthropologist” to turn the gaze back on the “traditional dress” of the professional anthropologist or this article on “The Jacket” that talks about the cultural norms of academia!
Anthropology and Tourism
If you are into travelling, you have probably noticed that as soon as you arrive somewhere new, you suddenly become ultra-sensitive to all the fresh and foreign things in your strange surrounds. Consciously or not, you start looking for those things that differ from home. Have you noticed that when you spot something different from the usual, you feel overcome by an uncanny urge to celebrate the discovery by taking a picture? Food, architecture, animals and even other people become touristic objects. By observing your surroundings, you determine what is ‘authentic’ enough to deserve a picture. You use your camera as a tool to maximise and extend the touristic experience so when your memory starts to fail you can always look at you photo album and relive those happy days that you probably paid a lot of money to have. In this very moment, you become a tourist – although you may not like to admit it.
As one of the fastest growing industries in the world, tourism has become a topic of interest for the social sciences. Tourism has been seen by anthropologists as a Western practice that over time has attracted the attention of the middle-classes from all over the world (Nash 1981). Academics are concerned with finding out more about why people practice tourism, how they do it, and about the consequences of large amounts of people with their cameras going to sites that, before tourism, were considered ‘pristine’ and beyond the realm of tourist clichés.
Anthropologists have had some interesting things to say about vacation goers and their strange culture of perpetual leisure and compulsive photo shooting. According to Urry (2002, p. 11), a central drive for tourists is the binary division between the ordinary and the extraordinary, where individuals use tourism to escape routine. Nowadays, social networks are plagued with motivational posts where travelling is promoted as the best possible investment, especially for younger generations. Phrases like: “Travelling is the one thing you buy that makes you richer,” or; “Quit your job, buy a ticket, see the world, fall in love” have become the clichés of a generation that cannot stand routine. A culture of travellers is forming and it is important to understand the impact of this new group of people in local communities.
Click here to see some other ‘inspiring’ travel phrases
For this reason, anthropologists are very important in the tourist industry. By the employment of ethnographic methods, the anthropologist is able to provide a deep analysis of the motivations behind tourism which can be taken into account by the governments, NGOs and companies involved in tourism. The study of tourism can be crucial for national economies and local populations if policy makers understand what motivates travellers and gives them the ability to manage the economic gains of this industry effectively.
Because tourism inevitably produces intercultural encounters that bring varying consequences, anthropologists are important in determining the impacts of touristic activity. Many tourists seek to observe and take pictures of people who are not used to having contact with “Westerners”. The growth of tourism over the past few decades has concerned institutions like UNESCO, whose main goal is to protect cultural and natural heritage. Just as tourism can provide possibilities for development it can also change the customs of those people who tourists want to see (see Bruner, 2005). This is where anthropologists play the crucial role of advising where tourism is actually disturbing the daily lives of ‘touristic’ communities as is the case of many indigenous communities which have been forced to adjust their culture in order to please tourists’ fantasies. This way anthropologists can help the tourist industry grow but also regulate its negative impact on local people.
Yep, this is what anthropologists of tourism see all the time…
Social media is a fascinating topic for anthropologists.. and can be a frustrating one at times!
Selling Out – Anthropology in the Business World
Despite being warned about how majoring in the humanities will limit your employability, it would seem that big businesses are increasingly hiring anthropologists. In fact, Business Insider reported in 2014 that Microsoft were the second largest employers of anthropologists worldwide.
Anthropologists are often able to give insights into consumer behaviour that more traditional forms of market research tend to miss. Even as data on consumer behaviour becomes increasingly abundant and complex, interpreting this data in a meaningful way remains problematic, and anthropologists are well suited to provide insights into not just what people spend their money on, but why they make these choices.
However, anthropology’s place in the corporate world is not limited to market research alone. Businesses are also known to hire anthropologists to provide insights about a business’ internal workings as well. In a globalised and increasingly multicultural world, it is becoming necessary and beneficial for businesses to develop and implement strategies to work with multi-ethnic, multinational and multicultural groups of staff, clients, suppliers, partners and competitors (Hamada 1999, p. 4).
While anthropology in the business world differs from academic anthropology in that it aims to find solutions to specific problems, rather than asking open-ended questions (Gaffam 2010, p. 158), the integral elements of the anthropologist’s role remain unchanged, namely; “to examine the lived experience of people and to “depict previously hidden concerns, ideologies, feelings and views” (Hamada 1999, p. 3).
Need to prove to your dad that anthropology will help you make some cash?? Yes, We Do Ethnography in Business Schools! might have the answers for you.
A Balancing Act: Science and Art and Engaged Anthropology in IndigenousAustralia
At the centre of anthropology lies a debate surrounding its relationship to the supposedly discrete notions of art and science. At one end of the spectrum you get anthropologists like Marvin Harris contending that anthropology should be strictly oriented towards the scientific establishment of ‘regular, predictable and verifiable laws’ (2005: 169). At the other, you get gruff characters like Clifford Geertz (also an anthropologist) ferociously contending the opposite: that anthropology should be oriented toward the creative interpretation of the various meanings present within the complex ‘web of life’ (2005: 180). Meanwhile this debate continues to oscillate, there is growing concern among many within the discipline that anthropology’s important insights, developed through careful and in-depth analysis, are being disregarded by those most able to affect positive social change. Taking Indigenous Australia as a case study, an exploration of one avenue open to contemporary anthropologists’ aiming to reverse this trend will be presented: engagement beyond the academy. In doing so, it will be contend that the contemporary engaged anthropologist has much to gain by being able to effectively navigate both the scientific and artful.
Evolutionary science: an unhelpful start
Following the lead of influential French philosopher Auguste Comte, the early anthropology that coincided with the British colonisation of Australia was heavily influenced by evolutionary science. Now what do I mean by this? Well, according to evolutionary science, ‘man’ was held to be on a natural trajectory away from ‘traditionality’ towards ‘modernity’: European economic and industrial expansion. In the physical sciences, this logic was supported by claims that the traditional inhabitants of Australia, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, were of mental and physical inferiority. For instance, it was said that Indigenous Australians had generally smaller brains than their European counterparts, which was used to support claims about the ‘hunter and gatherer’ lifestyle being unsophisticated and, ultimately justify the settlement of an “unoccupied” land (Cowlishaw 1986: 3). Meanwhile, another wing of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science, Australian socio-cultural anthropology, sought to establish itself as an equally legitimate authority by providing in-depth analysis of the supposedly separate traditional Indigenous ‘other’ (Cowlishaw 1986: 4-5). This lead to the unhelpful perception of Indigenous people as inherently ‘traditional’, and in binary opposition to ‘modernity’.
It is important to note that the biology of race has since been proven fictional—more recent and rigorous physical science has shown there is as much if not more physical variation (including of brains) between people with shared ancestry as between those without (see Cowlishaw 1986: 4; and Davis 2009). Social and culturally constructed notions of race, however, continue to have very real consequences. The early period of evolutionary science provides great insight into the vulnerable and evolving nature of human knowledge, both physical and social. Such analysis is also important as it allows us to understand why many contemporary anthropologists deliberately distance themselves from this colonial legacy and the scientific approach that underpins it. Consequently, it is now not uncommon for anthropologists with scientific inclinations to be treated with suspicion by other anthropologists (Morton 2010: 16). And although such suspicion has emerged for good reason, this article will explore how completely neglecting scientific application can be obstructive to the contemporary anthropologist trying engage with the world beyond the academy. For broader assessment of the interaction between anthropology and evolutionary science please explore the ‘What is Anthropology’ section of the blog.
The art of theoretical complexity
With the rightful abandonment of this initial approach to science, anthropology found it increasingly difficult to have its voice heard in the public domain. This was largely because it sought to describe the new complexity it rightly perceived in the contemporary world from equally complex theoretical positions. So artfully complex in some instances that others have described it as an unhelpful pursuit unto itself (Ang 2011: 799). Instead of trying to pin down social realities like the evolutionists did, theorists such as Geertz sort to artfully describe how the lived experience related to a coherent symbolic socio-cultural order (2005). While in many contexts such interpretative accounts have the potential to provide fascinating illumination and/or provoke further contemplation and inquiry, for the purpose of public engagement, they have been less productive. This concern—and a consequent call to action—is reflected in the American Anthropological Association’s 2017 annual conference theme, which you can peruse here!
Identifying ‘the common’ language
In the contemporary Western world, ‘the common’ language has become increasingly limited to the science of the ‘quantifiable fact’: things that can be measured and assessed. Without quantification it is very hard to be taken seriously these days. In economics and business, the analyst and worker are required to operate and assess effect in terms of financial gains or losses. In government, politicians and public servants make policy and allocate funding and resources to those projects, people and phenomena calculated to represent the most efficient spending. At schools and in universities, students’ success is measured in terms of their completion of set tasks and assessment. Professors at universities are evaluated in terms of their contribution to student learning, academic publication and the general prestige of the institution. In the legal profession, lawyers are charged with compiling evidence that aims to satisfy the judge’s discernment ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, either in favour of or against the defendant. Deviating from this logic of quantifiable estimation, in any of these instance, typically results in the person or discipline’s authority being called into questioned.
A more robust socio-cultural science: from cultural critique to ‘cultural intelligence’
Now, what do is meant by a more robust approach to science? A neo-evolutionist approach, such as that proposed by Harris (2005)? Not exactly. Following the lead of Morton (2010) and Ang (2011), a better strategy for engaged anthropology appears geared to elucidating the complexity it discerns. An approach that moves beyond the deconstructive pursuit of cultural critique to what Ang calls the pursuit of ‘cultural intelligence’: the distillation of complex socio-cultural realities to tackle the paralysing effects of complexity (2011: 799). In practice, this involves the difficult and ethically challenging task of simplifying the complex while not rendering it too simplistic or watering it down as such. Rather than aiming to reduce the inherently complex and fluid nature of the socio-cultural realities it perceives, this approach endeavours to plot a clear course through these complexities (Ang 2011: 799). Whereas the evolutionary and neo-evolutionary approaches drive anthropology to employ the fundamental principle of scientific inquiry—pragmatic logical reasoning—to make concrete objective sense of the impossibly complex social and cultural realities it enters, this reframing would reset the goal to better reflect both these realities and anthropology’s capacity to understand and communicate them. In this way, bestowing anthropology with the means to effectively enter and challenge unequal and biased public discourse.
Simply stated, this strategy calls for a practical sharpening of the anthropological approach more generally, and a distillation of anthropological knowledge more specifically (Morton 2010: 18). By sharpening, it is intended that anthropological analysis be more thoroughly accountable through meticulous substantiation and argument. By a distillation of anthropological knowledge, is it intended that the conclusions drawn be expressed in common, clear, and politically effective language.
A common language is not a straightjacket
As Morton points out, ‘a common language is not a straightjacket – it is a structure which intrinsically permits some degree of free expression (2010: 22). Although Morton is specifically referring to the legal language within which native title anthropologists are necessarily enforced to operate, this insight also supports Ang’s notion of cultural intelligence as applied to anthropologists wishing to engage in the Indigenous policy arena more broadly, as the Indigenous water rights example I will now examine demonstrates.
DISCLAIMER! As my sketch of the initial evolutionary anthropological approach to science hinted, the ethical terrain ahead of the engaged anthropologist is trepidatious! For more in-depth advice regarding this potential quagmire, please check a helpful piece entitled ‘Ethics of engagement in the context of Indigenous Australia’ here!
How does this play out on the ground? Engaged anthropology supporting the Indigenous push for water rights
As Indigenous groups such as the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nation (MLDRIN) coalition have continued to highlight, contemporary discourse and policy in Australia regarding the flow and distribution of natural water resources, such as those present in the Murray River System, remains unequal and unreflective of their interests. Up until 2010, this was also the case for conservationist interests. The severity of the appropriately named ‘Millennium Drought’ of 2001 to 2009 changed that, and now conservationist along with agriculturalist interests are represented within Federal government’s annual water allocations (Weir 2016: 123). Before the recent push by MLDRIN and Wier (the anthropologist involved), Indigenous interests remained unheard.
The effective marriage of robust science with artful manoeuvre
So how were the complex aspirations—ranging from those emanating from a ‘traditional’ cultural past to those evidently encompassing concerns relating to ‘modern’ economic opportunity and security— of the MLDRIN coalition leveraged to reset the terms of engagement in government water management policy? Once established through meticulous consultation and collaboration, they were then harnessed by what Weir appropriately terms a ‘communicative device’: carefully chosen and positioned language (Weir 2006: 21). Basically, a means through which to communicate the complexity of their position in a politically efficacious way. In this case, the language chosen was ‘cultural flows’. Although evoking potentially essentialist assumptions about Indigenous culture, MLDRIN and Weir deliberately choose this terminology with a two-pronged, artful political manoeuvre in mind (Weir 2016: 140-6). First, to situate MLDRIN’s cultural aspirations within the international Indigenous ‘rights language’ context as it is advocated by the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (Weir 2016: 146). And second, to challenge and reset the terms of government water policy by elucidating these cultural aspirations in the quantifiable language dominant. Situated as such, the Australian government had no other choice other than to enter the discussions that have since lead to the expansion of ‘the common’ natural resource management language and the annual allocation of Indigenous water rights.
This example therefore shows how the contemporary anthropologist (and his or her collaborators) have a lot to gain by being able to effectively balance the creative and scientific in engaged collaboration beyond the academy. For a different, less practically driven examination of anthropology’s relationship to art and science, please refer to Alisha’s piece here.
Engagement with ‘applied anthropology’. What else can we use anthropology for?
In anthropology there are two major schools. One is called cultural anthropology. The other school is called social anthropology (see What is Anthropology). Both schools have traditionally viewed marginalised groups as an obvious research object. Cultural anthropology has focused on the research object’s particularities, and social anthropology has focused on how it is embedded in its social and historical context. These two schools of anthropology have different ways of going about their studies, but both commonly accept the world as a complex whole. Accepting the world as a complex whole has blurred the distinction between the different schools, and both scholars of cultural and social anthropology engage with the same topics.
The question is then, how anthropology can be applied? It can be used for many things, as you can see throughout this blog. It is very important to illuminate the fact that there is a world of theory and methodology that the anthropologist needs to navigate regardless of the field, school or project one engages with. This forces the anthropologist to be reflexive about the choice of topic. Factors that have an influence in this regard are ethics, pragmatics, politics, technological development and the media’s flow of information. Working carefully in the field allows the anthropologist to induce meaning into practice and build stronger relations with informants. (Hastrup, 2009, p. 84)
Still, this certainly doesn’t provide an answer to the question about what anthropology can be used for. Therefore, I would like to look the field of ‘applied anthropology’. ‘Applied’ implies that research isn’t only a study of humans, but a study of humans for something ‘practical’, or applied in a certain context. For example, a company, government or a NGO can engage an anthropologist to explore the human side, or experience in the relevant, concrete context. Furthermore, it can be used to ‘measure’ the impact development initiatives have for populations. The reason anthropological knowledge can be of help in so many different areas is because of the anthropologist’s ability to accept the world in more complexity than other disciplines such as the engineer or the business student. What creates the basis for the research is not complex models or overarching surveys, but actual behaviour in a certain context. In this sense the anthropologist is able to provide new perspectives on culture, economies, industrial production, conflict, development, humanitarian intervention, policy and environmental impact. In turn, this research and cultural analysis can contribute to processes of innovation and re-evaluation in many fields. In the post below you will be offered an illustrated example of applied anthropology in the tech industry.
Applied anthropology: A tangible example
As you can see, an anthropological education is flexible, allowing you to apply your skills in almost any given setting. That sounds exciting(!), as it works well in a complementary, inter-disciplinary sense. So, while the post above has given an idea about how to be thoughtful regarding the places you apply your knowledge, I have looked to offer a tangible and interesting example of the places people have taken anthropology, and some of the cool ways it can be used in an interdisciplinary way.
You can also see a decent list of interesting real life examples of applied anthropology here at American Anthropological Association.
I will start off with an industry known for, and usually associated with, ‘innovation’ – the tech industry. A particular person of interest in this case is Dr Genevieve Bell, who has held numerous influential positions at Intel, including Vice President and head of User Interaction and Experience. She was also the first woman to be awarded ‘Intel Fellow’. Bell was born in Australia, and raised by an anthropologist in remote Indigenous communities (Singer 2014). She has previously worked at Stanford University in the anthropology department, but was encouraged to apply for a job at Intel in 1998. As of 2017, Genevieve has been appointed Professor at the College of Engineering and Computer Science at Australian National University.
Her research primarily focuses on creating technology that centres upon human needs and desire, rather than ‘silicon capabilities’. In a recent project Bell excavated and documented the contents of cars in the UK, USA, Australia, Singapore, China, Malaysia and Brazil (Bell 2011, p 3). Increasingly, the car has become a place of technological capacity, not only for safety and function mechanically, but also as a space designed to facilitate entertainment (Singer 2014, Bell 2011). The vehicle also happens to be a space where people spend many hours throughout their lives. Thus, Bell saw the ‘car’ as a field site that could provide valuable information about the ways in which people interact with technology that is inbuilt, ignore technological capacities, and which pieces of technology were unnecessarily introduced (Bell 2011, p. 2,3). This culminated in a project collaborating with Jaguar Land Rover that sought to synthesis technological access within the vehicle to improve user experience (Singer 2014).
Land Rover with A.I. capabilities at Automobil Elektronik Kongress. 2015.
Another area that Bell is interested in is Artificial Intelligence (AI). You can watch the YouTube talk just below where she delves into the prospects of an ethnography of AI, as she sees it as a cultural category unto itself. She attempts to unpack the human development of AI, and the human imprint that will inevitably occur through the creation of algorithms and hardware. Bell finds it poignant, as it seems for the most part, men have been the ones who invented and engaged with early AI concepts, and participate in the ongoing development. Whilst AI is lauded by technophiles and feared by Luddites, Bell muses about the influence these men have had on the structure and systems that make up AI, and the ‘real life’ implications this may have.
Need more convincing that anthropology can be useful in the workplace? Many blog posts discuss how people have used anthropology in their working lives. For example, working in medicine can be greatly complemented with anthropology. Discussed here is how the anthropologist adds value in the workplace. And you might find this post calming (we do!) – Anthropologist – You’re Hired!
References from “The Paleo Diet: “Cave women are so hot right now!””
Bjerregaard, P, Young, TK, Dewailly, E & Ebbesson, SO 2004, ‘Indigenous Health in the Arctic: An Overview of the Circumpolar Inuit Population, Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, vol. 32, no. 5, pp. 390–395.
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