What Anthropology Means to Me

Posted on March 21, 2012 by


In this the 2nd year of g-school, it means

  • a predisposition to understanding different worlds with a tendency towards the weird, the marginal, those at the borders
  • a predisposition to understanding exclusions and inclusions
  • in the field, observing every little bit of information that you possibly can in real time
  • the work of “making” the familiar exotic, making the exotic familiar;  de-constructing and re-constructing
  • the work of shedding light on invisibilities, giving audio to inaudibles
  • the work of translating

By “[what Anthropology] means”, I mean that the activities “define” Anthropology for me;  if Anthropology is a building they are what I think of as the “foundation” for why I am interested and why I want to keep doing it.

The most important thing about Anthropology though I did not mention yet.

For me, personally, it is about the work of dislodging powers and authorities.  Specifically de-constructing the obscurities and obfuscations of experts and authorities.

Basically a legit way to knock people “high up there” off their goddamn high-horses as well as making noise for the voices of those who’ve been silenced and showing that the ordinary can be quite extraordinary.

I knew that it was what I’d want to study way back in my 2nd year of u-grad, while I was banana sluggin’ and taking classes from the History of Consciousness department with one Donna Haraway;  she taught a class called “Science as Cultural Practice.”  I was 19 years old.  I tried to blog about my knowledge back then.

Back then, I even had a moment in one of my first jobs with Environment California where I encountered some douchebag white lady in Pasadena who told me “I know more science than you will ever know, honey.”  Today, knowing a little more, marginally more, I would respond with a Socratic repartee, “if you’re that fucking smart, why don’t you invent immortality?”

I don’t know that I understood a lot, but I know that it made me think of how people used the idea that “something was backed by science” or that something was backed by “objectivity” to justify anything.

What comes to mind as an example is how folk in the US/Europe-dominated internet treat Chinese medicine and the healing practices of some peoples.  Many dismiss any potential healing power an herb or method may offer by saying:  it’s not backed by science!

That’s an annoying statement, least to me.

The implication would be that if it were backed by science, then we’d give that doctor practicing that healing all kinds of license to do whatever they needed to do.  This is kinda like what we do with Western biomedicine.  We defer to them and their orders because they’re the experts in healing, they’ve dealt with lots of problems like it before, they take care of everything.  We give people license to control our bodies.

It doesn’t mean that during a doctor’s appointment (if I ever get to have a non-emergency one, some day) or I’m getting a broken arm fixed up, I’m going to start all kinds of trouble by asking all kinds of questions. But it does mean that when I as a patient might have some insight into a medical condition of mine or a relatives, that the doctor simply not suppress my intution or expressed feelings about what my body is doing.  It means simply that the doctor just doesn’t dismiss my concerns and insights because just there’s no “science” or “scientific knowledge”  involved in my intuition.

In that class I took, Science As Cultural Practice, we took apart what was meant by “being backed by science.”

We identified that “being backed by science” meant being backed by a network of fallible humans.  I thought this was a particularly “Anthropological” perspective in the sense that we don’t just buy into the fact that just because something is backed by “science”, it’s an impenetrable truth.  No, Anthropologists (and other good scholars in general) are inclined to look at who produces the science, in what contexts, and to whose approvals.

The ideas and methods of Anthropology, that you could observe people, follow their moves in real time, that you could understand a lot by following them around and “getting into” their worlds, you could find out how they understand things — the art of putting yourself in someone’s shoes, chanklas, bare feet, hands — were all once helpful for “colonial” powers to pacify and subsequently conquer people.  If it Anthropology was once used for that, I think it could also be helpful in the rising ups and establishment of the credibilities of the “subalterns.”   Yes, says Brian of the Weapons.

I thought and do think that if an object like science could be “de-constructed” thanks mostly to Anthropological investigation of practice then just about anything could be broken down as well.

And if something is “broken down”, we see the artificiality of it.  Seeing the artificiality of an object helps us bring that object to a level that we can share and understand, and at once laugh about.

Anthropology offers the best ways of thinking about different groups of people and the best methods to understanding what people “really” mean:  we see, smell, hear, feel, taste, touch humans and ultimately see how fallible, how miserable, how sick, how healthy, how greedy, how altrustic, how awesome, how crazy we all are or are capable of being.