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Anthropology is useless? Not to my students

December 16, 2012

photoWhen you’re awarded a Ph.D., the awarder makes a point of saying you’ve earned “all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities” attendant upon that title. I remember snarkily thinking to myself, “Privileges, eh? I bet those will just roll right in.” On Saturday, I got to experience two of them, and it put me in a reflective mood.

It was commencement day at UNC Wilmington, and also the day my department throws a small ceremony for our major graduates and their families. We had nine walking this semester. Since I’m new, I hadn’t taught any of them in my courses. It’ll be different in the Spring ceremony.

At the commencement itself, I sat up front, regalia’d up, with the rest of the faculty, and watched a thousand or so former undergrads mark a major change in their lives with a short walk and a handshake or two.

Fresh graduates face a tough time these days, and there’s lately been a sort of cottage industry in speculating which majors are “best” and which are “worst.” Unsurprisingly, this reduces to a question of salary. Majors where you’re likely to make a ton of money = “best.” Majors where you’re likely to work for a better society, to serve others, to experience personal fulfillment, and so on = “worst.” So anthropology, along with most liberal arts and humanities majors? Don’t even bother, according to the New York Times, as well as Yahoo Education, the governor of Florida, the allegedly reputable Kiplinger, and others.

There has been great analysis and reaction from within my discipline to this sort of simplistic ranking and discipline hate. See, for instance, Jason Antrosio’s brilliant “Anthropology’s the worst major for being a corporate tool but the best to change your life” post, along with Francine Barone’s take at Analog/Digital, Daniel Lende’s Neuroanthropology blog, a sample of what working anthropologists actually do, and an archaeology-centric version of the same.

At the risk of collapsing the variation in a series of diverse, well-argued and thoughtful posts, the authors listed above are all saying, in their own ways, that there’s way more to a college major or a choice of career than simply money. Forbes magazine (!) recently agreed, noting that liberal arts majors actually report being more satisfied with their lives, and, incidentally, earning decently, thankyouverymuch.

So in the spirit of reflection, I spent some time considering what the students who went through my anthropology courses this semester might take away.

Introduction to Anthropology

Anthropologists will sometimes say it’s our business to “make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.” This isn’t just a conceit or an exercise in marveling, tourist-like, at exotic people and practices – it’s almost a statement of method. As we learn about different cultures, we gradually come to understand that our way of doing things is merely one method of solving the problems of how to be human. Everybody marries, but not everybody marries the way Americans do. Everybody has family, but in most of the world, people reckon family relationships differently than we do. Every culture has an economy, but our economic system is of very recent vintage, and it raises problems not faced by people who live (quite well) under different systems.

After going through this course, my students have been presented with historical and contemporary examples of people who live and thrive under wildly diverse approaches to doing those basic cultural things we’re all familiar with: playing sports, getting married, bearing children, producing and consuming, having sex, figuring out who we’re related to, worshiping, dealing with sickness and death, speaking, eating, dressing, and learning. They learn how what appear to be separate domains of culture actually correlate or intersect with each other, and how changing one part of the whole tends to lead to changes in other parts.

What do they take away? That there are very good reasons why different people act differently, and those reasons don’t reduce to “culture X is more primitive than culture Y.” You can’t expect to simply change one aspect of a culture without repercussions – “We need to bring our institutions or values to culture Z” is bound to cause new issues you didn’t anticipate. And there’s inherent value in letting different people pursue their lives in their own ways.


I don’t teach this course as an overview of world prehistory. Sure, we cover origins of agriculture, writing, Harappa, Mesoamerica, etc. To me, this is a golden opportunity to push some critical thinking skills. In archaeology, we’re faced with a conundrum: How can we say anything worthwhile about people we can’t observe directly? And once we make truth claims about the past, what are the implications in the present?

So my primary focus is to get students thinking about analogies: The ways we choose examples from cultures and behaviors we can observe, and extend them to help us understand the past. Moreover, who are the people making truth claims, and how do we overcome inherent biases in our interpretations, whether they’re overt or covert?

After going through this course, my students have examined how archaeologists have thought about some of the significant developments of prehistory and been exposed to some of the high “civilizations” of history and prehistory, they’ve critiqued the concept of “civilization” itself, they’ve collected and interpreted data about a fellow student’s discard behavior, and they’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about the makeup of the field of archaeology and how that might influence our thinking about all those issues.

What do my students take away? That all knowledge, regardless of discipline, has social underpinnings. It’s created by people who make truth claims based on their own perspectives and biases and understandings of how the world works, influenced by their social position. Before we accept a claim, we need to examine the conditions under which it was made, we need to evaluate its implications, and we need to see if it’s internally consistent.

African Diaspora Archaeology

This course is close to my heart, as it’s the broad area that all my research so far enters into. I didn’t expect most of the students to come into this course having any familiarity with the topic, and I was right. From the outset, my goal was to encourage them to engage with unfamiliar material, unpack the roots of various arguments made by archaeologists and historians who have grappled with diaspora issues, and leave with a richer understanding of the issues and politics of studying this aspect of the past.

Did that succeed? I believe so, based on a semester’s worth of lectures, discussions, and student papers. What did they students take away? How to critically engage with knowledge claims, how to craft a written analysis that enters into a larger social conversation, and how truth claims about even recent history are biased and socially situated, and can be used by people in the present in both positive and negative ways.

Everything is anthropology

Most students I taught this semester are not anthropology majors. In fact, most probably won’t take another anthropology course during their time at UNCW. Some of these take-aways undoubtedly will help them impress employers. Others are less tangible but, to my mind, much more valuable in the long run. Things like critical thinking, writing skills, and that all knowledge is produced within specific social contexts.

Returning to the question of “What’s the value of an anthropology major?”, I think hope it’s self-evident. You leave a good anthro program as a better writer, a more critical thinker, someone who can appreciate not just the fact of human diversity, but why it’s so persistent and important. You’ve learned how to study up on a topic you’re not familiar with, analyze the basic assumptions and implications of the topic’s party-line thinkers, and how to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. You’ve learned to distrust simple, one-size-fits-all explanations. And you’ve gained experience in defining important questions, collecting and analyzing data, and writing up conclusions that are both conscious of your bias and faithful to your observations.

I know my department’s nine Fall graduates have done all those things in their time here, and I have no doubt they’re going to do amazing things with their knowledge and experience. Because they realize that anthropology’s not a useless field, but that everything’s anthropology, and we ignore that to our great detriment.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2012 2:12 am

    This is a truly excellent post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for the link to my blog.

  2. A. Patricia Pinder permalink
    December 17, 2012 11:48 am

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog post. It actually made me reflect back on when I took an anthropology course (in 2003) and how that course helped to further develop my critical thinking skills and even pointed out some biases that I had on issues that mattered to me.


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