In Defence of Anthropology

Screenshot of Governor Scott on Anthropology. Source:

There’s been a bit of controversy making the rounds recently since the Governor of Florida started using Anthropology as an example of a degree program which that state’s universities could use a bit less of.  Well, fortunately there is concerted and highly effective push-back on this notion.  The American Anthropological Association issued a strongly worded, if rather generic, letter (PDF).  The Chair of the Anthropology Department at University of South Florida was more eloquent:

Anthropologists at USF work side by side with civil and industrial engineers, cancer researchers, specialists in public health and medicine, chemists, biologists, and others in the science, technology, and engineering fields that the Governor so eagerly applauds. Our colleagues in the natural, engineering, and medical sciences view the anthropological collaboration as absolutely essential to the success of their research and encourage their students to take courses in anthropology to help make them better scientists.

Noted blogger Daniel Lende has a roundup of some of the reaction here, while Kristina Killgrove responds as well:

In my introductory anthropology courses, I address the importance of anthropology to today’s college students at the beginning and the end of the semester.  First and foremost, the focus of anthropology is on understanding yourself in relation to others.  This may sound pretty simple, but it involves critically thinking about why you do what you do, why others do what they do, and what factors affect these actions: e.g., religion, economy, biology, politics, family structure, gender, ethnicity, etc.  While we tend to deal with individuals in our line of work, we’re also interested in the community – the commonalities in experience at various scales.

Surely, part of the problem is getting the core message of Anthropology out in as explicit and well-supported a manner as we can, to as many people as possible.  We’ll be talking more about that here, as time goes by: it’s a challenge which goes well beyond the borders of Florida.

But another problem may be the internal balkanization of Anthropology into sub-disciplines which may not always create a unified and coherent narrative.  This is one of the reasons for the thematic approach at UVic which, by cross-cutting the traditional sub-disciplines of Bio-anthropology, Archaeology, Cultural anthropology and Linguistics, emphasizes the continuing relevance of a holistic approach to the human experience.  While so far we’ve only implemented the thematic approach at the graduate level, we see great potential for strengthening undergraduate curricula here and elsewhere too.  The establishment of themes actually could encourage a re-dedication to the holistic Anthropology which is the primary organizing principle at most North American universities.  In so doing, the relevance of the discipline would also be made apparent to that most important of our audiences: our own students who will be the future practitioners and ambassadors of the discipline.

Edit: it seems Governor Scott’s own daughter has a degree in Anthropology:


2 responses to “In Defence of Anthropology

  1. This is a really good piece by a science major, who defends Anthropology, even arguing for it to be taught to all first year students:

    I shudder to think what I would be like now had I not stumbled upon an Introduction to Anthropology course to fill an elective time-slot in my schedule as an underclassman. In fact, my biggest collegiate regret is that I didn’t bite the bullet, lose some credit-hours, and switch my major to anthropology when I could.

    My goals haven’t changed–I still want to be a (“scientifically excellent”) physician, and I still want to work with underserved communities. Only now I’m much more prepared. Is it really any coincidence that so many medical schools are excited to accept students who have worked in the social sciences and humanities? Because of my studies in anthropology I have real-world experience in working with patients, in interviewing them and their families, in critically thinking about the issues they face (hey, that sounds a lot more like what most physicians actually spend their time doing than does worm anatomy or Kinetics). I am a more proficient communicator, a better critical thinker, quite well-read, and have far more directly applicable skills for having studied some anthropology.

  2. I see Rosemary Joyce has entered the fray with a piece in Psychology Today magazine (of all places).

    In this, she makes a strong case that much of the criticism of Governor Scott, which focused on how viable the job market for Anthropology graduates really is, may be misguided, or even self-defeating, to the extent that Anthropology (and all fields of study) should be valued in and of themselves:

    But I found myself wishing we did not have to accept the framing of the issue provided by the governor of Florida, who clearly used anthropology as a non-random example in what in fact is a more profound attack on the idea of the university, and particularly of the liberal arts. As The New York Times noted in a higher education blog, Scott’s remarks were echoed by a state senator who singled out psychology and political science as “degrees that don’t mean much” that the state should not be asked to support.

    Anthropology is not the only victim here: It is the whole idea of learning that seems to be at risk in arguments like this.

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