A “Four-Field Manifesto” for Moral Optimism

Traces of ancient raised fields in Bolivia mark a former sustainable agricultural system. Source: Clarl Erickson, UPENN

Anthropology needs to make “an explicit claim to the moral optimism that may be this discipline’s greatest appeal and yet its most guarded secret” (Trouillot, p.136).

So begins a stirring essay by Jason Antrosio, an Anthropologist at Hartwicke College.  Ostensibly about Capitalism and its excesses, the piece also works as a “four-field manifesto” for moral optimism in the contemporary global context.  In this, Anthropology is urged towards the forefront of a movement to contemplate the relationship between market forces and the global citizen.

Drawing heavily on the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot, the essay takes each Anthropological subdiscipline in turn, showing how singly and together they challenge the easy conventional wisdom about “human nature” which structures contemporary discourses and political thought:  humans are naturally greedy and selfish, Capitalism harnesses greed and selfishness to productive ends, therefore Capitalism is inevitable and invincible.

Following Antrosio, Biological Anthropology has cast doubt on whether humans are, indeed, naturally greedy and selfish via studies which show altruism and co-operation are also at the very roots of primate behaviour.  And these traits, which individuals may hold or express in any combination, only acquire their meaning in a system of values.  Archaeological research is brought out to show long-term, sustainable ways of life – and for archaeologists, long-term means just that, five or ten centuries of ‘dynamic stability’ to set against the prevailing short-term thinking and goals.  Recent popular archaeological studies which focus on “Collapse” mean well but only reinforce a sort of sinking feeling – popular books called “Resilience” are also needed!

The essay then considers the  “insights of a Linguistic Anthropology attuned to language and power, the condensed histories of words, and how words become harnessed to imagination.”  Sharply, the essay quotes Anna Tsing to the effect that the comfort of Universals appeals to elites and excluded alike.   And, of course, the Cultural Anthropology  literature is replete with examples of how the promises of Capitalism are so seldom kept.  Cultural Anthropologists knows the systems from the inside, from the bottom up, and increasingly, it also seeks to understand the cultures of the elite as well.

Most importantly, though, the four field approach is not seen as a series of rifts dividing the discipline, but as a series of bridges leading to interlocking viewpoints of the human condition.  At UVIC, we’ve been seeking our own way – cross-cutting themes – to bring forward a reinvigorated holistic Anthropology. Regardless of your thoughts about the merits of Capitalism itself, or of Antrosio’s analysis of the Political Economy, the essay does make an inspiring vision of holistic Anthropology.

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3 responses to “A “Four-Field Manifesto” for Moral Optimism

  1. Thank you for this very kind write-up. It’s been nice to get a sense of your department and the innovative, holistic anthropology you are promoting. If you are interested, I’ve posted a free customizable PowerPoint on these themes, Free PowerPoint: Anthropology and Moral Optimism, which is primarily aimed at an introductory undergraduate audience.

    Thanks again!

  2. Hi Jason, Thanks for your comment and the link – the slides look particularly useful to be a capstone to a four-field Anthropology intro course, to reinforce to students why and how the subdisciplines have contemporary relevance to address a unified suite of problems relating to the human condition.

  3. Pingback: Capitalism, Denisovans, Anthropology in Media

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