There’s a movement afoot among anthropologists to try to increase the capacity of the discipline to influence debates on public issues. But that movement is running into the sharp divisions among anthropologists. A friend who does anthropology as a scientist, rather than as a poet or a political activist, wrote a few paragraphs of probably unwelcome but highly salutary advice to one of the leaders of that movement, and shared them with me. The missive is reprinted below, with the author’s permission.
Here are a few recommendations for changes within the discipline that anthropologists genuinely committed to increasing the relevance of anthropology to both policy makers and the larger world of behavioral science might promulgate:
1) Adopt a scientific perspective. I see no reason why anyone outside the rarefied world of academia should pay any attention to the work of scholars who argue that facts are unknowable, theories are untestable, or framing, perspective, and interpretation are all that count. Would you fly in an airplane designed by an engineer who adopted such a perspective? Would you submit to treatment by a doctor who thought this way? I know I wouldn’t, and I doubt that most folks would. So long as a sizable proportion of anthropologists vocally advocate this type of position, there is every reason for those who actually affect the fates of underrepresented peoples to dismiss the entire discipline as irrelevant, or worse. The same goes for those who influence the availability of funding — the NSF has repeatedly questioned whether cultural anthropology is within its purview (as opposed to the NEH’s), and it is not hard to fathom why — simply pick up any cultural anthropology journal, or even the AA, the flagship journal of our professional association, and you will find this approach on many a page.
2) Eliminate political agendas from research. Policy makers seek to base their decisions on reliable observations. When political activism pervades the research enterprise, potential consumers of the resulting information are justifiably skeptical of the accuracy of the observations reported. Political activism is the core of a democratic society, and I greatly admire those who exert themselves in the service of the dispossessed. However, failing to separate activism from the research enterprise practically guarantees that the research will have no influence on policy, as most folks will simply dismiss the reported findings as nothing more than shrill propaganda.
3) Broaden the scope of the peoples investigated. Anthropology has a remarkable methodological tool kit at its disposable. Why is it that anthropologists feel compelled to focus on the smallest, oddest, or most marginal groups within any given nation-state? One gets the strong impression that applying that remarkable tool kit to the investigation of the members of a majority group, be it ethnic, religious, or linguistic, scores few points in the anthropological arena. Yet policy makers frequently lack the kind of information, and the kind of insights, that anthropologists can supply with regard to majority group members. Inevitably, policy makers will often care more about majority groups than minority groups (if for no other reason than raw political factors); demonstrating that anthropologists can supply useful information on a topic that policy makers care about is a way of getting a foot in the door, so that other kinds of information will subsequently be attended to.
4) Read, understand, and communicate with scholars in the broader world of behavioral science. Outside of their contacts with investigators in closely related areas such as gender and ethnic studies, many anthropologists are astoundingly out of touch with findings from other fields. For example, despite massive empirical evidence to the contrary, a majority of anthropologists apparently continue to hold a tabula rasa view of the human mind. Such willful ignorance often leads other behavioral scientists to dismiss anthropology as having nothing to contribute to the understanding of human behavior (indeed, on more than one occasion I have heard prominent behavioral scientists refer to anthropologists as the contemporary equivalent of flat-Earthers). Correspondingly, when policy makers are told by political scientists, economists, or psychologists that anthropologists live in their own little world, those who hold the reins of power are unlikely to pay much attention to what anthropologists have to say.
The frequency with which the members of a given anthropology department reach out to the public will have little to do with the impact of our discipline so long as the problems listed above persist.