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Studying anthropology and why it is different from the other humanities

Rod Polasky

Most of you know that anthropology is the study of humans. If you didn't know, then I doubt if you would be here reading this.

Other disciplines also study humans. Sociology studies humanity within societies, philosophy studies human thinking, medicine studies human anatomy. Anthropology includes all of these things and a lot more, but from a viewpoint which is unique. What makes that viewpoint unique is that, anthropologists, no matter what the subject of their research, must always remember that they are seeing only a single possible way out of the nearly limitless ways humans can think and perform in this world.

Anthropology studies the ways cultures differ from each other. Anthropology also studies what makes humans differ from other types of animals; and culture is always at the center of anthropological research.

When we study how humanity differs from the rest of the animals, physical anthropology looks at how human evolution has led us to our capacity for culture. Physical anthropology compares human culture to that of non-human primates. Physical anthropologists also study how culture is imprinted on the human body. Years of sitting at a desk, just as years of field excavation under a desert sun, actually leaves a physical mark which can be identified.

Cultures do change over time and from place to place. Those of us who are archaeologists study human societies using things they left behind or threw away instead of by the words they wrote down. These artifacts may be thousands of years old or they may have been discarded early this morning.

Those who engage in social anthropology look at current human societies, whether tribal cultures in the Sudan or the cultural dynamics of downtown Cleveland, Ohio.

Linguistic anthropologists are interested in how culture and language interact. Linguistic anthropologists may also work closely with archaeologists. While we as archaeologists may unearth an inscribed object in Egypt, it is the linguistic anthropologist, or an archaeologist trained in linguistics, who actually takes over the work when it comes to reading and cataloging the inscription itself.

There are many who might confuse the disciplines of cultural anthropology with sociology. While the two are related, anthropology has a distinct focus and a much wider arena than does sociology. Anthropology covers all past and present human cultures, languages, forms of social interaction and organization, as well as the social interactions of our nearest animal relatives such as the great apes.

The closest branch of anthropology to sociology would be social anthropology. However it is different than sociology in that cross-cultural comparisons are central to any social anthropology study while sociology generally deals with only one culture or society.

For most, anthropology is a very libertarian and liberating type of discipline. We are not bound by established parameters to study only one aspect of a culture or society or use only a specified methodology. That alone makes anthropology different from other disciplines which study humans.

However, anthropology is often not liberating for the cultures studied, at least not by our mere presence. In as much as social anthropologists are 'observers' it often means we need to sit back and remain uninvolved even when watching what we would otherwise consider the most reprehensible of actions or social injustices. It is often not a discipline which would have much appeal for the altruist who feels the urge to step in and offer immediate assistance or intervention. Our best method of giving aid to those societies which we feel need it is to remain dispassionate in our observations and then make an accurate report to those who can give such help and make needed changes.

While this may seem cold blooded and heartless, it is only because of our willingness to make observations without interference with those we observe that gains us admittance to many cultures and communities. What benefits we bring to those communities, we should do in an indirect manner. Unlike a physician, we should not intervene on the moment to bring healing. Unlike a social worker, we should not intervene on the moment to end an injustice. And unlike clergy or counselors, we should not even step in to bring comfort. If we do so, we have defeated our mission as being "observers." We may not be permitted to return to a specific culture and our actions may well mean few other anthropologists are given the chance either. This too, makes anthropology different than other disciplines involved with the study of humans. Even a news reporter can get involved with his or her story. We should not.

We must also realize that the general guidelines mentioned above are usually necessary with only the most primitive and isolated societies. For the study of more advanced cultures, where there is increased interaction with the world, it is far easier to get actively involved with the study subjects without breaking as many social taboos. When going into an area of study, it is important to know as much about the ethnological and cultural characteristics of the subjects as possible before you arrive. You would not want to get off on the wrong foot by breaking taboo within minutes of getting there.

That does not mean there is no room in anthropology for those who would have an emotional involvement with the people or primates they are studying. The situations encountered by many social anthropologists are rather unique to that particular field. As mentioned, anthropology is a liberating kind of discipline and its very broadness gives scope for most any personality type.

For social anthropologists, this 'keeping a lid' on the emotions, even when a situation may tear their hearts out, could be one of the reasons anthropologists often have a highly developed 'mortician's sense of humor' and find humor where others see none, and/or often become passionately involved with issues outside their professional sphere, such as politics or other social agendas. What is bottled up professionally emerges elsewhere.

The study of anthropology helps us question our assumptions about, and relationships with, the rest of the world. Anthropology helps us see the answers to life's mysteries and problems from another point of view. And while we may get deeply involved in these studies, we need to always be aware of one of the most common dangers facing many anthropologists. That danger is in getting so completely submerged in the subject of study that we forget who we are. Some call it "going native." When we lose the perspective our own society provides, we have also lost the ability to be objective about the culture we are studying. When the subject's exclusive way of thinking becomes our exclusive way of thinking, we have lost the ability to comfortably move between worlds.

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