Anthropology for the current times

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the social sciences were acquiring the disciplinary divisions we know today, researchers concerned with ...

Sep 21, 2013

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the social sciences were acquiring the disciplinary divisions we know today, researchers concerned with the way humans organize themselves in social groups tacitly divided themselves into two broad camps: the sociologists, who took on large-scale, complex, urban and industrialized societies as their object of study; and those who conducted research in small-scale, rural and “exotic” human groups — the anthropologists. While the focus of their work was different, they nevertheless read each other’s research and referred to similar theoretical concepts. The timing of this split was not incidental. At the time, Western European and North American world powers were in the midst of a new wave of colonial expansion, and many central figures of these empires came to realize that there was an urgent need to understand how colonized peoples organized their lives — for some, it was a road towards more effective colonial control while for others, it was driven by a deep intellectual curiosity about the unknown “other.”
Since then, the division of labor between sociologists and anthropologists has largely broken down, for both have realized over the decades that the lives of “exotic peoples” were in fact organized along very similar lines as those of urban dwellers. Anthropologists have also recognized that the exoticism of the “other” was largely a byproduct of colonialism, which they have become critical to, and which they began to analyze just as they would study villages and islanders in faraway lands. Particularly in the last few decades, with the advent of what we have come to term globalization, anthropologists now understand that the boundaries between the “West” and the “Rest” have broken down: the movement of people, the ideas and images that flow around the world and the deep interdependence of national economies, political processes and cultural systems make up a world of connections, which is precisely the focus of what anthropologists study today.
What is notable about contemporary anthropology is that there are few topics that fall outside its purview anthropology. It is a subject that poaches ideas from other disciplines — sociology of course, but also economics, psychology, history, the humanities, and so on — subjecting them to critical scrutiny and returning the favor by providing inspiration to scholars of other fields. What is distinct about anthropology is the recognition that the world must be understood from the perspectives of those who live in it, not just from those of governments, the media, or experts. This is why the main methodological underpinning of the discipline, namely ethnography, typically involves the researcher’s lengthy and intimate engagement with other people so that she or he can experience their problems, their pleasures, their hopes and their disappointments. While anthropologists, like sociologists and demographers, do use interviews and statistics, they see these tools as secondary to engaging in the same activities as the people they study, be it planting corn with peasants, ironing clothes with domestic workers or risking other people's money with stock brokers.
Anthropologists insist that there are always multiple perspectives on specific issues. They are particularly interested in representing the perspective of those whose voice is rarely heard, recognizing that their views can in fact be as insightful as those that dominate the airwaves. However they do not stop here, as they recognize that perspectives are always tied to one's position in society or in the world, be it the amount of power or wealth we have or the political, religious and moral position we take. Finding these connections constitutes a major component of what anthropologists consider to be explanation and generalization: even though each neighborhood, ethnic group, or society has its own specificities, these specificities are organized in patterns that are found in other groupings with an uncanny familiarity. And the connections that characterize our existence link together aspects of life that are generally thought to belong to different realms. Thus anthropologists demonstrate that our economic lives, our emotions, our bodies and what we do with them, our aspirations for the future, our relationships with parents, siblings, children, friends and partners are all intertwined in ways that often escape our immediate analytic attention.
These qualities mean that people with training in anthropology are particularly good at assessing unfamiliar situations, recognizing that simplicity is often deceiving, and developing tools that enable them to gain an intimate knowledge of the situations they encounter. This is why training in anthropology can be an excellent asset for work in people-focused industries, social services, international organizations, development efforts and politics. In many parts of the world, employers in these areas recognize the value of training in anthropology. In Bergen, Norway, for example, I recently learned that representatives of companies and public bodies, such as the city council, regularly organize recruitment events at the university's anthropology department. At my own institution, the University of Amsterdam, our student body has been growing significantly every year as students are attracted by the diversity of questions and the wide range of possibilities offered by the discipline.
NYU Abu Dhabi is launching a new anthropology concentration under the direction of Professor Marzia Balzani, and I will be visiting the campus on Sept. 30 in the context of this launch, giving a seminar — to which everyone is invited — on my current work on the global circulation of migrant professional rugby players. The new emphasis will appeal to students interested in the diversity of humankind, the diversity of opinions, the often surprising complexity of human existence and the connections between seemingly disparate aspects of our lives.
Niko Besnier is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, and has taught previously at universities in the United States, New Zealand and Japan. With funding from the European Union, he is currently directing a five-year project on the global circulation of professional athletes, which involves six junior researchers conducting fieldwork in various parts of the world. Email him at
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