THE BLOG

Universities Need Anthropology Now, More Than Ever

10/20/2016 04:39 pm ET | Updated Oct 20, 2016

George Leader is a post-doctoral researcher at The University of Pennsylvania and an adjunct Professor at The College of New Jersey where he teaches a range of anthropology and archaeology courses.

While I appreciate its importance, for just a moment let's not think about the economy, tax breaks, tax loopholes, tax hikes or the TPP. For just this moment I ask you to look at the current political news cycle from a purely anthropological perspective.

Don't really know what that means? You're not alone.

Recently released tapes from 2005 of Donald Trump bragging about his behavior towards woman have sent the media spinning. Yet, these disturbing comments are only the most recent in a long and still growing list of comments targeted at specific groups the candidate has made which stem from one basis; not fear, not hate, but a pure lack of understanding.

The divisive solutions to multi-facetted problems like immigration and terrorism (which should not be exclusively linked) put forth by Mr. Trump display a disturbing lack of humanistic knowledge and reasoning that is very obtainable within the field of anthropology. To suggest a physical structure, such as a wall across the Mexican border, or a symbolic structure, like a registration for all Muslim Americans is not even close to addressing the root causes of either of the issues. They are solutions (even that is debatable) brought forth from a mind entirely ignorant and unwilling to do one simple step: understand others.

Anthropology as a field may be way off many people's radar, but now more than ever we need to encourage students to learn the skill sets that anthropology provides. Certainly, in the 1960s anthropology gained a reputation of hipster academics headed to the jungle to live with and write about "indigenous" tribes. Many of these texts are indeed still used and of importance, but today's anthropology is very different. Anthropology provides the opportunity to learn analytical techniques that force a person out of their own central ethos and facilitate appreciation for unfamiliar culture, beliefs and behavior. Quite simply, we call this cultural relativism. Culture, the all encompassing term for a group's behavior, beliefs, symbols and tradition, always seems best when it's our own. Understanding others only happens by stepping outside the walls of our own tradition. Doing this allows people brought up in one system of beliefs to appreciate or at the very least understand the origins of traditions of another system of beliefs without pressure.

Globalization in a business driven free market is only going to continue to grow and Mr. Trump knows this very well. This very same globalization in the markets also creates a space (both cyber and real) for cultures to rub against one another. However, we cannot allow this cultural contact zone to be a point of contention or fear, but embrace the differences and share in a mutual appreciation. As the world's population grows, as resources strain and as cultures come in contact more and more, ideas and values will continue to diffuse. To attempt to build structures to keep this cultural globalization process at bay is unrealistic and will be ineffective. The processes of change are never-ending and far too strong. Importantly, there is no need fear cultural contact, in fact, the adaptability of culture is what makes it special and brings it to life.

America is great but Americans are not exceptional. We are part of a world of seven billion people, most of which are after the same thing, comfort, love, full bellies and family. To just understand and appreciate the differences that motivate hate or divisiveness would do wonders to begin eliminating it.

It would serve Americans quite well to learn from the field of anthropology and colleges and high schools should do more to encourage students to take some courses. We must educate our next generation of business leaders, doctors, nurses, engineers and those pursuing all careers towards a worldview that is not limited but conscious. Anthropology should be an integral part of the education of policy makers and law enforcement.



I will continue to hold that solutions to many of the world's most pressing issues will only be met with success if they first address the humanistic element; that all human beings have commonalities to appreciate as well as their own distinctive traditions to respect.

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