What is this Anthropology anyway?

02/15/2017 06:03 pm ET

Post submitted by Therese Muranaka, Ph.D., R.P.A., a retired California State Parks archaeologist who has taught Anthropology part-time for many years.

So, your kid came home from college after the first semester. Your pride abounded. You had made the payments, didn’t die from loneliness (he was back shortly with lots of laundry), and even better than you hoped, he was sober and had shoes on. Around the holiday table, you listened with excitement to his/her stories of discovery and new wonder. And then it came, he had declared a major. Ready for it? Anthropology! A stunned silence progressed around the family table, as you felt your stomach sink. What? No Engineering? No Pre-Med? Not even the Graduate’s legendary ‘Plastics?’

What is this Anthropology anyway? It is the study of human life, all of it. It is divided into Cultural Anthropology (the study of living peoples), Archaeology (the study of past human life), Biological (the study of our physical makeup), Linguistics (how we speak to each other), and Applied (using our knowledge of others to solve human problems).

Why is it valuable enough that almost every university in the U.S. offers it? Because the workplace is made up of people from all over the world. They have different ways of going about solving their basic needs. These differences may carry over from the womb, or be learned from the individuals who raise the child. Unless that child was raised in a place in which lots of people from many world areas reside, it is normal not to recognize alternate patterns of living as ‘proper.’ One thing Anthropology can offer is an introduction to all these people and what they believe.

Did you know that ‘culture,’ a basic concept in Anthropology, is paraphrased as a set of rules necessary to function as a member of society? The Navajo Indian mother teaches her child the rules to live well within their community. The problem is that the Navajo mother, the Japanese mother, the Thai mother and the Portuguese mother all teach their children different rules. So now we come to your almost-grown-up child. To be polished, to be educated, to be ready to merge into the world today, he needs that level of worldliness and cultural understanding that Anthropology provides. He will not be taken aback at his first job because he doesn’t readily understand the behavior of his fellow employees. She will not attempt to market mislabeled industrial goods; how would an ad executive with cross-cultural experience market the Chevy ’Nova’ in Latin America (no va means ‘it doesn’t go,’ or ‘it doesn’t run’) without rethinking its name? He will not send milk in relief packages to tribes who are lactose intolerant, and might use it to paint fences. He will not expect the same treatment overseas that he has come to expect at home, perhaps a life-saving bit of knowledge. And your student may have a really, really wonderful time meeting more of the peoples of this planet.

In honor of Anthropology Day on February 16, help the Anthropology students in your life celebrate the inherent value of their discipline. For those of you with college children not majoring in Anthropology, suggest an Anthropology minor. Those of you able to do so, take a community college or continuing education Anthropology class. Nothing would be more broadening of your horizons. The world is a very, very big place.

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