Why Anthropologists Make Great Politicians

03/29/2017 09:26 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2017

This post was submitted by Debra Rodman, a cultural anthropologist and professor at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia.

Some say that anthropologists make great politicians -- literally. Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, was an anthropologist, whose life and fieldwork had a young Barack living in Indonesia and a cross-cultural experience that would influence the choices he made as a politician. Some called him the “anthropologist-in-chief” for his cultural sensitivity and classic anthropological way of seeing issues from the insider’s perspective while trying to bridge political divides. Much of being a politician is about power and authority, yet he or she should also be representing a vast number of people with diverse ideas. It is no wonder that the desperate call for the people’s voice to be heard on Capitol Hill remains largely unheeded. Anthropologists, however, are trained to listen.

I just announced my candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the House of Delegates, 73rd District, in the State of Virginia and I am also an anthropologist. I teach at a liberal arts college and regularly serve as an expert witness in U.S. federal immigration courts for migrants applying for political asylum, mostly women, children, and LGBT individuals. As an expert in Central America, I am tasked with explaining country conditions to federal judges and putting into context the structural violence people are fleeing. Now faced with the executive actions of the current D.C. administration, the xenophobic rhetoric, the efforts to leave our vulnerable members even more vulnerable, and a struggling working and middle class, I ask myself, how can I not step up to represent my own neighbors?

This is where we get to the part where anthropologists make good legislators – while politicians base their choices on opinion polls and focus groups, we take a nonjudgmental attitude and maintain a keen interest in learning about others to develop a real understanding of people’s lives and their views. We work with cultures that have very different takes on the world than we do, but we see the issues through their eyes. We do this by building trust, observing, listening, documenting patterns and connecting them to larger social, political, and historical trends. Anthropologists are natural bridge makers between people of different attitudes, perceptions, and backgrounds. Our work is about human rights, social justice, racial and social equity. Understanding the values and perceptions of different cultures has also given me a renewed appreciation of our American values and the conviction that the American Dream can still be achieved.

I believe in the American Dream because I have spent the past 20 years studying it. In my research on Central American immigration, I have documented the successes and the tragedies of those who have arrived at our shores. Successes like Cory and Vinicio, who received their citizenship after over 20 years in the U.S. during which they became successful entrepreneurs on both sides of the border and put their kids through college debt free. Their business, like many, serves as a model and supports initiatives for our own state to invest in small business owners to create more diversified economic development. There are a myriad of ways the state of Virginia can invest in small business growth and I believe that diversity and inclusion creates healthy and vibrant communities.

The American Dream though has been compromised by decades of deadlock on immigration reform, spiraling into the latest manifestation of anti-immigrant sentiment. Sheila, a local business owner in my district, sent her two sons back to Mexico to attend university, feeling that the situation here for undocumented children here was too tenuous. She recently told me how her two boys had been kidnapped and that she never heard from them again. “I told my mom to stop looking for their bodies, because I just want to believe they are still out there somewhere.” Sheila’s story is not unusual. With two young sons of my own, the loss of her children haunts me.

In a time when anti-intellectualism has made the line between facts fuzzy and turned the pundits into experts, we need to re-embrace the scientist as expert. Many anthropologists wax and wane about the times of Margaret Mead. Our voice and what we have to offer as scientists resonated then, and now. We are tasked with bringing our critical engagement to the world. A recent article in Higher Ed, “New Political Terrain for a Liberal Discipline,” showed that anthropologists certainly aren’t shy about our critical perspective of the Trump administration. We use science to understand how climate change, health disparities, underfunded education, racial injustice, and economic inequities adversely impacts lives. In order to create positive, progressive, empirically-based policy decisions, we need science. In a time when fear and bigotry has blurred the line between fact and fiction, it seems like a pretty good time to count on people who have to get their facts straight before they say anything. That is why anthropologists make great politicians!

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