THE BLOG
10/01/2014 04:08 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

Global Politics, Global Health and the Anthropological Moment

The world is a mess. In the Middle East the rapid and powerful rise of ISIS has been a terrifying surprise. It certainly surprised officials in the United States whose intelligence professionals "underestimated" the power, cunning and resoluteness of the Islamic State. In West Africa the inexorable spread of the Ebola virus has triggered global fears of a pandemic. Indeed, we now have a confirmed Ebola case in the US. Expanded carbon emissions made 2014 the hottest year that scientists have ever recorded. Extreme climatic events (powerful tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, droughts, shrinking glaciers and rising ocean levels) are now commonplace.

In one way or another narrow-minded thinking has precipitated this gloomy turn of events. Such narrow-mindedness results from the fact that most of the people who hold power consider the 21st century from a 20th-century vantage. The people who run governments around the world tend to be military officers, lawyers, economists, or business executives -- people who "get things done." Indeed they have long applied military, legal, economic and/or business models to meet the challenges of a globally interconnected world.

It's not working.

In a recent blog, Eric Silverman discussed the inauguration of Dr. Ashraf Ghani, an anthropologist, to the presidency of Afghanistan. He wrote:

We need leaders who are not successful in commerce or law, waging war or maneuvering through parliaments. They've been in charge for some time now, and consider the results. Rather, we need global leaders who can speak to radically opposed perspectives, who know that one society's Weltanschauung is another group's wickedness but who nonetheless are trained to seek common ground. What anthropology does best is translate the terms of one reality into another, so that, despite the babel of humanity, we can nonetheless speak to our common humanity.

Anthropologists are, in fact, uniquely positioned to understand the complex multiethnic nuances of 21st century social and political life. Consider the following two examples:

ISIS. What do Europeans or North Americans know about the complex social dynamics of the Arab street, let alone the history, philosophy and political contours of Islam? Most Western leaders don't speak Arabic or Farsi and know little of the cultural elements that shape social and political behavior in the Middle East. Such pervasive shortsightedness compelled us to "underestimate" the scope and power of the Islamic State. This rather feckless admission is -- at least for me -- a statement of colossal cultural ignorance. There is a wide assortment of scholars, many of whom are anthropologists, who speak Arabic or Farsi. These scholars have lived among the peoples of the Middle East. They have a ground-level expertise about social and political life in Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Iran. Do our leaders listen to their inconvenient messages, messages that tend to underscore a complex social reality that requires a culturally literate approach to the world?

The Ebola Outbreak. The terrible outbreak of the Ebola virus in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone demonstrates that an epidemic is not simply a bio-medical problem, but one that has important social and cultural dimensions. If you demonize the "backward" West African villagers for their cultural practices, they are not going to cooperate with external and centralized containment programs. Two strategies have been effective. Dr. Paul Farmer, a infectious disease specialist who is also an anthropologist, flew to Liberia to oversee the construction of local Ebola care facilities. Knowing that villagers often associate a trip to a centralized medical center with death, Farmer, who has a culturally astute sensibility about medical care in long forgotten poverty-stricken regions of the world, understood that local-level care would be effective in containing Ebola. In Guinea anthropologists are successfully helping medical specialists in their efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak. In a recent blog, "How Anthropologists Help Medics Fight Ebola in Guinea," SciDev.Net reported on the work of Senegalese medical anthropologist Sylvain Landry Faye.

Anthropologists are considered a central part in the effort to combat the outbreak because, without their intervention, medical staff would struggle to do their jobs. "We have reached a situation in which people don't want to hear what they're being told," explains Faye.

In such a difficult situation, the anthropologists make recommendations, aiming to find a balance between the fears and resistance of local people and the need to bring the epidemic under control. For example, they have recommended that medical staff stop using the term 'isolation centres' to refer to the places where people infected with Ebola are gathered, and instead to use the more reassuring term 'treatment centres'.

Faye adds that "doctors have always considered disease to be within a medical paradigm, by treating viruses, prions and sick bodies rather than individuals". For Faye, illness "involves a society and a culture and, if we want we want to cure it, we must take account of these parameters", hence the importance of the anthropologists, who specialise in such issues.

Sensitivity to the social and cultural dimensions of an epidemic goes a long way toward ensuring a significant degree of compliance and containment.

There are many more examples that illustrate how anthropological sensitivity to social and cultural difference produces a subtle local approach to the challenges of 21st-century social life. Anthropologists are now writing clearly, effectively and powerfully about the social and political implications of social inequality, incessant war, environmental degradation, racism, and the spread of social media -- key elements that are shaping 21st-century global politics and health. Can we afford to confront the potentially devastating problems of contemporary social, political and social life with a 20th-century worldview?

I can't imagine that the American people will soon follow the lead of the Afghans and elect an anthropologist to the presidency. But if we continue on the current path of applying old solutions to new problems, we will bequeath to our children and grandchildren a fatally flawed hellish world. The ideas and methods of anthropology, which Forbes Magazine ironically considers the worse college major, may well provide a 21st-century path toward a sustainable future.

Will our leaders have the imaginative wherewithal to listen?