Anthropology Love Letters

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On Valentine’s Day, Rex at Savage Minds called for love letters to anthropology.

This idea is simple: in the next seven days, for a few thousand words, somewhere public on the Internet, write about why you like anthropology. Then we’ll make the guys at Neuroanthropology do a round up.

Many anthropologists sent out their missives, impassioned posts that take us to the heart of this fair discipline. Here is the correspondence, ordered by postmark date.

James Holland Jones, Monkey’s Uncle: Anthropology: A Bittersweet Love Story

Barbara King, Friday Animal Blog: Why I Love Anthropology

Rex, Savage Minds, Why I <3 Anthropology

Megan McCullen, Great Lakes Ethnohistorian: My Love Letter to Anthropology

Jason Antrosio, Living Anthropologically: Loving Anthropology

Kristina Killgrove, Bone Girl: The Accidental Anthropologist

Krystal D’Costa, Anthropology in Practice: Anthropology, How Do I Love Thee

Zinjanthropus, A Primate of Modern Aspect: A Love Letter to Anthropology

Daniel Lende, Neuroanthropology: Life, Anthropology, and Love

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How do we love anthropology? Below I present the lines that inspired me, the excerpts that cut to the heart of this lifelong love affair. Struck by their passion, roused to reflect, I write at the end on what ties together these different declarations of love. Enjoy!

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James Holland Jones:

How can we explain human diversity without documenting its full extent, through both time and space, and across cultures? This is the thing that drew me to anthropology, the thing that really made me fall in love with it. The great story of humanity. Our great story.

Where did we come from? What makes us human? Where does the tapestry of human diversity come from and how is it that we continually manage to resist powerful homogenizing forces and hang on to our diversity? What commonalities transcend local difference to unite all humanity? How is it that civilizations rise and fall? And what is the fate of humanity?

This vision of anthropology relies on a simultaneous focus on difference and universality — reminiscent of Scott Fitzgerald’s famous take on true intelligence, “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” It isn’t about making hyperbolic claims on flimsy or otherwise highly situated evidence. It is about relentlessly examining the commonplace with an eye to universal, the grand…

For anthropology to thrive, we need to not be afraid to learn the tools that help us answer questions we want answered, rather than simply the ones that are expedient. Better still, we should have the confidence to create our own methods and develop our own theories, rather than perpetually borrowing them from our ostensibly better-endowed cognate disciplines…

I really believe that anthropology can play a role in meeting the enormous challenges our species now faces. Diversity is the foundation of adaptation and adaptation is always local. Understanding how different people in different places and different times solve(d) real problems provides the raw material for finding adaptive solutions to a rapidly changing world.

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Barbara King:

I wondered one day why the Baboon Project’s Kenyan assistant, Raphael Mututua, was waving at me from across a wide open area, where he too was collecting data. I waved back, only to learn later that he’d been trying to alert me to the fact that a rhinoceros was lumbering right towards me. The poorly-sighted rhino veered out of my path by random luck, but I soon enough suffered other blunders involving near-misses with lions and mamba snakes.

Gradually my greenness faded; I began to thrive at Amboseli. I could distinguish one baboon from another by glimpsing a single body-segment at a distance. I gained many hours of data and knew how to stay safe.

Various veils of mystery began to slip from my eyes. Animal-behavior-wise, things began to make sense. But the human world was a different story. I’d taken Swahili lessons and could properly greet people and engage them in minor chit-chat, but understood perhaps 25% of the fast-clip conversing going on around me. Living amongst Kikuyu and Maasai families, I was keen to grasp what people were up to, what the world was like for them compared to what it was like for my family back home in New Jersey. I listened a lot, and sometimes thought I’d grasp something that mattered, but most often (even when my multi-lingual hosts switched to English for my sake) felt that I was missing the key aspects.

This whole description amounts, I think, to an apt if crude metaphor for doing anthropology, a practice which destabilizes a person and upends lots of assumptions. Even as you gain a modicum of wisdom in one area, you flail in ignorance in others, sometimes to the extent that you can’t even figure out the right questions to ask.

And oh—those questions! Excellent questions are at the heart of Anthropology (maybe of all disciplines). In the years since Amboseli, I’ve learned a lot about how to tolerate the attendant disorientation that comes with creating them, and asking them: of people I hang out with, of the video tapes I analyze about ape communication, of the books I read in biological anthropology, archaeology, and sociocultural anthropology…

When I do anthropology, it always starts with agitated questions. No matter how modest my contribution, as I work, I feel connected to anthropologists past and present, people who, in Papua New Guinea or Paris, in Berlin or Boston, trained themselves to see the rhino lumbering in their path. To capture from our peripheral vision something strange and exciting about human meaning-making or its evolution, to move it front and center into our minds and join those minds up with others, is a challenge and a joy. It’s why I love being an anthropologist.

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Rex (Alex Golub):

I love anthropology — cultural anthropology, my subfield of the discipline — because it is the most human of the human sciences: the one that is the most about people. The one which thinks you can learn about how people live their lives by watching how they live their lives — not by building models of them, or having them live small parts of it laboratories. In order to understand people we study people, and is willing to embrace all the challenges this entails.

I love anthropology because it is the discipline that takes seriously the idea that our common humanity with those we study is a boon and a strength, not an impediment that distort objective judgment. It works with and works through the fact that we can be powerfully changed by our research, and that this change is a strength. I love the fact that we stick with the project of ethnography despite the fact that it is aa project of telling the stories of others, an entitlement to be earned, not a right to representative authority that can be assumed.

The other day for a project I read the tables of contents for every issue of American Anthropologist from 1900 to 1960. One of the articles I came across was called “Columns of Infamy”. I love that…

Above all I love how anthropology, a science of the human, articulates with our lives: we study kinship, and raise children. We read about enculturation, and we teach students. We analyze power and we try to create a democratic, just world. Our discipline is connected, intimately and irrevocably, to our whole persons — and that’s what I love about it most of all.

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Megan McCullen:

During that term, the Egyptologist told fanciful tales of adventure. They were enticing, they took me out of a dull physics laboratory full of little spring loaded cars into another country that was active not because of force vectors, but because of human energy.

More than that, though, I discovered that there were other people in the world who enjoyed observing and interpreting what people do all day. Sure, we eventually discussed Pharonic Egypt and the Pyramids, and that was fantastic. But for the first 1/3 of that semester we discussed things like microliths – small slivers of stone that were used to make compound tools. I was entranced to discover how much we could discover about people by looking at these little blades. The rest of the class was falling asleep and groaning about the fact that we were not yet discussing King Tut. This was the moment I realized that you and I could have something special together.

I went home one of those days and pulled out my course catalog, a thick book full of class listings and departmental information… I looked up Anthropology in the catalog. This word was new to me – we had never discussed it in high school. It was not a program anyone I knew was in. I read the two paragraph description of the discipline.

Never had I read such wonderful words. I do not remember the original words, but I can tell you how I translated them in my head “Dear Megan, there are people who spend their lives researching what it means to be human. They go to all the different regions of the world to spend time with people, to look at the remains of our ancestors, and try to understand how we got to be so interesting and different from one another, but at the same time so similar. Humans are amazing! And unusual! And you can combine your love of history, geology and political science by becoming an anthropologist! If you can connect your interest to humans, you can study ANYTHING YOU WANT in anthropology! And you can study all of it! There is a discipline just for you! We’re sorry no one told you about us before. Since we interweave with so many other fields, sometimes people do not even realize they are studying anthropology. But we are here, come love your species with us!” …

[Now] as an ethnohistorian I have an opportunity to combine cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropology and history together – it allows me to be as near to a generalist as one can manage these days. And I have retained my passion for human evolutionary studies – teaching Introductory courses allows me to keep up on this section of the field as well. I am a generalist at heart; I am fascinated by what makes us all tick, and what makes some of us tock instead. While my research has necessarily narrowed, my passion for understanding how amazing our species is continues.

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Jason Antrosio:

I love anthropology for the questions it asks, the way anthropologists search for answers, and the importance of the answers to our world. Anthropology asks big questions, root questions, origin questions. Anthropologists listen, look, and explore–doing anthropology means having humility and openness to discovery. What anthropology has discovered is world-changing: that there are more possibilities than the way things are; what seems so natural and permanent is not the way it has to be…

The questions anthropology asks are fundamental to the human condition: How did we get here? What are the material bases and social conditions for different ways of life? How do people make sense of their world?

For a research-based discipline, anthropology may be unique in questioning its own questions. Often the best anthropology comes not from the initial research question, but from the research that calls into question the terms of the research question…

Anthropology requires a basic respect for people and working with them, not just studying them. Looking for answers means being humble and open to this process. This stance of listening, studying with people, applies not just to cultural and social anthropology, but to how archaeology is attentive to artifacts, how primatologists study with non-human primates, how forensic anthropology understands the context of bone measurements, how anthropologists read historical documents to coax hidden meanings.

I found anthropology because of the questions it asks, and I appreciate how anthropologists listen and study with people, but what keeps me hopeful and loving anthropology is the empirical documentation of human possibility.

This is not simply neutral documentation but a counterpoint to dominant narratives, what Michel-Rolph Trouillot terms anthropology’s “moral optimism.” In an age when neoliberal market discipline has become a religion, at a time when versions of determinism have been gaining ground, “we owe it to ourselves and to our interlocutors to say loudly that we have seen alternative visions of humankind–indeed more than any academic discipline–and that we know that this one [neoliberal capitalism] may not be the most respectful of the planet we share, nor indeed the most accurate nor the most practical. We also owe it to ourselves to say that it is not the most beautiful or the most optimistic. (2003:139, in Global Transformations).”

The issue is one of making sure anthropology has a honed message, identifies who needs to hear the message, and is speaking loudly enough…

I love anthropology because it’s interesting, but I stick with it because it’s important.

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Kristina Killgrove:

One of my earliest memories is poring through every foreign-language board book I could find in our tiny public library, memorizing Spanish words with absolutely no idea how they sounded, and devouring images of the marble elegance of the ancient Greeks. I desperately longed to experience far-away lands filled with colorful tapestries, musical phonemes, spice-laden food, and history much deeper than my native Virginia. Growing up poor, I knew I’d have to travel to Europe vicariously – through old National Geographics with illustrated Roman history timelines, middle school French classes, and used textbooks on Greek architecture…

[In college, while studying classics] at the back of my mind were images of graves in the Greek and Roman archaeology books I had pored through as a kid. No one was studying the human skeletons found on classical archaeology digs; nowhere in the textbooks was anything reported about the biological remains of classical civilizations. In approaching graduate school, I realized there wasn’t a name for the sort of research I wanted to do: research that combined a deep understanding of human biology with the archaeological and historical context of ancient Rome and anthropological theories of culture…

The freedom that I had at ECU [during my masters] to take courses I was interested in, like human anatomy and disease ecology, and to design my own research project made me realize the importance of an anthropological perspective on the past…

I ended up in anthropology accidentally, but it is the only discipline that takes a biocultural perspective of humans from the deep past to the present. Anthropology finally gave me a name for what I do. Finding a place within an academic family and finding a term – however neologistic – for my research interests convinced me that what I do is real, what I do is important, and what I do is possible.

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Krystal D’Costa:

At the time, my [high] school was experimenting with replacing our standard bell system with music during passing. There was concern over the choice of music, and many felt that the change was disruptive. The system was reverted shortly back to the standard bell system. I was outraged. We hadn’t tested the new system properly—the administration had reverted back to the standard system because a few teachers complained. I was determined to find evidence to switch the system back or to prove that it was disruptive.

What was the relationship between mood and music and productivity? This became my project. I got the administration to agree to a trial period to let me test and observe. I trained participant observers and assigned them to classrooms. I surveyed teachers and students. I even got other schools involved in my tests. The project won an honorable mention in the Solomon Smith Barney Quality of Life competition (1999), and I was hooked…

Freshman year in college, I found myself sitting in Introduction to Anthropology. The questions that driven me to the social science elective began to turn inward. I come from a legacy of immigrants. My grandfather was an indentured servant. And it’s likely that my maternal great-grandparents were as well. From what I’ve been able to piece together, it is probable that these distant ancestors left India via Goa and journeyed to Trinidad in the early 20th-century…

My parents continued this tradition of immigration, bringing our family to New York in the early nineties. The political state of the country and personal economics kept me from the island of my origins, and I spent a long time forgetting this part of my history…

Lawrence Hirschfeld, [a] psychological anthropologist, would give me the tools to discuss race and theory of mind, and would guide my questions of identity to the digital space. My relationship with anthropology has been fueled by this quest to know—both myself, and the world around me, and to understand how the intricate and tenuous connections that bind us, actually work to shape us…

Anthropology, I love you because you’ve allowed me to discover the world on my own terms. You’ve allowed me to find a history I thought lost, and to inspire others to look within as I have. I love you because you bring together so many ways of knowing, from so many disciplines, and you weave them together into a brilliant narrative to generate the human story.

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Zinjanthropus:

One of our professors (“Dr. Stats”) is on pretty much every committee for every graduate student who graduates from our program. I’ve begun to pick out a pattern to Dr. Stats’ questions: During the first round of questioning, he asks a question in which he is pushing you, the student, to directly tie your research with some broad, textbook-level principle of anthropology.

During the second round of questioning, he pushes you to explore just how deep your knowledge of statistics is. In this defense, for example, it was decided that in order to explore the full power of a certain statistical test, the defendee would have to add a table 5.1a.

As I listened to the back-and-forth going on during the defense, I realized precisely why I love anthropology so much. There is no other field which forces such a breadth of knowledge to accompany the extreme depth of knowledge gained in a particular area of research.

My friend probably understands the social behavior, feeding ecology, and activity patterns of this particular species of monkey better than anyone else in the world. But she has also learned about the broader impacts of her research in terms of general rainforest ecology, biomechanics of the jaw, and the cognitive processes that occur in a monkey’s brain when it decides which path to take to a fruiting tree.

That is why you find so many people with so many disparate interests in anthropology departments. We are drawn to the breadth of knowledge that anthropology offers to us- the ability to explore just about any question that occurs to us. But we are also drawn to collaborate with other disciplines so that we can understand our topic at a depth that has so far gone untouched.

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Daniel Lende:

I read anthropologists’ work on co-sleeping, parents sharing their bed with their babies. Co-sleeping was the typical pattern around the world, and could help prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

It wasn’t the typical thing parents were supposed to do in the United States, where cribs and bottles and every other kind of apparatus filled the “baby’s room” in many homes. But it sounded like the right thing to do to me – to share our life with our new child.

Co-sleeping did make life easier for us, where my wife could easily breastfeed during the night. And we learned almost instantly how to sleep lightly, our senses keyed into murmurs and breath. Unlike people saying we might crush our child, we could actually be more attentive.

And the beauty of waking up in the morning, your new baby beside you, its perfect face healthy and happy in the morning’s light, is such a gift.

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On the Personal Side

All the love letters bear the obvious marks of personal narrative. A love letter is not an abstract analysis, and all the posts bear the marks of specific lives.

In my reading, I found three themes across the personal narratives, three things that highlight why we love anthropology.

-Anthropology connects with and illuminates our lives. From our past as immigrants to the choices we make today, anthropology provides insight and sustenance for the lives we live.

-We love the discovery inherent in anthropology. The delight at encountering human diversity, both past and present, is a treasure that proves its worth again and again. Yet like all discovery, that encounter with difference and the questions it yields challenges us. This dual nature of discovery – how it can amaze and unsettle – is the mark of a grand love affair.

-We want to understand people better, and anthropology provides that understanding to us. Anthropologists love being street philosophers, our understanding of this life coming from spending time on the ground, developing a vision shot through the prism of the different ways humans have lived elsewhere.

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Love for a Field

The love letters also highlight the field itself – its core subject matter, the richness and demands of its approach, its deep relevance.

-Researching the human condition, working within the most human of the human sciences, is what draws us to anthropology. Anthropology embraces our common humanity and our vast differences, even extending that same dynamic to our primate family. It brings together biology and culture, past and present, language and material culture in ways that create enormous challenges and profound insights.

-Anthropology has great questions at the core of the field, ranging from the origins of our species to the course of history, and the many eddies and oxbows and new channels that have happened over the river of our time on earth; from how we relate socially to one another, through the powerful animators of kinship and gender and hierarchy and exchange, to the role of language and symbol in human meaning, thought, and expression.

-The animating principles of the field and the way we search for answers inspire love. Ours is a comparative discipline, one that requires both depth and breadth, and one that thrives on combining different areas of knowledge. Our search for answers in the same places people and primates live, and our willingness to critique how we do our work and what our answers mean for them and for us, make for a complicated yet more fruitful relationship.

-We admire the relevance of anthropology, of how it can help us understand and better deal with major social problems of our time, from racism to globalization, from improving health care to addressing conflict, from preserving our cultural heritage to confronting the terrible impact on inequality. We also hope that the field has greater impact, knowing the relevance it has to our own lives and our love for the field as a whole. Finally, we find hope in anthropology for the options it gives us in a world where people fight too often to champion only their way forward, for the vision it provides in how we have lived and how we might live in the future.

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Anthropology Love Letters:

James Holland Jones, Monkey’s Uncle: Anthropology: A Bittersweet Love Story

Barbara King, Friday Animal Blog: Why I Love Anthropology

Rex, Savage Minds, Why I <3 Anthropology

Megan McCullen, Great Lakes Ethnohistorian: My Love Letter to Anthropology

Jason Antrosio, Living Anthropologically: Loving Anthropology

Kristina Killgrove, Bone Girl: The Accidental Anthropologist

Krystal D’Costa, Anthropology in Practice: Anthropology, How Do I Love Thee

Zinjanthropus, A Primate of Modern Aspect: A Love Letter to Anthropology

Daniel Lende, Neuroanthropology: Life, Anthropology, and Love

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