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The Relevance of Anthropology

Updated on March 31, 2013
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As anthropology has grown as an academic discipline, it has expanded its influence beyond the university setting. Applied anthropology—the use of anthropological insights and techniques to identify and solve social problems—is a growing part of the field. In the early 1990s approximately half of the new doctoral graduates in anthropology were finding employment in nonacademic positions.

An example of the application of anthropological insights to other fields of endeavor is found in the field of international economic development. As the former European colonies gained independence after World War II, the new nations needed to boost their economic productivity. The development projects undertaken by these countries were and are often designed and sponsored by the World Bank and similar international agencies. Frequently these projects are based on cultural assumptions that are quite alien to the people who are supposed to participate in and benefit from them, thus leading to the ultimate failure of some projects. This is an area where anthropologists can be of great value; by understanding the workings of the specific societies involved, the anthropologist may serve as a sort of cultural broker, or mediator, modifying developmental policies in such a way as to enhance the success of the project and its benefit to its intended participants.

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It is in this type of role that many anthropologists employed outside of academia find themselves. Whether the setting is a multiethnic classroom, an international business, or a hospital serving a diverse urban population, anthropologists can and do serve an important role in mediating between the abstract formulations of policy and the particularities of local culture.

Significant contributions to public policy have been made by archaeologists, who have been instrumental in protecting sites of historical value by promoting Cultural Resource Management legislation, which mandates that, prior to their undertaking, state and federal construction projects (such as highways and dams) must assess their potential impact on cultural resources such as archaeological sites. Equally, archaeologists have worked for legislation to curtail the international trade in valuable artifacts stolen by criminals and sold to wealthy collectors. These policies help to preserve the irreplaceable legacies of the past, whether they are the site of a small prehistoric encampment or the treasures of a pharaoh.

Owing to their knowledge of human genetics and physiology, biological anthropologists are frequently employed in the fields of public health, epidemiology, and nutrition. Experts on human anatomy, they have also been consulted on such eminently practical matters as improving the design of automobile safety devices. In addition, biological anthropologists skilled in forensics are called on by police agencies to assist in identifying skeletal remains and reconstructing crime scenes.

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Perhaps the most valuable contribution of anthropology has been its ongoing critique of racism, which has come from all subfields and arose in the early days of the discipline's existence. Scientific thought of the 19th century held that humans consisted of several distinct and immutable entities that were termed races. Furthermore, these races were ordered in a hierarchy according to their level of advancement. Such racist classification was used to justify European imperialism, and it found its horrifying culmination in the "racial hygiene" programs of Nazi Germany.

Anthropologists were among the first to undermine the "scientific" basis of racism. In the 1890s Franz Boas began a long-term study of variation in human anatomy. After years of empirical research involving thousands of subjects, Boas came to two important conclusions. First, variation within any so-called race is greater than variation among races. Second, characteristics that were held to be the distinctive markers of race were not unchangeable but were subject to environmental influence. These findings began a move toward discrediting race as a scientific concept.

Although race may no longer be regarded as a valid means of accounting for human differences, it is an unfortunate fact that racism is still very much alive, and discussions of culture tend to turn race into a matter of inborn essence rather than learned practices. For instance, the bloody ethnic conflicts that plague the world are often blamed on ancient hatreds, which stem from cultural differences. A naïve and simplistic view, this theory suggests that ethnic antagonisms are the products of either genetics or long-standing, primitive traditions. An anthropological perspective on these problems tells a different story. For example, the map of Africa today reveals national borders that, for the most part, are legacies of the era of European colonialism. With the withdrawal of the colonial powers, Africans have been faced with the task of making nations out of artificially bounded former colonies. In the struggle for economic and political power in these nations, tragic conflicts can arise among groups that had coexisted peacefully. Thus ethnic conflict can be seen as being caused not by innate disposition or by timeless tradition but by politics, which offers hope that it can be solved politically.

It is through this type of holistic perception—an attentiveness to both global processes and local traditions—that anthropology makes its unique contribution, by disseminating an understanding and appreciation of human variety and commonality. Our world grows smaller and more interdependent daily, and human cultures remain diverse while constantly changing. The mission of anthropology—understanding the richness and complexity of human diversity in its historical, biological, linguistic, and cultural aspects—is perhaps more vital now than ever.

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