If anthropology is a humanity, which humanity is it?

Anthropologists are notoriously unwilling to commit to being either a science or a humanity. Sometimes there are pragmatic reasons for this — even my most humanistic of colleagues would like the option to apply for NSF funding, even if their heart isn’t really in their bigger project. But this reticence also genuinely cuts right through the middle of our discipline, since anthropology came of age when the distinction between ‘science’ and ‘the humanities’ didn’t exist in its current hard-and-fast form. But there’s a related question we worry less which I think is more interesting: if we are a humanity, which humanity are we?

I believe there’s been a shift in anthropology away from seeing ourselves as students of things made by humans (the origins of the term ‘humanities’ — it’s the study of things not made by God) to being the creators ourselves.

For instance, back in the 1970s, anthropologists thought of themselves as literary critics. Doing anthropology, as Clifford Geertz famously said in (iirc) his essay on thick description, that anthropologists read texts over the shoulders of the ‘natives’. This ended up being a fruitful idea, because at the time literary criticism was developing a lot of very useful models of how meaning was made. Of course, as the decades when on it also became clear that models developed to understand text artifacts — books — didn’t get us as far as we thought when we started to study interaction. But that’s another story.

Equally, anthropologists have frequently wanted to be historians. Sometimes this was because we wanted historical answers to important questions: In the US ethnohistory got started partly out of attempts to document land claims of Native Americans. But there were also theoretical appeals to history as well. For Evans-Pritchard, for instance, history seemed to offer a model of rigor and particularism that was more interesting to imitate than physics or chemistry. Sahlins and other history of anthropology types in the 1980s saw that the Annales school offered concepts which could help anthropology develop answers to its questions about structure, agency, and social change. In the 1970s it became clear to us that the places we studied had a history, usually a pretty grim colonial history in which anthropologists were involved. Anthropology as history gave us a way to research that question, etc. etc.

Literature and history were the bigs ones, but there were others: Classics has always hanged heavily over our discipline. Often because many of the founders of our discipline studied the subject back in the day when most of what was taught at the University just was classics. Folklore has long been an allied discipline to anthropology — when it hasn’t just been anthropology. Eliade and Dumézil produced a humanistic study of religion that anthropologists have affiliated with at different times, and Mauss’s original job was in a ‘religious science’ centre which, by the standards of the contemporary US (where I teach), would be considered a humanistic. At some level, I think it just seemed natural for some of us to hang out with the epigraphers, even if we weren’t archaeologists.

Today, on the other hand, it is increasingly mainstream for anthropologists to see themselves as creative artists, not the people who study them. This is the anthropologist as novelist, not literary critic. I think here of Stuart McLean’s Fictionalizing Anthropology or his collection (edited with Anand Pandian) Crumpled Paper Boat, or Beth Povinelli’s work as part of the Karrabing film collective. Examples could be multiplied. My entry in Anthropocene Unseen: A Lexicon is sort of in this vein, although I’m not as good at it as Anand and others. Examples could be multiplied, but hopefully this gives you a sense of what I’m talking about.Now, a few caveats: of course, anthropologists — or at least some of them.. maybe not enough! — have always cared about writing clearly, elegantly, and beautifully. And anthropological fiction also has a genealogy in our discipline (see the 1922 volume American Indian Life). But often this impulse has been repressed. We now write Zora Neale Hurston back into anthropology’s genealogy, but she ultimately drifted away from the discipline because it didn’t give her the room to move that she wanted. Margaret Mead was widely viewed as a squish for writing Coming of Age in Samoa, at least by older Boasians like Kroeber and Lowie. Sapir and Benedict wrote poetry, but they didn’t think of it as anthropology, they though of it as poetry. One of anthropology’s great strength is its willingness to tolerate experimentation. But let’s not kid ourselves: often times that willingness has had limits.

I’m not super into the ‘literature’ turn in anthropology. I’ve always been more interested in the lively arts (and video games) than literature. Even today, most of what I read is nonfiction. But I think it’s an interesting development. A few years ago I was talking with a sociologist who had just read Behold The Black Caiman and asked me, in essence, “dude, what was that even about.” and I was like: “anthropological ethnography: /me inserts thumbs up emoji here”. I admire — and am envious of — the sociologists’ ability to produce accessible works like Evicted or Gang Leader for a Day. But I’m also very proud to be part of a discipline that never stops pushing boundaries. At the same time, I think there’s something very valuable about an anthropology that sees itself as adjacent to history or classics or history of religions, and I wouldn’t want to give that up either. In the end, I think the important thing is to keep an open mind — a move that requires us to remember less-used options as much as it means embracing our current trends.