Hi, everyone, I am a Cultural Anthropology student and currently working as a research assistant in a university for a professor of social work. 

After working in my university for a month, I have once discussed with the professor about social contribution of cultural anthropology. I did not give a good reply to this question but saying to reveal minorities in a society and possibly to investigate how the minorities interact with the majority (I am referring to the researches in urban societies). The professor returned me if this revealing is the most that an anthropological research can do. I replied that those minorities are highly invisible and not easily to reveal, then I picked the two famous researches in my city about Filipina housemaids and about the refugees as examples. 
Here, I believe the professor is wondering how Cultural Anthropology transmits the knowledge and be contributive to a society. Indeed, I felt that the purposes of anthropological research are not as direct as the researches in sociology or social work where their goals are more like problem-solving for a society.
Did I miss out something about anthropological research or mis-interpret about that? Please share me your views. 


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Yat Hang, let me ask you, what do you mean by "social contribution"? Searching the web for references to "applied anthropology," "action anthropology," "development anthropology," "public anthropology," "business anthropology," "medical anthropology,"  "anthropology and public health," etc. will turn up numerous examples.

What you will find, I believe, is that making minorities visible is only one example of what anthropologists usually do, discover what those trained in other disciplines fail to see because of disciplinary boundaries. The anthropologist is, above all, the one who looks in corners for what others have overlooked. We rarely find solutions to problems. We often discover insights that make it possible for others (service providers, policy-makers, product designers, for instance) to find better solutions to the problems they are addressing. 

Thank you for your answer.

I do agree with this. In fact, I think Cultural Anthropology is not to give a solution on certain topic, it is more like to give a holistic picture on a topic; it is not trying to see things from god's eye, it is like to be a kind of philosophy more than a subject of university. In some senses, to discover the people living in other "world", to understand them and to see how the minorities get into a majority, it is more like a religion to incorporate different cultures in one world. 

But, it is also because of that, I found myself probably studied a lot, but cannot make instant judgement on social issues. Most people want to see possible solutions on research, and cannot accept how a research cannot contribute the society. Yet, I agree that it may depend on what the meaning of social contribution is, just this "religion" is hard to spread. 

Are you familiar with Tom Kelley's Ten Faces of Innovation? If not, you should be. See http://www.tenfacesofinnovation.com/tenfaces/index.htm
Great question. (a) let's not be too utilitarian about it but I am guessing that's what's what ur prof wants (b) pick a topic and I can give u an example I reckon, small or large e.g. if we look close to home we can see Keith Hart and Co are significantly contributing toward realising 'informal' economies or economies that don't fit dominant models, thus empowering the 'small' human to be economically visible and hence after a few jumps have more equitable power So e.g. on a larger scale this particular example, this means that by whatever models, definitions and criteria by which dominant economics, social work etc function, there are limitations. Anthro questions these models by pointing to the the large percentage of people, relations etc that fall through these gaps. It's an exercise in asking what can be done if I am reflexive about how I currently go about what I am doing. I personally wud look at how the work ur involved in divides up the world, or the principles it runs on, and the effect of this. Realising the specifics if this is what anthro is often to me. What I then do is as John notes 'applied anthro' or simply what I choose to do however I label it. There are many examples. My current favourite is 'thick data vs big data'.

"Thick data vs big data"? No. 

"Thick description vs big data"? I can see a case for that.

If we were honest about our limitations, anthropologists would have to agree that our ethnographic data is rarely as thick as we pretend it is. We do exploratory research and may notice things that others miss. With rare exceptions, however, ethnography barely scratches the surface that historians, for example, probe far more deeply. 

What, then, do we bring to the table? A personal perspective enriched by the privilege of being allowed to poke around in corners neglected by research constrained by more sharply defined paradigms has a lot going for it, not as a replacement for that kind of research, but as precursor or complement to it. To which we add magpie minds that pick up all sorts of bits and pieces that may — and only may it is —suggest a new path worth exploring when other, more conventional approaches stall.

To use a culinary metaphor, where others provide the meat and potatoes of problem solving, we provide the herbs and spices that make the stew flavorful as well as nutritious. A stew that is only a thin soup that contains nothing but overcooked herbs isn't worth much at all.

Stew on that for a while. <grin>

Thank you for both of your answers. I really like these replies and the metaphor, I would frame them up to reply the professor again in the future. 

Further, I am wondering about the topic of "Think data vs big data" as well. Wish Heinemann could tell us more your favourite ~ ! How does it becomes an anthropological research ?

"If we were honest about our limitations, anthropologists would have to agree that our ethnographic data is rarely as thick as we pretend it is. We do exploratory research and may notice things that others miss. With rare exceptions, however, ethnography barely scratches the surface that historians, for example, probe far more deeply. "

Speak for yourself John, or yes I agree many others do that but I staunchly defy such a defeatist attitude myself in my own research. I wudnt value it otherwise. I can't back it up with papers yet, but I will. And so do many others. A system might dominate with its arcane poetics and ontologies but I and many others resist. One reason I do anthro at home.

But then again u don't have to be as obsessive as me to be in the thick of it: http://ethnographymatters.net/blog/2013/05/13/big-data-needs-thick-...
Yep, u might nit spend that much time emersed in one situation every time. But one thing I am learning for a PhD in anthro (where I do plenty history, it's bollocks not to) is that u can later apply such learning quicker. In short I have learnt unless ur a genius one prolonged period is needed to then do proper anthro. Doing it sumwhere u know helps cos ur halfway there. U know that John hence ur musings on Japan I am guessing.

"Defeatist"? Not at all. 

"Realistic"? My experience suggests that it is. It began in Taiwan, before we moved to Japan.

 When Ruth and I arrived in Taiwan in 1969, I intended to model myself on Victor Turner. It didn't take me long to realize that while Vic had worked with people who lived in grass huts in small communities with populations of a couple of dozen individuals who conducted most of their social life in public, Ruth and I were in a market town with a population of 35,000, most of whom lived behind bricks walls and conducted much of their social life behind those walls. I had imagined myself studying "Chinese popular religion." In this market town, we had a City God Temple, a Confucius Temple, spirit mediums who beat themselves bloody, spirit writing cults whose members wore blue gowns and whose mediums, writing on sand, produced what their interpreters said was the gods' own words in classical Chinese poetry. We had ancestor worship, a variety of religious specialists: besides mediums, their were fortunetellers and geomancers, Daoist masters, Buddhist monks, Presbyterians and Catholics. As it turned out, I became the apprentice of a Daoist healer; but that meant that most of my fieldwork was spent in taxicabs, traveling the length and breadth of Taiwan to assist in performance of rituals for people I didn't know from Adam. The upside was that I got to see a very large sample of rituals, dozens of the more common ones, and was able to write a dissertation focused on the structural form shared by the rituals that made up my master's repertoire. To claim that I had a deep, comprehensive and holistic understanding of everything I saw and experienced would simply have been nonsense.

That said, I was working in an area, China and East Asia more generally, increasingly well-studied by scholars from all sorts of disciplines, including individuals born and raised in the countries and regions where my fieldwork was conducted. When I was commissioned to write a chapter on "Traditional Chinese Religion" for an undergraduate reader, I was able to draw on a wealth of research by historians, art historians, archeologists and sociologists as well as that produced by other anthropologists. I warned my readers that,

Words to the Wise

As we look more closely at all these aspects of Chinese religion there are several key points to keep in mind. There are temples; there are sects. There are private belief and public practice. But there is no Church separate from the State, no sharp boundary line that separates religion from other institutions. Chinese religious cosmology reflects this social reality; there is no transcendent God, only spirits who are part of the social and natural order, just like the human beings whom they outwardly resemble and whose fundamental nature they share.

We should also bear in mind that while we speak of "Chinese religion," China is a very large country with a population that is now around 1.2 billion people, a quarter of the world's population. Chinese religious attitudes exhibit every conceivable shade from fervent belief to indifference and active atheism, and a wide range of variation can be found in rural villages as well as towns and cities. In a study of religious belief in a village in Taiwan, anthropologist Stevan Harrell interviewed fourteen villagers. Three, he found, were religious enthusiasts, village theologians who had each developed his own idiosyncratic version of Chinese religious cosmology. One, an old woman, was the village atheist; she stated bluntly that traditional religion is nonsense. The other ten participated in ancestor worship and festivals because, "It's the custom." 

The communist revolutionaries who founded the People's Republic of China were heirs not only to Karl Marx's conviction that religion is "the opiate of the people" but also to a long indigenous tradition of scholarly skepticism. It was, after all, Confucius himself who said that while a gentleman acts as if the spirits are present in ritual, he devotes himself to worldly affairs and keeps the spirits at a distance. Many educated Chinese continue to follow his advice.

In attempting to understand Chinese religion we cannot, therefore, be satisfied with statements that say "The Chinese believe this" or "The Chinese do that." Our goal must be instead to discover the range of possibilities for religious belief and practice that the world of Chinese religion provides and to understand the motives that incline individuals who occupy different positions in Chinese society to act on some of these possibilities while, perhaps, rejecting others. 

We must recognize, too, that attitudes may change depending on circumstances. Even in pre-modern China, a mandarin who seemed a sober Confucian while holding imperial office could still be a Buddhist or Daoist mystic in private life and hire Buddhist monks or Daoist priests to perform their rituals at his parents' funerals. A despiser of "superstition" might still turn to a Daoist magician or medium when faced with disease or misfortune. Even a modern intellectual can feel the pull of "superstitious" beliefs if her child is sick or when death draws near at the end of life. 

How Do We Study Chinese Religion?

Here we will use two approaches to explore the possibilities that Chinese religion provides. Our first approach is historical and based on the observations of historians and archeologists. Here we must always keep in mind the sources on which their conclusions are based. 

Three points are critical: First, China is the world's oldest continuously literate society, and the sheer volume of historical texts is enormous. One source suggests that the twenty-five imperial histories alone would require 45 million words in English translation. In Chinese the Buddhist Canon is 74 times the length of the Christian Bible, while the Daoist Canon is a library that runs to several thousand pages in its latest edition. In contrast the number of scholars who study these materials is small. In history as well as in archeology, new discoveries continue to appear. Suppressed texts, hidden away sometimes for centuries surface periodically.

Second, while the overall volume is enormous, what is available varies widely from one point in Chinese history to another. Relatively few texts survive from before the invention of woodblock printing on paper during the late Tang (581-907). Starting in the Song (907-1276), the trickle of materials suddenly becomes a mighty riveriii.

Third, almost everything we have in writing represents the views of an educated, literate minority, the scholar-gentry from whom the mandarins who governed imperial China were recruited. As a consequence, we may know a great deal about what went on at the imperial court and almost nothing at all about religious beliefs and practices in towns and rural villages away from the imperial court. This bias is especially strong in descriptions of pre-Song religion.

Our second approach will be through the work of anthropologists who have studied Chinese religion first hand. For historical and political reasons, most of this research has been concentrated in Taiwan and Hong Kong, overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, and, more recently, in parts of Southeast China. In addition, much of this work has been done in rural towns and villages. The primary focus of this research has been on the relationship between Chinese religion and forms of social organization in rural society. What Chinese religious life is like in North China or in modern Chinese cities is something we know far too little about. There is a certain irony here, for, to begin our historical survey, we must start on the North China plain.

Mr. McCreery, may I also know more about the limitation that you mentioned ? I don't really understand it, do you mean the limitations that anthropologists cannot study 100 % or no matter how anthropologists have to put the subject perspective and willingness on the studying issues ? 

First, I would like to reframe the question. The critical limitations are not specific to anthropology. They are generically human. Human curiosity may have no limits, and it is a basic feature of human languages that we can, in principle, say an infinite number of things, an infinite subset of which may be true. That said, individual human minds have limited bandwidth. We are, moreover, limited in what we may learn by the situations in which we find ourselves. We will never know more than a fraction of what there is to be known. That is the human condition.

Consider, in light of these observations, an anthropologist setting out to do ethnography in the classic Malinowskian mode. Because of World War I, Malinowski spent four years in the Trobriand islands. He wrote several enormously fat volumes. Nonetheless, when Annette Weiner restudied the Trobriands half a century later, she observed many things that Malinowski neglected, especially having to do with the roles of women in the trade that went on alongside the Kula. She did not observe the garden magic to which Malinowski devoted two very large books. Was this because it had disappeared, or because she worked in a commoner village instead of an aristocratic one? It is hard to say. Both factors may have been involved.

Now turn to Malinowski's modern counterpart, doing fieldwork in the New Territories, for example. Is funding available for four continuous years in the field? If it were, would it be possible to publish more than a thousand pages of ethnographic analysis? And, given the scale and complexity of the society in question, would any reader believe seriously that even ethnography on that scale answered every possible question?

What then is the anthropologist to do? There is, I have argued a lot to be said for personal immersion in a situation where the researcher starts out with at best a limited command of the local language and less street smarts than a local toddler. Especially if the researcher has broad curiosity, an interest in all sorts of things, and the freedom to poke into corners neglected by more disciplined disciplines.

The problem posed by Clifford Geertz in the introduction to Islam Observed still confronts us. Our insights, if insights they are, can only prove their value in larger conversations that involve scholars from other disciplines, and if we are doing applied work, the practically minded folk who make things and make things happen. We need to learn to cooperate with others, and step No.1 in my view is giving up the pretense that we are know-it-alls with theories that answer every question or, alternatively, that only our questions are the ones that matter.

I will happily run on more about this. But chew on this for a while, and let me know what you think.

Yat Hang,

Rereading my last post, I arrived at this paragraph,

What then is the anthropologist to do? There is, I have argued a lot to be said for personal immersion in a situation where the researcher starts out with at best a limited command of the local language and less street smarts than a local toddler. Especially if the researcher has broad curiosity, an interest in all sorts of things, and the freedom to poke into corners neglected by more disciplined disciplines.

You are writing to us from Hong Kong. Your name sounds Chinese, I am guessing Cantonese. If this is true and you were to do a study in the New Territories, you would not be that researcher I described, whose command of the local language and culture is limited. What I have written here alludes implicitly to the notion that anthropological fieldwork is a modern equivalent to the Plains Indian vision quest, where going off alone to experience something radically different is a vital part of the process. I wonder how this strikes you.

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