Monday, June 20, 2011

Anthropologists! Anthropologists!

Today I received an email from my dad that said, "Hi Amy, have you seen this before?" Included was a link to the above Gary Larson "Far Side" cartoon. I smiled at my dad's thoughtfulness for sending the link (I wondered how he came upon it in the first place!), chuckled at his question, and replied that yes, I had seen it many times before, and that it's practically a classic in anthropology. I gave him a short explanation as to why, which prompted me to do this post.

First, I see it as a classic because it does such a good job of conveying the history of Anthropology as a discipline, hence the reason it's been used so many times in presentations, on websites, and in other media. At least a handful of my professors in college and grad school referenced this cartoon in PowerPoint presentations, starting with my first anthropology course (Cultural Anthropology) back in 2004.

The cartoon's focus is the discipline's historic reputation for "going out" and studying so-called untouched, exotic tribes (Others) in order to understand human variation, tradition, culture, etc. In our early days, anthropologists used a salvage ethnography approach to harvest as much information as they could get from such vanishing tribes all across the globe, whose life-ways were being severely impacted by colonialism, imperialism, and globalization. It was typically the case that anthropologists wanted to understand other people as they were pre-contact, hence the comedic image of natives running to hide their various electronic objects in order to present a more "authentic" facade to the gullible anthros in pith helmets (and although you can't see them, they were probably wearing khaki cargo vests).

Even back in the late 19th century, cultural evolutionists like Lewis Henry Morgan and Sir Edward B. Tylor attempted to theorize about how cultures had unilinealy evolved or progressed throughout time by understanding present day "primitives" using the comparative method, a perspective on culture that was debunked in the early 20th century by Frans Boas. I think it is this past that has caused many people today to carry misinformed understandings of the breadth of purposes of anthropology and its many subdisciplines. This is another reason why I think the American branch of the discipline needs to seriously re-assess the false guise of the four-field approach, but that's another topic for another time.

The cartoon's focus on anthropologists' past obsession with "studying" cultures "as they were" before the white man came is an apt one. However, if you think about it, there have been very few truly isolated groups of people, even before the explorers/colonizers/imperialists showed up, because people have always had connections through trade, war, alliances, and other forms of communication that have had some sort of impact, great or small. Relatively speaking, yes, there have been peoples who were isolated from western civilization before the "explorers" decided that the rest of the world was something to be conquered and owned. The lament of culture loss is a valid perspective in regard to displacement, the effects of neoliberalism, tourism, etc., but to view tribes or communities or societies as untouched or isolated or somehow more authentic because of a lack of contact is a fallacious argument that goes back to the misinformed theories of Morgan and Tylor, which regarded "primitive" groups as static vestiges of the past.

So, how would Gary Larson or some other artist approach this same subject today? Perhaps one could start by replacing the VCR and television with a smart phone and a lap-top, but this would negate my previous point about untouched peoples, contact and globalization in the "flat" (to use Thomas Friedman's term) 21st century world.

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