What is anthropology about?

In a comment just appeared in Nature Adam Kuper and Jonathan Marks give a brief account of how it happened that anthropologists have lost the ability to agree on what their discipline is about – a fact that they regard as much more shocking than the recent elision of the word science from the AAA mission statement (as discussed in the ICCI blog). Kuper and Marks argue that interdisciplinary research across the biological-cum-evolutionary-cum-cognitive and the cultural-cum-social-cum-interpretative divide is imperative, but they also warn against easy short cuts, such as “parachuting into the jungle somewhere to do a few psychological experiments with the help of bemused local interpreters, or garnishing generalizations with a few worn and disputed snippets about the exotic customs and practices.”





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    Denis Regnier 1 March 2011 (15:03)

    This article is particularly welcome since such a stance – as sound it may seem – is still far from being shared by the vast majority of anthropologists, be they socio-cultural or biological. I’d like to point out here that both authors have already done what they are calling for at the end of the article: they have widely read in each other’s subfields. Trained in Britain as a social anthropologist, Adam Kuper is renowned for his ethnographic studies in Botswana and his history of British social anthropology. But he has also been for some time the editor of [i]Current Anthropology[/i], one of the very few journals which publish articles from all the subfields of anthropology. In his book [i]The Chosen Primate : Human Nature and Cultural Diversity[/i], Kuper recalls how challenging (but rewarding) it was to take up this position, since he had to read a huge amount of publications in evolutionary anthropology (and related fields) he was not familiar with. Jonathan Marks, on the other hand, is a US-based biological anthropologist who has just published (2010) a tetxtbook entitled[i] The Alternative Introduction to Biological Anthropology[/i] (see http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Anthropology/BiologicalPhysicalAnthropology/?view=usa&ci=9780195157031). I haven’t had a chance to get hold of this book yet, but the blurb on the OUP website says that it «complements traditional textbooks in biological anthropology and explores connections between biological and general anthropology». Such an integrative perspective is rarely – never? – found in biological anthropology textbooks and sounds very promising. But to my knowledge there is no recent textbook in socio-cultural anthropology aiming at bridging the two sides.

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    Dan Sperber 2 March 2011 (23:43)

    Yes, there is much to agree with in Kuper and Marks’ piece in [i]Nature[/i] (and a few minor points to disagree with in a friendly way). Note however that they talk of biology on one side, or anthropology on the other while psychology is essentially ignored. Yet isn’t the mind the “missing link” between gene and culture and psychology the missing link between biology and the study of human behaviour (as evolutionary psychologists Symons, Cosmides and Tooby insisted in their criticism of sociobiology in the 1980s)? PS. Good to see such a piece in [i]Nature[/i], but many anthropologists don’t have access to this journal, so the authors should make it available on their personal websites (as a pre- or expanded version if they fear [i]Nature[/i] would object, or as is, if they are, as they should be, fearless defendents of open access)

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    Maurice Bloch 5 March 2011 (17:45)

    Of course I approve of nearly all the sentiments in the paper but I feel it could also mislead readers of nature, or worse, confirm them in their prejudices. This is because it does not mention that there is also lots of work going in the direction called for by, among others, contributors to this site and indeed the commentators on the paper.