What is anthropology?

by Professor Dame Anne Salmond FBA

22 Feb 2019

When I tell someone I’m an anthropologist, they often ask, ‘What’s that?’ Anthropology is a fascinating, wide-ranging discipline: the study of human communities, past, present and future. It examines the ways that people live with each other in different times and places, and how these keep changing. 

This is a ‘humanity’ subject in every sense of the word: by people, about people and for people. Anthropology gains its insights from many different ways of living, whether in the Amazon, the Pacific, China, Africa, India, metropolitan New York or London. It’s inspired by a range of philosophical traditions, including those of indigenous groups across the planet.

Anthropology also spans the divide between the sciences, and the arts and humanities. Physical anthropologists study the human species from earliest origins to the present; archaeologists examine past lives through their material traces; linguists reflect upon the variety of human languages; while social anthropologists investigate the rich diversity of human groups and how they interact with each other and the places they inhabit.

In the process of comparing different languages, knowledge systems, art forms and social conventions, our own taken-for-granted practices and habits of mind often no longer seem self-evident.

Whether we study the first human beings who lit fires, made tools and talked with each other, or try to understand life in different contemporary communities, with their economic, political and legal arrangements, or investigate contemporary wars and migrations, science and the internet, or human impacts on other living systems, anthropologists face many fundamental questions.  

In the process of comparing different languages, knowledge systems, art forms and social conventions, our own taken-for-granted practices and habits of mind often no longer seem self-evident. While this can be disconcerting, its also a powerful antidote to arrogance. Anthropology has the potential to open up new and creative approaches to human dilemmas.

If one looks into climate change, the degradation of waterways and the ocean, losses of biodiversity, or growing inequality and social conflict, for instance, human ideas and actions lie at the heart of the challenge. 

Ways of thinking that split matter and mind, nature and society, and the natural and social sciences help to drive many of these ‘wicked problems’. Other human communities understand the relations between people, plants, animals, forests, rivers and the ocean quite differently, as based on kinship and reciprocal exchanges, for example.

A close-up of Welsh rugby player Sam Warburton receiving a 'hongi' from a Maori chief. The two men are pressing their noses together with their eyes closed.
Captain Sam Warburton of the British & Irish Lions receives a traditional hongi in welcome at Auckland International Airport, May 2017. Photo by Fiona Goodall / Getty Images

In my own country, Aotearoa New Zealand, exchanges between different knowledge systems have led to some intriguing experiments. Over many years, Maori and other leaders have drawn on anthropology as well as tikanga Maori (ancestral ways of thinking and acting) to help devise alternatives to colonial processes.

In recent times, for instance, laws have been passed that recognise particular ancestral rivers and territories as legal persons, with their own rights to health and well-being. Maori ideas of kai-tiakitanga (guardianship) and manakitanga (care for others) are being used to investigate new kinds of relations between people and the land, and with each other.

At present, many modernist habits of mind seem parochial and self-destructive, and incapable of tackling complex, devastating challenges. At its best, anthropology empowers as well as studies the full range of human insights and inquiry. It offers us the opportunity to draw on the legacies of different cultural traditions to open up our thinking, and explore new ways of living with other people, and the planet.

Dame Anne Salmond FBA is Distinguished Professor of Maori Studies and Anthropology at the University of Auckland. Her latest book, Tears of Rangi: Experiments Between Worldswas shortlisted for the 2018 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding


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