Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Anthropology, Social Justice, and Graduate School

Recently the members of Fishnet (the listserv associated with the Network of Christian Anthropologists) have been discussing a string of questions inspired by a query from an undergraduate anthropology major attending a well-known university in California.

Basically, the student had asked whether it was possible for an anthropologist to pursue “social justice” issues while retaining his culturally relativist training (a question, incidentally, that is also addressed in parts of Michael Brown’s excellent article in the June 2008 issue of Current Anthropology titled “Cultural Relativism 2.0”), and while retaining his public identity as a Christian. Indeed, he said, he was committed to the social justice issue BECAUSE he was a Christian and thought that’s what we Christians should do. The student also asked for advice on where to go to graduate school if he wanted to continue pursuing this matter within the rubric of anthropology.

Of all the many responses to his question, I thought the following one by Adam Kiš was especially useful. Adam obtained his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Florida in 2007. He is currently Country Director for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in São Tomé e Principe, in Africa. Here’s his response:

Dear ____,

I think the original question was about the compatibility of anthropology and social justice. As you have no doubt noticed by our responses, we are a varied and dynamic lot! I, too, entered anthropology with the same vision in mind—to change the world—and I do not think that anthropology and social justice are in any way incompatible. That, I believe, is because anthropology is such a widely eclectic field. I was just reminded last week of how broad our discipline is; I was skimming through an old issue of American Anthropologist in which all articles related to the intersection of culture and food. Tell me in which other discipline would both the techne of French cheese production and short-term marriage contracts among migrant goldminers in Guinea (my dissertation topic) both feel perfectly at home?! I'm coming to believe that the only things that un ite disparate anthropologists worldwide are our common training (and even that's up for dispute) and our peculiar research methods (again, up for dispute). Perhaps even more generally than that, maybe anthropologists only have a curiosity for humanity in common. I don't know what our least common denominator is, but I do know that there is plenty of room both for non-interventionists and for idealistic pursuers of social justice within the fold of anthropology. You have nothing to be apologetic about in your affiliation with the latter.

I think that if you seriously want to pursue social justice and are still enthralled with anthropology, then you need to seek out a graduate department with that commitment (as I did). "Applied anthropology" is a general term for those who use what they learn to make a tangible difference in the world, but even that is broad. Are you applying your findings to improving cross-cultural business relations of Fortune 500 companies? Are you applying your findings to bridge the communication gap between poor peasants and the holders of opportunities and resources that the peasants seek? Are you applying your findings to diplomacy and staving off unnecessary wars between misunderstanding sovereign nations? Are you applying your findings to minimizing HIV transmission within a specific group of people? At the very least, seek for a department that is accepting of applied anthropology generally. If you are looking for a specific sub-specialty, you'll need to target your search further. But I am almost positive that you will find some mentor within anthropology's ranks who views the world through the same lens that you do. Our ranks are too broad not to include a little of everybody!

By the way, don't enter the discipline expecting to figure it all out, either. I've recently finished grad school and am now into the applied phase of my intended career trajectory (I hope academia will accept me back in 5 or 10 years after a spell practicing in international development!) and I don't expect to ever completely resolve the tension between cultural relativism and Christ's imperative that we help the needy. But, as someone on the list already pointed out, anthropologists tend to be a little more comfortable with ambiguity than most .. Blessings on you as you seek to prayerfully change the world for Christ.


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