Anthropology Should Have Changed the World. Why Hasen’T It?
Anthropology Should Have Changed the World. Why Hasen’T It?
By Merlin Becskei /
Oct 5, 2017

Information has become a product. Since when? Hhmm, who knows, “my is ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”, to borrow a quote from prolific physicist and science fiction author Isaac Asimov. I take the polemics in this statement, referring to ignorance as choice. After all taking responsibility is a choice, as so many other things in life. But how can we be ignorant with so much knowledge around us? How can we the privileged that choose to take responsibility, live in prosperity, when the wealth that surrounds us is based on the suffering of another. What good is knowledge when it does not come with an understanding of duties towards those that bear up the wealth of the privileged few? Globally speaking, if not anthropology, what other science could apply to unravel such duties, to aim for a broader understanding, a more insightful view, and a more complex knowledge about details.

Why is it then that we so seldom encounter an ethnography winning a literary award? Or even more at hand, why is it that ethnography does not enjoy a widely distributed popularity opposed to other sciences? According to Thomas Hylland Eriksen, anthropology is in need of a Public Relations strategy, for both “the sake of the enlightenment of the world and for the future of the discipline” (2006:131). What does that tell us, if not that in order to make yourself heard beyond the academic circle, you have to be innovative1.. Contradictory as it may be, Eriksen also writes that “anthropology appears to offer ambiguity; in other words, apparently non-marketable commodities with respect to the mass media and general reader” (2006:30), which does not communicate it clearer for the reader if his call for enlightenment advocates a PR-strategy metaphorically speaking or as progress in marketization. Either or, the incentive for the engaged scholar, whether anthropologist or physicist, is to mediate knowledge. What does the public sphere then offer the scholar for his or her share of knowledge. I mean, does more knowledge really indicate an increase of responsibility? If knowledge is out there in the public, what are the stakes it won't become information marketed as products to be consumed?

I guess it is more complex than that. Or is it really? Chances are pretty high that some bureaucratized institute prescribes and delegates how to sell “the knowledge”, after all a third of the job of a researcher is to generate an income = profit maximization. Nothing bad in itself, but critical when it becomes the underlying maxim. But are you ignorant then, if you do not use your acquired knowledge over a lifespan career of anthropological research to the greater good? Fairly said, I have not encountered researches who would oppose that, but on the other hand there seems to be a lack of being literate in how to address your audience outside of your institute, irrespective of the disciplines actual qualities for “enlightening the world”.

My ignorance is determined by my comfort of being able to consume information more easily than engaging in knowledge production. What do I choose? Well, to work with and study anthropology using it to tackle ignorance. But how? Well, I guess I have to find this answer by myself. In a anthropology class or seminar there is seldom any knowledge, or information for that matter, that takes up “how to” facilitate concrete changes that actually improve peoples lives (Eriksen, 2006:x). Somehow the feedback gets stuck at technical details. Being comfortable with a certain status quo might be a point, were every anthropology scholar who reflects on the discipline in combination with buzzwords such as “social- change, engagement, and impact” should consider questioning. Such as, is mentioned by Wade Davis hitting a certain nerve by writing that: “knowledge is rarely completely divorced from power, and interpretation is too often an expression of convenience” (2009:64).

The lesson of Davis' book “Wayfinders” (2009:175-195) could in one sentence be summed up as: universal values cannot exist, as value is subjective. Still it is more complex than that. I could go on and argue that all this are anthropocentric perspectives that arise from my own neurotic naiveness, in liaison with subjectives values. Still, I do not see myself as nihilistic fascist, hence I try to engage. I pondered many times during time as a student about why I did not, for the sake of “how to” take responsibility in the best way possible, applied for individual basic courses in law, economics and journalism instead of anthropology. To really get equipped with the tools to tackle society at its structural nerve, and only later delve into the false premise of studying the mystique of “unknown” and “exotic” cultures. Perhaps the interest in looking into the lifeworld of the “other”, is a failed attempt to be inspired by my own societal orders. Again, Davis I think is very inciting, were he precisely hits that nerve that students can find deeper resonance in, in his book. Considering that climbing up the academic ladder is preserved for the privileged few: “development for the vast majority of the peoples of the world has been a process in which the individual is torn from his past, propelled into an uncertain future, only to secure a place of the bottom rug of an economic ladder that goes nowhere” (2009:196). So, how to facilitate? What perspectives matter and when do they apply? In regard of a quote by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger:

"It seems plain and self-evident, yet it needs to be said: the isolated knowledge obtained by a group of specialists in a narrow field has in itself no value whatsoever but only in synthesis with all the rest of knowledge, and only in so much as it really contributes in this synthesis towards answering; who are we?"

Anthropology as science but also as practice seems to be exactly on to that. In addition to asking who we are, by asking what it means to be human (central to anthropology), the question “what kind of world do we want to live in?” (Davis, 2009:165) would be another consideration to have in mind while trying to answer the question “how to” facilitate. Even though sensational in his approach, I think Davis question is an important one.

Who are we, and in what kind of world do we want to live in? Anthropology allows you to ask those questions and to apply theoretical and methodological models onto it. It is there I want to point out that this might be the essential difference between anthropology and, lets say, journalism. The discipline, when taught with a public approach, is well equipped to bring forward manifestos, think tanks, educate how to write publicly, create podcasts and blogs, organize publicly around misconceptions and perspectives about societal phenomenas, and to find out by fieldwork why it has not changed the world yet. I mean why has there not been an anthropological fieldwork on why anthropology has not lived up to the expectations of what Eriksen writes in his book? I think asking the question of what the difference between journalism and anthropology is (Eriksen, 2006:110-111), is wrong and could be tackled more effectively by asking what the difference between anthropology and activism is. This could be done by identifying anthropological research that has contributed to the public betterment of society and then discuss the actions that can be taken by anthropologists to facilitate social change. Sounds too easy? If not looking for a more hard science based anthropology such as for instance Bloch's (2012) appeal to integrate cognitive science into anthropology (understanding the world), in order to not commit “intellectual suicide”, anthropology could for example let the focus for students of the discipline be to question their own cultural assumptions (changing the world). This in order to begin a dialogue bringing people as far away as possible from cultural hegemonies.

Inspired by Paul Stoller's call for a “public turn” (2016), I designed a masters course in public anthropology at Uppsala university autumn 2016. Students had to use Eriksens book “Engaging Anthropology” (2006) to analyze and debate three books, written by anthropologists, and how they were trying to facilitate knowledge. Shortly summarized, Eriksen proposes that anthropology has to offer four superior traits to make an public impact: a comparative perspective, the insiders view, exposing oversimplifications, and stating the obvious such as flaws and criticizing society (2006:41-42). By comparing Luhrmann & Marrow's “Our Most Troubling Madness” (2016), Bourgois & Schonberg's “Righteous Dopefiend” (2009), and Graeber's “The Utopia of Rules” (2015) students had to work with them according to Eriksen's proposed traits.

The “contemporary approach" book by Luhrmann & Marrow is about schizophrenic diagnoses and treatment in cross cultural comparisons over several continents. I name it the outcry as it is the first word that comes to my mind when thinking about the book. It uses comparative perspectives on treatment, where one example in India points out diagnostic neutrality between the doctor and the patient, weakening the link between mental illness and identity information (2016:55). It gives you a insider view into the African-Caribbean communities shame and anger in London, and their emotions of feeling trapped by schizophrenic diagnosis' in post-hospitalization and the social problems that arise from it (2016:89). Further the try to expose oversimplifications might fall short, it is exceptional to point out the obvious compared to many other ethnographies, by giving suggestions outlining what could be learnt in the treatment of schizophrenic patients by tackling social defeats that lead to psychosis (2016:202). The outcry label comes as it is not stated who the audience might be and how Lurhmann & Marrow's advice and suggestions are to be practically implemented, ergo how the book reaches an audience beyond academic elitism.

The “public series” book by Bourgois & Schonberg forms itself as an, dare I write it, aesthetic one. With an unusual usage of black and white photography, it renders the lives of heroin and crack addicts. Written in a exceptionally good way, it is easy to follow and especially makes the reader familiar with a insiders view as well as it is exposing oversimplifications within the communities of the Edgewater Boulevard (a feigned name) in San Fransisco. Comparative perspectives are used in combination with exposure of oversimplifications when it comes to public health services and policies. A telling example is the production of “self-blame” amongst the homeless as a result of an initiative to access to hepatitis C blood-testing and counseling (2009:109). Failing to capture their logic of blood-sharing acts, leading to a “mis-recognition of relationship between power and individual self-control” (ibid). In pointing out structural problems of biomedical services (2009:304), they powerfully state the obvious ethical lack of underlying social structural problems (power and inequality) that need to be put into account within medical technology and biological pathologies (2009:319). Aiming towards a broader audience through an already framed public ethnography publishing series.

The “societal critique” approach book by Graeber. By criticizing latent societal structures, Graeber appears as the misfit, exposing oversimplifications about the almost taboo and uncomfortable and yet obvious, in his book on rules and bureaucracy. He points out that scientific creativity is vanished within bureaucratic structures that are based on a monopoly over violence (2015:135), indirectly affecting scientific outcomes. The more free we appear to be in liberal democracies, the more rules we have developed to surround our freedom with. His insider views and comparative perspectives are personal, which give the book its powerful message, being written from the position of a public critic, approaching a wider audience. Especially considering that you can find this book at numerous airport pocket-book stores.

Lets begin easily. What the books have in common then are anthropological issues that are presented in a somewhat easier (chronologically listed) digestible fashion. They can all mediate to people about who we are, from different perspectives, hopefully without failing to leave the reader pondering with the question of “what world do we want to live in”.

My hope with the course was to show to students that Anthropology has another thing to offer that most seem to be unaware of. That is the affluence of asymmetrical information, leading to a broad range of (holistic) perspectives, engaged in seeing inclusively rather than exclusively. This perhaps comes with the benefit of reminding the reader of the non-linearity in historical developments. I think that the power of anthropology is its ability to participate and become a participant of something, rather than a mere observation of a phenomena that often includes a self-distancing from the he phenomena that is studied. Anthropology practiced at its best should be able to dissolve the boundary between object of study and the observer, to avoid what so many other sciences accomplish, namely getting stuck in a “onlooker” perspective distancing yourself from a true participation in reality.

Once I sat down with an Italian economics student. Complaining about the distance to reality he experienced the discipline of his choice to be, he said, “I wish I'd chose to study anthropology instead of economics”.

Whilst this might be a heavy dose of self-reflexivity, I think instead of a PR-strategy, anthropology should look for the next doxa á la Bourdieu to engage in a socratic dialogue, reminding the public that if anthropology is to be marketed (Erisken, 2006:70), then as a speed-bump to counteract simple answers to complex questions.



Bloch, Maurice, (2012): “Anthropology and the Cognitive Challenge”, Cambridge University Press.

Bourgois, Phillipe, & Schonberg, Jeffrey, (2009): “Righteous Dopefiend”, University of California Press.

Davis, Wade, (2009): “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World”, House of Anansi Inc.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland, (2006): “Engaging Anthropology: The Case for a Public Presence”, Berg Publishers Published.

Graeber, David, (2015): “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”, Melvile House Printing.

Luhrmann, Tanja, & Marrow, Jocelyn, (2016): “Our Most Troubling Madness: Ethnographic Studies in Subjectivity, Case Studies in Schizophrenia Across Cultures”, University of California Press.

Stoller, Paul, (2016): “The Power of Pubic Scholarship”, Huffington Post, retrieved 04.10.2017

1.The buzzword of the entrepreneur, see Graeber (2015:135).   

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Anthropology Should Have Changed the World. Why Hasen’T It?