Over the past few months I have been in conflict with a professor. He teaches Anthropology, in a way that I have never understood Anthropology to function, as a method of social justice.
His area of study, Activist Anthropology, states that bias in inherent to all research, so we should accept and promote biases with politically/morally acceptable goals/orientations. Which makes me want to vomit.
Anthropology, as I understand it, is the fusion of 'hard science' and 'soft science' to better understand where humans have come from, where we are, and where we're going. In a contemporary theoretical sense, it means picking a population to study, spending time with them, learning how they view the world, how they love, hate, raise families, heal the sick, punish the guilty and reward the virtuous. Learn about them, and write in such a fashion that your audience can feel the distinct 'sameness' about them, the beauty of human community in different environments and histories.
Practically, there are benefits to the inclusion of Anthropological analysis in a lot of fields. In Ann Arbor, MI, the neonatal unit was having serious dietary issues with new mothers from China, or whose families were from the same. These women would not eat, or would not be permitted to eat, certain foods by their families. After anthropological analysis, the issue relates to the humoral medical tradition in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which ascribes 'hotness' or 'coldness' to foods. A new mother needs 'hot' foods to replenish her 'heat' that is lost in childbirth. Humorally 'cold' foods, such as most green vegetables, and much fruit, are considered to rob the new mother of what little 'heat' she has remaining after childbirth. With that understanding, and lists of 'hot' and 'cold' foods, the dietitians at the hospital were able to create dietary plans that were sensitive to the beliefs of their patients, which improves health outcomes.
In the readings I've had to do for this class, and the discussions we have had, I have seen no value added. In their attempt to be anti-essentialist and anti-orientalist, the authors my professors had us read gave almost no information about the lives of their informants. They talked a lot about 'political agency' and 'feminist paradigm shifts from state to market feminism' and how 'Racial history has no bearing on Indianness and Indiginity' with respect to indigenous rights over large tracts of the Amazon. To be politically correct, and not be paternalistic, these authors spend countless pages detailing historical systems of abuse and repression, and peasants reactions to them, but spend absolutely no time talking about the future of these people. About what they actually want, the changes that the average person in these society wants, and believes are possible.
I submitted my final exam, a series of ~1000 word essays, to our dropbox just now, with this note attached.
- Professor X,
I'm sorry that we were never able to come to an academic understanding. I have held nothing but respect and love for Anthropology my entire academic career. I plan on using my anthropological traning heavily in my chosen profession, hiring decisions willing. I tried, over the months of this course to take something of practical, moral or ethical value away, and I cannot honestly say I succeeded. I write you now to let you know that I have not taken our disagreements lightly, and I spoken online with several tenured anthropologists about my issues with Activist Anthropological theory. Over winter break I'll be reading Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology by David Graeber, in attempt to reconcile my own understanding with the antithetical concepts which you have espoused. My opinions are subject to change based on relevant datum, and I hope that Graeber is able to convey the value of this area of study in a way that I can understand and accept, before I wash my hands of the entirety of it and never think of it again.
I appreciate your efforts to try and help me understand, and I say that with absolute sincerity. I can tell that you are passionate about your work, and try your best to convey that enthusiasm to your students.