Should I study Anthropology? – What I do in my studies.

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Recently, I read an article about social sciences and got sucked into the comment section. There was a talk about the study of anthropology. Does it also happen to you, to pay most attention to the comments every now and then? However, it was about my studies. Anthropology. And I read this one statement (taken from memory):

“Do never tell your daughter to study anthropology. Maybe it is easy and enjoyable, because they travel a lot. But later in life, she will not be happy with that decision.”

The author also let us know, that he was a 23-year old engineering student. He must have a great expertise about the human life already. But I am not here to bully this guy, but I want to take a look, if he might be right. Would I recommend my daughter to study anthropology? First, we need to understand, what anthropology is.

What is Anthropology?

Disclaimer: I am not a professional anthropologist. I am a former economics and political science student, who also struggles with the theories and knowledge of anthropology, especially with its strange methods and challenges.

Hence, I also still struggle with a definition of anthropology. Because somehow anthropology is many things at once. Sociology, political science, economics and even medicine are sub-topics of anthropology. Sounds complicated? Here is an example:

Let’s take life as a football game (no US-people… the real football). A scientist is maybe interested in the players, another is interested in the ball as a subject of research, another is interested into the field. Everyone tries to isolate the objects of research and understand their details. Not the game itself. The anthropologist, however, takes a look at the relation between the objects and players. He witnesses, that people kick the ball with the feet, that some humans cheer, when the ball goes beyond the line between the posts and that som players just pass the ball to certain others. Eventually, the anthropologist finds out, what the rules of the game are and why the goal has such an emotional effect on the people. In a nutshell: The anthropologist observes objects and discovers their relation to each other. A ball between some posts is nothing exciting by nature. It is just exciting, because we give a certain meaning to it.

Anthropology is not traveling

Even if it looks like that on my instagram account, don’t get confused. I do not climb a mountain every day and I do not sit every day on the train and I do not see a new place every day. It is in fact the opposite: I try to keep my field of research as small as possible. Yes, I am in a foreign country. But this is not mandatory. I simply do it for two reasons:

Of course, you can have a beautiful field of research. But I just climb the same mountains over and over again. I do not travel, I stay.

Firstly, I think that it easier to analyse social structure when you are abroad. At home all the rules and values seem quite natural. Often so natural, that we do not recognize them. For example that we (Germans) say “Guten Appetit” before we eat and then start all together. Of course, because that’s normal. Beeeeeep! Wrong. Not normal. In India, the family cooks for me and I will start to eat first. No “Guten Appetit!” And no mandatory participation. Sometimes, the other members join, sometimes not. This is an observation, which I can easily make abroad and which makes me think and analyse: Why is that so? At first there is this observation. But maybe there is a structure lying underneath, that I can discover.

Secondly, I find it more exciting in strange places, because I learn a lot about myself. Because I do not only ask, why the Indians eat different, I also ask why the Germans do. And that lets me rethink my own society, my own life. So if that’s not interesting!

So, dear engineer-student. Here you were wrong.

Anthropology is not easy

Anthropology is stuttering. Just like life itself. One day you are at a funeral, the other day you are at a party.

Yes, you can somehow sneak through the studies. But I also know lazy and even (from my humble point of view) stupid law students. Somehow people will always find their way through. If you do it right, however, it will cost a lot of energy. Field Research is physical and mental struggle. The reason is this: While the tools of the chemical scientist are in his lab, the literary scholar works with books and theory, the economists (sadly almost exclusively) use statistics and the lawyers work with texts and theory, the anthropologist works with his own body. We don’t have a lab. Our field of research is not isolated and changes.

I have to equip myself with skills. Language is one big issue. Did you ever try to learn Hindi by the age of 28? No? Because it is hard. Did you ever try, as a white man, to not get a special treatment as a guest in India? It is impossible. That also means, that I, myself, am changing the field. I need to know that and must have learned theory, to filter that, to question myself in the field. That is continuous mental work.

And if that wasn’t enough, I also have to build a reliable network. In the literature about methods, you will read that anthropology means to hang out. Yes, they literally write “hanging out”. Because it is true. I hang out a lot. During my film project “Rebecca and Norbert”, I even drank a lot of beer. There are anthropologists, who worked with rocker-gangs at the edge of legality, who learned boxing or took drugs to understand their field. But that does not mean that anthropologists just chill and enjoy.

Whatever you do, you need to get your homework done to progress in your research.

Because at the end of the day, we have to record our observations. We have to read a lot of literature to understand different interpretations of other anthropologists. We need a good theoretical background knowledge. A lot of people take this topic quite easy. Yet, it is unavoidable, if you want to do a good research. This, by the way, is one thing that I am also still struggling with.

I know that I might have not enough will-power to study for mechanical-engineering. But that does not mean that I learn less. I just learn different, in my everyday life. So again, the assumption that anthropology is easy, is wrong.

What can You do with Anthropology?

This is a question, which makes the anthropologists go crazy. Of course, we can do almost everything, that other Masters/ Bachelors of Arts can do. I wish people would ask: “What can you become?”

What Can you become with anthropology?

Living in a community of the lowest caste in India gave me some experience, which I will find nowhere else. Studying anthropology is not just about getting knowledge. It is the skills that are most rewarding.

Then I would reply: Damn smart, tolerant, universally applicable and happy. It might sound arrogant, but I think that we become very smart. Maybe smarter than others. As an anthropologist, you can always become a party-pooper. When medicine-students talk about making people healthy, the anthropologist asks, what healthy means? Because the question is answered differently in different cultural contexts. There is this story, where the political scientist wants to improve people’s conditions with development support. He or she bores a well for a village somewhere in the world and then wonders, while no one uses it. The anthropologist then finds out, that the women of the village enjoyed the long walk to the distant well, because they got out of the house and could chitchat (which they never admitted in a door-to-door interview). Improvement is not always improvement. Especially if the affected people cannot decide on their own.

My favourite example is this: Why do we have financial analysts, when monkeys, who blindfoldedly throw darts at a newspaper make better financial decisions? (Yes, please read the link. It’s from the economist and I love the person who created such a fantastic experiment) Economists can not explain it. But anthropologists can. The financial analyst gives hope to the people and thus makes them invest at all. While we cannot predict our future, these charlatans tell us they could. Even though they don’t. But with this little pretension, they keep the system running. Because without them, we would not dare to invest, because we cannot know the future.

I have heard a lecture of someone, who worked with financial analysts for a long while to get this knowledge. The nice thing about it is that it shows us, that our world is not free from hanky-panky, but that some people and institutions have a function, that we do not see. There are many things that we do not see, but they still build the foundation of our everyday life. I find this amazingly exciting. And if you are not into economics, you can go for political anthropology, medical anthropology, religious anthropology and so much more.

My conclusion

My job opportunities are open and manifold. I think that my education is broader than most others. Everywhere, people talk about “thinking out of the box” as a demanded soft-skill. Where if not in anthropology, do you learn it better? I have learned unbelievably much about the rules of our own society. I have seen how arbitrary and exchangeable our rules are. I have realized that all this is just one way to create meaning of life. One way out of many. This enables me to understand, when it is maybe rewarding to break the rules (not that I ever had problems, breaking the rules) and most of all to understand that other’s norms and values are not worse, but just different. Maybe worse from my point of view, but not from theirs.

So let’s go back to our 23-year old Master of Engineering and life-consultant: I could have answered that, that not everything, which is desirable for him, also necessarily is desirable for others. Money is an exchangeable value and even happiness is not everyone’s life-goal. But I didn’t. Because to understand that, he needs to be a little more of an anthropologist.

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Irene (inebuleuse)

I’m a former social sciences student and I just totally share your point of view ! Well said 🙂