Anthropologists at the Table

The question of what an anthropology degree means, especially in cultural anthropology, has been asked ever since I was an undergraduate (back when I saw Pigpen on keyboards with the Dead). As things change, in the academy as in the world around us, there is a certain renewed urgency in that question, as we prepare students to do: what? (And don’t for a second think that I regard a university degree as vocational training.)

The what will be what anthropologists have always done. Some will continue in the academy, both in traditional faculty roles and in new ways of teaching and doing research. Others will become applied anthropologists in government and non-profits. More will likely forge new roles for themselves in the shifting landscape of the marketplace. How do we help?

“Bringing something to the table” is a hackneyed but nonetheless useful phrase, and that is of course how we must help in educating anthropology students. The student of anthropology must bring something to the table. That mythical table will be set for some in universities, although it seems for more it will be in novel settings, and ones in which the table will be shared (contested?) by those from other social sciences.

The main dish we bring to the table is the concept of culture and the overarching framework that people and what they do are shaped day-to-day by this mysterious miasma of shared knowledge. And they, in turn, modify that shared understanding in response to changing circumstances. Grasping this and all of its implications is what anthropology is all about. This was, of course, Malinowski’s directive—“to see the world as others see it”—and while other social sciences flirt with this perspective, it remains at the core of anthropological thinking.

Malinowski’s directive—“to see the world as others see it”—remains at the core of anthropological thinking.

Bringing this perspective, however, will get you nowhere if you can’t demonstrate its utility, especially in hard-nosed settings like interdisciplinary research groups, applied projects, or in business. This hinges in part on what we mean by demonstrate. An online dictionary defines this term as “clearly show the existence or truth of (something) by giving proof or evidence.”

We are, in part, talking about methods that our students use to demonstrate the utility of their perspective for explaining something. But this will not be an exhortation just for better methods, mixed methods, or more rigorous qualitative methods. These appeals are correct and important and have been voiced for a long time. What I want to argue for, however, is the development of a configuration of methods that can uniquely capture empirically, in a way that can be clearly communicated to others, the singular contribution of an anthropological perspective.

Research methods are often presented in exhaustive compendia, or, continuing the table metaphor, a smorgasbord. The budding researcher is faced with a vast array of research methods, just like a vast buffet of potential consumables, especially in the day and age of mixed methods. We teach methods as being suited to particular problems. You choose the best set of methods for the problem at hand. Yet, alighting on the best set of methods can be a very difficult task, especially when we are trying to pull together traditional tools of ethnography and quantitative techniques.

I’ve come to think lately about this in a somewhat more focused way, and it goes back to that Malinowskian directive, interpreted from a mixed-methods mindset. We want to understand the world as others see it, then what? The mixed-methods orientation says that we then go on to quantify that in some way. It is worth stopping and reflecting on what that means. In strictly emic terms, seeing the world as others see it is to discover the categories and modalities that people use as their taken-for-granted reality. From a measurement standpoint, quantifying that means coming up with a way to order people along a continuum in terms that they themselves have defined. By ordering people along such a continuum, we can in turn relate that variation to variation in any other variable. Such a measurement strategy generates what Kathryn Oths and I have termed high “emic validity,” which in turn can be used in examining anything you care to study, alongside the etic measurements that are staples of other social sciences.

There are a variety of ways of doing this, and for examples I would start with Lance Gravlee’s research on race in Puerto Rico, Lesley Jo Weaver and associates’ studies of mental health, François Dengah’s studies of religion, as well as my work on cultural consonance. These are all empirically successful approaches in capturing that emic perspective in ways that are both theoretically and methodologically satisfying.

This is something special to bring to the table. This approach requires a rigorous and systematic attention to a way of understanding human existence. It requires mastering a specific set of qualitative and quantitative research skills. And it requires staying true to a particular vision of anthropology. Furthermore, it is a unified perspective that can be taught at any level of study in anthropology.

At this point I would be remiss were I not to give a shout out to a few people who have done our field immeasurable good by putting their energies and efforts behind providing the training to students in anthropology to do just this kind of thing. I’m talking about Russ Bernard, Jeff Johnson, and Sue Weller and the NSF-funded Summer Institute in Research Design (SIRD). The SIRD is coming to a close this year, after providing some 340 anthropology students over 20 years with absolutely top-notch education and critique as they embarked on their dissertation research. They, along with the support offered by Stu Plattner and Deb Winslow at NSF, deserve all our thanks for all they’ve done to enhance anthropological research.

This post originally appeared in Anthropology News‘ August 2015 Knowledge Exchange.