In today’s New York Times Mark Leibovich writes on the contrasts between Republican and Democratic events in “At Rallies of Faithful, Contrasts in Red and Blue.” Differences in dress, behavior, language, music and more are highlighted, with some recognition of the similarities too. But it was really this line from Leibovich that got my attention:

What can we learn from a close-in view of Democratic and Republican events at the end of a bitter, exhilarating campaign? It has become a cliché to say that the country is “divided,” but the anthropologies displayed at 11 campaign stops in recent days offer glimpses of partisan America.

I have never seen “anthropologies” used in that way, as a noun to capture what generally anthropologists try to gloss under the rubric of “culture.” For US anthropologists, “anthropologies” might mean the four or five different fields we say fall under the discipline of anthropology – biological and sociocultural, linguistic and archaeology, with applied often thrown in for good measure.

I really like this use of “anthropologies,” and the fact that it got past the copy editors at the Times must mean that they assume it has enough common meaning for people to grasp some general concept behind it.

“Culture” has been a contested concept in anthropology for several decades now, but we haven’t really been able to settle on a better term for a holistic understanding of a way of life. Anthropologies seems a lot closer, especially when we can then evoke all the different fields to understand the lived anthropology of a place and time and people. No longer is it the -ology receiving emphasis, it is the anthro-.

With anthropologies, we can talk about ways of life and practices and embodiment and meaning, and not keep assuming that somehow a symbolic structure or an inequality or a set of genetics is the thing to use to understand that way of life. Rather, it demands the sort of interdisciplinary engagement already seen in the word itself – anthropologies.

6 thoughts on “Anthropologies

  1. Good post. I don’t know if you use a blog/news/website feed reader, but depending on how wide you set the subscription settings you might notice a number of bloggers also using the term “anthropology” and “anthropologies” in similar ways. I frequently notice its use in posts with theological bent, where the term seems to connote one’s philosophy about the human condition. The idea of replacing “culture” with “anthropologies” is promising, I appreciated your musings above on this.

  2. …sorry to spam your blog, I went looking for an example I was thinking of when I wrote the message above. I found it again, finally, here. To sum up the discussion there: is his “anthropology” that sin is created by social structures rather than individual agency? That is why I suggested that here anthropology means one philosophical, moral, outlook on the condition of being human. It’s not exactly an inappropriate usage either, just one that for whatever reason anthropologists don’t use themselves. We don’t even need to get into Anthropologies the chain store, or Anthropology the romance novel.

  3. Thanks for those comments, Maximilian. I thought of another reason why I like the term “anthropologies.” It points that people own their own anthropologies as much as any anthropologist. The shift to anthro- and away from -ology is one that indicates a more participatory and interactive approach. Given your commitment to indigenous knowledge and open anthropology, and my work in community-based and participatory arenas, I think “anthropologies” captures much better that ethic than “culture” or “inequality” or whatever other field-specific concept we want to substitute.

    In the link you highlighted from Civics Geeks, the post discusses “human being” and while I don’t share in their analysis, I think ways of human being is exactly what I like about “anthropologies.” In your comment there, and the post itself, there is this contrast between social structures and individuals. Hopefully an insistence on an inclusive anthropology – a way of being – will help resolve that dichotomy.

    So in the way that I am trying to explore the concept, I would want to move “anthropologies” away from being either an “outlook” or a “study” and more a thing-in-itself. That is what startled me about the way it was used in the NY Times article, how that shift to “anthropologies displayed” really drove a re-orientation in my own thinking and resolved some key dynamics that often divide anthropology (say, the biology-culture fight) while capturing the sense of variation, comparison and holism to which we often profess.

    I went looking around a bit myself for references to “anthropologies”. Here’s one I found from Deborah Durham on Anthropologies of Water. She writes, “There is no “anthropology of water,” as the title of the session suggests: there is only an anthropology of people and of the way that things like water (or taro, or space, or songs) figure in people’s lives and their understandings of their lives. And water (or money, or gossip, or aesthetics) features in people’s lives in a wide variety of ways – such that water itself (or myth, or relatives, or shelter) is as multi-colored, or multi-faceted, as the seawater Franz Boas tried so hard to understand.”

    Let me contrast that with a call for proposals from Anthropology News that appeared in my in-box just today. “More than just ways of thinking and being, cultures are also fields of sensation, experience and sentiment. Indeed fieldwork remains the sine qua non of ethnographic understanding precisely in so far as both cultural transmission and cultural understanding depend on experiential engagement.”

    There the regular concept of “culture” appears, trying to subsume everything that goes into “anthropologies.” It substitutes the (social/symbolic) structure for actual experiencing, sensing people. It doesn’t offer a theory of experiential engagement, but the blurb itself is saying this is the main way that we have to get at understanding a way of thinking and being in another place and time. In many ways, it over-extends and reduces the power of the culture concept, while also limiting the ways that we can think about and engage with people’s own lives.

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