Anthropology 101 with Matt


Phil provides commentary on a bird fight he witnessed between crows, blue jays and little sparrows. Matt admits that he is a sinker who is afraid of zombies. Who knew?

Matt’s Anthropology 101 (14:27)

This episode is a succinct overview of anthropology, the study of human culture. Every anthropologist has their own definition of culture but these definitions change like culture itself. Matt reads the Clifford Geertz ‘Webs of Signification’ definition and then offers his own. The traditional division is between American and Continental (European) Anthropology; AA’s traditionally follow linguist C.S. Peirce (Pragmatic Semiotics) whereas CA’s follow Ferdinand de Saussure (relational binary model: signified-signifier). Phil and Matt have their first little debate.

The early history of anthropology (1860-1920’s) is mired in racism and eugenics. Arm-chair ‘scholars’ would collect cultural artifacts sent to them by ‘field-agents’ and compose racial classification schemes that ranked groups of people around presumed moral-potential based on superficial physical differences. Notable early exceptions were Paul Radin and Edward Sapir. Phil and Matt close out the early history with a brief conversation about the Bureau of American Ethnology and how it both systematized the discipline while also being responsible for rampant cultural appropriation.

Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski are identified as the first modern anthropologists. Both engaged in fieldwork collecting data through participant observation, interviews and other methods like kinship charts, collecting mythologies and material culture. Boas and Malinowski revolutionized the discipline by taking account of cultural ‘difference’ in a non-judgmental ‘scientifically rigorous’ manner, which is called cultural relativism. Boas founded the Four-Field model of American Anthropology and Malinowski codified the ethnographic method of participant observation, cultural dislocation and semi-structured interviews along with the theoretical tradition of structural functionalism and british social anthropology.

Malinowski, like many others, was influenced by Freudian thinking which can be seen in his use of comparative categories in Structural Functionalism. Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead were Boas’ main protégées. Malinowski’s students were E.E. Evans-Pritchard who promoted structural functionalism and Talcott Parsons who both expanded SF and ‘founded’ the influential field of social action theory. Phil thinks we should stop going to ‘other places’ and messing around in people’s cultures is not needed anymore, Matt tries to answer this charge by talking about ‘manufacturing ethnographic distance’ in his concussion research.

Third debate: Claude Levi-Strauss was a french anthropologist who founded the field of structuralism in the 1950’s. He was concerned with mythologies and linguistics (Saussure style) but he took a lot of criticism in the 1980’s over the ‘over-application’ of his theoretical model. Matt lists some of the classic text-book critiques of structuralism while Phil argues that structuralism uses an historical methodology. Matt argues that structuralism is more about relations (act and react for example) and reads a quote from Levi-Strauss’ obituary which was his ‘final word’ to all the critics.

Next Matt speaks about Clifford Geertz. Geertz came from literary studies and as such he was interested in semiotics and linguistics. He helped initiate a ‘return to culture’ (theoretically), a renewed focus on our writing (ethnography) and using ‘thick descriptions’ to show cultural nuance. At the time Geertz was having influence (late 70’s, early 80’s) anthropologists started getting heavily criticized heavily by english and literature departments around how we ‘represent Others’. Writing Culture was the book that was meant to answer these critiques.

Matt finishes off the conversation by name dropping three of his favorites as a way of explaining post-modern approaches in anthropology. Sherry Ortner (1974 and 1984) wrote two great theory papers and has just published a follow up “Theory Since the 1980’s”. Nancy Sheper-Hughesreturned to the field’ to account for herself and her ethnography, what we now call ‘ethnographic responsibility’. Renato Rosaldo illustrated the value of emotional-reflexivity as a research method. Phil asks about contemporary and applied anthropology. We finish off with our fourth and best debate about investing agency in non-human actors à la Bruno Latour.

Recommendations (1:32:25)

  • Matt recommends a podcast for the chronically ill, Sickboy. Sometimes you need to find humor in pain and this podcast certainly does that!
  • Phil recommends Michael Paterniti’s The Telling Room (The Dial Press, 2013) which is a story about cheese, procrastination and Spanish culture.

Concluding thought: Rather than building disciplinary walls, it’s better to jump over them to exchange ideas


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Music: Song "Soul Challenger" appearing on "Cullahnary School" by Cullah
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