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The Culture of Anthropology

February 22, 2007

“Anthropology,” Alfred Kroeber once wrote, “is the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities.” Less charitably, anthropology has been derided as a discipline that can’t make up its mind. One of the things that drew me to anthropology in the first place was this very hybridity.

Though no anthropologist makes use of the full range of intellectual and methodological tools developed within the discipline, a vast (and sometimes puzzling) array of possibilities is open to practitioners. Everything from symbolic analysis to gene flow as measured in varying blood types, radio-carbdon dating to ethnographic description, multiple regression to life history is on the menu.

There are those who look askance at too heterodox an approach to anthropological knowledge. They fear being called dabblers, considered mere dilettantes in the presense of real scientists; they fear, in short, being seen as a discipline without discipline. How ugly.

How lovely. That is, eclecticism in itself may have little to recommended it, but the careful and, gasp, even collaborative, application of a well-rounded set of concepts and tools to understanding human beings in their complexity is surely not a bad thing.