Anthropology in 10 words
(sample comes under contents)
Brief digressions on anthropology
1. Being (human)
Where we try to explain what culture is, why there are so many differences in the world and why, despite this, culture is what all we humans have in common.
2. Living together
Where we try to understand in how many and what ways humans can organise themselves to be able to live together peacefully and also how, at times, some of these ways become unsustainable and must, quite rightly, be dismantled.
Where we explore how human beings speak, write, gesticulate and act to exchange information with each other. They cannot do without it, but can do it in so many different ways.
4. Where and when?
Where we try to explain why we need to invent dimensions such as time and space, to measure them in order to organise our lives in common.
Where we ask why we have to depend on nature to survive and why, at the same time, we do everything we can to destroy it.
Where we wonder about the need to build diversity to define ourselves and how we can be capable of being very human, and yet also very inhuman.
7. Representing ourselves
Where we talk about our need to “see ourselves” in order to know who we are and what group we belong to, and what we have to do to keep remembering that.
8. Exchanging, giving
Where we try to say that in the end we are less selfish than we think and that in the end we give more than we think, because that is the only way we create relationships.
Where we try to understand why we humans need to think that there is some superior being who is able to answer the questions we ask ourselves.
Where we discuss how essential it is to eat to nourish our bodies, but also how important it is to choose what to eat, to satisfy our minds.
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Brief digressions on anthropology (introduction)
Why these brief digressions? Because, like it or not, we are witnessing an increasingly fast shuffling of the world around us in which every day we meet people from places we often know very little about, and this forces us to compare ourselves with different conceptions of the world. For too long we have been used to exporting people, rather than welcoming them, and to thinking of ourselves as monocultural, white and Catholic, so when “the other” broke into our house he found us unprepared, not least due to our colonial experience – now largely suppressed – which did not provide us with any elements of comparison. To assimilate this constant, daily deluge of “disoriented” cultural elements, which often find themselves far from their places of origin, perhaps a crosswise glance, joining up non-consecutive dots, can help us interpret the new scenarios that are unfolding before our very eyes. I am not so naive as to think that an anthropological approach can solve the problems of our times, but moving away from the usual points of view and taking a different perspective can help us to better understand what is happening in our cities, our streets and our lives.
Trying to think how others think, whoever they are, does not necessarily mean – as many fear – succumbing to different customs, but rather understanding, knowing how to look for points in common and similarities rather than emphasising differences, which often do not end up being so. This is why we need to digress: “to wander about without a specific purpose, to deviate from, stray away from”, according to the dictionary definition.
So this is a little trip into the world of anthropology. It is certainly not a manual, but a first step in approaching diversity without too many preconceptions and becoming aware that our way of life is one of many possible ways, neither better nor worse than others. And who are the “others”? Caught up as we are in the frenzy that our world imposes on us, our gaze increasingly glued to the screens of our smartphones, we barely spend any time reflecting on who and what we are and on who and what those we call “others” are. In an age when diversity is too often stigmatised, demonised and sometimes even attacked, trying to distance ourselves from the incessant media flow that surrounds us while trying to measure the distance between us and others with a different yardstick, putting ourselves in their shoes, even if only for a short time, and observing ourselves “from afar” can be a healthy exercise.
It is often said that cultural anthropology is an undisciplined discipline and there is some truth in that. It could not be otherwise, because basically it is constructed with people and not on people; it does not reduce them to objects of study, but involves them, it does not divide the world of knowledge into separate particles and above all it is based on dialogue, on the recognition of those who are there in front of us. Anthropologists speak of the city and the countryside, of colonisers and the colonised, of rich and poor, natives and immigrants, men and women, but most of all they speak of “what unites them and what divides them, of everything that connects them and the effects of these ways of relating,” as Marc Augé explained.
And how can human relationships be “disciplined”?
Sometimes portrayed as a kind of Indiana Jones, much more often mistaken for an archaeologist, a historian or a skull measurer, the anthropologist tries to analyse and interpret these differences. For this he has to go on a “long ride” (to quote Clyde Kluckhohn) to get back home, passing through places and people that are different from him. To do this, he has to move away, to be able to observe reality with that “gaze from afar” theorised by Lévi-Strauss, which allows us to understand that diversity, as such, cannot be inferior.
It is no coincidence that it was precisely Lévi-Strauss who found some analogy between anthropology and astronomy, since both study distant manifestations: “Astronomy requires not only that celestial bodies be far away, but also that time does not flow there at the same rhythm, otherwise the Earth would have ceased to exist long before astronomy was born.”
Distance thus acquires a significance that is spatial, temporal and moral at the same time, and if on the one hand it impoverishes the anthropologist’s perception, on the other it forces him to make a virtue of necessity, pushing him to see only the essential properties of the phenomena studied.
A borderline discipline par excellence, anthropology and anthropologists lend themselves to often curious definitions, which sometimes reflect the times and the training of those who come up with them, but which in the end seem to all lead to a common semantic area made up of “leftovers” and “oddities”, driven by “ragpickers” and “peddlers”, who often live on the “periphery” which, while it may be far from the centre, is always on the move, as the Greek root of the verb perì-pherein says.
“Anthropology is the science of leftovers”, according to Clyde Kluckhohn, a US anthropologist and author of a renowned book entitled Mirror for Man.
“Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess,” according to Margaret Mead, a major figure in anthropology, who studied the Samoan people.
“Anthropologists are the ragpickers of history” claims Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, philosopher and ethnologist whose thinking has permeated much of the social sciences and beyond.
“Anthropologists are travellers who delve into the peripheries of humanity” asserts Marshall Sahlins, the father of semantic anthropology who studied the Pacific area at length.
Clifford Geertz, the “father” of interpretive anthropology, defines anthropologists as “peddlers of the strange, dealers in exotica, merchants of astonishment”.
The word “anthropology” is a polyhedron with many faces, each defined by an adjective (physical, social, cultural, cognitive, economic, etc.), a sort of river that branches out into many streams, which run through the various aspects of the life of human beings, until it finally composes a large, intricate fresco, which attempts to understand what we really are and – why not – also what we are not.
“Anthropology’s real contribution lies not in its literature but in its capacity to transform lives” asserts Tim Ingold, a Swedish anthropologist who also reminds us how essential “taking others seriously” is. For this reason, I have inserted an ethnographic case relating to the topic (indicating the reference text) at the end of each brief digression, to reflect on cultural diversity and to discover that these remote corners of the world, the ones we wrongly consider as storerooms of history, can teach us some important lessons.
1. Being (human)
Who does not know the tale of the ugly duckling, mocked by all, but who eventually becomes a beautiful swan? Well, we humans have not become swans (metaphorically speaking), at least not all of us have.
We cannot say that we are the most beautiful species on Earth, but we are certainly the most intrusive, the one that has taken over the planet and that, somewhat presumptuously, has called itself sapiens or, rather, sapiens sapiens. Yet there is something of the ugly duckling in us, in the sense that we start out badly, we come into the world incomplete. We are the only animals which, at birth, in the basic version without options, are unable to function; so much so that whereas the young of any other species learns everything they need to survive in just a few weeks, it takes us years to learn how to be in the world. While birds are endowed with hollow bones, wings and feathers to fly with, while fish have fins, scales and gills to stay under the water, carnivores have fangs and claws, herbivores have special stomachs and (not always, but sometimes) enough speed to flee from carnivores, at birth we humans are not predisposed to do any particular activity. We are not equipped with fur for the cold, fangs or claws to defend ourselves, we cannot swim until we have taken a course in the pool and, leaving aside Usain Bolt and a few other of his ilk, we are not particularly fast runners… In short, seen in this way we are not exactly a great design.
Here lies the paradox. While it is true that a specialisation favours existence under certain conditions, it is equally true that it limits existence to those conditions: it would be hard for a camel to live in Greenland, but a polar bear would also fare badly in Tamanrasset. Hence that initial human incompleteness is transformed into a resource because, once adequately furnished with different options, it allows us to be much more adaptable, so much so that we can survive in Greenland, but also in Tamanrasset, in the Andean highlands at over 4000 metres and in tropical forests, in freezing Siberia and the heat of the Equator. All thanks to what we call culture, which ultimately is the part of nature that it is up to us to create.
In Italian usage, the term culture has different meanings. It is synonymous with erudition: a “cultured” person is someone who has acquired knowledge through study, to which he has dedicated his life. Used in the plural, cultures, it indicates the specific attitudes of a people, a community, a group, what used to be defined as “customs and traditions”. Lastly, the third meaning indicates the special ability that all human beings have to formulate a thought, thanks to which they can implement strategies aimed at survival and beyond.
Sir Edward Tylor, one of the founding fathers of cultural anthropology, had sensed this with great clarity in 1871, when he wrote:
“Culture […] taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”.
This sentence, which only appears to be disarmingly simple, makes two important points. By saying “acquired by man”, Tylor emphasises how culture is the product of an often lengthy education and an extensive process of construction, not an ascribed fact, nor a genetic heritage, with all due respect to the supporters of racial theories. The second point, about being “a member of society”, highlights the fact that culture is not exclusive to any one single person, but is the fruit of relationships between individuals. Every kind of culture is born out of dialogue, out of exchange, out of encounter. It is not by chance that cultural anthropology is a frontier discipline. We could say that cultures are in the relationships, in that space between people that has to be filled with shared forms of communication and behaviour. After all, although cultural anthropology defines itself, somewhat presumptuously, as “the study of man”, it is in actual fact part of a sizable group of disciplines that have made the human being their object of study (and not only the so-called “humanistic” disciplines, as even medicine – thankfully – takes an interest in us). What makes it different is that it is particularly concerned with what there is between individuals, with how humans build relationships with each other and with the environment in which they live.
Therefore, while the first definition concerns a specific part of humanity – the scholars, the “intellectuals” -, the other two see us as being fully involved, because there is no individual without culture. Being the social animals that we are, we have, out of necessity, gradually developed common verbal (and not only) codes and have woven networks of shared symbols and meanings: thus culture, a potential tool that characterises every human being, is forged by the society in which it lives, based on historical, environmental and sometimes casual elements in various forms (or cultures). Passed down from generation to generation, each of these cultures, “acquired by man as a member of society”, becomes a collective heritage to tap into, which over time ends up influencing its members. A process summarised in exemplary fashion by Clifford Geertz, one of the most important contemporary anthropologists, when he said that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun”.
It is through these ordered patterns of significant symbols that man interprets and gives meaning to the events he experiences and the world he inhabits. Cultures, in fact, are tools that human societies need to classify the world around them, to rearrange, according to their parameters, that which apparently has no order, or rather does not have a “human” order.
Cultural diversity has come about thanks to the displacements, the journeys of our most remote ancestors who, step by step, encountered new environments, new problems to solve, new situations to face, but the construction process did not stop with the colonisation of the planet. Migrations, journeys, trading, inventions and natural events have continually put the various human societies to the test, and they have continually been enriched by elements coming from outside. Being a walking species, ideas, concepts and inventions have always been able to circulate, and cultures to influence each other and to borrow from and lend to each other, first with our feet and now via the internet. Ideas circulate and sometimes they do so at great speed, each one taking from the others what is deemed useful or good: we Westerners count with Arabic numbers, we drink Asian tea, we look through lenses invented by the Chinese, our languages are full of words that come from foreign countries, we sometimes pray to Middle Eastern gods, and so on. “All civilisations are mixed products. Only barbarism is simple, monadic and unalloyed,” as Tagore said.
No-one has ever remained totally isolated and we can say that every culture is in itself multicultural, if the purists can make sense of that. And not only that: it is also a system in perpetual transformation. The spider’s web is spun, unspun and respun in a continuous conflict between conservation and innovation. We should not therefore think of cultures as clock mechanisms, accurate and repetitive, but rather as those old mopeds that often also work with parts taken from other motorcycles. In the words of Claude Lévi-Strauss, they are the result of “bricolage” or, to quote Clyde Kluckhohn, “a set of scraps, rags and tatters”.
There is no doubt that we belong to the animal kingdom, and some of our fellow men do their utmost to remind us of this fact, but it is precisely culture that distinguishes us from other animals. Without culture we would not be one of many living species, not even chimpanzees (our closest cousins), we simply would not exist.
Because culture is part of our nature, it completes it. It is our second nature, the part of nature that we create, and for this reason it is substantially different to the “natural” domain. If we have no freedom of choice as far as biology is concerned, because we cannot choose our height, the colour of our skin or our eyes, when we move into the field of culture we can choose whether to be European and Buddhist, to listen to African music, dress oriental style, love Japanese food and so on.
We learn different ways of life because we grow up in different communities, but the simple fact that we can learn different behaviours and make other ways of life our own tells us that there is a predisposition common to all humans: and this is what we call culture.
Many, too many times in history there has been a tendency to judge certain cultures as inferior to others. Just think of definitions such as: peoples without a history, without a state, without writing, always based on that without, on a lack when compared to us, when we too could be defined as being without something when seen through the eyes of others. Unfortunately, ethnocentrism, the tendency to judge the world based on one’s own yardstick, is a “disease” that is widespread throughout the human race and often makes one society think of itself as superior to the others.
A presumed superiority that sometimes leads to thinking of other people’s cultures as inferior, blurring the lines. No-one can deny that the United States is the greatest military power on the planet, but that does not mean their culture is superior to others. Some Eastern societies have developed a deeper understanding of the human mind than in the West and many traditional African societies have achieved excellent results in the management of individuals. Better to take on board the words of Lévi- Strauss, when he writes: “No human society is fundamentally good, but neither is any of them fundamentally bad; all offer their members certain advantages. Every culture is one of the many variants of a universal human project, which basically has only one purpose in common: to survive”.