InKerim over at Savage Minds recently posed the question (following a Harvard symposium which posed the question for the social sciences as a whole):
1900, the renowned mathematician David Hilbert laid down a challenge to future generations: 23 hand-picked mathematical problems, all difficult, all important, and all unsolved. Since then, countless mathematicians around the world have struggled to solve the 23 ‘Hilbert Problems’ (ten have been resolved; eleven are partly solved or simply cannot be solved; and two remain at large). Most important, the pursuit of the solutions had a profound and fundamental influence on the roadmap for 20th century mathematics, testament to Hilbert’s foresight.
Does it make sense to compile such a list [for anthropology]? What would you put on the list?I'm going to answer "No" to the first question (which I'll explain further in a moment), thus exonerating me from the difficult (impossible?) challenge of answering the second. Before I get into explaining my answer, though, I want to point out that there are a lot of good comments on the Savage Minds post with some interesting ideas and I in no way mean to detract from that discussion.
Anthropologist are a silly group of people. We spend our time (many of us anyway) working away in our departments, following research that either interests us or pays the bills. We discover intriguing insights and write them up in often elaborate (sometimes beautiful) prose. Then we sit around wringing our hands wondering why the rest of the world doesn't take us seriously, and worrying that the discipline is going the way of the thylacine.
Frankly, I'm tired of this nostalgic, narcissistic attitude. I'm pretty sure that the discipline isn't going anywhere - as if the whole thing could disappear overnight without a trace! I'm also confident that 1) we do make substantial contributions outside of academia. Those contributions may be indirect (through theory or method or with academic research that finds its way into the public consciousness) or direct (applied anthropology), but they are tangible and not insignificant. I can't imagine a world without anthropology. 2) We are on the verge of becoming even more relevant. I think that the myriad challenges facing modern civilization coupled with the turn in anthropology toward concrete results and the awareness of our place in the social/natural milieu (our ontological-political position to borrow from Annemarie Mol) will allow us to take part in the world more fully and intentionally than ever before. We won't solve all the world's problems - I'm not naive - but we have a role to play in coming up with equitable, just and workable solutions.
My question is, what would a list of had problems add to the discipline? A sense of direction? A sense of purpose? We study people - in all of their wonder and complexity. What more of an object do we need? Anthropology stands out because it covers the broadest range of human experience both historically and cross-culturally. No other discipline can make that claim, and there will always be a demand - either explicit or implicit - for what we do.
For a field whose object is so divergent and complex, a unifying principle, a set of problems or a final goal would only bring on claustrophobia. Instead we should go on investigating the things that interest us and helping to find solutions to the problems that plague our world. That will require the freedom to take flight and follow a path when it presents itself or even to venture off the path if need be, a freedom which a set of hard problems (assuming we could agree on what those problems are in the first place) will only hinder.