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08 April 2010

The Hard Problems of Anthropology

In 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.
Kerim over at Savage Minds recently posed the question (following a Harvard symposium which posed the question for the social sciences as a whole):
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.

5 comments:

btmc said...

Thank you Jeremy, for this post and the one immediately following.
I get the sense, mostly from what you wrote, I admit I have not researched this at all, I get the sense that this list's purpose is one of entertainment, and not necessarily one of work. I think it might help to unify the discipline that adopts such a task, which is of course problematic for the reasons you gave, I guess I will paraphrase as "anthropology is such a broad and rich study that it would be a damn shame to limit it to a few measly problems".
But it might also divert a lot of careful, intelligent minds away from whatever is still out there, undiscovered or unmetastasized. a list of problems is far too static for anthropology, and while it might prove a rallying point, might give anthropology a grade or gold star to parade in front of the other sciences, I don't see it furthering the discipline or the species more than the alternative.
Also the advice on writing was very fun to read.
mahallo
b

michael~ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
michael~ said...

These are good questions Jeremy. But I do see some value in at least asking practitioners to define their problematics. I don’t think we need to create ‘hard problems’ to try to solve – and become even more specialized and remote - but, rather, to develop hybrid anayltics and ‘thick-enough descriptions’ of the several existing ethical, concrete and practical problems already facing humanity.

I left academia in 2004 to apply my knowledge and training to explicitly practical domains: in public health and education. And one of the reason’s I never went after the PhD was because Anthropology seemed to be unable to fulfill it’s potential. My sense was that there were too many subdisciplines, too many pockets of focus, and too much internal criticism for it’s practitioners to develop a coherent public narrative.

And why does that matter?

Well, if anthropologists cannot explain to a lay person the significance of anthropological knowledge in less than 200 words then there is no significance to be had.

Knowledge production and the institutions that generate them are only as useful as they are relevant to the project of human development (and I don’t necessarily mean typical linear development). Anthropologists need to be specialists in studying the human condition for the sole purpose of educating humans. And such ‘education’ doesn’t take place just in the universities but also in the streets, in places of oppression, in town halls, in the media, and in places and times where people need thicker narratives in order to understand the events that make or break the course of our lives.

But to do this the world needs to value the kinds of knowledge anthropologists bring to the larger discussion. What is it that we claim to know? And what allows us to assume we know it? Then we have to be able to explain such things in accessible terms.

Without some internally consistent truth claims and a structured narrative Anthropology remains nebulous even to itself.

Of course, the elements of a possible pragmatic synthesis or ‘coherence’ already exist. We do fieldwork – researching in the contexts in which people live. We excavate – scientific investigations of material culture to understand history. We assemble theory – drawing eclectically from other disciplines we apply a variety of concepts to the task of understanding people in their own contexts. and more…

So, without getting too extravagant in my analysis, let me end by listing 3 broad but sufficiently interesting ‘problematics’ anthropologists could address with more vigor and more publicly:

1. The historical impact of human social organization on this planet (political ecology)
2. The evolution of human behavior (developing a narrative beyond nature/nurture)
3. Human suffering (intercultural as intracultural dynamics of conflict, domination, exploitation, segregation, etc)

To frame all the work anthropologists do with these issues would be to dramatically increase the relevance of anthropological activities in the imaginations of key stakeholders and the public at large.

I hope to say more on this topic soon…

Jeremy Trombley said...

Michael -
I think you're absolutely right; we need to get better at communicating the value of anthropology and at interacting with the public in a collaborative/participatory way. Still, I think a coherent public narrative can be open enough to allow for the myriad potentialities of the discipline.
I like your three 'problematics' - those are exactly the reasons I got into anthropology, and they're general enough that I think most anthros would agree with them. But I think it's possible that there are other problematics that could be entertained by the field, and I wouldn't want to limit other anthropologists in addressing those as they arise.
Thanks to both you and Brendan for the comments - I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

michael~ said...

YOU: I think a coherent public narrative can be open enough to allow for the myriad potentialities of the discipline... I think it's possible that there are other problematics that could be entertained by the field, and I wouldn't want to limit other anthropologists in addressing those as they arise.

ME: I agree, but would consider these 'other problematics' as sub-interests to those broader concerns, which should then be linked to the uber-anthro task of understanding and explaining the human condition, and offering up solutions to real world problems...

But who am i to say anyway? I walked away from the discipline years ago.

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