The Relevance of Anthropology as a Discipline

Anthropology does not achieve its general and fundamental significance by organizing the data of other disciplines or by synthesizing higher-level theories from the other disciplines' concepts and principles. Anthropologists are interested in the facts and theories of other disciplines that apply to the study of man. Certainly there are many collaborative efforts and fruitful exchanges between anthropologists and biologists, psychologists, sociologists, social psychologists, geologists, historians, and economists, as well as scholars in the humanities. It should also be noted that as research and publications accumulate in each of the four subfields of anthropology, fewer and fewer anthropologists are masters of the entire discipline. In fact, anthropologists increasingly find themselves working not only with fellow anthropologists but also with members of entirely different scientific and humanistic disciplines. For example, cultural anthropologists interested in the relationships between cultural practices and the natural environment must study the principles of ecology. Physical anthropologists studying the relationships between human and protohuman fossils may, because of the importance of teeth in the fossil record, become more familiar with dentistry journals than with journals devoted to ethnography or linguistics. Cultural anthropologists who focus on the relationships between culture and an individual's personality are sometimes more at home professionally with psychologists than with archaeologists in their own university departments. Likewise, anthropology makes great contributions to museums, and many anthropologists spend their careers as museologists. In general it may be said that the working links between anthropological specialties and other disciplines are quite pragmatic. Ongoing specialization requires branching out in many directions in response to research opportunities, scholarly interests, and new discoveries and research techniques.

An important feature of anthropology as a discipline is that its scope is panhuman in its theoretical foundation. It is systematically and uncompromisingly diachronic and comparative in its insistence that the proper study of man can only be undertaken successfully through a general study of mankind. The anthropological impulse is, first and foremost, to insist that conclusions based upon the study of one particular human group or civilization be checked against the evidence gleaned from other groups under both similar and different conditions. In this way the relevance of anthropology transcends the interests of American, Western, or any other culture. In anthropological perspective, all civilizations are particular, local, and evanescent; thus, anthropology opposes the ethnocentrism of those who would have themselves and none other represent humanity, stand at the pinnacle of progress, or be chosen by God or history to fashion the world in their own image.

Because of its diachronic and comparative perspectives anthropology holds the key to answering the recurring fundamental questions of contemporary relevance to humanity. It lies peculiarly within the province of anthropology to con-textualize the place of man's animal heritage in modern society, to define what is distinctively human about humans, and to differentiate between cultural and noncultural reasons for conditions such as competition, conflict, and war.

Anthropological facts and concepts are essential to an understanding of the origins of social inequality, racism, exploitation, poverty, underdevelopment, and other human problems. Of decisive importance to the entire anthropological enterprise is the question of the nature and significance of human racial variation. Because of its combination of biological, archaeological, linguistic, and cultural perspectives, general anthropology is uniquely suited to address this problem.

In addition to its basic research mission, anthropology has become an applied science with applications in most areas of contemporary life. Techniques of applied anthropology may now be seen in problem-solving activities across the spectrum of virtually all cultural and biological domains. Applied anthropologists in the United States alone number in the thousands and are employed as professionals and scientists in government, business, the military, health, education, and various other fields. It is now predicted that half of all graduating doctorates in anthropology will pursue nonacademic careers.

Underlying all of anthropology's other contributions to the sciences and humanities is its abiding search for the causes of social and cultural differences and similarities in the family of man. This enduring quest to understand both the biological and cultural nature of mankind in a diachronic and comparative framework continues to distinguish anthropology as an essential and vital component of a sound education for the modern world.

Deward E. Walker, Jr.

University of Colorado, Boulder

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