My own musings about Social Anthropology:
How do I explain Social-Cultural Anthropology to a novice? There are many introductory books on how to understand what Social-Cultural Anthropology is, books that explain the history of Social-Cultural Anthropology, how it went from being an agent of colonialism to a radical critic of colonialism, imperialism and any other abuse of power. For me Social-Cultural Anthropology is about social justice and it is deeply political. It is, has to be, and should be based on the understanding that all human life is of the same value, that every human being deserves to be recognised as an equal fellow human.
Anthropology today does not teach about 'other cultures,’ rather it questions the entire concept of culture. Since, who is to say, and how should it be determined, the beginning and the end of one culture and the beginning and end of another culture. What traits do people of one common culture share that people in another culture do not have? Often the notion of 'culture' goes along with the idea of nature and nurture. However, since feminist anthropology in the eighties challenged common concepts of what nature and nurture mean to different people, the idea of a person's 'culture' has become incomprehensible. We are not human organisms (nature/biology that all humans share, such as, women are everywhere inferior to men) 'filled-up' with culture (nurture/ knowledge that has been transmitted unchanged since ancient times) by our parents and other people who share 'our culture.'
The concept of culture and the concept of nature are very flawed. I would argue that the concept of 'culture' has been more used to establish people of higher and lower moral, then it has served any other kind of useful purpose. Nevertheless, we live in a world where culture seems to explain everything, civil wars, genocide, alcoholism or concepts of Shame and Honor. Why?
'Culture' today has superseded the idea of 'Race' as a more politically correct way of describing 'The Other.' 'The Other' in such a definition will always be lesser than ourselves. If you follow this closely you will discover that Northern Europeans are never described to have this or that kind of culture, 'they' are civilized, they have a history. People in 'cultures' have traditions and not history. The effect is that 'The Other' is frozen into time from which they have not yet emerged. This process is called 'othering.' Anthropology originally looked at those cultures (primitive, tribal, small-scale, - all different words for the same thing: 'lesser than...') and described them as a 'mirror' into 'our' past, into our 'pre-history.' Think about the word Ab-original, 'ab' is latin for 'from' and origine is latin for origins, the word Aboriginal means from the origins. Pre-history means 'before history started,' which is seen as the moment that 'writing' was invented. Hence, it was reasoned by Anthropology, that 'oral cultures' would be from Pre-history, that is Ab-original. Never underestimate the power of words. Words have presided over wars, genocides, total destruction of any form of 'otherness.' Today anthropology has changed its past as a discipline that defined people having more or less culture: Here the word 'culture' was used in its second meaning: cultivare, latin for cultivated/cultivating. More or less culture was seen to determine by how far away into the past a culture's position of social and mental(!) development was on the scale of human development that was suppose to have started with hunter gatherers and ends in science supposedly.
Today in anthropology you will learn to question such concepts of culture. Social Anthropology is very critical of the term culture since it literally denies individuals the possibility to choose with whom to associate, to develop in their own ways that is not determined by their ancestry and ethnicity. What you will learn is that difference between 'cultures' is being used as the basis of a political agenda that constrains individuals into belonging to the group to which they are assigned to a priori.
Kuper, for me, defines the anthropological project today: "[Culture] tends to draw attention away from what we have in common instead of encouraging us to communicate across national, ethnic, and religious boundaries, and to venture beyond them" (Kuper 1999: 247).
Therefore Anthropology is far more than the study of cultures or societies, instead it is a discipline that discovers, criticises and calls upon support against any attempt of limiting or derailing human rights and social justice in the world in which we live in together. It is through our differences that we are the same. It is the differences that make us a fascinating subject to study, but the more anthropology delves into the difference between peoples, histories, and societies, the more we discover that we have more in common than not. The challenge is to think of difference without hierarchy and about sameness without similarity.
To discover this depends on a very important method, a method that is the most important weapon against injustice, crimes against humanity, oppression, war and terror: that is, to ask questions. Questions are the best tool to unsettle the powerful, the status quo.
Anthropology once claimed to be based on cultural relativism, that means to judge ‘cultures’ based on their own value systems, not on the value system of the anthropologist, which is a noble quest no question about it. However, today, in the world we are living in, we are more than ever involved in each others lives. You might seek an objective anthropology that looks for fundamental human truths, and then you might say that those truth are valid only for some cultures not for others (implying that there are truths that are ‘real’ true, but others are not). But this cannot be. Nobody can establish what the 'real truth' is, not even the smartest scientists. How can we say that there is one real truth that only some people are privy to, everything else is mystified by culture.
There is not objective anthropology, there is no objective science, we cannot study humans or our world from an unrelated distance, in a space above the world below. This is not even true for the ‘hard sciences.’ We are living with each other, in close proximity, maybe not in geographical or time proximity, but we live, on this one planet we call home, together. We are together in it for better or worse – and it is in this context that I am calling Cultural Relativism to be obsolete. There are no acceptable violations of universal human rights in the name of cultural relativism; any violation of human rights should be seen as a crime against us all, against the notion of humanity as it is established today. No cultural rights will or should ever top a persons right to life, dignity, justice, peace and well-being.
Back to asking questions. I strongly believe in the power of questions. I expect students to leave a course with more questions than they had when the course started. Sometimes this feels uncomfortable. We like people to give us answers. However, as soon as you accept other peoples answers without having asked any question, you submit to their powers, and to the destruction of the free spirit, your free spirit. It is this, the free spirit, that anthropology, with the help of many other people in many other societies, seeks to uphold. This is the anthropological project; we need to learn as much about ourselves as we learn about others. Others will learn about us, teach us about ourselves, and anthropology becomes an involvement in the human project that we are enrolled in. We need to get up and fight. We fight with our questions not accepting easy answers. Answers are never easy. If you feel happy and comfortable with an answer you received – be suspicious! since it is very likely that someone took you for a ride; increasing their power and limiting your own thinking and responsibility. Yes, it is hard to carry this responsibility. But it is this responsibility, to ask questions, that will make you an anthropologist.
These are my meagre meandering thoughts of what Social-Cultural Anthropology is to me. It is not an answer I am giving you, but something to think about – and I hope, to question.