For my students:
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, at least that’s what it should be in my opinion, a radical critique of colonialism, imperialism and any abuse of power. For me Social-Cultural Anthropology is an ideology, and highly 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 in time and space deserves to be recognised as an equal to yourself, meaning, there is no place for social darwinism. If you do not know what Social Darwinism means, Social Darwinism is based on Darwinian evolution, but was theorised by Herbert Spencer in the 19th century and has still footing in some anthropological theories today (and in many peoples thinking). Spencer formulated the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ applying the same laws that rule, according to Darwin, the physical world and its biological organisms within. In Spencer's thought the human mind and human culture and societies had developed in the same way. There were primitive minds and cultures who would die out, and there were superior minds and cultures (called races until the beginning of the 20th century) who were naturally superior and would form modern society. The idea being that the range of human culture went from primitive over savages to civilised (‘naturally’ the civilised world was being represented by the European male). The idea of ‘the dawn of time’ from which the human species was suppose to have emerged from makes implicitly use of social darwinism, since this evolution is presented as a development from animal like to human like. You might recall the very famous drawing of a primate slowly walking more and more erect until it resembles us today. Anthropology today has 'declared war' against social darwinism (but we should never forget that this idea came from our own discipline!).
Why is it, that there is no social evolution? I could ask you to reflect on the purpose of such theory and who would be interested in using the notion of 'survival of the fittest.' Questioning this alone will make you see the true nature of social darwinism which has been and still is formulated to demonstrate ones own superiority and the 'natural right' to oppress, missionize, exploit and often eradicate the supposedly 'inferior other.' You will find that such ideas justified and still is justifying the holocaust, eugenics, genocide and land-theft.
However, to give you a more visual idea why social evolution does not differentiate us from our ancestors or other cultures and societies. Look at the evolution of this planet, who we were, who we are, and who we will become. Our ‘evolution’ is just a nano-second of the entire evolutionary process, and therefore one cannot conclude that today’s humans are that different from each other or different to our ancestors. The only true difference is, that our ancestors lived in a different environment than ours today, but in essential form our ancestors, including maybe even the Neanderthals (though this is a speculation on my part) were the same as we are today. And certainly, since we have reached the Homo Sapiens level no hierarchical difference can be made between any society or human in time and space. There are no primitive societies, there are no societies or people that are ‘less’ of something, less than Europeans and Euro-Americans are (which those like to claim). Of course we, modern humans (homo sapiens) are all very different from each other, but, who defines what this difference means in degree and importance? Consider this, we humans share 90% of our genes with cats and the fruit fly (Drosophila) shares about 60% of its DNA with us. The difference between us and homo sapiens in the distant past or between different ‘cultures’/societies is, in this perspective, less than minimal. Today’s anthropological project is formed by this understanding which looks at the intersections between different forms of difference and how they are acted upon politically.
Anthropology today, rather than thinking every ‘culture’ has a cultural right to be who they are (this is called cultural relativism which had and has its purpose if you think about colonialism and missionaries, but which becomes tricky to support if you give this cultural right to the Third Reich or the Taliban) defines itself by unwaveringly fighting for human rights, for the right to dignity, for the right to justice, the right to live, to thrive, to be. For me the limit is only then reached when those rights violate (as in violence) the rights of others. Another aspect of Cultural relativism has to be considered as well. Who will claim which rights of a society are upheld and which will not? Cultural relativism came from the idea that you only need to send a European anthropologist to a tribal/primitive/hunter-hatherer culture to understand the other society better than the people within, since their cultural laws were easily detected (speak simple - therefore the idea of speaking about simple and complex societies; or about societies that have cultures 'Culture X' and societies that are so complex that these societies are not seen as having culture: First World countries, nation-states, European. For simple societies cultural laws and morals were described by the European anthropologists. In addition to 'translating' culture to the European colonial administrations and societies, the idea that an anthropologist can understand a whole society is ludicrous.
Anthropologist, at the beginning of the discipline also became aware of the 'extinction' (a word normally reserved for natural processes! but could also be called mass-murder and genocide) of certain "simple" cultures with the onslaught of European colonialism, decided to write as much customary rules, stories down and collect as many material 'evidence' (also called stealing) as possible in order to 'save' those societies. This was called salvation anthropology and was just the flip-side of a coin that had destruction and deceit, speak racism written on the other side. It was still the same coin.
Therefore anthropologist should practice caution when wanting to 'save' people or environments. In accordance to the ethics of anthropological research method, called participant observation, where the protection of individuals or groups always comes first before the anthropologists interest, even if this interest is called 'saving'. This in itself is one of the biggest flaw of 'development' (whose development and where to? And who decides the direction and proposed outcome?).
So what is anthropology about if it is not about translating, civilising or saving 'other' cultures?
Anthropology does not mean to learn about others, but to work with the people we have the privilege to meet together, to learn to be reflexive and demand political change in our own societies (and their attitudes towards otherness) by using the comparative ethnographic material in order to bring about social and political change within our own society.
Therefore Anthropology is far more than the study of cultures and societies, it is about trying to promote a way of living that is build on respect for others.
Anthropology in my understanding is based on a fight for justice. Anthropology should discover, criticise and call upon support against any attempt of limiting or derailing such rights. It is important too to understand that anthropology does not claim we are all the same, instead it points out the difference between sameness and similarity.There is a difference between having access to the same rights, and being the same.
What might be first difficult to understand, and seems like a semantical cliché, is one of the, if there is anything like that, fundamental teachings in anthropology: Us humans, from the distant past, the present and the future, are, through our differences the same. It is the differences that make us a fascinating subject to study, but the more anthropology delves into the difference between cultures, histories, societies and peoples, the more we discover that we are really very much the same. What is called ‘culture’ in anthropology is actually the political, economical and societal doctrines of power that artificially and often violently suppresses sameness in order to create difference for the purpose of creating power differentials (as in social and political hierarchy). The challenge is to think of difference without hierarchy and about sameness without similarity.
To discover this depends on a very important method, not the method of qualitative research called participant observation in anthropology, which of course is the most important research method for anthropology, but another method. This method is/should be the bases of academia anywhere on this planet, and however academia is defined, the most important weapon against injustice, crimes against humanity, oppression, war and all the horrible things we seem to do to each other throughout history, the most important method is: to ask questions. Questions sometimes do not seek necessarily answers, but they are the best tool to unsettle, to unsettle the powerful, to strengthen the powerless, the one way we can change what is a violation of fundamental human rights.
Anthropology once claimed to be based on cultural relativism, that means to judge ‘cultures’ based on their own value systems. That might be true in some ways, coming from a world where people lived in cultures unaffected from each other. Only this world does not exist anymore. We are more involved in each others lives more than than ever. You might seek an objective anthropology that sheds light at fundamental human truths, and then you might say that those truth are not valid for some cultures (you imply however, that they are the ‘real’ truths). But this cannot be. There is not objective anthropology, there is no one truth, we humans are not able to be objective, we cannot study humans from an unrelated distance where we as humans do not influence the research process. 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 obsolete. We all in this world have an understanding of universal human rights. There might be cultures that do not share those values, however, should we not judge those values since they break with the idea of human rights? How about the Third Reich, how about femicide, female mutilation, genocide in general – these are not acceptable violations of universal human rights based on cultural relativism, these are crimes 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 am telling my students that I expect them to come out of a course with more questions than they had when they started the course. Sometimes this seems uncomfortable. We like people to give us answers. However, as soon as you accept other peoples answers without you having ever asked the question, you submit to their powers, and with this 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. We cannot do this ourselves, we need help from others. 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 enrolled in when we were born. It is us together against injustice and the destructiveness and horror of that injustices throughout the ages, today and the future. We need to get up and fight. We fight with our questions and not accepting easy answers. Answers are never easy. If you feel happy and comfortable with an answer you received – be suspicious, since just now 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. It is not an answer I am giving you, but something to think about and question – I hope.