If you're considering studying socio-cultural anthropology, make sure you know what it's about. Most of my reading before attending Oxford had been about culture history, prehistoric cultural inheritance, kinship, non-state social structure, magic, religion - the stuff anthropology concerned itself with almost in its entirety until about thirty years ago, before such topics were denounced as romantic and conservative. I thought that the continental garbage side of things was in a minority in anthropology departments, and that the kind of comparative Austronesian ethnology and formal kinship-based social structural analysis that I wanted to do would find a comfy home in the department at Oxford. This turned out to be the inverse of reality. No substantive arguments were presented as to why this was the case, or why studying marriage alliance is inherently conservative and backward. Regardless, such things never came up in exams and were clearly regarded as peripheral to what anthropology now is - hangers on from a former age.
I don't think it had anything to do with Oxford specifically, and more to do with socio-cultural anthropology as a whole. I regret studying it, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who dislikes obscurantism and sanctimonious anti-scientific pseudo-epistemology. If I could go back and do it again, I would definitely have taken linguistics instead, where continental philosophy is not dominant, where real problems are solved, where a set of real and powerful methods are taught and employed, and where no one really cares whether or not you call it 'a science'.
I want to emphasise that I am not in any way a political conservative and I don't oppose the social and political aims that have become entrenched parts of anthropology departments. But I don't think those aims are what anthropology is about, I don't think obscurantist pseudo-philosophy is a good way to achieve them, and I don't think writing obscure academic texts about how humans are now trans-human feminist cyborgs empowers minority groups or the working class, or achieves any worthwhile aim in any sphere of human activity.
UPDATE: This post has aroused a small amount of attention on reddit, so I thought I'd answer a few of the points raised there.
First, I want to affirm that I am not on the right politically. Not that that has anything to do with anything.
I am quite familiar with a number of cultural anthropologists in the US that are absolutely engaged in trying to solve "real problems" (what ever that is supposed to mean).I know quite a few anthropologists who are interested in solving interesting problems and as far as I'm aware, they do so quite competently. But my point is that solving problems is not taught on anthropology courses. No formal skills are taught on anthropology courses at all; there is no standard method that tells you how to solve particular problems. I understand that this is because anthropologists think their problems are peculiar and unresolvable, but students are given no real skills at all when they study anthropology, which means that they have few skills to transfer to, say, a job. Linguists, on the other hand, are given some seriously powerful tools for making sense of language, even while recognising that the phenomena they are studying are enormously complicated and difficult to solve.
It is no wonder anthropology graduates are the least employable of all degree holders given that they learn no real skills in anthropology departments. And it's not that there are no skills to learn: why not try teaching or studying the methods of historical linguistics, population genetics, and archaeological interpretation?
Disciplines change, you can't keep doing the same thing for years and years.I think you can: physicists are still engaged in solving fundamentally the same problems as Newton, biologists are still engaged in the same pursuit as Darwin and Wallace, and mathematicians are still making sense of the same problems as Euclid. These disciplines have moved on by making empirical advances (assuming mathematics is empirical, anyway) rather than by turning the discipline away from what it originally did. I keep hearing that anthropology has moved on, but I have yet to hear a cogent justification for the direction in which it has moved. All I hear is the genetic fallacy over and over again. The discipline has changed, it's moved on, it's no longer a tool of the imperialist pigdogs, etc.
To me this article comes off as "I wanted to be a stick in the mud and thought of all the places to do that Oxford would be it but even they won't let me, WOE".I thought that Oxford would be a good home for what I wanted to do because I researched the department first. I saw that there were at least two researchers interested in the same things as me. I simply didn't realise that they a) were about to retire and b) had no clout within the department, and that my degree would be based on things entirely different to what I wanted to study. I was accepted on the basis of a personal statement that talked entirely about historical linguistics, prehistory, non-state social structure, cognitive psychology, and other features that I had reason to believe are part of anthropology departments - and which in many cases actually are - but which did not feature in exams and barely featured in course content, except the personalised content provided by my (excellent) tutor. It's not that I thought Oxford was a backward department, and I was aware that continental philosophy had become the norm in many departments. It was more that I thought the balance was tipped less in favour of continental thought than it actually proved to be.
I should point out that I had a brilliant tutor. It's just that my brilliant tutor was of retirement age and was being pushed out of the department by the sanctimonious march of continental thought.
I think this view is based on a kind of chauvinism that treats people in non-state societies as less than people in states and post-industrial societies. It's not racist, but when you're saying that the lives, rituals, and 'relations' of people in 'tribal' societies are 'boring', you might want to think about why you find their lives dull and yours so interesting and exciting. But I'm glad someone came out and said it: they prefer anthropology today because it's not concerned with those boring tribals anymore.
Admittedly, old school anthropology concerned with tribal relations and tribal rituals is boring. Modern cultural anthropology is amazing.
Problems in the sociology of non-industrial, non-state societies (e.g., societies with segmentary systems, bridewealth, asymmetric marriage alliance, etc) are very interesting problems, as are the intricacies of human history and prehistory that generated 'tribal rituals' and 'tribal relations', and there is no reason whatsoever to ignore them. If you find them boring, then a couple of decades ago it would have been feasible to suggest studying something other than anthropology. Now, even anthropologists don't study them, so people (like me) interested in doing so have nowhere to go.
The fact that anthropologists no longer teach students to understand societies like that has two important consequences. First, anthropology departments no longer do what anthropology departments once did, which is to make sense of human societies not directly connected to one's own and to understand humans in a wide range of socio-cultural milieux. Second, if anthropologists aren't studying or teaching these issues anymore, then nobody is studying or teaching these issues anymore. What that means is that entire areas of human life are no longer considered the purview of the academy, and that happens to include - I don't think it's accidental - people who don't live like us, who don't have any of the same fundamental values as us, who aren't or weren't wholly integrated into neo-liberal systems or the world economy.
And changing culture is how you change the world.That may be so. But how did 'changing the world' become the objective of anthropology? It certainly wasn't even a couple of decades ago. This is a recent development. The only thing this 'anthropology' has in common with anthropology before the 1980s is the name. And I see no reason to completely do away with the basic premise of anthropology before the prescriptive/continental turn, which was a) to understand human societies cross-culturally, including language, thought, prehistory, etc, and b) to make sense of non-state and non-industrial human societies, with sociology's role being to make sense of state, industrial, and post-industrial ones. Sociology is where you learn to use all kinds of research methods - useful tools that help you to find a good job or solve difficult empirical problems - to make sense of the dominant modes of life on earth today. Anthropology is the smaller, less culturally-important discipline devoted to those societies that aren't this way.
I'm studying medical anthro right now and what I've learned so far seems 100% applicable to the real world
That may be so. But that isn't what I meant by 'real problems'. I think mathematicians study real problems - real things in the world that need to be solved because solving them is interesting. They have tools that they can apply to their problems, and those tools are useful and powerful in a range of different applications, but mostly those tools are useful for solving mathematical problems.
Applying things in the real world isn't always the point. Anthropologists used to study real problems in making sense of non-state and non-industrial human societies. They used to apply some good, sensible tools to the analysis of societies unlike our own, as you'll know if you've ever been to a part of the world where, say, patrilineal descent groups are still important features of the social landscape. This wasn't especially useful, and it has become even less useful in the modern world as these kinds of societies have disappeared. But being 'useful' was never the point. Understanding humans in all of their variety and environments was the point.
I think our terminology may be a bit different so someone correct me if I'm wrong. It seems to me that continental philosophy is equivalent to what we in archaeology call Post-Processualism.
Continental philosophy is in fact not the same as post-processualism, although doubtless there was some continental influence on the movement. 'Continental philosophy' is the conventional name for a set of movements in Western philosophy that tend to reject formal logic, scientific epistemology, and the idea that objective knowledge is at all possible. The alternative is called analytic philosophy, and is commonly associated with Anglo-American philosophers (hence the name 'Continental' to refer to the more French-influenced variety). In reality, analytic philosophy developed largely due to the efforts of German and Austrian philosophers and mathematicians, and was never an exclusively Anglo-American phenomenon, but those are the terms we use.
Analytic philosophy depends on formal studies and is, in a certain sense, scientific: it depends on making everything explicit and explaining things rationally, using empirical examples and scientific content. Philosophy in this sense is continuous with science.
Continental philosophers, by contrast, often claim that science is just another 'way of knowing', that it is bound by Western ideas and cultural hegemony, etc. Continental thought is often vague and obscure; terms are rarely explicitly explained; logical chains of argument are often ignored; logical fallacies are the norm; texts are often deliberately difficult to read; human cultures and societies are often claimed to be 'texts' in some way; and continental thought is continuous with some schools of literary theory and psychoanalysis, as opposed to science.
Analytic philosophy is dominant in philosophy departments throughout most of the world, and continental claims are often made by people in anthropology, literature, and art theory departments.
Post-processualism is a different beast, and while it is clearly influenced by continental thought, it isn't the same as it. Of course, there needs to be some moderation in archaeological interpretation, and there needs to be some accounting for biases in interpretation introduced by the interpreters' backgrounds, but I don't think modern British Wiccans can help at all when it comes to making sense of Catalhoyuk. Hodder's use of such people was a ridiculous move, one only a lunatic would conceive of and only a person of unwarranted authority could possibly get away with.
I don't think it's racist to be a post-processualist archaeologist. I just think it's a bit dumb.
Finally, I want to say that I'm not disillusioned with the academy in general. I just think that anthropology departments are kind of useless, and I certainly wouldn't recommend studying anthropology to anyone interested in rigour, reason, analytic philosophy, science, or prehistory. I should also point that I've been given a PhD offer in an excellent art history and archaeology department to do exactly what I want to do, and that I don't bear a grudge against any department or individual, as my life really isn't so bad.