Tuesday, 14 January 2014

I regret studying social anthropology.

I regret studying social anthropology.  It was, on reflection, a waste of my time, money, and abilities.  I learned some very interesting things, but those came almost entirely from books I would have read anyway, and from my tutor, whose apparently unfashionable views about kinship and society - views that are entirely sensible and defensible - did not make it as far as the anthropology exam papers.  I made some good and interesting friends while studying, and doubtless learned something good from them.  But I don't think that quite justifies the time and expense of the thing.

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.

carlyb24 wrote:
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?

masungura wrote:
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.

Urizen wrote:

Admittedly, old school anthropology concerned with tribal relations and tribal rituals is boring. Modern cultural anthropology is amazing.
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.

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.

hammey wrote:
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. 

archaeofieldtech wrote:
 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.


  1. Wow! I relate to this, and I appreciate your candor.

    So what's in your future? What's next?

  2. I feel the same way about the current model of cultural Anthropology. I might be foolish, but I think that a dedicated number of scientific minded could reverse the trend. The first item to abandon are manicured study results. Who's with me? Oh yeah...I'm a junior at University of California Santa Cruz, studying cultural Anthropology.

  3. Alice,

    I'm still interested in the same topics and I'm still doing much the same thing as before. I just wish I'd studied another subject that made more sense of those subjects than anthropology did.

    And Robby, I'm quite sure that anthropology departments are not going to see their recent trends reversed by anything short of divine revelation. I'm certainly not interested in doing this. I think some - quite a lot, I suppose - research in anthropology departments is worthwhile. I just don't think it was the right subject for me to study, or anything like the subject I thought it was before graduating.

    And much as I would like to see the charlatanry of much of critical theory excised from the academy, I don't think that is remotely likely, and it would be a waste of a life to try. I'd suggest doing the best that you can before trying your hand at something else, if you find yourself despairing at the state of anthropology in UC Santa Cruz (which, based on what I've heard of the department, may be understandable).

  4. "Empowering minority groups" etc. is a conservative aim. Using minority-empowerment talk to empower entrenched affluent intellectuals is the very soul of ethically and intellectually advanced progressives.

    What's good for them is good for everybody. You'll see. Real soon now the benefits will be apparent, but it may take a few trillion more dollars first. But after that it'll be great! Just have faith until then. And Hope. You can skip charity, if you talk the right way you've done your part.

    1. Huh? How is hypocrisy "ethically and intellectually advanced"?

      If non-academic Leftists like me have no problem admitting that academic Leftists are regressive fools, why can't you?

  5. Nice post. Cultural anthropology is a dead science.Which is pity, since anthropology of culture and social anthropology are interesting subjects with no scientific discipline left to cover them. As a result human culture and human society will stay unexplained. Unless....CA and SA become scientific disciplines again, one day, which I doubt will happen soon, if ever.
    Whatever, PhD in Cultural Anthropology, Duke University....

  6. Well said AJW. I am not an anthro-apologist or an academic - just love surrealism, metaphorical "constructions" and other messages from the egalitarian Melanesians.

  7. Anthropologists are just English majors living in huts, making up "narratives."

  8. Maybe history would have been better? (Donno)

  9. Dear A.J,

    I'm very sympathetic with this. However, I had the great fortune to be in a program where my interests (broadly similar to yours) were recognized as valuable, important, answerable, and relevant. I was given tools to answer these questions, in the sometimes modest way we can. I think that many scholars in our generation are reacting the way we are -- turning our back on the strongest and most egregious excesses of the "interpretive" turn. We value science, we value rigor, empiricism, "the facts", and logical, methodical approach to human social life. There are questions that are important, and, as important, we can crack them and provide good answers or models for explaining them meaningfully *and* causally. I know equal amounts of people in both camps: no truth, no logic, science is a word-game know-nothings, humans are barely biological creatures, and us. If we can turn the tide, I think we will have done something important for Anthropology as a science and as a useful discipline. I think you are spot on about technical skills.

    If we approach ethnography as one of those skills, we can already see successes in the ways that that method is now being applied in medical schools, business schools, and even in social media and entertainment industry research. There are a suite of techniques there that get answers and model/frame questions, populations, and interactions like no other.

    Second, we can take older knowledge sources and update them: imagine new handbooks on Kinship, Marriage Patterns, Tribal Lineation, etc. Publishers will work with that material, especially in the "big collection of knowledge on one topic" style. We can resuscitate that knowledge if we value it. I am working on the state, for example, and when I read all this genius stuff about the formation of states, their ubiquitousness and similar features, I wonder how the hell I went so long in anthropology without learning this kind of thing. Why were three classes about one bald French guy?

    Finally, I have to ask why you can't use linguistic methods in your work now? This is very common in American anthropology... I certainly learned that kind of thing without even really pursuing it too much. Coursera could be an option?

    Honestly, best of luck. I've been reading your blog here for a while, first time commenting. I saw you gamely try to reason with what you called HBD-ers recently -- what a mess that is, but your on the right side (which is obvious the more you let them ramble. They are excellent at arguing, but that's quite different from being right.)

    --Brad ( http://musinging.commons.gc.cuny.edu )

  10. As someone that did an undergraduate degree in Anthropology a number of years ago, I can sympathize. There were a number of reasons I decided to moving on. A degree in math would have been much more useful, but there is no law that you have to live your life in the most logical order.

    One reason was I realized that the quality of writing was so awful. The introductory ethnographies were fine, but as I went along things got worse and worse.

    The second was I figured out that Social Science wasn't science. I will admit to being a bit dense about this -- this should have been obvious from day 1. And why was it listed as a 'science'? Because science was prestigious. And back to reason 1, if it wasn't science, why was the writing so awful.

    The one saving grace about Social Anthropology and Sociology is that people did occasionally have to spend some time in the real world -- field work. And at some point, for at least a brief moment, reality has to be acknowledged. Instead of class consciousness, or false consciousness, at least some people in the US were actually trying to measure it.

    Anyway, I wanted to count things up and discover non intuitive patterns. There didn't seem to be much of that going on.

    And now with cheap computing power (and cell phones) and lots of data -- this should be a golden age.

    As far as the future, today's students seem to be rejecting the worst excesses. At some point, the practitioners will be ridiculed, and they will get old, and fade out. In the mean time, best of luck.

  11. I agree with part of what you wrote.
    I study anthropology in a country and field much influenced by the "onthological turn" (part of what you call Continental Philosophy, I suppose). And just recently I realized that yes, this stuff may be intersseting in some way. But, hey, how to compare societies if we don't leave the "ethnographic theory" grounds?
    Some weeks ago I have started to think I am very old fashioned for modern social anthropology. To my luck, I also realised some other graduate students start thinking the same way as me. So maybe things are changing and we can go back and study kinship or economic systems in non-Western societies.
    (I also though about making a shift to linguistics)

  12. While I can definitely sympathize with some of what you're talking about, I'm not sure I had quite the same experience as you did in getting my anthropology degree. Part of it might just be that my particular area of interest was archaeology rather than social anthropology.

    While my professors certainly expressed a degree of skepticism in the ability of traditional models of kinship, social structure, and the like to actually reflect reality in a useful way, on the whole they didn't advocate taking an ideological (feminist, Marxist, etc.) approach as the only alternative. The majority of texts I can recall reading based their arguments on direct observation, be it participant observation for the purpose of producing an ethnography or analysis of an archaeological assemblage.

    Furthermore, I feel like I had plenty of opportunities to lean practical skills. Well, practical in the sense that they could be applied to answering questions related to anrthopology.

    In my introductory archaeology course we went to archaeological sites and were shown how to see and feel the difference between the dirt at a prehistoric midden site and the surrounding soil.

    In an ethnographic field methods class we were introduced to a variety of methodological approaches and required to engage in participant observation of a local community (in my case a Quaker meeting house near campus).

    I took a practicum in which we learned to determine the trace elements present in obsidian artifacts, and to subsequently use that data to identify that particular volcanic site at which the obsidian was quarried.

    I volunteered for an undergraduate research program in which I worked with a professor sorting floated soil samples from a site in northern Japan, looking for charred food remains.

    Even in classes with a more theoretical basis ("Archaeology of Sex and Gender," "Anthropological Perspectives on American Capitalism") I never really felt like I was being fed a lot of naval-gazing bullshit, because the claims that were presented to us were generally backed up by cogent arguments grounded in direct observation, which is the very definition of empiricism.

  13. Bravo for your honesty.

    I am so much in agreement with you.

    - Most of what one learns one would have learnt by self study in any case.
    - There is a distinct lack of real world skills among anthropologists (not all of them mind).
    - The field is full of "false" intellectuals, i.e. people who want to be academics for the sake of being academics. It's pathetic.
    - There's a reason people look down on the field.

  14. Thanks for this. You've saved me a lot of time money and effort.

  15. Hi - I know, I found out about this article quite late. I can see your point of view, and I understand it (I will be pursuing a MSc in Social Anthropology next year), but I just wanted to point out that I do believe this has more to do with the department you chose than the discipline itself. The MSc at Oxford is well-known for focusing on more "contemporary issues" - migration, material culture, political anthropology and the like. From what I know, the Cambridge department is much stronger on kinship and religion; perhaps you would have been happier there. Anyway, good luck with the rest of your studies (if you have decided to pursue them)!

    1. First off, I don't think 'contemporary issues' is anthropology at all. I think it's a different discipline - it's sociology or international relations or something. If it's happening in a post-industrial world, then my view is that it's the concern of some other discipline that teaches skills better suited to studying it. The fact that anthropology has turned into a sillier version of qualitative sociology, even somehow including the study of plants and animals (see my more recent posts), has little to do with how the discipline should work, so I'm not sure I'd even be happy in an anthropology department at all (in fact, I'm sure I wouldn't be).

      Secondly, I applied for the master's in late 2009 and the Oxford department has changed since then. Several members of staff have left, others have radically changed their research interests, and even the Tylor Library at Oxford has changed. When I was there, they were honest-to-Thor giving away important books on Southeast Asia - just piling them up and giving them to whoever asked for them first. The Skeat Collection was cut back considerably. When I applied, though, the department was full of people studying interesting things and teaching interesting courses. And as I said, my tutor was very good.

      Cambridge may be different, but the news I get from there is that the department has swung in a Latourian direction. Of course, there's always some diversity in these things, and both departments have some interesting people studying interesting things, but...

      Well, good luck in your course in any case.

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  17. As an African from a supposedly 'tribal' and 'non-western' society I find this European discussion of how to represent us non-Euros to be naive and racist. Simply because for all these so-called unknowable and different societies, there are pretty sophisticated (as have always been) thinkers and analysers of not only their own societies but others, including 'the west' from their points of view. What anthropology needs -- and yes, I studies it -- is not a return to the good-old days when white people categorised and administered the lives of others to entrench their epistemic superiority. What anthropology needs, if it is to survive, is a radical plurality in the methods and people who discuss its old questions. I too find those old questions fascinating and important to address. But any harkening to a supposedly more scientific 1940s is tosh. In this sense the continental/ontological turn is personally important because it perforates the erroneous smugness of too much white knowledge and in particular anthropology which in order to thrive as a discipline had first to silence by 'scientifically' 'interpreting' the thoughts and lives of others. That, quite simply, is unacceptable.

    1. I wouldn't advocate 1940's anthropology or a 'Western' perspective on 'primitives' these days, and I don't know anyone else who would. The continental turn was not a good thing in terms of better representing non-Western societies; all it did was make a new set of white men (chiefly Foucault, Deleuze, now Latour) into the arbiters. And if anthropology keeps on going down that route then there's no need for it to exist, so saying it needs to adopt these changes "if it wants to survive" is a little wrong-headed. Maybe it doesn't need to survive at all.

      I don't want white people to be categorising the lives of others from an Olympian position in that old way. But that doesn't mean there isn't a totally legitimate subject matter that anthropologists (and others in the academy) now neglect: lives and societies that aren't urban, aren't literate, aren't industrial, aren't state-based. It's not inherently patronising to study such things; literally everyone on earth has ancestors who lived in non-literate/non-urban/non-state/non-industrial societies, and the only difference is the amount of time that has passed since. Most humans who have ever lived did not know anything of states or writing. By not studying such things, humankind is neglecting a significant chunk of itself. Again, there is no need for this study to be patronising and colonial, or to involve only white scholars (especially in the diverse modern world we're fortunate to live in, with more and more money and opportunities going to Africa, Asia, South America, etc.).

      I can think of plenty of non-WEIRD people who are interested in the same things, including Nick Araho and the late Herman Mandui at the National Museum of Papua New Guinea, as well as lots of scholars in Indonesia. I'm not so familiar with Africa - I do Indonesia and (to a lesser extent) the Pacific - so I don't know many names over there, but the idea that anthropology/archaeology/prehistory in Indonesia and the Pacific is the exclusive preserve of white people and their views is just wrong.

      It's not necessary to adopt unreadable philosophically unsophisticated batshit nonsense (Latour, Deleuze, Guattari, Butler) in order to challenge Western views and categorisations. Most of the refutation is and has to be empirical and humanistic rather than epistemologically absurd. There's no need for "radical plurality of methods", unless by that you mean the fusion of ethnography, ethnohistory, archaeology, linguistics, and genetics - those are the things that can answer questions relevant to anthropological research. But there is a need for "radical plurality of people" - people who aren't white and privileged like I am - because the more knowledge is distributed among the population of the world the better the world will be and the better scholarship will be.


You can post anonymously if you really want to, but I would appreciate it if you could provide some means of identifying who you are, if only for the purpose of knowing who has written what.