Rex (Alex Golub) over at Savage Minds asked anthropology bloggers to consider posting this week about “Why I Love Anthropology.” Challenge accepted, though what I have space to say here is only the merest (and clichéd) iceberg-tip.
Twenty-six years ago, I arrived in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, a doctoral candidate in Anthropology and as green as green could be. Oh, I knew my way around a testable hypothesis, and I had NSF funds banked towards my research. But I’d never been much of an outdoorsy type—had never even camped out—and there I was, tracking baboons day after day, through the bush, to record the behaviors of infants in two groups as they learned what items to eat from a smorgasbord of choices and how to process them skillfully.
At the outset, I had to concentrate fiercely to distinguish one monkey from another, one type of grass species from another, one flowering plant from another. Because of this, some non-baboon events happening around me never made it past peripheral vision into the brain’s proper notice.
I wondered one day why the Baboon Project’s Kenyan assistant, Raphael Mututua, was waving at me from across a wide open area, where he too was collecting data. I waved back, only to learn later that he’d been trying to alert me to the fact that a rhinoceros was lumbering right towards me. The poorly-sighted rhino veered out of my path by random luck, but I soon enough suffered other blunders involving near-misses with lions and mamba snakes.
Gradually my greenness faded; I began to thrive at Amboseli. I could distinguish one baboon from another by glimpsing a single body-segment at a distance. I gained many hours of data and knew how to stay safe.
Various veils of mystery began to slip from my eyes. Animal-behavior-wise, things began to make sense. But the human world was a different story. I’d taken Swahili lessons and could properly greet people and engage them in minor chit-chat, but understood perhaps 25% of the fast-clip conversing going on around me. Living amongst Kikuyu and Maasai families, I was keen to grasp what people were up to, what the world was like for them compared to what it was like for my family back home in New Jersey. I listened a lot, and sometimes thought I’d grasp something that mattered, but most often (even when my multi-lingual hosts switched to English for my sake) felt that I was missing the key aspects.
This whole description amounts, I think, to an apt if crude metaphor for doing anthropology, a practice which destabilizes a person and upends lots of assumptions. Even as you gain a modicum of wisdom in one area, you flail in ignorance in others, sometimes to the extent that you can’t even figure out the right questions to ask.
And oh—those questions! Excellent questions are at the heart of Anthropology (maybe of all disciplines). In the years since Amboseli, I’ve learned a lot about how to tolerate the attendant disorientation that comes with creating them, and asking them: of people I hang out with, of the video tapes I analyze about ape communication, of the books I read in biological anthropology, archaeology, and sociocultural anthropology. It’s a process of lingering over a conversation, an image, a passage, letting it loll around in the brain and then spitting out a query based on something not understood or a connection I may wish to make.
In this regard, books are among the best tutors. Standing at my bookshelf, I can pick up Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) and arm myself against the common-sense view that thoughts arise in each of our heads then transfer to someone else’s head as we communicate. Bateson wrote instead about systems, systems of jointly distributed thoughts and feelings that thrive across bodies and minds.
Shuffling along a few feet, I can grab an issue of American Ethnologist and admire Eduardo Kohn’s call (2007) for not just an anthropology of human life but an anthropology of all life—an expanded system that takes into account how humans and animals together dynamically create meaning.
Questions bump and crash around in my head: How can we discover whether African apes (my primates of choice at present) create meaning across minds within their groups? The great apes do think, and my work (and that of many others) shows they create meaning together. How can we “think systems” in new ways about ape sociality? Equally interesting to me, in my newer work, are the ways in which humans and animals have interacted throughout prehistory. Can an evolutionary view contribute to Kohn’s call for “new spaces of possibility” in an anthropology of life?
When I do anthropology, it always starts with agitated questions. No matter how modest my contribution, as I work, I feel connected to anthropologists past and present, people who, in Papua New Guinea or Paris, in Berlin or Boston, trained themselves to see the rhino lumbering in their path. To capture from our peripheral vision something strange and exciting about human meaning-making or its evolution, to move it front and center into our minds and join those minds up with others, is a challenge and a joy. It’s why I love being an anthropologist.