Why Did I Study Anthropology?

I Did Not Know What I Wanted

image: antropologia, Brasil

Today, I am proud to say I am an anthropology major and if I were eighteen again, I would choose anthropology again. But back when I was seventeen in Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico, I did not know what I wanted to be.

Does anyone know at that age what they want to do for the rest of their lives?

In effect, I wanted to major in everything: physics, literature, biology, education, communications, political science, sociology, economics, history, geography, environmental sciences…

Anything but business or an art major (no talent for painting or sculpture). I almost changed my major to Labor Studies after my first year. Almost.

And yet, I majored in anthropology. Why?

image: El País

Because since my interests were so vast, what better way to know about everything than studying the one discipline that encompasses all of human history in all times and nations?

Because the story of us, humans, is a story of millions of years of evolution and adaptation to all areas and continents, from the time the first australopithecines emerged until today.

Furthermore, our story is ongoing. We are still adapting, evolving, and creating culture.

Anthropology is the study of human beings. And until another species supplant us, our subject matter is ongoing.

And yes, my parish priest suggested it to me during confession once, because I kept coming back to anthropology. (Thanks, Padre Adalin).

Anthropology is About Us

image: Zelig

We have a romantic (and kind of imperialist) vision of what an anthropologist is. The study of “others”. This other is usually peasant, uncivilized, poor, different, and not like us. Bullshit.

Sorry to bust your Indiana Jones and Lara Croft fantasies. Anthropologists do not study the uncivilized Third World. (Uncivilized? How condescending.)

Anthropologists study us. There is no “other”. We are all Homo sapiens. One species living on the same planet and carrying the same DNA.

Hence, anthropology is about us. And, by God, don’t we need to study ourselves? Don’t we need to understand each other more?

One reason the world needs more anthropologists is that human cultures are coming more and more into contact in our globalized world. And an interconnected world needs to negotiate different mores, beliefs, and customs–not to mention languages and dialects.

image: Umeer

Furthermore, what happens on one side of the planet affects us too.

For example, climate change and pandemics do not care about borders, religions, or prejudices. If we are to survive the 21st century, humanity needs to work together as a family, because we are.

Repeat with me, Homo sapiens.

Everything else, race, class, gender, sexual preference, nationality, ethnicity, religion, etc., are social constructions.

And it takes an anthropological perspective to understand it.

Anthropology Can Be Applied to Anything

field work in Thailand, image: Rollins College

Whereas some fields of study are very specific, some are more universal. For example, an architect learns how to make buildings whereas a biologist can study any living thing.

Anthropologists can study any culture, any hominid fossil, any language, and any material remains. Nevertheless, studying something is just the beginning.

Anthropology is meant to be applied.

What is the point of knowing ourselves if we do not put that knowledge to use? Because an anthropological perspective is essential to create a better world.

How? What is an anthropological perspective?

Baruya tribe, Papua New Guinea. Image: Tumblr

It is cross-cultural and global, and yet, mindful of local customs and traditions. The anthropological perspective, based on the principle of cultural relativism, seeks to understand rather than preach and boss around.

Moreover, other disciplines, and even commerce, can benefit from integrating an anthropological perspective. If you are going to sell to humans, you must understand human needs.

Many business and powerful institutions dismiss anthropology as useless (I still love you, Alux). Heck, even the general population does too. It is not profitable, they say.

So, why did I study anthropology since it will never make me rich?

Because I want to know people, learn about other cultures, and what makes us human. Furthermore, I want to apply it to my work and my writing. Isn’t that enough?

Reader, would you consider studying anthropology? Share in the comments.

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January 2023