This is text of a commencement talk delivered at the University of Washington anthropology graduation.
You are graduating in Anthropology, the most radical, unique and subversive of all the social sciences and humanities. Radical in the sense of going to the root of human social life: kinship and community. Unique in the breadth and depth it brings to the study of contemporary life, anchored as it is, in both the study of Paleolithic and traditional societies. Subversive in its ethnographic method which studies society as it’s experienced from the bottom up.
Charles Darwin once penned an interesting note to himself. Referring to the study of biology, he wrote, “Never say higher or lower.” He argued that there was no progressive tendency in evolution. Evolution is just a wandering, driven by local environmental conditions. Darwin’s biological relativity profoundly undermined thousands of years of anthropocentric belief that humans are destined to be on top.
A few decades later, Franz Boas–the founder of contemporary American anthropology–made a similar argument in the realm of human society. Against the dominant scientific racism of his day, he argued that it was primarily culture that distinguished human groups. Like Darwin, Boas argued that there is no higher or lower. No unilineal cultural evolution necessarily leads from savagery to civilization. We have been fully human for a long time. Or as Picasso said after viewing the artwork of Lascaux cave for the first time,“We have learned nothing in 12,000 years”
In 1968, anthropologist Gregory Bateson, husband of Margaret Mead, wrote an essay entitled “Conscious Purpose versus Nature” which makes a similar point. He argues that we as Homo sapiens need to check our interventionist and technical hubris because we cannot be aware of all the unintended consequences of our tool use. A part can never comprehend the whole. Nature resists human purposes in ways we don’t initially comprehend. Mastery is an illusion.
Think about the climate change crisis which we have brought upon ourselves. To paraphrase anthropologist-poet Gary Snyder, the most radical resistance to human purpose is found among “the most ruthlessly exploited classes: animals, trees, water, air, grasses.”
Anthropologists ask bottom-up questions from fieldwork which flip the script of empire: Who is civilized, who is primitive, who is a terrorist? Anthropologists were forced to confront these questions as they witnessed the destruction and occupation of native nations. In 1876 Lewis Henry Morgan himself bravely raised these questions as he argued publicly that the Sioux had a right to defend themselves against George Custer and the Army of the United States at Little Bighorn.
“Never say higher or lower”
It makes sense that anthropology would be the first academic discipline in which women would occupy leading roles: Consider Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston. Or consider Erna Gunther, the founding mother of the University of Washington anthropology department. Read her essential monograph on the First Salmon Ceremony, the key ritual that unites native peoples on the entire North Pacific rim from the Sacramento River to Korea.
Or consider the important work of northwest science fiction writer Ursula le Guin, daughter of Alfred Kroeber—the anthropologist most responsible for the salvage ethnography of California native peoples. Her widely published works put Boasian anthropology into dystopian worlds of empire, ethnocentrism, and traditional cultures.
I’ve taught at Seattle Central College for many years. Some of my students have gone on to earn advanced degrees in anthropology doing powerful work on vehicle residence in Seattle, Lake Victoria fishing cultures, Muslim identity in the United States, and lactation practices in primates. However, most of my students did not become anthropologists. Most of the community college students come from the kind of marginalized and oppressed worlds that are often the subjects of ethnography.
What is the value of anthropology if you don’t become an anthropologist? For these students, the discipline provides tools which can further existential self-reflection. Their autoethnographies of work, military, prisons and immigration help them realize what they already, in fact, know. This makes it more possible for them to act as historical subjects and to understand their ties with others. In this process, they educate me.
Regardless of where you go with your anthropology degree, this field connects you with your species legacy. That is valuable in itself. Some us will teach anthropology or do field research. All of us will take a more mindful perspective into whatever path we take.
Don’t allow anyone to devalue your degree. Resist that strain of enthusiastic anti-intellectualism so embedded in our American cultural unconscious and so dominant in mainstream mass media and what passes for political discourse.
Florida Governor Rick Scott is a classic example of this. The governor said:
We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on…so when they get out of school, they can get a job.
Against Governor Scott’s very narrow perspective, I would suggest that anthropology will actually prepare you for the market and life as well or better than any STEM discipline because it teaches you to understand human culture.
We cannot simply react to the horrific shootings in Orlando this morning with more surveillance and more weaponry. We need wisdom as well as technology.
If you were paying attention when you took Anthropology 101, you should remember the !Kung San custom called “insulting the meat.” When Richard Lee finished his fieldwork among the San, he purchased a large fatty cow to give to the group for a farewell feast. It was perfect gift since they loved to eat a plump cow.
Instead of praising Lee for his gift, the elders mocked him and ridiculed his gift as grossly unfit for consumption. “How can you insult us with this scrawny piece of meat! We can’t eat this”, they told him. Nevertheless, the party went off just fine and the San ate the gift with gusto.
Puzzled, Lee later went to the elders and asked why they had originally insulted his gift.
They painstakingly explained to him that in their culture, when a hunter returns to the group, his kill, his meat is ritually insulted until it is distributed to the entire group. In this way, the hunter is re-integrated into the community and the obligations to the group are satisfied.
This balance of earlier kinship-based societies such as the !Kung San has been upset, replaced by an American social system in which, as anthropologist Jules Henry argued, children are taught that the success of the individual means the failure of the group. Today, Seattle is a hub of fantastic technologies and one of the wealthiest cities on the planet with plenty of billionaires. And yet homeless are everywhere. And those who hoard the most meat are the most praised in the mass media.
While the STEM disciplines provide the toolkit for the hunters, anthropology insults the meat. When it comes to living in community, we insist with Darwin and Boas, that there is no higher or lower. Everyone must be served by the harvest.
So I say share your game–the traditional wisdom that anthropology gives as its gift to our culture!
Congratulations anthropology graduates!
Peter Knutson is a professor of anthropology at Seattle Central College.