Anthropology unites humankind rather than dividing it

by Luke Freeman
The Guardian, Wednesday April 25, 2007

In claiming that Bob Geldof’s upcoming “anthropological” TV series on humanity risks “drawing unnecessary attention to what divides members of the human race” (Comment, April 20), Simon Jenkins does a disservice both to anthropology and to Geldof. His claim that anthropology “buries itself in rainforests and deserts” in search of “lost tribes” is a dinner-party caricature that ignores generations of anthropological research that has gone into showing interconnections between peoples wherever they may live. A brief glance at the PhDs in this department over the last 75 years reveals Culture Contact in South-East Africa (1932); Mexican Immigrant Settlement in Dallas (1949); and Bangladeshi Family Life in Bethnal Green (2002).

Jenkins’ claim that “the story of group differentiation is so fraught as to render it no-go territory for intellectual research” is simply wrong. Anthropology is a comparative discipline. It thrives on the tension between cultural, social and biological difference on the one hand and what unites us as humans on the other. In the field of social anthropology there is a long tradition of inquiry into group differentiation which does not paint the bleak, antagonistic picture Jenkins imagines. Edmund Leach’s classic Political Systems of Highland Burma (1949) outlines the ways that hill tribes creatively adapt and adopt the social organisation of their neighbours. This is a universally applicable ethnographic insight.

Much recent historical anthropology has examined cultural difference through a close scrutiny of the relations between colonial powers and their subjects. And it is not necessarily the “cauldron of sensitivity and antagonism” Jenkins suggests. Mukulika Banerjee’s (2000) shows how this mountain people – so often characterised as bloodthirsty warriors – organised a long campaign of non-violent resistance to British rule. Policy makers obsessing over the threat of Islamic terrorism might do well to take note.

Jenkins seems hooked on the idea of ethnic difference, encouraging Geldof to “examine differences in cultural advancement and in educational and physical performance”. What does he mean by “cultural advancement”? Who is the arbiter of this? Hireling hacks perhaps? Is he suggesting that we in Britain have reached an advanced level of cultural accomplishment which the rest of the world is struggling to emulate? If so, he should read some more ethnography.

Anthropology’s unique contribution is that through long-term ethnographic fieldwork researchers get to see the world from the native’s point of view. This radical shift in cultural perspective enables us to confront our own prejudices and to appreciate that there are alternative ways of looking at the world – and of living in it. It is only through understanding the points of difference that we can hope to get along on this human planet.

If Geldof’s project is to be successful it will show that cultures do appear radically different on the surface – and this makes very good television. But in appreciating the diversity of humankind the programme has a great opportunity to provide insights into our common humanity. This is not “playing with fire” – it is public-service broadcasting.

Dr Luke Freeman is a fellow in the department of anthropology at the LSE