05 Apr

Anthropology: Why it Matters

Posted By polity_admin_user

By Tim Ingold

How to compress a sprawling subject – the study of human life in all its protean variety and messiness – in a book of 28,000 words? How to make it accessible to readers who have never encountered anthropology before? How, nevertheless, to open up the discipline to coming generations, as ever-unfinished business, with the invitation to begin afresh? These were the formidable challenges I faced when, in the summer of 2017, I sat down to write Anthropology: Why it Matters.

Anthropology, for me, is neither a natural science nor a field of the humanities. Its mission is to put this fateful opposition behind us, to show how it might be overcome. It often seems to me that science is like a marooned craft, careering into uncharted space. Relentlessly overtaking itself, committed to the instant obsolescence of its findings, it has lost all memory of where it once came from. With the humanities it is just the opposite. Everything has to be understood by returning it to its context. Like unruly children who would otherwise get out of hand, ideas must be put to bed, ticked off and accounted for. While science ranges the universe, the humanities appear destined never even to take off.

Must we necessarily choose between these two, between the former’s restlessness and the latter’s somnambulism? Might there be a third way, one in which we venture forth indeed, but not by cutting ourselves from the moorings that tie us to our world but by joining with its inhabitants, such that collective life itself becomes a practice of study?

This is the way I advocate in this book, and for me it is the way of anthropology. I offer the book both as an invitation to anthropology and as a manifesto. It is an invitation, and not an introduction, since I make no attempt to map out the terrain; it is a manifesto, and not a primer, since my concern is less with what the subject is than with what it could be. It might be better, though, to call anthropology a vocation than a subject, since it is a matter not just of what you choose to study but of how you live your life.

Anthropology, for me, has always been an odyssey. It has not been about going to faraway places, although I have done that, but about finding my way home. It has been a voyage of self-discovery. I’ll wager that every other anthropologist would say the same. But for each of us, the journey has been different. No two lives follow exactly the same paths, and that’s as well, since if we all followed the same path there would be nothing left to study. It’s the differences that make life interesting! But it means that I can only tell you how the life anthropological has so far been for me, and in this book I endeavour to do so.

I never imagined, however, how stressful it would be to write. It was as though a host of demons were on my shoulders, capable of shifting shape to assume the character of any anthropologist who has ever lived. They would shout in my ears, telling me that had I been this character or that, I should be telling the story quite differently. With hundreds of discordant voices assailing me from all sides, I had to hold my hands to my ears to shield my thoughts from the din. It made me feel very small, a traveller adrift in the madding crowd, trying to hold my course against the crosswinds. If I have succeeded, it is thanks to a magic number, embedded in the text, which attentive readers may discover for themselves. That number is 260.

This is the number of words, give or take one or two, in every paragraph of this book. I have never before written a book with a constant paragraph word-count, and I am not entirely sure why I have done so now. However, as the number apparently arose of its own accord, without any prompting from me, it must be magic! In the effort to whittle down every paragraph to its standard size the double meaning of striking out – of deletion and adventure – became clear to me as never before. We scholars habitually cloak ourselves in words to protect us from the elements. Striking them out leaves us feeling bare and exposed. Thus divested of our protective robes, we strike out into the world. It seems to me that such exposure and divestment are of the essence of the anthropological calling.

But in striking out, however, we never walk alone. We are always in the company of others. The world we must build, as I say in the closing sentences of the book, is a world with room for everyone. We can only build it together. Anthropology can show us how. That’s why it matters to us all.

Tim Ingold is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, and a Fellow of both the British Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

His new book Anthropology: Why it Matters is now available from Polity.