Defining the Object of Anthropology

It appears that anthropology is inseparable from the changes of the human species, but this is also coupled with chance and contingency. For example, Marett begins his analysis of the scope of anthropology with a citation from William James which, following Marett’s own commitments in anthropology, emphasizes the undoubtedly radical change in human beings that has occurred throughout our history. This radical change in essence is inseparable for James from the dangers of existence, as he writes that our pre-historic ancestors “ever rescued triumphantly from the jaws of ever-imminent destruction the torch of life.” This is a crucial passage when Marrett defines his view of anthropology, in so far as he claims that “Darwinism makes (anthropology) possible.” (2) This means that with evolution we have an image of, firstly, an ever-changing human species, and secondly, a contingency to human existence, as the species, following evolution, could have become extinct at any time. In this regard, the human being in anthropology, following Marrett, is defined by change as well as chance.

If we take these two traits as somehow defining how anthropology should investigate its object of the human being, and compare this to the other assigned readings some interesting contrasts emerge. For example, Abu-Lughod defines anthropology as “the discipline devoted to understanding and dealing with cultural difference.” (783) Accordingly, another layer is added to the definition of anthropology: change and contingency naturally dovetail into differences that can also be detected on the cultural level, as in the case of Abu-Lughod’s study of Muslim women and the West.

However, yet another nuance emerges when we consider Miner’s discussion of “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.” In this text one is presented with the beliefs of the Nacirema, which is above all defined by “the belief…that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease.” (503) In this world-view, therefore, change and contingency understood as the inclination to disease are precisely that which are to be altered, and strict ritual is to erode differences to transcend the human form itself.

These three diverse texts in essence show the heterogeneous nature of anthropology. Many different motifs are present, from hardcore scientific Darwinism to investigation of cultural ritual and belief system. It would appear that anthropology, rather than emphasizing one of these elements over the other, must achieve a synthesis of these concepts so as to accurately define its object. Therefore, chance and change appear to be fairly broad concepts that can contain these diverse approaches.


Works Cited

Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological

Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” American Anthropologist,

New Series, Vol. 104, No. 3, (Sep. 2002), pp. 783-790.

Marett, R.R. Anthropology.

Miner, Horace. Body Ritual Among the Nacirema. American Anthropology, New

Series, Vol. 58, No. 3. June 1956, pp. 503-507