A Love Letter to Anthropology (or: In Defence of an Arts Degree)

by Nina Hoeschele

Published at 2013-02-07

“Anthropology!” said a chatty tech support guy who insisted on doing small talk rather than fixing my bank account problem. “That’s, like, about the human body and stuff, right?”
No. Not quite that. Sorry.
Is anthropology such a mystery to the average person? Based on the confused face I get whenever I mention my degree, that might just be the case.
Perhaps people can’t help picturing an explorer in a Tilley hat, trekking to far-off places and studying tribesmen—and perhaps they just have trouble picturing a hat-loathing, deskbound person like myself making such a trip. (I guess I don’t blame them. I have the look of an armchair scholar.)
When I tell people that I studied anthropology, in addition to the “huh?” face, I’m also occasionally treated to a face that says “WHY?” It’s not the most “practical” field, to be sure. No one’s handing out jobs at the anthropology factory. But I don’t regret my degree; it was richly rewarding, and it actually paved my path to the publishing world.
Anthropology is all about culture, which really means that it’s about everything we are. For a person who’s in any way curious about the human world, it’s a fantastic discipline. And thinking critically about the most natural thing to us—culture, the way we live our lives—is a great way to train your brain to think critically in general.
Cultural Relativism and the North American Teenager
My first brush with anthropology was in high school, where I admit I was neither the hardest worker nor the most focused student. But anthropology still managed to compel me (or maybe that was the teacher—thanks, Ms. Galanis!). When you’re a teenager who (like all teenagers) is pretty good at being self-absorbed and thoughtlessly judgemental and what have you, cultural relativism is a pretty earth-shattering concept.
Cultural relativism: in essence, the idea that there isn’t a universal standard by which to judge another culture. In other words, we can’t march into another culture and declare them inadequate because they don’t meet our particular standards of cultural success (I picture myself doing fieldwork and: “what, no latte?!”). In order to study other cultures, you have to take your head out of your own understanding of what matters in the world and rebuild that understanding from scratch using their cultural context.
It’s not easy to abandon your fundamental understanding of how things work—but it is fascinating!
The Franz Boas of Commas?
When I say that anthropology paved the way to my editing work, I mean that in a few ways. For one, the critical thinking it taught me is essential to how I approach everything in life, and what I learned about writing and analysis from my degree helps me now in everything I do.
In another sense, taking in a new culture and understanding it, judgement-free, on its own terms, is (bear with me) a lot like what I do with a new manuscript in a new author’s style. You’ve got to find out where they’re trying to go and get them there without changing who they are. An anthropology of editing, if you will.
And yet, even more basically, anthropological knowledge can pop up in your life when you least expect it.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve been working on proofreading A History of Anthropological Theory, fourth edition. This is a text whose second edition I used to drag around Dalhousie and spill stuff on in the campus Tim Horton’s and fall asleep on in bed at 2 AM. And then I’d get back up and lug it to my 8:30 AM theory class, where I was impressed that I retained any information at all (anthropology is just that interesting!).
Now I’ve got it in printed-out pages across my desk and am in charge of fixing its typos. That is nothing less than surreal. But it’s also a great feeling—like I’ve come full circle with the discipline that I love.
There you have it! Anthropology! It’s not a useless degree, after all.