The value of cultural anthropology

Guest post by Nick Bluhm

I was recently asked during an interview what value my anthropology degree added to my candidacy for a corporate attorney position.

Without hesitating, I answered that it taught me the importance of talking to people. As commonsensical as it may sound, this is rarely done in a methodical, deliberate way to understand another’s perspective, whether that of a negotiating counter-party, a potential consumer, or an existing client. Anthropology requires the practitioner to hone his or her people skills: it’s the primary means by which the anthropologist engages with the informant and uncovers insights often not revealed by a thorough study of the hard numbers.

For instance, consider the issue of school reform. How are we, as social scientists (whether sociologists, economists, or anthropologists) supposed to understand the potential solutions?

The answer: By reference to the weaknesses, deficits, or demonstrated needs highlighted by the data set. But different academics will most likely disagree as to the most reliable source of data for identifying the pressing issues. Is it the median test score of a particular class? Is the average truancy of a particular student demographic? What if, perhaps, we as scientists decided against simply intuiting the issues from hard numbers; what if, instead of starting with the data, we interview the relevant stakeholders? Interview the teachers, the parents, the administrators, and the students.

This is the default approach for anthropologists, which I believe places the profession in the same vein as a non-profit consultant or a sophisticated consumer-products conglomerate; each believes in the primacy of the individual — the importance of understanding the perspective of the client, or the consumer, or the key anthropological informant.

For instance, Proctor & Gamble will market Tide soap to Vietnamese women depending on how customers describe their view of the Tide product and its utility in their lives.

Alternatively, the non-profit consultant may suggest school reforms that focus on the particular socio-economic factors affecting a particular under-performing student demographic. However different the end objectives are for each of these professions, it is the primacy of the “other” — the focus on understanding the world from the perspective of the “other” — that defines the core strength of these pursuits.

But economists approach the “other” from quite a different standpoint. Economists believe in deriving insights from the way and extent to which individuals deviate from the “logical” or “rational” ideal models intuited by the arm-chair economists. Instead of starting with carte blanche, as anthropologists ideally begin their fieldwork (with no pre-conceptions about the society, culture, or way of life), economists rigorously define a model that describes how a “rational” individual would make decisions (or how a market of similarly rational individuals would operate). It is therefore a roundabout way (and with significant pre-conceptions of the “right” choices to make) that economists attempt to individualize or humanize the homo economicus. Occasionally, there are economists who are notable for suggesting “behavioral” impacts on particular markets; or “economists” that re-define the notion of rational decision-making. Generally the profession of economics is defined by its adherence to models.

Ronald Coase. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Recently, however, Ronald Coase, Nobel Laureate and long-time faculty member of the famed University of Chicago Department of Economics, has suggested that a new branch of economics be pursued. He has broached the idea of a journal titled Man and the Economy, focusing on case studies, historic data, and research that appears to combine the quantitative rigor of economics with the value-add of anthropology.

Coase has thrown down the gauntlet: Fellow economists, step out of your offices and speak to the people about whom you have long theorized. Critics lambast the venture: “it’s difficult to make this a hard science.”

True, and the venture might defeat attempts to aggregate data or research. But the point of this venture is to gut-check the insights and conclusions; to understand whether the data set is as thorough and reflective of the American economy as some economists assume it is.

I do not fault economists for this approach. There is value in aggregating data for unemployment numbers, or Gross Domestic Product. Economists, unlike most anthropologists, focus on large or macro-economic issues; and a simple way to aggregate data sets and reach broad conclusions is to “simplify” data and assumptions. By contrast, as the number of variables or nuances of the “data” multiplies, the objective of aggregating the research devolves into comparing “apples to oranges.” This problem often plagues anthropology and is certain to limit the comparability of research, per recent discussion about “man and the economy.”

But this approach, which values the primacy of hard numbers, abstract models, science, and business is less helpful for identifying business opportunities, or consumer trends, or the viewpoints of people. The economists need to recognize that people, not numbers, are the true source of insights.


Nick Bluhm is a student at the University of Virginia School of Law. He holds an M.A. in anthropology from the George Washington University.

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