Essential Workers. Essential Degrees.

Why Anthropology is Critical to Our Nation

Luedell Mitchell and Lavada Cherry at the El Segundo Plant of the Douglas Aircraft Company. Library of Congress Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information photograph collection, Control Number 2017872235

So Many Crises

The pandemic has changed our lives in many different ways, but I think it’s enduring impact will be on our language.  Before March, who had heard of Zoom, let alone “zoomed” a call.  No one other than CDC had been thinking about pandemics, at least not in a 100 years.  COVID-19, or just plain COVID, is now the shorthand excuse for any behavior not previously considered normal. As in, “Why are you going to the grocery store at 2 AM?” “COVID.”  “Honey, why is our liquor bill tripled this month?” “COVID” And so on.

In this COVID year, our language has evolved to handle the moment. It always does.  One term that has especially come to the fore is “essential worker.”  Well, just what is an essential worker? Homeland Security has conveniently provided us with a formal definition

However, in this 19-page definition, I am hard-pressed to identify a non-essential worker.  So to fall back on common sense, maybe we can define an essential worker as someone who does a job that the society really can’t do without, that if they weren’t doing this job, somehow the whole infrastructure of our country would fray and fall apart.  I’m OK with that definition, because it includes the workers at the meat processing plants (sorry, vegetarians).  It includes police, nurses, your dry cleaner, folks who mail out your credit card, your handy (Ace is the Place) hardware guy, now person, and your local school’s lunch lady, now person.   It does not include athletes, stationers, florists, philosophers, or anthropologists.  Which is a shame and a mark of governmental short-sightedness.  Ten months into this pandemic, I could use a greeting card, some flowers, a football game, and some understanding of what it all means. Am I alone?

COVID isn’t the only large problem we face today.  Before and after this pandemic is over, we have faced and will face economic problems of income inequality and income inequality’s children, hunger and homelessness.  There is the 400-year legacy of systemic racism to be addressed.  The planet is burning up.  Some of these are more existential than others, but all are crises and all need our attention.  We have conveniently defined essential workers for the COVID crisis, but shouldn’t we also be defining essential workers for these other crises, too?

Anthropology as an Essential Degree

I am biased as all three of my college degrees are in Anthropology, even though I specialized in archaeology.  I find that anthropology has served me well in navigating my world over the last 50 years and has given me the tools to process and address the current crisis listed above.

What is anthropology?  Here is Wikipedia’s response:

Anthropology is the scientific study of humanity, concerned with human behavior, human biology, and societies, in both the present and past, including past human species.

The American Anthropological Association’s definition is a bit deeper.

Within these definitions, I believe are some key concepts, building blocks, if you will.  First, anthropology is a scientific pursuit, meaning it relies on observation and evidence for testing hypotheses.  Anthropology is an observation-driven discipline, with data gathered through fieldwork (in both cultural anthropology and archaeology, and often in physical anthropology).  Good anthropology requires engagement with the world, to the degree that we’ve coined the term “armchair anthropologist” as a form of derision, equivalent to calling someone a dilettante (although there is a functional difference).

Another building block is the concept of culture.  While there are as many different definitions of culture as there are cultural anthropologists, I think we can again find the nut of the matter as culture involves shared beliefs within a society that is passed down through learning, or as one of my old text books states:

A system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that the members of a society use to cope with one another and with their world and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning. (Daniel G. Bates and Fred Plog. 1990 Cultural Anthropology. Third edition. McGraw-Hill, Inc. New York.)

The third building block is the understanding that the human experience encompasses diversity in terms of culture.  There are a lot of ways to skin a cat and a lot of ways cultures address similar problems.  This diversity permeates social and political organization, economies,  language, belief systems, and how we physically adapt to our environment.  One size does not fit all.  When a politician argues that free-market economics is the natural and only way, we tend to point to successful pre-market and non-market examples.  When someone in the room says, “everyone thinks the same,” we duck and cover.  When clergy talk of universals in religious behavior, of what is natural and right, we point to other religious systems, drop the mike, and leave.  Anthropology makes us naturally contrarian, but at least we know dogma when we see it.

Studying cultures from an anthropological perspective forces you to consider the interdependency of the various parts of the culture, how the social system is connected to the economic system; how religious beliefs affect language and vice versa.  Over the years, the terms to describe the interconnectedness have changed, from organic, to functional, to holistic, to systems, but they all convey the same idea that to understand part of the culture, you need to also understand the whole.

The fifth building block is a bit more elusive, but I believe it to be the understanding of the difference between the emic and the etic, especially as it affects our understanding of our own culture and how we operate within it.  An emic viewpoint is from within the culture, seeing the activities of the group from the culture’s own perspective. An etic viewpoint is viewing a culture from outside of it, using those comparative or objective standards of anthropological science.  Anthropologists look at culture from both perspectives but it is the methodology of looking from within and looking from without that is special to anthropology.  From a practical standpoint, when we drink the Kool-Aid, we know that we are drinking it.

Anthropology is a study of cultures, of societies, of groups of humans, not of individual humans.  We are social creatures and have evolved as such.  Almost always, we will look at the group behavior before looking at the individual behavior, and even when looking at the individual behavior, we reference it to the group.

As an archaeologist, a subset discipline within anthropology within the United States, anthropology affords us a time depth missing in other social sciences.  We can build on the written historical record by using the material cultural remains of a society.  What is left in the ground are facts that are not bound by the emic interpretations of that society.  We can’t interview peoples no longer present on the earth, but we can listen to their stuff.  Archaeologists also have a special take on systems, understanding that what we see as a system is a snapshot in time and not necessarily immutable.

With Regard to COVID

Back to COVID.  Anthropology has prepared me for responding to the COVID crisis in several ways.  First, the respect for science lets me acknowledge that this is a novel virus and that medical science will guide the best public health response.  Even the concept of public health is one that we can grasp fairly quickly.

From the CDC website:

Public health is “the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private communities, and individuals.” — CEA Winslow

For us, it appears to be just applied medical anthropology, i.e., using the methods of medical science applied holistically to a society, understanding how the society will understand and accept or at least react to those applications, and finding the best ways to foster those informed choices.

I believe most anthropologists would look at the last 11 months and our government’s response to the pandemic and shake their heads.  The politicization of the crisis, even down to wearing masks, brings its own special problem, one that must address the belief systems of nearly half of the population that is unwilling to embrace public health guidance, where it exists.  Our future and our lives depend on getting the 30% of Americans who aren’t worried about getting the virus and the 40% who believe that the current Administration is doing a good job responding to the Pandemic to adjust their behaviors going forward.

First, while we can expect an effective vaccine to be widely available by the middle of next year, it won’t be worth a damn if most people don’t take it. The WHO estimates are that 60-70% of a population needs to be vaccinated to develop herd immunity, which will protect those unable to take a vaccine as well as the rest of us, and offer a chance to stamp out the outbreak.  However, current polling indicates that less than half of Americans are willing to get the vaccine as soon as its available.  Applied medical anthropology is the best means we have available to advise public health officials to encourage all segments of the society to get vaccinated, including those dis-inclined.

Secondly, until the vaccine is widely available, the troika of masks, social distancing, and washing of hands could greatly reduce the current outbreak.  Yet in many communities, these simple and effective actions are viewed with scorn. If everyone took the mask mandate seriously, we could probably save a third of the expected deaths between September and February of next year.

Much has been written about what not to do with regard to masks and social distancing, i.e., don’t directly challenge individuals, don’t tell them they’re wrong, don’t scold.  However, not much has been written about what to do and this is where anthropologists, applying their craft can help change behaviors, if not beliefs.

We will need medical anthropologists now more than before to advise the public health leaders on change behavior.  Necessary, but not easy.

With Regard to Income Inequality and the “K” Economic Recovery

An economic anthropologist would have no problem understanding that the US economy has essentially two tracks, one for the well-off and one for everyone else.  One for the stock market, and one for the unemployed and underemployed.  Therefore, it would be no surprise that the so-called recovery of the US economy following the pandemic’s entry would be two-tiered, or the so-called “K” recovery.

Our economic anthropologist would understand the economic sub-cultures that exist in our society and be as concerned with food insecurity as price-to-earnings ratios.  They would understand that the unemployment rate doesn’t include individuals who have stopped looking for work because their sector has dried up.  And our economic anthropologist would see the inequalities built into our current free-market economy, whether it be in housing, education, job opportunities, advancement, diet, or health.

Finally, our economic anthropologist would systemically understand that the economic recovery is wholly dependent on addressing the pandemic, instead of arguing for two tracks or one versus the other.  The two are systemically interconnected.

A harsh eye on what is happening today doesn’t necessarily offer the solutions, which have ranged from neglect to state control and everything in between. Without understanding the problem, there really can’t be an effective solution.  (Hint: we have seen what neglect has brought us through the continued inaction of Congress.  Maybe we should try something different.)  And finally, the systemic nature of culture would inform us that when many people can’t put a roof over their head and/or worry about how they are going to get the next meal for their families, other parts of society, including institutions, belief systems, government, etc, are all going to be affected, and not in a good way.  And as a final editorial flourish, folks are tempted to think about the collapse of society fueled by socialists and anarchists tearing things down.  This certainly was the Republican message during the elections.  While this does occasionally happen (see Russia 1917), the more common model is an attack from the right and a push toward authoritarian control (see Germany 1933).  Militias, not mobs.  Never a good look for a democracy.

With Regard to Race

Race is a social construct. It does not exist as a biological fact.  Again, to be clear. Race is a social construct. It does not exist as a biological fact.  And thank you, Franz Boaz for that clear message, and for demolishing Madison Grant’s arguments of The Passing the the Great Race a hundred years ago, even though Grant’s ideas still have currency today.

I could spend several blogs talking about race, but much useful stuff has been written lately and I don’t feel the need to review the landscape.  My training as an anthropologist has allowed me the frame to see the concept of race for what it is and isn’t.  It has also taught me to react when I hear phrases such as “All lives matter,” “they do ____ naturally” or “it’s in their blood,” “I’m not a racist,” “some of my best friends are ____,” etc.

It took 400 years to get into where we are with regard to race relations and systemic racism. We aren’t going to get out quickly or easily.  But until we understand the problem(s), we aren’t going anywhere.  Anthropologists could be useful guides in that journey.

With Regard to the Climate Crisis

Finally, to the elephant in the room, the burning planet. Conrad Kottak, a cultural anthropologist has defined ecological anthropology as how cultural beliefs and practices helped human populations adapt to their environments, and how people used elements of their culture to maintain their ecosystems.  Well, as a species we certainly had adapted to our environment, but this adaptation has spun out of control and our behavior of emitting too much carbon dioxide is rapidly leading us to soil our nest.  We haven’t maintained our prime ecosystem, the earth, and we need to quickly change our behaviors.

Anthropologists understand the ecological implications of too much CO2 and what it is doing to our planet. Anthropologists can help societies devise social responses to adapt to our ecosystems so much less CO2 is emitted. It’s one thing to look at the burning Amazon rainforest and say that it’s no good. It’s quite another to understand the underlying economic and social drivers of that burning and to help the Brazilian economy reward its Amazonian occupants with something other than what can be earned from cleared forests.

The solutions to the climate crisis are going to require multi-faceted approaches that need to systemically interact.  We can’t just stop driving gas-powered cars and say we’re done.  People laugh at the Green New Deal as something beyond the climate crisis, but what the Green New Deal gets right is that it understands the linkage between the economy and the environment.  I recently heard a commentator state that our economy depends on fixing the climate crisis in the same way that our economy depends in the short term on ending the COVID pandemic.  They are interlinked and inseparable.

Anthropology as the Basis for Learning

Anthropology is the one field that brings together a toolkit for addressing our major crises, a toolkit comprising a scientific approach, a concept of culture, an understanding of diversity amongst peoples on the planet, an appreciation of the systemic interrelationship of different aspects of our society, a method of observation that allows us to simultaneously look from without and from within, and a moral foundation that recognizes we are social animals and all that goes with it.

The US does not need 330 million professional anthropologists.  However, I do believe we would all be better served if we started teaching this toolkit in elementary schools and encouraged specialists to get foundational training in anthropology before going off to their preferred discipline, whether it be economics, law, public policy, ecology, or medicine.  Anthropology could be the essential degree to prepare us to face our current and future crises.

3 thoughts on “Essential Workers. Essential Degrees.

  1. John McCarthy December 3, 2020 / 11:20 am

    Good stuff, Ira. Agree that the anthropological lens is applicable to a wide range of issues related to the human experience, but then again, I too am an anthropologist. Also now a retired one!

    Hope our paths are able to cross again before too very long.

    Like

    • Steve Wiedemer December 3, 2020 / 2:45 pm

      Ira, your insights are very valuable. Thank you for composing this message.

      Like

  2. Christine Kula Beauregard December 13, 2020 / 4:31 pm

    Ira, this is a very well-written and thoughtful piece. I have always felt that Anthropology 101 should be a required course for every high school freshman.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s