As Eric Wolf notes in “Anthropology,” his 1964 essay, anthropology is “the most scientific of the humanities, the most humanist of the sciences.” Anthropologists have commonly taken into consideration the human condition—that which makes us distinctly human. However, maintaining balance between anthropology as a science that is concerned with causation, structure, function, and the predictability of human and cultural variation and anthropology as a humanity that is concerned with the function of human minds and how humans create their social and cultural worlds has not been easy. Historically, this has created a tension within anthropology, as anthropologists tend to conduct research toward one of these poles. At the same time, this underlying dichotomy propels the discipline and makes it distinct from both the natural sciences and the humanities.
From the earlier research of Ruth Benedict and Robert Redfield to the more recent research of Ruth Behar and Edith Turner, cultural anthropologists have long advocated humanistic concerns and approaches to the understanding of human thought and creativity from a distinctly insider’s perspective. As is noted in the Society for Humanistic Anthropology’s charter, humanistic anthropology “celebrates that human reality is something upon which we creative primates have real feedback effects: We can change our social and natural environment.” It takes the position, which is illustrated in the ethnographic and theoretical writing of the above anthropologists, too, that anthropological inquiry includes “promoting multicultural understanding and revealing the social blockages that are deleterious to our social and physical environment.” In essence, humanistic anthropological approaches reject blind positivistic scientific analyses, dogma in all manifestations, and extreme cultural relativism. Despite this long-standing position, humanistic anthropology did not become a concerted, self-consciously embraced approach until the early 1970s, which was due in large part to the efforts of Edith Turner.
Turner’s humanistic orientation is rooted in symbolic, or interpretive, cultural analysis. The roots of this tradition can be seen in E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s ethnographic writings on the Azande and the Nuer. Favoring interpretive analytical strategies, he rejected anthropology as a natural science and placed it within the humanities. His basic approach to the study of society, which is based on learning thought processes through the beliefs and opinions of members of the social group being studied, fits nicely with contemporary humanistic anthropological approaches to studying human cultural difference, because it emphasizes indigenous concepts and models of explanation.
As interpretive anthropology emerged from the margins of anthropological theory and practice in the early 1960s, humanistic approaches became even more central in cultural analyses. Although at that time, Mary Douglas, Victor Turner, and Clifford Geertz did not call themselves humanistic anthropologists, their theoretical and methodological practices have done much to shape humanistic anthropology today. In general, they contend that human culture is based on a system of symbols and meanings, which humans create and use to direct, organize, and give coherence to their lives. The emphasis is on meaning rather than on the materiality of human life or on innate structures of the mind. Each went in a distinctive direction with regard to symbolic analysis, while being anchored within a humanistic framework. Douglas combines Durkheimian functionalism with the ways that cultural symbols reflect social order, as best illustrated in her book Purity and Danger (1966). Through an exploration of beliefs about purity and pollution, she shows links between the human body and society. Turner, in contrast, focuses on ritual performance and practice but was less interested in symbols themselves, concentrating on what they mean to people as they use them and are inspired to action by them. By comparison, Geertz, drawing heavily from the sociologist Talcott Parsons and philosophers, such as Alfred Schutz, Gilbert Ryle, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, focuses on the interpretation of culture, which for him is a system of symbols and meanings that are publicly displayed in actions and objects created and made meaningful through human social interaction. In Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz seeks to understand culture in its own terms through a variety of analytical practices, not exclusively anthropological. Like Redfield before him, whose theories of Great and Little Traditions helped to democratize humanities scholarship, which focused on “high culture” rather than “low, mundane culture,” Geertz’s thesis that ethnographies should be understood as texts to be read alongside the local, indigenous-produced texts helped break down the divisions between outside researcher and local insider-subject. One tour-de-force example of this trend in interpretive analysis that is well-grounded in humanities scholarship is Turner and Bruner’s 1986 volume, The Anthropology of Experience, which includes chapters by the leading interpretive and humanistic anthropologists of the time: Renato Rosaldo, Barbara Myerhoff, James Fernandez, Barbara Babcock, and Geertz. The book breaks even more from the tradition of structuralism rooted in Émile Durkheim and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown to embrace Wilhelm Dilthey’s “concept of an experience, Erlebnis, or what has been ‘lived through’ …[where the contributors] focus… more on experience, pragmatics, practice, and performance.”
Some themes raised in The Anthropology of Experience, such as ethnography as narrative, reflexivity, and authorship, are also treated in Clifford and Marcus’s volume, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, but it serves more as a critique of anthropological practice. Underlying it are Foucauldian concepts of power relations, which challenge the contributors to rethink their respective, as well as those of the discipline, positions vis-à-vis their subjects and the texts that they produce. The contributors clearly advocate humanities-based strategies to improve cultural analysis, as they argue for cultural anthropologists to take into consideration literary and philosophical concepts and methods (something that Ruth Benedict did in the 1934 book Patterns of Culture); to experiment with new forms of writing— especially those that include the subjects’ voices; and, drawing on postmodernism, to recognize the arbitrariness of culture, the power/subject position of the researcher, the resistance to master narratives, and the incompleteness of the ethnographic endeavor.
Although the main theses in Writing Culture generated debate within the discipline and were largely accepted by cultural anthropologists, the volume was criticized for its male, Eurocentric orientation, first by anthropologists of color in the 1991 volume, Recapturing Anthropology, and then by feminist anthropologists in the 1995 volume, Women Writing Culture. Both volumes argue that the driving forces behind anthropological practice, be they methodological or theoretical, need not be dominated by white men and Western ideological and historical paradigms. The contributors to Recapturing Anthropology in particular argue that scholars cannot control the historical conditions in which their representations are located or future readings of them. Moreover, the very location of anthropological research, the field, continues to be exoticized and mystified, often beyond anthropologists’ control. In other words, the goal is to further democratize the discipline by demarginalizing the margins, recognizing the contributions of anthropology’s internal others, and understanding the historical and cultural contexts of the anthropological endeavor, all the while drawing on the humanities as broadly conceived.
In the Women Writing Culture volume, the innovative contributions of female anthropologists are noted, particularly with respect to new forms of cultural description that are literary in form. This is best exemplified in Zora Neale Hurston’s largely ignored ethnographic writings and novels, in Edith Turner’s poignant personal ethnography, Spirit and the Drum (1987), and in Laura Bohannan’s archetypical ethnographic novel, Return to Laughter (also noted in Wolf’s essay “Anthropology”). Bohannan wrote her novel in 1954 under the nom de plume, Eleanor Smith Bowen, for fear of negative fallout from her anthropologist peers. Her novel has since inspired a whole genre of writing. From the writing of Stanley Diamond to Dennis Tedlock and others, poetry has also become a form of cultural representation/presentation of others by anthropologists. These literary forays have not been exclusively based on Western models, but have incorporated non-Western modes of thought, aesthetics, and themes that anthropologist-creative writers learn while doing fieldwork.
The Foucauldian question of power raised in Writing Culture and experimentations in writing styles have resulted in humanistic anthropologists rethinking the relationship between anthropologist and subject. The impersonal term, informant, is being replaced with friend, colleague, expert, collaborator, and others, as humanistic anthropologists recognize the intense, intersubjective relationships they and their subjects share. Furthermore, as native, local forms of knowledge and analysis are elevated on par with those of anthropologists and are incorporated into anthropological modes of method, theory, and analysis, the traditional anthropological “informant” becomes even more awkward to employ.
As the Society for Humanistic Anthropology states, “Humanism has historically made the human endeavor the subject of its concerns. Humanistic anthropology seeks to bring the intellectual resources of the discipline to bear upon this subject.” Founded in 1974 at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting, then held in Mexico City, the members of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology have deliberated over the methodological, theoretical, and topical concerns described above. The primary vehicle for this is the journal, Anthropology and Humanism, which is edited by Edith Turner. The journal takes a holistic approach to the understanding of “what it is to be human” by soliciting contributions from all fields of anthropology, the humanities, and the sciences. It publishes articles that help further humanistic anthropology via new trends in the humanities, illustrate the linkages between anthropological fields and humanistic anthropology, and explore the contradictory processes of life in other cultures and also those of the anthropologists. In addition, it embraces the creative cultural representations of anthropologists by regularly publishing essays, fiction, poetry, and other art forms.
Humanistic anthropology clearly has no easily delineated academic boundaries, as Edith Turner notes on her faculty Web page at University of Virginia:
My theoretical interests have developed from [Victor] Turner’s “anthropology of experience,” a field that has been spreading in anthropology to narratology, humanistic anthropology, and the anthropology of consciousness. Good anthropology rests on humanism—that is, respect for the ideas and religions of other cultures and, where possible, the willingness to experience through the eyes of others. Analysis therefore has seriously to take into consideration local “exegesis'” (interpretation), and local statements of experience.
Humanistic anthropology’s vitality rests on the ability of anthropologists to utilize new and alternative modes of knowledge drawn from both scientific and humanistic fields.
- Behar, R., & Gordon, D. A. (1995). Women writing culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Clifford, J., & Marcus, G. E. (Eds.). (1986). Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Fox, R. G. (Ed.). (1991). Recapturing anthropology: Working in the present. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.
- Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.
- Turner, V. W., & Bruner, E. M. (Eds.). (1986). The anthropology of experience. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.