Anthropology's Contribution to the Humanities and its Application

The following is a speech by Carlo Cubero Irizarry, Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the TU School of Humanities, held at the Tallinn University Day celebrations.

Carlo Cubero

Often times, when I tell people that I am an anthropologist, I get an empty expression. Some would ask me “what is that?”. Others, presume that it is a discipline associated with the study of primates or archaeology. I dont get offended by these reactions because anthropology is a relatively recent discipline in the Baltics and it doesnt have the historical pedigree as other humanities such as philosophy, history, or sociology. However, I would like to propose to you that anthropological research has shaped the way we understand ourselves, the world, and our role in it without people being consciously aware of anthropology. If there is a message that I would like to share with you in these 13 minutes is that anthropology has changed our understanding of the world in ways that we may not be aware of and continues to do so.

But first, what is anthropology? What has been its contribution to the understanding of humanity? Professional anthropology emerged in the 19th century in the context of the emerging trend of globalisation, which entailed, amongst other things, the expansion and acceleration of systems of communication, travel, and production that placed people from distant parts of the world in contact with one another. Some associate globalisation with colonialism, the spread of industrialisation, and with technologies that allowed distances to be traversed quickly, resulting in an experience of a shrinking world. From the point of view of Humanities, this increase in travel and communication coincided with questions about the nature of the human experience.

What is the process by which languages emerged and changed? Why are there different religions in the world? How did they develop? Is there a connection between the natural environment and the way people organise their lives? Is there such a thing as human “nature”, a common experience that unites all of humanity or is the homo sapiens a species that is hopelessly fragmented destined for eternal conflict? Anthropologists theorised that the only way to answer these questions definitively and in a convincing manner was by immersing themselves in the contexts they wish to understand. In other words, anthropologists figured that the only way to genuinely understand the human condition in a global moment is to participate and observe in the context they wish to understand. If you are interested, for example, in understanding how different forms of Christianity are experienced in Greece, an anthropologist would tell you that the only way to understand this consistently would be to visit Greece, live there for an extended period of time, and immerse yourself in a specific Christian group. Anything else, the suggestion goes, would be to fall into speculation, and arguably, wont produce new knowledge, but reproduce preconceived stereotypes that we may have about southern Europeans or Christians.

All this may sound convincing to many of you, but it still doesnt answer the question of what is anthropology? What does anthropology actually study? The research material that early anthropologists were producing opposed prevailing ideas of 19th century research paradigms. You'll have to remember that the research paradigm of the 19th century was informed by Darwinism and the correlated idea that life on planet Earth is the result of series of biological processes. From this point of view, it shouldnt come as a surprise that the dominant ideas about the human experience were related to ideas of race, genetics, and other biological or natural processes. For example, a Darwinian explanation of why certain languages express themselves in diferent forms is due to biological processes that shaped the language – the genetic make-up of the speakers, the natural environment in which the language developed, or ideas that certain linguistic practises optimise survival. Anthropologists were not seeing a direct correlation between language and biological processes. Instead, they were noticing that language is a human invention that is produced in interaction with other humans. Languages change, die out, and are created through processes associated with, say, migration, the need to communicate with other language groups in order to trade, and for ohter creative reasons. In fact, language – anthropologists found – cannot be separated from the broader context in which it is practised. Anthropologists found that continuity and changes in linguistic practises were related to religious beliefs, to economic transactions, to power games, to lifestyle choices, etc.

What follows from this discovery is that no aspect of the human experience can be isolated and must be understood as part of a interlocking set of circumstances that constitute a complete whole. What to call this “whole”? What name can we ascribe to the interconnected significations that makes us human? What word can we use to differentiate the human experience from other species of the planet? Anthropologists looked to the word “culture” as a suitable analogy to describe their holistic approach to studying the human experience. The word “culture” has numerous etymological roots that anthropologists found useful to describe what they were studying. In ancient Rome, the Word “cultivare” was associated with “working the land”. In Medieval English “culture” suggested a plot of land that was tilled, that was worked on. Modern Latin has the word “colere”, which is associated with “inhabiting”.

Then of course, there is the word “cult” which is associated to beliefs of a specific group of people. The “culture” concept was developed by anthropologists as a means to address the different practises and beliefs that are unique to the human experience, that differentiate humans from nature, and can account for the common themes that characterise the homo sapiens as a species. In effect, the culture concept was coined by anthropologists as an alternative to race-based or Darwinian theories of humanity. Culture is that which nature isn't. This distinction, between nature and culture, has been a staple fixture in our public discourse and it informs a lot of ideas that we hold today. Culture, the suggestion goes, is any activity that isn’t reproduced in the animal kingdom or in nature. It is an experience that is learned and not innate. For example, some anthropologists speculated that humans are the only species on earth to have language, is self- aware, can lie, can create a religion, organise itself into a sophisticated political system, build cities, read, etc. From this point of view, culture can be read as a unifying feature of humanity. That experience that we all share by virtue of our humanity. Culture is that which makes us human and anthropology is the study of that humanity.

However, thinking of culture as an object of study brings up another contradiction. On the one hand, popular and political discourse understands culture as a collective experience. Culture, the standard definition suggests, is not only that which isnt nature, but it is also that which is collective – a system of shared beliefs and practises that bring together a group of people. However, at the same time, it is individuals that make-up a culture. Estonian culture, to take an example, wouldnt exist or be what it is if it werent for the individuals that believe in it or reproduce the practises associated with Estonian culture. The idea gets more confusing when we consider that the beliefs and practises that we take to be Estonian have changed through time and will continue to change. I'll go even further to suggest that if we were to do an anthropological study of Estonian culture, we would find 100% consensus amongst all Estonians as to what exactly is constitutive of Estonian culture. This is understandable because every individual has their own opinions of how to define their own experience. If you live in Tallinn, like I do, you get a very different understanding of what is Estonia than if you live in Võrumaa or in Viljandimaa. And herein lies a peculiar crux that anthropologists struggle with. Can we draw generalisations and make collective conclusions if we acknowledge that this collective is made up of individuals, each one having their own agenda, political opinions, religious beliefs, and life histories? Is culture created by us, the individuals, or does culture create our sense of identity?

Anthropologists today are still dealing with these broad questions. They continue to carry out participant observation in different contexts to understand people's sense of self. What I have learned, through my own participant observation experiences in the Caribbean and in Europe, is that “culture” (whatever that is) is made up of relationships. As an anthropologist, I could say that I study relationships. Not just relationships between people, but also between things and events. Relationships that are fostered on the internet, that are maintained through irrational beliefs, parasocial relationships – like the ones we have with our favourite movie stars or with my favourite football team. In doing so, I believe that anthropologists have fragmented the definition of culture to include, for example, the culture of children, culture of athletes, culture of IT workers, culture of the working class, culture of students, of sailors, of musicians, and so on and so forth. Any experience that is somehow shared between people can, theoretically, addressed as a culture. What kind of applications does anthropology have today? What kind of contributions do anthropologists offer in the contemporary world?

The participation in the project seeking for digital solutions for the problems related to HIV .

The aim of the target group research conducted together with the service designer Maarja Mõtus was to increase the welfare of the HIV-positive people, to further the collaboration between the associated parties of interest (patients, doctors, support group organisations etc) and to induce innovation in the field of HIV. As part of the research, we conducted interviews with HIV-positive patients. We focused on the motivation and needs of the target group and their problems in the contemporary wellness and social system and organised a seminar that brought together the various parties of interest.

The input research on waste behaviour for the exhibition ‘History is rubbish is history’

We conducted a research on waste behaviour for Tartu City Museum. By relying on in-depth interviews, rubbish diaries and observations, we shed light on people’s waste behaviour, their attitude towards waste and the economic action associated with it. The material was used to create the exhibition ‘History is rubbish is history’ that was open this autumn.

NB! See the whole gallery of the Tallinn University Day event here!