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Can anthropology solve an economic crisis?

18 August 2010 Inderscience

The field of anthropology is often associated with finding lost tribes, understanding ancient civilizations, and the study of indigenous peoples. However, researchers in Norway argue that anthropology has much more to offer than insights into small-scale societies, traditional cultures or arcane customs. Thomas Hylland Eriksen of the University of Oslo argues that anthropology is an indispensable tool to complement others research fields, such as psychology and economics, in solving many diverse problems.

Eriksen explains that, "Anthropology is first and foremost a way of thinking that can be applied to any aspect of human life, distinguishing itself by trying to account for human diversity, studied through long-term fieldwork and analysed via comparative methods." Increasing numbers of anthropology students and a growing recognition of its potential among non-academics suggest that it could allow us to understand the present world and help solve many of the problems we face, without having to possess, as Eriksen puts it, "a strong passion for African kinship or Polynesian gift exchange."

He points out that, as a tool, anthropology offers unique insights into the informal dimension of social and cultural life, emphasising the contrasts between what people say and what they do, and between the formal structure of society and what actually happens.

Anthropology, by definition, is the science that studies humanity's origins and the social relationships between human beings. There are now several reasons why anthropological knowledge could help us make sense of the contemporary world, says Eriksen. First, contact between culturally different groups has increased enormously as long-distance travel becomes more common, safer and less inexpensive. Indeed, "cultural tourism" has become an important source of income for many communities across the globe and is a clear indication that people are increasingly interested in cultures other than their own.

Secondly, satellite TV, mobile phone networks and the Internet have created conditions for truly global, instantaneous and friction-free communications, adds Eriksen. At the same time, economies are becoming globalised and, to some degree, cultures homogenized as a result. Indeed, culture is changing more rapidly than ever before and traditional ways of life are becoming transformed by technology, power supply, and global travel and communication.

Conversely, a fourth factor is at play and that is cultural identity. Many people that their local uniqueness is being threatened by globalisation and external influences and minority organisations and national efforts are in some instances set on asserting cultural rights to slow down or even halt "outside" influences.

The modern, post-Soviet, technologically oriented age of information, climate change and economic globalisation is the era in which these factors are playing out and affecting society at the local, national and international level. Eriksen asserts that anthropology alone is the science that can make sense of this seemingly chaotic, confusing and complex historical period.

"Anthropology is not so much a precise science as a way of approaching the world: it offers substantial knowledge about local ways of life, world-views and cultural |diversity, but more importantly, it raises questions in a way which differs from the other social sciences. Instead of asking, ‘What is a human being?’, it asks, ‘What is it like to be a human being in this particular society?’" says Eriksen.

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