Mark Anderson, Department Chair

June 17, 2021

How did you get involved in Anthropology? 

As an undergrad I majored in philosophy but I also took anthropology classes. I liked the theoretical approaches in anthropology and the discipline’s ruthless questioning of everything.  And anthropology dealt with real people rather than abstract concepts. I lost interest in philosophy when I was taking an ethics class and felt it was too abstract from the actual ethical issues; it all seemed rarified. In Anthropology you use ethnography to deal with political questions. I spent a summer in Honduras with an anthropology professor and got a taste for fieldwork as well as its challenges, and I decided I really liked it. The ethnographic process seemed appealing both intellectually and practically.


Why do you think/believe anthropology is important?

Cultural anthropology, the subdiscipline I specialize in, is important because it provides tools for people to think about the complexity of the diverse worlds they live in. It questions assumptions about human nature, what counts as knowledge, and what a good life is. Often, when studying anthropology, people are forced to think beyond their own way of thinking, something that they wouldn’t do normally. Anthropology cultivates a critical sensibility of questioning common misunderstandings about how the way things are or should be. It provides key contributions to put one’s own biases and assumptions, thus bringing them to light. We live in a country with a lot of world power and it’s important to constantly question the basis of our judgements and understanding. 

The popular cultural image of anthropology is that anthropology is the study of faraway peoples that are “primitive.” The image is flawed; we study interactions everywhere that involve pressing social issues.  Anthropology also helps us understand problems with the perspectives of the people we’re working with, seeing things from their point of view.  The grounding Anthropology has in actually trying to learn from ordinary people and its production of knowledge from a diverse range of people through interaction is rally important. Fieldwork is an important method of inquiry that helps generate forms of understanding that you don’t get just from texts and statistics. Finally, anthropology is a tool to study the most important and pertinent topics of our time, like immigration, racism, the environment and Islamophobia.


Why encourage others to learn/ study anthropology?

The answer to this question is very similar to that of the previous and that would be because cultural anthropology dissects race and human relations, it exposes ways of thinking. It also utilizes different kinds of methods learned in each subfield to try to figure out the world. The methods are different across cultural antrhopology, archaeology and bioanthropology.  Questions addressed in anthropology deal with many aspects of being human and taking at least one anthropology class in college will expose you to more parts of the world.


Why do you think Anthropology is such an obscure discipline for the general population?

The society we live in places less and less value on a well-rounded liberal arts education. Archaeology might be the most recognized anthropological subfield, but it is still misrepresented in the eyes of the public. Anthropology is often treated as less important than other disciplines and there’s this question if can get you a job right away after college. It is also perhaps that Anthropology is still thought of as the study of exotic peoples and marginalized groups. Even if anthropology is interesting to different people, oftentimes they might see it as a frivolous pursuit and not seek it out. Cultural anthropology faces further marginalization because of a hegemony in knowledge where disciplines that pursue making meaning are taken less seriously than other types of sciences.


How do you think Anthropology can better connect to the general population?

Anthropologists could do a better job of making their work public and readable. They tend to be critical of dominant structures of power such as the media and this may keep anthropology at the margins.


How can anthropology reach a more diverse (more people of color) audience?

Anthropology is, historically a very white discipline and a disproportionate number of faculty and grad students are white. To reach diverse communities the discipline itself needs to be more diverse. It’s also importat to work directly with diverse communities. We would need to pinpoint the products and knowledge that various communities find important in order to draw these communities in. It would help to have anthropology be introduced earlier on in education so that students and parents see its importance.


Is there anything else you like about anthropology? 

By the time I was studying Anthropology, anthropologists had become interested in questions of power and social justice globally. Anthropology is one of the few disciplines that attends to worlds within and beyond the USA. I like its tradition of self-criticism, so I enjoyed how the politics of what anthropology does cannot be ignored and the discipline doesn’t try to hide from its past and its politics. I like the connection between knowledge creation and power since they are related, and anthropologists are in the thick of those debates.