Anthropology is a vast discipline encompassing the study of humans from many angles, and it’s taught quite differently depending on the country and the institution — but the term is generally just used to mean the study of human culture and society. Famed anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that humans spin “webs of significance” around themselves, and those webs make up their culture. Like tiny, nerdy, little spiders, anthropologists analyze these webs to seek out meaning. If you’re searching for the inherent meaning in a culture or social structure, or the answer to a specific question about a local custom, anthropology is going to be a vital tool for you.
The importance of understanding difference
“The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences,” anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote. Anthropology thrives on difference and travelers do too — but even the most experienced traveler can get “difference fatigue” and/or culture shock. Anthropology can make you comfortable with that difference by giving you the mental framework to deal with it. Ideas such as cultural relativism teach that cultural difference is not necessarily bad, but healthy and normal. Anthropology allows us to embrace difference as something to learn from, rather than fear. When you’re geared up to seek out differences, it’s harder to be annoyed by it. Rather, you can view differences as a way to learn about life — to quote Geertz again: “It may be in the cultural particularities of people — in their oddities — that some of the most instructive revelations of what it is to be generically human are to be found.”
When we travel it’s easy to get swept away in the obvious differences — food, smells, language, dress. We snap photos and taste street food and try to pick up new words, which are all wonderful ways to experience a new place. Yet sometimes amidst all that wonder we miss the deeper cultural differences, which makes it harder to have anything but a superficial understanding of the culture we’re visiting. It’s like that iceberg diagram of culture — above the water is all the obvious differences like language, and below are things like concepts of time, idea of the self, attitudes towards modesty, death, gender roles. If we aren’t careful, we miss what’s below the water.
We can also fall into the opposite trap. If things seem fairly similar on the surface to our home culture, we can forget that there may be deeper differences. Anthropologists are continuously aware of the great depth underneath the small differences, of the webs linking little things like movies to greater things like ideas surrounding representation. They don’t get distracted by surface differences (or lack thereof), they use them to explore the depth beneath. As one of my professors, the great Adam Kuper, explained, many anthropologists believe that “people in different cultures don’t simply give different labels to different parts of the world, they create the world differently.” Anthropologists know not to only accept the labels, but to see the entire world underneath.
On the flip side of missing depth, is the danger of fetishization — attempting to force your pre-packaged idea onto a culture or person, seeing them as a cute stereotype rather than a human being. It’s easy to accidentally fetishize and exoticize different cultures, to try to force exciting differences where there are none just for the photo op, to exoticize grinding poverty or commodify someone’s everyday life. We’ve all met that traveler who browses through a culture like an aisle at Whole Foods, disappointed if it doesn’t meet their rose-tinted notions of “foreign.”
They’re the ones who dislike the fact that the locals are choosing to take part in a globalized economy rather than keeping with their “traditional” way of life, and they’ll get annoyed if these locals don’t act how they did in the movies. These travelers want to box other cultures up, to consume them nicely packaged and keep them from changing.
If anthropology is used well, it keeps us from falling into this trap, because it doesn’t allow us to package up a culture — it forces us to put down exactly what we see and are told from locals. Anthropology sees cultural diffusion and change as a given, and depends wholly on the inner logic of a culture and not the outside exoticization of it. It doesn’t put the culture on a pedestal to remain shiny and unchanged, it accepts that ideas and values die off and new ones are born. France’s father of social science, Émile Durkheim, wrote in 1912 on cultural change: “The old gods are growing old or are already dead, and others are not yet born.” Cultural ideas and values are never static. Anthropology forces rigorous examination on the grounds of reality, not our own idealized view.
Awareness of your own bias
Probably one of the greatest contributions of anthropology is the idea of reflexivity, to reflect on your own bias and how your understanding of another culture, place or person could be warped by your own experience and opinions. Any good anthropology article opens with the author giving a quick run-down of their cultural upbringing, education, work and general biases. As travelers, we can do the same. When we show up in a new country and react to what we see, we can take a moment to reflect and think: Do I feel this way because of X experience in my life? Am I experiencing it this way because of my background in Y discipline, or my particular cultural values?
Anthropology insists that we examine the cultural assumptions we are carrying with us and it doesn’t let us get by with a cursory glance. It calls on us to reflect deeply on our beliefs and how they shape our experience of travel.
Tools to understand other cultures
Anthropologists don’t only want to know how we view others, they want to know how others view the world. Anthropology is the study of the inner logic of different cultures, the insider view, not the outside looking in. We are instructed as anthropologists to “grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world” wrote anthropologist Malinowski. (It’s worth saying that he wrote that back in 1922, when using the term “native” in such a way was par for the course. Malinowski also only studied men and was kinda sexist but I think the point still stands.)
Anthropological research methods grasp this inner logic and are ideal for the traveler. The main method is called “participant observation” and pretty much means after you hang around for a bit and gain the trust of local people, then when you see that fun festival going on, ask if you can jump right in. In other words, do as the locals do, while making sure to carefully observe what is appropriate. Ask questions, dig deep into their answers. Leave your assumptions at the door and live your way into the research. Accept the cultural truth you find, even if you don’t like it.
Dealing with potentially offensive ideas
Sometimes while traveling you find yourself facing ideas and traditions that are offensive. As a woman, I found it hard to grapple with sexism in certain places, and those who travel as a Person of Color in some countries face their own set of challenges. Cultural relativism is NOT ethical relativism, and anthropology doesn’t condone violence or discrimination. But aside from the blatantly prejudiced or dangerous beliefs, anthropology can help you step back and explore ideas that may be initially offensive to you. Knee jerk reactions to things that seem wrong or rude keep us from fully understanding them, and often with some digging we can realize that perhaps that “rudeness” isn’t so rude after all, just a different idea of polite.
To quote Aristotle, anthropology allows us to “entertain a thought without accepting it,” to take something we don’t agree with and hold it close, looking at it from every angle. It means to practice empathy, because we know our own cultural flaws, and to immerse ourselves in the uncomfortable. Instead of reacting in instant horror the next time you travel to country X, where people refuse to queue or have rigid gender roles, slow down and seek out their inner logic, rather than keeping distant in the name of “offense.”