The stereotypical image of anthropologists as weird people studying local customs in odd corners of the globe could not be less accurate, according to speakers at the “Why the World Needs Anthropologists – Burning Issues of Our Hot Planet” symposium held in Ljubljana (Slovenia) on Friday 27 November 2015. People trained in anthropological skills, they suggested, can play a pivotal role as the world struggles to cope with a number of burning issues of our time. Most importantly, they can play this role by understanding local communities far away as well as on their doorstep, and through work in and outside the academic Ivory Tower. Anthropologists, in short, are an urgently needed “breed” of professionals.
This point was made by Lucka Kaifez Bogataj, Professor of Climatology at University of Ljubljana, with regard to climate change. Hard science can analyze transformations that have taken place over the past decades, and it can predict future trends. Scholars have pointed out that the outcomes of climate change are unequally distributed. Rich countries in Northern Europe, for instance, will enjoy a slightly warmer climate with positive effects on what crops they can grow. Countries of the global South will bear the greatest grunge in terms of food and water shortages, increased poverty, displacement of people, and coastal flooding. Some of these effects are before our eyes already: among the complex mosaic of factors triggering today’s Syrian refugee crisis, according to Lucka, are also the drought and food shortages that affected people during the first decade of the millennium. The only pathway ahead is to reduce carbon emissions, which requires changing our ways of life from now. To achieve this, some pre-conditions are required: that people understand that climate change is a global phenomenon that concerns us all directly; and that we learn to live in harmony with one another and with the planet. So, what is the role of anthropologists in this complex scenario? Carbon emissions are unequally produced across the globe and it takes anthropologists to unpack the underlying cultural norms that need addressing to change people’s everyday behavior.
Genevieve Bell, Vice President and Intel Fellow in the Corporate Strategy Office at INTEL, suggested that anthropologists have a moral obligation to act and make this world a better place. Technological design and innovation is her preferred field to pursue this goal, for which she exchanged a tenured academic position for a job at INTEL. She defined her current occupation as full-time anthropologist and part-time futurist. For the former, she looks at technology as a cultural artifact that reflects people’s fears and anxieties and tries to understand what it is that, through technology, people really value. For the latter, she looks at how the fact that technology is culturally constructed might affect tomorrow’s technological developments. In a work environment that is dominated by engineers and technical staff, Genevieve underscored that anthropologists are good at asking the right questions and at suggesting some of the answers that put people, rather than just technology, at the center.
Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo and President of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA), underlined the role of anthropology when looking at today’s Anthropocene. As we live in an era in which people and their activities are the most significant factor impacting climate and the environment, anthropologists ask one basic question: who is the dragon and how can it be tamed? Anthropologists do not work with numbers or statistics, but through time-intensive fieldwork they produce the real gold of anthropology: ethnographic knowledge. The bad news, he underscored, is that anthropology is not going to solve the many global crises we face today, ranging from climate change, to land grabbing, migration, and global inequality. The good news, he continued, is that without anthropology nobody is going to solve them, because ethnographic knowledge provides fundamental understanding of local responses to global phenomena. In today’s reality, problems are often defined and operationalized at a scale higher. For instance, is the water shortage of local communities caused by the mining company that has just set up shop nearby, or is it caused by global climate change? By lifting problems up one level, it is made impossible for people to address them. What we can do as anthropologists is to understand this chain of powerlessness and contribute to defining manageable solutions. Anthropologists have ways of being relevant, because they are irrelevant, playful and imaginative. It is thanks to these strengths that anthropology can provide intellectual stimulation to political imagination.
Joana Breidenbach, founder of Betterplace.org and betterplace lab, considers herself a professional who applies anthropological skills and knowledge in the field of philanthropy. Germany’s largest crowdfunding platform for social projects, Betterplace.org acts as a global community of change-makers. It gives visibility to grassroots projects, brings together a huge diversity of development initiatives, and it promotes crowdfunding trust and painless giving. Betterplace lab acts as a think- and do- tank focused on digital-social innovation. Inspired by the aim of finding ways in which philanthropy can be democratized, the lab asks critical questions about the use of digital technologies for development around the globe. Joana reminded the audience that anthropologists are original knowledge producers who focus on contextual, actual behaviors from a multi-focal perspective and are able to tell stories that can offer orientation in the current complex times. Anthropologists are also good builders of bridges between academia and the public. In fact, they have the ability to pick-up trends on the ground and spread them, thus acting as intelligent co-creators of innovation and avoiding mere solutionism. The most essential point concluding her speech is that anthropology is also a joyful profession!
All four speakers made a point for the role of anthropology in making this world a better place by engaging head-on with burning issues of our time. The words and the examples of the three anthropologists among them suggested that this may not take place only within academic circles, but that anthropologists also have an important role to play in professional environments from the corporate sector, to policymaking, to philanthropy.
“Why the World Needs Anthropologists” is a yearly event, co-organized by the VU Department of Anthropology. The first edition took place in Amsterdam in 2013, followed by Padova (Italy) and last week’s event hosted by the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). In 2016, you are welcome to join the next edition in Estonia!
For further details about the event and to keep informed about why the world needs anthropologists check the website and follow the Facebook page. To watch the presentations and discussion in Ljubljana, go to the YouTube link
Giulia Sinatti is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. She is an ethnographer with training in different disciplines. She is currently focusing on three main topics and welcomes students wishing to undertake research in these areas: the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, female sex tourism, au pair migration.