Questions of Anthropology

Questions of Anthropology

Questions of Anthropology

Questions of Anthropology

Synopsis

Anthropology today seems to shy away from the big, comparative questions that ordinary people in many societies find compelling. Questions of Anthropology brings these issues back to the centre of anthropological concerns. Individual essays explore birth, death and sexuality, puzzles about the relationship between science and religion, questions about the nature of ritual, work, political leadership and genocide, and our personal fears and desires, from the quest to control the future and to find one's "true" identity to the fear of being alone. Each essay starts with a question posed by individual ethnographic experience and then goes on toframe this question in a broader, comparative context.

Excerpt

Anthropologists are heirs to an intellectual tradition that has directly and self-consciously attempted to address some of the central questions arising from human existence and social experience. In its earliest days, the enquiry focused, for example, on the extent to which human behaviour is natural and innate, and the extent to which it is learned and culturally constructed; on questions about the evolution of society, and about the way in which the whole range of existing societies might be related to each other in an evolutionary scheme of things. A generation or so on, and though the questions might have somewhat narrowed and had certainly changed in focus, much of their ambition remained. What is the relationship between the way in which we understand the natural world and the kind of society we live in? Is marriage, the family or incest avoidance universal? From where do taboos come? What is the significance of exchange in social life and how is order possible in stateless societies?

This collection responds to a growing sense of unease, at least on the part of some, that in our own day socio-cultural anthropology has become increasingly narrowly focused, self-referential and abstruse. In the process, the discipline has progressively lost sight of those large general questions that had earlier inspired it, and about which ordinary people all over the world are spontaneously curious. This has happened at its peril since it is that curiosity that prompts many students to study it, colleagues in neighbouring subjects to turn to it for insights, and at least some outside academia to read it for interest and enlightenment.

The contributors to Questions of Anthropology were invited to start from a general question that was raised by their own field research, but one that also has wide human resonance. At least implicitly, this question . . .

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