This week we tackle a big question with my guest Tim Ingold: what’s the point of anthropology? Tim tells me:
‘Anthropology should be an ethical project which is dedicated to the problem of how on earth we are all going to live together in this world of ours, now and into the future, given the multiple crises that we’re facing. To solve those problems, we have to work on them together, and we need all the help we can get; we need to talk to people, we need to listen to people, and that’s what anthropology is about. So it’s really about how we can be better people. And that’s different from describing the lives of some people some time.’
Tim Ingold is emeritus professor of social anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. He did doctoral research among the reindeer herding Skolt Saami of north-eastern Finland, which later led him to big questions about human-animal relations at a time when such questions were much less in vogue than they are today. Other leading themes in his work include the connection between language and technology, and the centrality of skilled practice.
His publication list is long, but our conversation was prompted by the recent publication of Anthropology: Why it Matters in Polity Books’ series of the same name. Here Tim proposes a bold project for anthropology, less as a mode of study than a mode of being in the world; less an ethnographic categorization of the world, more an engaged conversation in and with the world. Memorably, he writes:
‘We [anthropologists] refuse to accept that human life can be sliced into layers, of body, mind and society, or that its study can be divided between biologists, psychologists and sociologists. Anthropology’s subject is humanity unsliced.’
Originally destined for a science degree, Tim as a Cambridge undergraduate in the late sixties switched to archaeology and anthropology. When he spoke to me on the phone from Aberdeen recently, I began by asking him why.
As I continue with my micro-ethnography on ds106 this week, these further quotes from Tim Ingold – transcribed from the above podcast – have really stuck with me:
‘With anthropology, the university in which we study is the world itself….in anthropology, we actually treat the world as a great big university. We don’t make studies of people, we study with them and learn from them.’
‘Much more important to anthropology is allowing the learning that happens through that experience of fieldwork to transform your own approach to life in general and thinking about things in whatever problems you’re trying to tackle.’
Ingold also discusses an approach whereby…
‘…the key role of the anthropologist is…to enter into the conversation and learn from it’.
All food for thought while I work on my micro-ethnography!