I know that I have not written on here in a long time, but reading this last post and the ensuing comments, I could not NOT say anything… 

Particularly as anthropologists, we often work with populations that do not have adequate resources, let alone anything near what we have essentially been handed on a silver platter. Yes, we may have studied hard, worked a part-time job (or two) during college, and sacrificed going out every weekend, but there are people in the world who have struggles that I don’t think any of us (meaning, those who write this blog) could ever begin to contemplate. The very notion of questioning where my next meal will come from is something I cannot even understand. There are people – in the U. S., in Europe, Africa, Asia, all over the world – that have nothing, that work endless hours in sweatshops, in terrible work conditions, make next to nothing, and have families to care for. YET, many times, anthropological work focuses on individuals in these types of situations, and the authors of that work gain fame, notoriety, income, and all sorts of other things…while these populations essentially benefit little, if at all. I’m not saying this is every case, or even most cases, but I have witnessed it happening, first-hand. And of course, there are people in this field who may say, well I study non-human primates, or I study bones, and this issue does not pertain to me. Well to you I ask, who is your field guide? What country are you doing work in? Who is helping you in the field? My point is, I do not think it is at all right to use data collected in such a capacity, for your own academic advancement (or whatever) and think that you do not owe something to the people who you worked with, studied, or who helped you in the field (or elsewhere, but typically, this situation arises in anthropological fieldwork). And I do not mean this in a condescending way, just think – if you had a penny to your name and slept on the street, and some researcher came in and made observations about your life, and then just left, to go on to use the data about you and your family in some article that got published, and this researcher then used this to her/his advantage, how would you feel? I know how I’d feel – used.
As educated individuals supposedly “aware” of our world, we have a responsibility to our own and future generations to make the world a better place. I count myself in this “supposedly aware” population, because I am terrible at keeping up with current events, knowing what is going on in the world, and often wrestle with the hypocrisy in my own thoughts, but I just want to put them out there. I don’t think the problem lies in designating “useless” and “useful” professions – but in seeing that whether you are an academic, a doctor, a lawyer, a mail carrier, a firefighter, a teacher, a garbage collector – you will face choices every day of your life that affect others. You can make the choice to do something to help someone, and it doesn’t mean you have to become the next Mother Theresa to do so.
The question is not, “What are academics doing to make the world any better?” but “How can I, myself, make a difference?” I refuse to give up on what many people consider – and have told me as much – are “foolish,” optimistic dreams of ending suffering and hate through education, understanding, hard work, and compassion. Is it “foolish” to believe that we can cure AIDS in our lifetime? Is it “foolish” to believe that we can end genocide? Is it “foolish” to believe that we can restore several places on Earth to their former beauty and majesty, instead of the wastelands these areas have become as a result of pollution? I do not think so.  And I say “we” because I think that all of us have in ourselves this ability to see past ourselves. I even believe that maybe I could do this, if I could stop being so selfish and petty. 
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” Dreams may be just that – dreams – but if you never have one to begin with – if you never have a hope that things could be better, that things could improve – what is the point in living? A world without beautiful dreams, without hopes, without the spark of compassion and idealism that are so important to humanity – is one I refuse to live in.
Maybe my reaction seems an exaggeration, but I’m so tired of hearing others – and myself, worst of all – foolishly think that problems like this “aren’t ours” or “this doesn’t concern me, I’d like to do research about X or Y my whole life” and cannot see beyond the view from the ivory tower – or even the edge of our own desks. We all live on this planet together, we depend on one another because this is a global community – and as “educated” people – as people in general – we cannot afford to ignore this fact. 
Research for research’s sake is great, and I do not think that curiosity is a “stupid” or “bad” reason to engage in intellectual discussion and research…but what if just 10% of that energy was put into using (or re-directing?) so-called “ivory tower” research to address world hunger, disease, or about a billion other serious issues in the world today? University and research institutions are a resource that could really be valuable in coming to at some sort of real, tangible solution to at least some of them…but of course, in reality, I am far more optimistic than that.
Um…I did this instead of reading for Ling…so I encourage heavy cynicism. And for people to get angry. Maybe break things. On my head.

14 thoughts on “"Usefulness"

  1. Haven’t we had this discussion before? Like maybe a year ago in a certain ethics seminar? Oh, and before I forget, kmunn, how many part-time jobs did you have this summer? I believe it was more than two ;)Now to the meat of the discussion: I’m afraid my comments on the previous post may have been taken in the wrong light. I was attempting to show that Zach exaggerated the problems with the paper by equating (somewhat unfairly) his opinion with the idea that academics don’t help people and thus are a selfish job. To clarify, I do not believe that myself. I also do not believe that we all have to become doctors to solve world problems. I think you bring up an excellent point in that it is ultimately up to the individual person and not their job title to decide how helpful they are to the world. I also think that jobs like ours can help – not all anthropologists make millions off of the poor and the hungry and never give back a dime. It is a concern in this discipline, but it is one most are aware of and I believe (possibly naively) that most anthropologists who receive help from locals do not actively try to screw them over, and instead actively try to help them when they can.

  2. So, here’s the thing. I read the previous post and thought that it was an unfair slight on the authors of that particular paper- a lot of experiments are conducted without having an overarching theory said research will support or refute, but this one does. First, I’m not sure which person is the researcher who went to the Congo to only perform this study, but Brian Hare is actually a cognitive anthropologist who performs a ton of cognition studies there, so he does a lot there. I totally see what you’re saying, but the problem is that most of the aid people give end up going to the wrong place- due to governmental corruption, the price floors and taxes the US government imposes that precludes a farmer in Africa to . There’s plenty of food in Africa, but when That is something (most) anthropologists really can’t do anything to help. There ARE amazing programs out there like http://www.kiva.org where you can give out microloans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. You can donate as small as $25, maybe even less. The answer is not for us to throw money at governments, or give things away. The governments (US and abroad) need to change, or to loan money to people who will use it to build a business. Plus, some research helps the local population- someone in my department, when she left her field site that she built, the local population took the wood from her house and built it into a church, not even mentioning the amount she paid for their help.Now, imagine if 5% of our budget on the military would go to a program like kiva. That would probably be as much as the ivory tower research piled together (discounting military research projects, of course, I refer to ivory tower as these “silly” projects).

  3. I feel that I did make it clear that I do not think ALL or even MOST anthropologists exploit individuals in their work, I just meant that this happens and we cannot turn our back on this problem. Maybe we’ve discussed something similar, but I still find myself in many instances to be at odds with many people I meet in academia…additionally these are important issues that I don’t think can be discussed enough. AND people often lose sight of these issues, including myself, especially in the sometimes petty world of graduate school. Which you’d think would not be as much like high school as it is. I agree with Laura that alot of aid goes to the wrong places, and that is something maybe anthropologists cannot directly remedy. My point was more that it’s an individual choice to assist people in need, or aid in various world issues, and that your professional position does not determine how “useful” or “useless” your contributions could be. Additionally, professions cannot be divided into “useful” and “useless” – an interest in doing research is not “useless.”Also as Laura says, it is exactly that governmental and possibly even social structures have to change because it is underlying problems like these, in addition to economic issues, that are behind many major world problems. Donating money is not an adequate solution.

  4. I may as well comment, also. Caroline is right in pointing out that I exaggerated in my discussion about the paper. The study simply made me think about whether anything I do will have positive impacts outside my field, in the world at large. But I never said academicians don’t help anyone. And the words “useful” and “useless” never appear in my original post. I didn’t mean to create such a stir.

  5. Hi guys, Zach, I’m glad that you’ve caused such a stir because I do agree with kmunn that it’s something to always keep in mind when working with people in developing nations. I think it’s inappropriate to travel somewhere to either 1. study them, 2. dig stuff up in their country, or 3. study the primates that live in their country and NOT understand the challenges these individuals face. However, I also think it’s important to understand the limitations to what we can do to “help,” as more often than not such feelings are misguided without a full understanding of the culture, what their needs are, and what is the best way to allow *them* to address them, (i.e. creating incentives for the people to change their own lives, if possible). The example of my fellow grad student exemplifies this: she went in to do what she needed to do, collect data, but wasn’t upset and was glad that the indigenous population was able to reuse materials from her field site. She knew her limits- that she can’t change the structure of the population, but heck they might as well use what she’s left. On the flip side are conservation biologists in Africa trying to maintain populations of primates, and some actively try to build productive communities so that the local people don’t have to hunt primates. But do you focus your efforts on first building profitable communities, or do you first focus your efforts on estimating population sizes in order to see if any community improvements you try to make are actually working? (I have heard different conservationists do it either way, but you still have to know the community in order to be effective, which I think is out of many anthropologists as we aren’t students of public policy). Hmmm… I don’t think I had a point, other than this is a complex issue that I, for one, am glad you are bringing attention to because it’s an important conversation to have.

  6. I think what I am trying to get at is that, as Laura said, this is an important discussion to be having, and I think it is important that Zach wrote something like that because it shows a really important quality that I think, is hard to really wrestle with, which is having a sense of reflexivity – being able to reflect on yourself, your profession, the structures you have been socialized into, etc. Anthropology is plagued with a problematic, often colonial, past. It is important to think about the role one’s academic career as an anthropologist has in this ability to reflect on what it is you are doing, and as I’ve made pretty clear I find important, how what you are doing can change the world – in both positive and negative ways. I think what I mean, is that whoever you are and whatever it is you are doing in this world – you can act in ways that help or harm others. And I do see that while it is good to have ideals, not everyone is going to rush out and sell their possessions and give their lives over to curing diseases, etc or what have you. and not everyone has to. Research itself DOES help people and does address such problems – look at Franz Boas, for instance. He did all kinds of academic research that had really important implications on how we think about the concept of “race.” Of course there is still racial injustice, but his work did contribute in a positive way to changing the way people view this concept. I don’t know if I am making sense anymore because I’m exhausted, but I guess I don’t want people to think I don’t think research is important to the world…obviously it is. If everyone who was studying apes and the types of food they like, or Neandertals, or hybridization, or genetics, or neuroscience, or Classical literature just stopped what they were doing and flew out to Mali to try to set up medical clinics, I don’t think that would work at all. BUT what I do think all of us academics-in-training should do is think about what it is we are doing, and how different things we read, or collect data on, and the very processes of research itself – affect others. Because when we lose the ability to reflect on our own profession, our own field, and ourselves…that’s when we can run into big problems. Does this make sense? Am I contradicting myself…

  7. Be prepared – This is going to sound…motherly? overly gooey and gushy?…like a group hug?I’m so proud of you folks. I wish more of these feelings came out in our seminar last year, but I’m glad that you have found a way to put them in print with such eloquence. These are the issues that drive most anthropologists into a mental upheaval on a biweekly schedule. And for as much as you all complained about a certain class you took last year…you sound like a bunch of cultural anthropologists (and I like it)

  8. We had an ethics in bioanthropology seminar with our advisor last fall, where these ideas were touched upon (although at that point I’m not sure we all had thought them through as much as we have now)

  9. I’m just a random phys anthro 2nd year graduate student at another university. I went looking for some blogs on topics I’m interested in, and I found yours. Is it ok that I read and comment, or were you guys doing it more just for your university? When I asked the seminar question, the focus was whether it was an entire course on ethics in phys anth or whether it came up in a seminar class.

  10. By all means, please leave comments. I’m not a primary author on this blog, but we all appreciate expanding readership. The seminar they are speaking about was entirely on ethics in physical anthropology. Do you know of any other good student blogs on physical anthropology?

  11. None that I could find, though I did find one, but he mostly obsessed about politics. The other anthro blogs I’ve got on reader are the basics (john hawks, afarensis, kambiz etc).I was thinking of starting one, but that fell apart quickly after the school year started.

Leave a Reply to zacharoo Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s