Thursday, January 31, 2013

IS the purpose of Anthropology to make the world safe for difference?

I recently attended a workshop on Internationalizing Teaching and Learning (and came away with a great deal to think about - more posts later). 

During the workshop, we talked about leading students toward a more multicultural worldview. One of the participants asked me if it would be acceptable for that to be the whole purpose of an introductory anthropology class. I'll admit, the question took me aback, because it never occurred to me that there could be any doubt the answer is "yes!" After all, Ruth Benedict famously said that "the purpose of Anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference." (That's even our discipline motto, here at UMM.) 

Turns out, our discipline's a little odd that way.

Many disciplines (and even some anthropologists) worry that advocacy of diversity and social justice will taint them. Given the political climate of the last two decades, I understand the fear. I avoid overt commentary on current political questions in classes, because I don't want to be accused of trying to "indoctrinate" my students.

But it's not indoctrination to teach that the world is full of people who have different assumptions about, gender, race, religion, the family, etc. It's not indoctrination to mention that diversity is a fact of life, and a wonderful part of the human experience. And, believe it or not, it's not indoctrination to point out that our own assumptions about the world say a lot about our bests interests as a culture, and aren't necessarily in the best interests of other people.

The more I thought about the question, the more I realized that issues of multiculturalism and social justice are at the heart of teaching in anthropology. And you know what, they're at the heart of our country, too. Need proof? Read some of the angst-ridden articles about demographic trends written by Republican party operatives.

So embrace it, fellow anthropologists! Our business is creating paladins for diversity. Let's teach our students to go out and make that multicultural world safe for human difference!

OK, technically, paladins must have a lawful good orientation, and I consider anthropology to be a force for chaotic good, or, at most, neutral good, but you get my point. (Have I geeked you out yet?)


  1. No place is "safe" (Ruth Benedict lived in another time.). And if diversity is an abstractiono, it will never be understood.

    Dont hide the comment button.


  2. Is the comment button hidden? I haven't changed the blog from the default blogger format. It shows up for me.

    Benedict lived and worked during WWII, a time that was considerably less safe for diversity than today, in much of the world.

  3. anthropology is totes chaotic good!

  4. I'm with Samantha. Anthropology is very definitely chaotic good when it's at its best.