2: The Power of Cultural Anthropology to Address the World’s Problems

In Chapter 1, I suggested that cultural anthropology has the potential to change the world. By this, I mean using cultural anthropology’s tool kit—consisting of participant observation, contextual understanding, and comparison—anthropologists and non-anthropologists alike can effectively address major social problems. To make this point, Chapter 2 examines three case studies. The first deals with the trillions spent on foreign aid with, at best, mixed results. It asks: Is there a way to spend this money so that it brings about more positive results? The second considers where the American military went wrong in Vietnam and later Iraq. It asks: Could these conflicts have been more effectively resolved without the high loss of life and the wasting of billions of dollars? The third deals with the cost and uncertain results of higher education in Canada and the United States. It asks: How might North American higher education be reformed so students can gain the career skills they need at a lower cost? Sound interesting?

As readers move through the chapter, they will see a point highlighted in Chapter 1—the gap between cultural anthropology’s potential and its actual practice. Thousands of cultural anthropologists—in one form or another, operating under one label or another—have sought to address social problems beyond the parochial concerns of the discipline. I would speculate that these anthropologists represent perhaps 10 to 15 percent of the field, a sizable minority. Cultural anthropology certainly has its share of individuals seeking to make a difference beyond the university, beyond the academy.

The unfortunate part of this positive statement is that most anthropologists tend to focus on narrowly defined problems in specific locales, or they write in forms of “academese” that are only partially intelligible to general readers. They are infrequently cited in the case studies below because they have not sought to develop “big picture” perspectives of major social concerns in ways that help a broad range of readers appreciate the dynamics at work. They could. This chapter discusses the potential of participant-observation and contextual understanding to facilitate transparency and accountability in major institutions. It emphasizes the power of comparison to illuminate the key dynamics behind critical social concerns. Cultural anthropologists could use the field’s tools to effectively address important social issues. But as noted, anthropology is embedded in social contexts that do not encourage such efforts. Rather than becoming recognized public figures concerned with addressing important problems—as Paul Farmer has— most cultural anthropologists are inclined to turn inward, publishing their analyses in partially intelligible prose in anthropology journals with modest readerships. The result, as we see in this chapter, is that others use cultural anthropology’s tools to lead the charge for change.

The chapter highlights important ways to move from talking about change to facilitating it. It argues for the importance of circulating information widely—beyond the academy—to encourage social accountability. The individuals cited below have all had their books prominently discussed in the national and international media. That is what made Franz Boas and Margaret Mead effective in times past and what makes Paul Farmer effective today. They were (or are) able to repeatedly get their message across to a broad array of citizens and decision-makers.

Let me offer a brief overview of what follows. The first case study considers why the over two trillion dollars spent on foreign aid by the West in recent decades—the figure cited by William Easterly in The White Man’s Burden—has been less successful than hoped at improving Third World living standards. The study uses contextual understanding to explore why good intentions have frequently failed. The study then turns to comparison to offer new ways to frame aid efforts. For many projects, the problem revolves around the way accountability is measured. The focus is on spending money rather than on evaluating what does and doesn’t work to help those in need.

The second case study focuses on two American military involvements: the Vietnam War and the U.S. government’s efforts in Iraq after the 2003 war. In both cases the American government emphasized military might over cultural understanding. This caused significant loss of life (in Vietnam) and the wasting of billions of dollars (in Vietnam and Iraq). With their skills in contextual understanding, anthropologists were in a position to provide information that could conceivably have reframed the American military strategy at a critical moment in the Vietnam War—thereby saving thousands of lives. We can only look back with regret at this missed opportunity. Using comparison, the case study concludes with reflections on how and when anthropologists can bring transparency and accountability to military and administrative efforts gone awry.

The third case study deals with higher education in North America. Through a study of the contextual dynamics at work in higher education, it suggests why college costs so much and why students may graduate without the skills needed for successful careers. Using a comparison of Canadian and American systems of higher education, it suggests ways that students in both countries can navigate their educational systems to bring college costs down while gaining needed career skills.

Each case study involves two sections. The first explains the problems being discussed. The second then demonstrates how the tools of cultural anthropology can prove instrumental in addressing them.