What is an American anthropologist?

Posted: Wednesday, September 21, 2005

While teaching the University of Alaska, I would often say in my opening lecture to beginning students that most people think of anthropologists as people who "wear pith helmets, carry machetes and tape recorders, and go out in the world to explore all the strange and exotic customs and beliefs!" And then add, "We like that kind of life!"

The truth is that more than a century ago, a German scientist, Franz Boas, said that to understand other people and their way of life, their culture, we had to be both a participant and an observer of their lives. We had to try and experience their lives, look at our own lives, our cultures and beliefs and try to understand life as we now saw it. My own experience has been to live among the Athabaskan-speaking people of interior Alaska, the Yupiit (Eskimos), Tlingit, Japanese, Mexicans and Europeans. When I look at Alaska and the United States, I see things from a different point of view than some others.

In a world where the internet, e-mail, daily television reports make us realize that we are all occupants of a small planet, racing through space, maybe we all have to be anthropologists. We all have to try and understand those around us, even those with different cultures and traditions, beliefs, languages, values, religions and the changing environment, if we are to survive as a form of life on planet earth.

What most people in life want is security. They want to believe and feel that the way they live, the things they do, their language, their beliefs are unquestionable. They want to get on with the bigger things in life like their family, their favorite sports, cooking, their plants, gardens and pets. They don't want to step out of their daily life, culture, language or society to live in another world and experience its joys, hopes, fears, beliefs and way of life.

As the world closes in on us, we are being forced to look at our neighbors and ourselves. In the past, individual American and European anthropologists left their little cultural world to explore other ways of life. The rest of the world has now come to our doorstep. Now, we are all tossed together and many are beginning to understand that we must explore the differences and possibilities of life on this planet. Maybe we all have to become anthropologists in the old, traditional Boasian manner, and try to share and understand each other.

• Wally Olson is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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