Thomas Hylland Eriksen

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Thomas Hylland Eriksen (2011)

Thomas Hylland Eriksen (born February 6, 1962) is a Norwegian anthropologist. He is currently a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo, as well as the 2015-2016 president of the European Association of Social Anthropologists. He is a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.

Quotes[edit]

What is Anthropology? (2nd ed., 2017)[edit]

  • Anthropology is an intellectually challenging, theoretically ambitious subject which tries to achieve an understanding of culture, society and humanity through detailed studies of local life, made sense of through comparison and contextualisation. But it is also a form of storytelling about the lives that you and I could have led, but didn’t because we were busy living our own lives.
    • Ch. 1 : Why Anthropology?
  • To simplify somewhat, one may say that anthropology primarily offers two kinds of insight. First, its practitioners produce knowledge about the actual cultural variation in the world; studies may deal with, say, the role of caste and wealth in Indian village life, technology among highland people in New Guinea, religion in southern Africa, life on the Wall Street stock exchange, the political importance of kinship in the Middle East, or concepts about life and the cosmos in the Amazon basin. Although most anthropologists are specialists in one or two regions, it is necessary to be knowledgeable about global cultural variation, and about humanity as such, in order to be able to say anything interesting about one’s region, topic or people.
    Second, anthropology offers methods and theoretical perspectives enabling the practitioner to explore, compare and understand these varied expressions of the human condition. In other words, the subject offers both things to think about and things to think with.
    But anthropology is not just a toolbox; it is also a craft which teaches the novice how to obtain a certain kind of knowledge and what this knowledge might say something about.
    • Ch. 1 : Why Anthropology?
  • It is the goal of anthropology to establish as detailed a knowledge as possible about human life in its mind-boggling diversity, and to develop a conceptual apparatus that makes it possible to compare life-worlds and societies. This in turn enables us to understand both differences and similarities between the many different ways of being human.
    • Ch. 1 : Why Anthropology?
  • The great enigma of anthropology can be phrased like this: All over the world, humans are born with the same cognitive and physical apparatus, and yet they grow into distinctly different persons and groups, with different societal types, beliefs, technologies, languages and notions about the good life. Differences in innate endowments vary within each group and not between them, so that musicality, intelligence, intuition and other qualities that vary from person to person are quite evenly distributed globally.
    • Ch. 1 : Why Anthropology?
  • The world, as it is perceived by human beings, is to a certain extent shaped by language. However, there is no agreement as to just what the relationship between language and non-linguistic reality is.
    • Ch. 2 : Key Concepts
  • Many social scientists, including anthropologists, have been interested in the power inherent in gender relations, often described through the idiom of female oppression. It can be argued that men usually tend to exert more power over women than vice versa. In most societies, men generally hold the most important political and religious positions, and very often men control the formal economy. In some societies, it may even be prescribed for women to cover their body and face when they appear in the public sphere, and, paradoxically, these practices sometimes become more common as their societies become more modern. On the other hand, women are often capable of exerting considerable informal power, not least in the domestic sphere. Anthropologists cannot state unequivocally that women are oppressed before they have investigated all aspects of their society, including how the women (and men) themselves perceive their situation. One cannot dismiss the possibility that certain women in western Asia (the Middle East) see the ‘liberated’ western woman as more oppressed – by professional career pressure, demands to look good and other expectations – than themselves.
    When studying societies undergoing change, which perhaps most anthropologists do today, it is important to look at the value conflicts and tensions between different interest groups that are particularly central. Often these conflicts are expressed through gender relations.
    • Ch. 2 : Key Concepts
  • The world is far too complex, and variation between societal types is too vast, for a categorisation dividing it into two mutually exclusive kinds of society to be meaningful. In addition, as argued above, one cannot once and for all draw the boundaries of a society. For this reason, it is more accurate to state that anthropologists study social life rather than saying that they study societies.
    • Ch. 2 : Key Concepts
  • In spite of the lack of clarity in the concept of society, the word is doubtless necessary. In everyday language, words denoting local communities, large-scale society and global society exist, and all refer to actually existing entities, existing at different systemic levels. Humans are integrated in (that is, they participate in and contribute to) several social systems, some operating at a large scale, others at a small scale. When anthropologists delineate their field of study, the level of scale is determined by the issues at hand.
    • Ch. 2 : Key Concepts
  • Although it is necessary to be conscious of variation, the problem of boundaries, political misuse, change, flows and conceptual inaccuracy, it would be tantamount to intellectual suicide for anthropology if it were to discard a concept that tells us that people with different backgrounds, who have been raised in very different environments, live – to a greater or lesser extent – in different life-worlds and see the world in different ways. Thus, it seems necessary to keep the culture concept, but in an ideal world, it would be locked securely in a cupboard and taken out only when it was needed. In most cases where the culture concept is used cursorily today – inside and outside of anthropology – it would prove unnecessary to unlock the cupboard.
    • Ch. 2 : Key Concepts
  • All cultural translation necessitates some interpretation and simplification. No sane reader would be able to make sense of a text which consisted exclusively of directly translated, unmediated quotations from informants. Compression and editing are therefore necessary elements of cultural translation. Moreover, no matter how outstanding an anthropologist is, as a fieldworker, as a writer and as an analyst, the text always represents a selection, and it will always to a greater or lesser extent be marked by the subjectivity of the translator.
    • Ch. 2 : Key Concepts
  • The art of cultural translation consists in oscillating between distance and nearness, between one’s own concepts and the native ones, or – to put it differently – making the exotic familiar and the familiar exotic.
    • Ch. 2 : Key Concepts
  • In anthropological research, it is impossible to keep single variables constant. If one were to place a group of natives into an artificial, controlled situation, the resulting interaction would lose the very context that guarantees its authenticity, and the result would be useless. The closest anthropologists get to the methodological ideals of the experiment is therefore through comparison. One would then compare two or several societies with many similarities, but with one or a few striking differences.
    • Ch. 2 : Key Concepts
  • Holism in anthropology thus entails the identification of internal connections in a system of interaction and communication. The word has gone somewhat out of fashion in recent years, particularly because many anthropologists now study fragmented worlds, which are only integrated in a piecemeal fashion. Nevertheless, the examples above indicate that holism today is to do with contextualisation rather than postulating the existence of tightly integrated and stable entities. In the analytical methodology of anthropology, context may actually be the key concept. It refers to the fact that every phenomenon must be understood with a view to its dynamic relationship with other phenomena. No forms of belief, technologies, marriage systems or economic practices (to mention a few examples) have any meaning whatsoever unless they are understood in a wider context.
    • Ch. 2 : Key Concepts
  • The anthropological production of knowledge has at least two elements: fieldwork and analysis. Some might want to add a third one, namely description; you first collect a body of empirical material through various field methods, you then describe whatever it is that you’ve discovered and, finally, you analyse the findings. Many, including the author, are sceptical of the distinction between description and analysis because the (anthropological) analysis inevitably begins in the (ethnographic) description itself and, indeed, already with observation. No all-encompassing, neutral description exists of anything, and nothing has a meaning independently of that ascribed to it. Already the delineation of the field of enquiry – socially, thematically, spatially, with respect to the concepts used – necessarily entails that reality ‘out there’ is presented in a selective and theoretically biased way. It is impossible to describe everything, or to give equal emphasis to everything one has observed.
    • Ch. 3 : Ethnography
  • The significance of observational data can hardly be exaggerated. Far too many social scientists seem to believe that verbal communication, either via interviews or questionnaires, offers a shortcut to an understanding of people’s life-worlds. But surveys and short interviews may simplify too much. It is not always possible to place your views of, say, the government’s policies or dowry practices on a scale ranging from, say, ‘I fully agree’ to ‘I fully disagree’.
    • Ch. 3 : Ethnography
  • It must be added that many anthropologists are satisfied with one or two periods of fieldwork, that not all field studies last for a year or more, and that there are a lot of different ways in which an anthropological investigation can be undertaken, only a few of which have been dealt with here. Yet certain methodological requirements are definite and non-negotiable. Contextualisation is one; another consists of aiming to understand the world of the natives as far as possible in the way they themselves understand it, as a basis for further analysis.
    • Ch. 3 : Ethnography
  • We still ask of our diverse world how it can be that people, born with roughly the same inborn potentials and opportunities, can turn out to be so different, and, in the next instance, what they can still be said to have in common. Still, anthropologists insist on giving priority of place to local life-worlds and on a methodological openness intended to prevent ethnocentric misjudgements. For, as Clifford Geertz has put it, if all you crave is home truths, you might as well stay at home.
    • Ch. 3 : Ethnography
  • Anthropological theory may be compared to a large crossroads with busy traffic and a few, temporarily employed traffic policemen who desperately try to force the unruly traffic to follow the rules. (There are, it must be admitted, a number of minor crashes and other accidents almost every day.) Or it could be described, more harmoniously, as a coral reef, where the living corals literally build upon the achievements of their deceased predecessors.
    • Ch. 4 : Theories
  • What characterises anthropological research today more than anything is the recognition of complexity; the world is complex, cultures are complex, communities are complex, and analytical strategies must acknowledge complexity.
    • Ch. 4 : Theories
  • Mauss, Polanyi and Sahlins took issue with a view of humans which assumed that they were individualistic, maximising and fundamentally selfish creatures. They associated this view with libertarianism and mainstream economics, but, in other contexts, a similar view of ‘man’ as a fiercely competitive individualist has been associated with that of Darwin’s adherents, who claim that social and cultural phenomena must be understood within the framework of evolutionary theory. The slogans ‘the struggle for survival’ and ‘the survival of the fittest’, and the often uncritical use of the word ‘competition’ used to designate the dynamics of procreation and many other human activities, have been typical of Darwinist interpretations of humanity for decades. Against this background, it is astonishing that a growing number of evolutionary scholars now emphasise that cooperation, mutual trust and long-term reciprocity relations are evolutionarily adaptive.
    • Ch. 5 : Reciprocity
  • Both evolutionary scientists and anthropologists, who approach the phenomena from very discrepant points of view, have, in other words, reached the conclusion that reciprocity, which creates enduring social bonds based on trust and mutual obligations, is a fundamental aspect of human life.
    • Ch. 5 : Reciprocity
  • As mentioned, no society has a prescriptive practice. The rules are always adjusted to fit the bumpy and contradictory world of experience. It must nevertheless be admitted that absolute rules exist everywhere. The incest prohibition exists in all societies, even if it has often been pointed out that it varies in its significance and compass; in some societies, it is limited to the kin we might call close family, that is, people with the same biological mother and father and their relatives in direct lines of descent; but usually half-siblings are included in the incest prohibition, and often the prohibition is extended to include what we might call more remote relatives.
    • Ch. 6 : Kinship
  • Kinship builds upon two complementary principles: descent and marriage. But both can be manipulated and fiddled with, by natives as well as by anthropologists. There exists a considerable critical literature about kinship; some of it was mentioned briefly at the beginning of this chapter, and we now turn to a slightly more detailed examination.
    • Ch. 6 : Kinship
  • The relationships between mother, father and children, family trees and genealogies, preferential treatment of relatives and alliances through marriage furnish us with some of the few really good and useful comparative concepts we have in anthropology. They exist everywhere in one form or another, and they differ in interesting ways. If the ultimate goal is to discover the unity of humanity through its manifold appearances, the profession cannot afford to let go of the still rich gold mine of kinship.
    • Ch. 6 : Kinship
  • The relation between the social sciences and the natural sciences has long been fraught with difficulties. A minority of social scientists (including some anthropologists) regard their activity as an extension, or a branch, of biological research. Others argue that the social sciences ought to be sciences of the same kind as the natural sciences; that they should strive after the same kind of precision and the same kind of parsimonious clarity that can be achieved for instance in chemistry.
    • Ch. 7 : Nature
  • In my view, there are many exciting possibilities for cooperation between social and cultural anthropologists on the one hand, and scholars with a biological perspective on the other, but they are often lost in aggressive academic turf wars and a failure to engage seriously with each other’s points of view.
    • Ch. 7 : Nature
  • Studies of thought and modes of reasoning have been central in the history of anthropology from the nineteenth century to the present day.
    • Ch. 8 : Thought
  • It should be noted here that a research area which has grown rapidly since the 1980s is the aforementioned STS field, that is, the sociological study of technology and science. Here, western science and technology are studied as cultural products, and many of its practitioners adhere to the so-called symmetry principle proposed by the French sociologist Bruno Latour, which entails that the same terminology and the same methods of analysis should be used for failures as for successes; in other words, that what we are doing is looking at science as a social fact, not as truth or falsity. Similarly, most anthropologists would argue that our task consists of making sense of ‘the others’, not judging whether they are right or wrong.
    • Ch. 8 : Thought
  • The broad standardisation of culture represented in nationalism would not have been possible without a modern mass medium such as the printed book (and, later, the newspaper). Thus it may be said that writing has not only influenced thought about the world, but also thought about who we are. It has made it technologically possible to imagine that you belong to the same people as millions of other persons whom you will never meet.
    • Ch. 8 : Thought
  • One reason for the increased interest in studies of identity in anthropology may be the fact that issues to do with the nature of groups have become hugely important in politics worldwide in the last decades.
    • Ch. 9 : Social Identity
  • Above all, there is no simple one-to-one relationship between culture and ethnic identity, despite what many still believe. There are ethnic groups with great internal cultural variation, and there are clear boundaries between ethnic groups whose mutual cultural differences are difficult to spot. Often, the variation within the group is greater on key indicators than the systematic differences between the groups.
    • Ch. 9 : Social Identity
  • Identification is created both from the inside and the outside, in the encounter between one’s own presentation of self and the perceptions of others.
    • Ch. 9 : Social Identity
  • In our day and age, the perspectives from anthropology are just as indispensable as those from philosophy. Anthropology can teach important lessons about the world and the global whirl of cultural mixing, contact and contestation – but it can also teach us about ourselves. Goethe once said that ‘he who speaks no foreign language knows nothing about his own’. And although anthropology is about ‘the other’, it is ultimately also about ‘the self’. For it can tell us that almost unimaginably different lives from our own are meaningful and valuable, that everything could have been different, that a different world is possible, and that even people who seem very different from you and me are, ultimately, like ourselves. Anthropology takes part in the long conversation about what it is to be human, and gives flesh and blood to these fundamental questions. It is a genuinely cosmopolitan discipline in that it does not privilege certain ways of life above others, but charts and compares the full range of solutions to the perennial human challenges. In this respect, anthropology is uniquely a knowledge for the twenty-first century, crucial in our attempts to come to terms with a globalised world, essential for building understanding and respect across real or imagined cultural divides.
    And make no mistake, anthropology holds out the keys to a world which has the potential of changing the lives of those who choose to enter it.
    • Ch. 9 : Social Identity

External links[edit]

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