Anthropology, a practical application

In previous, scattered, posts to this blog I have talked about new directions as I slowly change my career and lifestyle. Today I am thinking about moving forward by returning to my original discipline, anthropology. “Cultural anthropology” is the subfield in American anthropology that strives to understand human culture and social organization.  This discipline is frequently perceived as providing accounts of “exotic,” tribal and pre-industrial peoples to contrast with our own culture.  And while this does lead to a fuller understanding of our own lives, anthropology can also contribute solutions to the pressing issues of the twenty-first century: climate change, conflict in the middle east, social and economic change the United States, and systemic poverty in the 3rd world.
As an example, I would like to share Directeur Scott Altran’s presentation to the United Nations  Security Council on April 23, 2015 on their debate of “The Role of Youth in Countering Violent Extremism and Promoting Peace.”  The text of his presentation is published here. I was referred to this link by Connor Wood’s blog post last April, “ Anthropology, not demogoguery, is the way to understand ISIS.”
Atran explains, among other things, that the attraction of ISIS and extremist ideology to youth in circumstances of dislocation, transition, and unemployment is based not on the pull of traditional culture but the breakdown of traditional cultures.  In other words, ISIS uses the language of traditional Islam and a vision of a unified Islamic Caliphate to offer these aimless young people a sense of purpose.  The youth do not see a comparable sense of purpose in working-class or middle-class Western lifestyles of consumerism and liberal democracy, especially when many of them feel locked out of those lifestyles due to high rates of unemployment and patterns of ethnic and religious discrimination.
In his presentation, Atran is summarizing his own research and deep reading of research by other anthropologists and social scientists. This research-based understanding comes from interviews, polls, and ethnography, aka “participant observation.” In Atran’s words, “to participate in [people’s] lives to the extent you feel is morally possible. And then report.” These anthropologists are not seeking to merely write academic articles on social change in the Middle East and the global Muslim community. They want to understand how violent extremism spreads and through understanding offer alternatives and solutions to policy-makers. 
The first step, of course, is understanding. In his blog post, Connor Wood emphasizes how participant observation by anthropologists allows them to understand Muslim extremists as humans and decipher their desires and motivations. It is not to dismiss them as mentally ill fanatics or primitive tribalists.  As Wood explains, culture is not “window dressing, put on display for government-sponorsed festivals: strange foods and colorful dances…”  It is a set of values and social roles that define how we live our lives, that give us meaning and direction. 
In fact, Atran’s message is that youth attracted to so-called fringe ideologies are looking for meaning and purpose because they do not feel it in their own lives:
Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. This is the dark side of globalization. They radicalize to find a firm identify in a flattened world…
The full text of Atran’s presentation is more persuasive than I can be, so I highly recommend reading the text of viewing the video. What you will find is that with this depth of understanding, Atran and fellow anthropologists can offer more than dry, academic reporting. They can offer practical solutions to social problems.  In this case, Directeur Atran suggests:
  • give young people a purpose that includes reaching out to other young people, since peer-to-peer networks are more effective than messages from adults and government agencies;
  • develop youth-managed programs at the neighborhood level, not regional or national, and allow the local youth to guide the content of these activities from the ground up, not the top down;
  • meet young people where they are, not where you would like them to be.  They are not yet 40-hour/week wage slaves with a mortgage, a spouse, and children of their own. In fact, many may be rebelling against that very prospect.  Offer them alternatives to Western consumerism that are not violent extremism;
  • envision youth programs that are not one-dimensional; they should encompass—or at least allow for—art, music, and sport. The goal is not a weekly after-school club activity, but a lifestyle, a culture with compelling values and meaningful social roles.
Connor Wood’s blog post promotes the practical solutions offered by Atran’s work, as well as anthropology generally, as well as providing a spirited critique of Western-style consumerism and “globalization,” the process by which the consumerist lifestyle spreads.  This is not an uncommon use of anthropological understandings of non-Western societies. His is an illustration of how anthropology makes a persuasive case about the unintended—but real and devastating—consequences of Western cultural expansion. A recommend reading his post and the links he provides, as well.

My goal is to continue reading about, and sharing here, the practical contributions anthropologists are making to our current social problems. 

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