The Language of Anthropology

By Himani Rathore 2021-06-12

“Anthropology is that which makes the unfamiliar familiar and the familiar unfamiliar”- is how my professor would define it. These words resonate with my understanding and experience of our socio-cultural worlds. Anthropology is a language that renders alien cultures understandable and one’s own societies mysterious.

Although I have acquired myriad complexities from anthropology, I have also gleaned ideas that bridge the gaps in our understanding of the ‘Other’. Here’s my take on Anthropology's contribution to interdisciplinary ideas.

Five words that are rooted in an anthropological understanding of our shared worlds:


1. Emic perspective: Anthropological methods call for a 'participant like observation' of social phenomena; an insider’s view into the world of the ‘Other,’ beyond their language into their metaphors. While it shapes new cultural knowledge, it also requires unlearning of biases. It demands that you look at the gendered world of migrant laborers through their own experiential lens, regardless of your own metropolitan upbringing and private school education. Today the word and its ethos are reflected in advocacy, social work, and public policy.


2. Lived cultures: Anthropology moves culture from the domain of abstract to lived. Religious belief transforms from dogma (questioned for proof) to a lived and shared experience of the community. Ritual moves beyond the dichotomy of effective or ineffective, into a performance that is the means as well as an end to social integration. Lived realities of culture shape social institutions, organizations, and virtual communities alike.


Read more: What is History?


 3. Opportune conflicts: A renewed perspective on conflicts, is anthropology’s most distinguished contribution to the study of societies. Conflicts, while imminent in any group of diverse individuals, are also an opening for change. There would be no democracy in the world if fascists were not toppled by revolution. There would be no change in the binary systems of gender if queer individuals did not question the normativity attached to it. Social conflict is as crucial for the sustenance of human groups, as social cohesion. The idea of opportune conflicts contributes to the study of social movements, resistance, pandemics, wars, and revolution.


4. Social change: Tradition broods on people's nostalgia for a golden past and their urge to protect its remnants. Anthropology underlines how this brooding is as incessant as change is inevitable. It looks at the object of its inquiry, culture, in its transience - symbols, language, ideologies, and communities as they change. This idea molds the perception of social groups away from immutable toward ever-shifting.


5. Action research: If you have all this wisdom about socio-cultural lives, you ought to use it. Anthropology provides a window into the lives of underrepresented and marginalized groups, and thus a possibility of change. Action research demands that one does not stop at voyeuristic descriptions of human suffering, but uses its knowledge to alleviate.