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MA JIANFU, TIAN GUANG: Anthropology increasingly applied across disciplines and society

| 2018-08-02
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Anthropology is a social science discipline that is notably pragmatic today, and yet several decades ago it was little known outside academia. Back then, anthropologists went to distant areas, conducted field investigation, and came back with fascinating but obscure, complex and trivial data. The research data from fieldwork was helpful for scholars’ analysis of the kinship of “Others” and slash-and-burn farming. But apart from several such case studies, the interest in anthropology from outside academia was limited. The impact of anthropology was usually confined within academia, with little relevance to the social and public life of anthropologists themselves.

However, the situation has dramatically changed with the acceleration of globalization and economic and social development. In Western countries, more and more non-anthropology professionals find that anthropology can offer many profound and unique insights. For example, anthropologists tell people that each ethnic group has a culture adaptable to the economic and social development of the group and that culture affects and constrains people’s behavior.

We now live in what has been labeled the age of globalization and information. To understand this seemingly chaotic, incomprehensible and complex era, new perspectives on mankind itself are needed. Some scholars believe that the only discipline capable of offering such perspectives is anthropology.

While trying to explain social and cultural changes, researchers of anthropology interpret the similarities between social systems and interpersonal relationships. Anthropologists also hold a unique view of cultural relativism, and they stress the importance of understanding other cultures in as unbiased and holistic a way as possible.

It is in this context that anthropology has made its own unique contribution to the interdisciplinary dialogue on human society. Anthropological perspectives can enrich other disciplines’ explorations of phenomena. In economics, for example, the term “informal sector,” also called informal economy, was coined by the anthropologist Keith Hart. When conducting a field survey in Ghana’s open-air markets, Hart was struck by how goods bartering, giveaways and other forms of transaction did not fit into the generally accepted economic model. From his anthropological observation, he put forward the concept.

Anthropology is also conducive to discussions on the nature of humans, which makes the exploration of some philosophical issues more lifelike and substantial. To some scholars, anthropology is a truly global discipline, because it does not place certain lifestyles above others either explicitly or implicitly, but rather records and makes comparisons among the continuously emerging solutions to humanity’s challenges.

Anthropology brings together the knowledge, theories and methods of different disciplines to deal with the problems and challenges faced by humans in different environments. Currently, anthropology’s subfields cover a wide range of disciplines, including global migration, medical practice in the Amazon, consumption and religion. At the same time, anthropologists today pay increasing attention to the study of society as a complex whole. Even if the research focuses on small-scaled society, the research’s connections to larger-scaled societies and to the global system at large are emphasized. No one conducts research with the assumption that a community is an isolated entity.

In addition, new technology continues to emerge. Information technology, artificial intelligence, biotech and more are bringing novel changes to human life with each passing day. Anthropology promises not only to look into people’s hearts, but also to become indispensable in people’s lives. The anthropological approach could become common sense for understanding culture and society and solving problems in daily life. For example, business anthropology has emerged as a branch of applied anthropology bringing the discipline’s  views and methods to examine corporate culture, consumer markets, enterprise strategy and other areas.


Ma Jianfu is an associate professor from Institute of Hui Nationality Studies at North Minzu University; Tian Guang is a guest professor from the Business School at Shantou University.