Even if the answer is yes, political opponents are unlikely to give much weight to data and analysis generated by engaged anthropology. Studying One’s Own Society When most people think of anthropologists, they imagine researchers who study others in exotic loca- tions, but since the early 20th century, anthropologists have also studied their own societies. W. Lloyd War- ner, Solon T. Kimball, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, and Hortense Powdermaker were all Ameri- can anthropologists who wrote about American cul- ture. Kenyan anthropologist (as well as freedom fighter and first president of Kenya) Jomo Kenyatta wrote about the Gikuyu of Kenya in 1938, and Chinese an- thropologist Francis Hsu wrote extensively on Chi- nese society. Anthropologists who study their own so- ciety are sometimes called native anthropologists. In recent years, native anthropologists have become even more common. This trend is driven by many factors, including the training of more anthropologists from CHAPTER 2 more different cultures, the increasing total number of anthropologists, the rise of interest in ethnicity in the United States and Europe, as well as the dangers of violence and political instability, and the
correspond- ing difficulty in getting access to and funding for work in some areas where anthropologists have studied in the past. Traditionally, anthropologists doing fieldwork try hard to learn the culture of the people with whom they are working. In a sense, anthropologists working in their own culture have the opposite problem: They must attempt to see their culture as an outsider might. This is challenging because it is easy to take cultural knowledge for granted. In addition, it may be as diffi- cult to maintain a neutral stand in one’s own culture as it is in a different one. As Margaret Mead once noted, it may be easier to remain culturally relativistic when we confront patterns, such as cannibalism or infanti- cide, in other cultures than when we confront problem- atic situations such as child neglect, corporate greed, or armed conflict in our own. Some of the problems and the rewards of study- ing one’s own culture can be seen in Barbara Myer- hoff’s books and films. Myerhoff contrasted her work with the Huichol of northern Mexico (1974) with her work among elderly Jewish people in Cali- fornia (1978). She notes that in the first case, doing anthropology was “an act of imagination, a means for discovering what one is not and will never be.” In the second case, fieldwork was a glimpse into her possible future, as she knew that someday she would be a “little old Jewish lady.” Her work was a per- sonal way to understand that condition and contem- plate her own future. It was, tragically, a future that never arrived. Myerhoff died of cancer when she was only 49.
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