What does one do when he finds himself at odds with the foundations of his topic of study? I find myself in such a position as I wade my way through introductory anthropology courses and prepare to declare it as my major. As much as I have enjoyed the opportunities to explore Major Debates in the Study of Africa or Chinese Society over the past semesters, my resistance to the required courses for the major has resulted in a sudden collision with the most basic theories of the anthropological method of thinking. To my dismay, I find myself shaking my head in disagreement as my venerable professors outline, from square one, how a true anthropologist goes about viewing the world. I have no issues with Saussure's views on language. There is nothing about Lévi-Strauss's views on identity across difference that offends me. I don't get squeamish at the mention of Malinowski's thoughts on functionalism as an explanation of society. Instead, what has me questioning my eligibility as an anthropologist is my belief in a morality that transcends culture. Any student who has taken an introductory anthropology course can tell you that sometime at the beginning of the semester, the professor will explain, in no uncertain terms, that although an anthropologist may be exposed to practices and traditions that strike him as abhorrent, he may not render moral value judgments on them. Why? According to much of anthropological scholarship today, cultures are exempt from value judgments in their status as independent, self-contained societies. This world-view, cultural relativism, supposedly prevents anthropologists from poisoning other cultures with their dangerous presuppositions of right and wrong. Coming from a culture of our own with its own set of moral tenets, we are in no place to extend our own cultural ideas into the independent spheres of other cultures. Being that this philosophy comes across as a requirement for a modern anthropological attitude, I am struck by a question. If I believe that some actions, like murder, deceit, or rape, are morally wrong regardless of where they occur, does that prevent me from being a "good" anthropologist? Does my belief in universal morality automatically invalidate my credibility as a student of the science? I don't believe it does. From what I know about anthropology, I think it is possible to hold my beliefs and sufficiently fulfill my duties as a student of the science. You may wonder how I can justify such an apparent contradiction? Isn't it arrogant to enter into a new culture having already decided that some of their practices are morally wrong? How could I possibly offer unbiased research into what I must consider to be a community of criminals? It is here that I would call upon a piece of common wisdom: "Hate the sin, love the sinner." Though it sounds trite, I believe this sentiment reconciles my apparent paradox. I may consider murder to be wrong regardless of where or in which culture it occurs, but that does not necessitate culpability of the people who take such action. It is possible, I believe, to energetically condemn morally reprehensible practices without labeling the perpetrators as monsters. I believe I can be an anthropologist with my set of beliefs—that it won't somehow prohibit me from conducting acceptable fieldwork. Though I may see practices that I consider wrong, I consider it within the realm of possibility to refrain from condemning the people of another culture. I won't guarantee that I'll approach an unfamiliar culture without any bias, and I don't think anybody really can. Instead, I can confidently say that my views on morality will not preclude me from studying a group of people with the same open and respectful attitude that others have employed in the collective anthropological effort. Upon further reflection, perhaps this hybrid of anthropological interest and universal morality sets the stage for more than just acceptable research. Maybe it's also an opportunity for international social justice. Practices such as honor killings of women in Afghanistan, female genital mutilation in Sudan, or slavery around the world could easily hide behind the shield of cultural relativism. Instead, with some sort of moral authority that extends beyond our surroundings, we can stand up for victims of such violence. We can condemn brutality as wrong, even if it is a tenet of another culture. From the foundation of universal morality, victims of violence will have defenders who are willing to put a stop to the cultural practices that harm or subjugate them. My beliefs may result in professors decrying my use of "value judgments" in essays about foot-binding or brutal marriage practices in Samoa. Though the institutional voices of anthropology oppose my beliefs, I remain confident that these notions actually open the door to making the world a better place. Derek Turner is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in anthropology and political science. Opening Remarks runs alternate Thursdays. Derek Turner is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in anthropology and political science. Opening Remarks runs alternate Thursdays.
Columbia Spectator Staff