Robert L. Moore

Do we need anthropologists? Absolutely

Shortly after I completed work for my anthropology Ph.D. in 1981, I went to work for JuNo Industries, my family's business, as a salesman. I would have preferred an academic job, but, given the depressed economy of the time, selling pipes and valves was the best I could do.

Since I had done some anthropological research in Latin America, I had a basic understanding of and appreciation for the cultures of places like Mexico, Costa Rica and Venezuela. Consequently, I quickly began looking for customers in those places, something nobody in the company had done before. Within a few months I had developed a small but rapidly growing export operation in Latin America. I was on the way to making exports a significant part of JuNo's sales when an academic position became available to me and I left my business career behind.

I wasn't a particularly good salesman. In fact, some of my co-workers might say that "not very good" would be an unwarranted overestimation of my salesmanship. But what I did have was a basic understanding of the ways of some of our neighbors to the south, all of which I had learned through the study of anthropology.

I mention this because of Gov. Rick Scott's claim that it is not a vital interest for Florida "to have more anthropologists." But, in fact, it is.

The governor probably doesn't understand our discipline, and if this is the case, he is certainly not the only one. Popular portrayals of anthropology professors in sitcoms like Third Rock from the Sun and Community perpetuate the image of the typical anthropologist as an eccentric, pith-helmet-wearing wanderer who spends his or her time looking for lost tribes in the jungles of Borneo.

But this is far from the case. The world, as I'm sure the governor understands, is a culturally diverse and complicated place with people who speak countless languages and live by a myriad of complex cultural codes. The best-equipped specialists who can help us negotiate the rocks and shoals of this complicated world are cultural anthropologists.

One of the most famous examples where anthropology played a vital role in our national policy came during World War II, when, in light of our ignorance about Japanese culture, the Roosevelt administration asked anthropologist Ruth Benedict for advice on how to deal with the people of that land. She produced a lengthy report with a number of observations, but one point she particularly emphasized was the reverence with which the Japanese regarded their emperor and the importance of not dethroning or humiliating him during the American occupation. American administrators wisely followed her advice, and this was one of the key factors that ensured a relatively smooth and successful occupation.

The discipline of anthropology benefits us in a variety of ways, not just through its command of cultural know-how. Archaeologists from Florida State University's Anthropology Department, for example, have excavated and reconstructed Mission San Luis, an impressive tourist attraction and educational site on the outskirts of Tallahassee. In fact, Florida archaeologists have reconstructed a number of interesting and informative historic sites all over the state, including Fort Mose, near St. Augustine, where African refugees from Southern plantations defended their newfound liberty, and the Jungle Prada site in St. Petersburg where Pánfilo de Narvaez landed during his disastrous attempt to subdue Florida's native population.

Louisiana State professor Rebecca Saunders, who received her Ph.D. from the University of Florida, was part of the lead team that excavated and identified victims of genocide in Kosovo and Bosnia. This team's report to the U.N. Security Council triggered the international criminal tribunal against the perpetrators of those atrocities.

Rollins College anthropologist Rachel Newcomb has done extensive research in the Arab world and, on the basis of her work, is scheduled to make a presentation on our campus on current youth uprisings there and the social media that enable them. On this same panel will be anthropologist Pardis Mahdavi of Pomona College, an expert on Iran.

Anthropology, the study of people in all their varieties, holds many of the keys that will enhance our capacity to succeed and prosper in an increasingly competitive and culturally complex world. I hate to picture us standing on the shore, wondering why our neighbors in Georgia and Texas are doing so much better than Floridians at selling their products overseas or attracting international students to their campuses. But this is where we will find ourselves if we fail to appreciate the importance of what anthropology has to offer.

The correct answer, then, to the governor's question, "Is it a vital interest of the state of Florida to have more anthropologists?" should be a resounding "Yes."

Robert L. Moore is a professor of anthropology and director of international affairs for the Hamilton Holt School of Rollins College in Winter Park.

Do we need anthropologists? Absolutely 10/13/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 13, 2011 6:43pm]

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