World Anthropology Day

“…instil the sense of curiosity to learn and respect the idea of beauty in diversity”

[ Chibom Jilen, Dr Radhe Amung ]

The World Anthropology Day is observed every year on every third Thursday of the February month. For this year, 18th February of 2021 is marked to celebrate the discipline and to share the knowledge that anthropology teaches us all with the rest of the world.

World Anthropology Day was started by American Anthropological Association (AAA) in 2015 as National Anthropology Day. Later on, in the following year it was changed as World Anthropology Day as it was felt that anthropology is crucial to the whole world and not just to Americans.

Anthropology can be understood in simple language as the scientific study of humanity, concerned with human in terms of behaviour and biology, and human societies in the past and present with the outlook to explore future.  It helps us to understand our human origins, our distinctiveness as a species, and our great diversity being human. It provides a better understanding of our world, why humans act the way we do, and how it affects our physical, cultural, and social environments.

Now in the context of Arunachal Pradesh, did anyone of you ever wonder why the traditional food habits of Tawang contains lots of milk products like butter and cheese, whereas most of the Tani tribes have bamboo shoots as part of their important food ingredient? Why the people of high altitude have houses made of stones, and again why sub-tropical areas have wood and bamboo houses?

Most people would generally answer saying, “it is a part of their Culture”. Then what is culture? To an Anthropologist, the notion of culture and understanding of cultural practices has always been fascinating because of the power it entails in terms of understanding human beings. Culture is the pattern of learned and shared behaviour over a period of time by a particular group of people that help them to adapt and transform the world they live in.

Julian Steward in his work “The Theory of Cultural Change ” (1995), explained that environment where people live in can influence the evolution of culture. This idea of Steward is applied in the case of dwellers of high altitude area with less vegetation that learnt to use whatever resources available to them in the course of evolution process according to their immediate environment

The evolution process of culture of any tribe and community is determined by an immediate environment and needs. Cultural tradition develop as a response to specific human needs as opined by Bronislaw Malinowski, an anthropologist known as father of modern Anthropology; the one who carried out one of the longest field work, for almost three years among Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea.  From the perspective of Malinowski, cultural evolution is a complex process, as complex as human organism. The discourse on human culture and its practices has been recurrent phenomena and this has become more evident in today’s era of technological booming and high mobility of people.

Today, People meet more, interact more and then again, People judge each other more from the perspective of their own ‘Cultural Lens’. Time and again, anthropologist has been challenged to address such issues. Anthropologists debunk the idea “to evaluate other’s culture on the basis of own cultural morals”.

The cultural ideal of a particular culture does not necessarily have to apply with every culture.

For instance, eating with bare hands in some countries of Southeast Asia like India, Sri Lanka etc might be deemed strange or inappropriate for westerners but from the Indian point of view, it is an appropriate norm. Such instances reassert and make us realize that we must understand a culture on its own terms and not to make any judgment of other’s culture by using the standards of one’s own culture.

This idea was introduced by an eminent Anthropologist Franz Boas, which was later termed as ‘Cultural Relativism’ by social theorist Alian Locke in 1924.

In today’s context, the principle of cultural relativism is so relevant and applicable to make humankind more empathetic and tolerant. That’s where we need anthropology to remind us that we are basically same human species with different sets of learned behaviour.

On this World Anthropology Day, let us build and instil a sense of curiosity to learn and respect the idea of beauty in diversity.

To end with, we quote Ruth Benedict, who says: “The Purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences”.

(Jilen is a PhD Scholar, while Dr Amung is Assistant Professor, Dept of Anthropology, Rajiv Gandhi University)