From NPR: ‘How to Think Like an Anthropologist’ – And Why You Should Want To

From NPR’s Barbara J. King:

Civilization originated in the Fertile Crescent region, including parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt: that’s the lesson most of us learned in school.

In it, civilization is used in a highly positive way to refer to the rise of city-states and the development of writing around the 4th millennium BC.

But today, civilization is an idea too often used against people living in that area of the world, sociocultural anthropologist Matthew Engelke explains in his new book, How To Think Like An Anthropologist. Engelke quotes, as an example, a U.S. Army colonel who, in conjunction with the war on terror, said this: “In Western Iraq, it’s like it was six centuries ago with the Bedouins in their goat hair tents.”

We need to see this statement and others like it for what it is, Engelke says: An attempt to relegate the Bedouins to living fossils who are stuck in time and badly in need of being civilized by the West.

It’s not just military culture that buys into and furthers this “civilizing” perspective. In 2007, an aid project was launched by the African Medical and Research Foundation, Barclays Bank, and the British progressive newspaper The Guardian. Its goal was to deliver health care to the village of Katine in northern Uganda. The project itself was sensitive and nuanced, Engelke notes. The coverage in The Guardian was anything but. On Oct.20, 2007, a Guardian story was headlined this way: “Can we, together, lift one village out of the Middle Ages?” Beneath the headline is a statement about traveling “a few hours from London — and 700 years back in time.”

What do these words signal but that the villagers need to be brought forward in time, back into civilization?

That’s dangerous thinking, Engelke says — and through the lens of anthropology, we can see why.

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