Once I’ve pick up a book at one of these book sales that book stores sometimes have. The topic did not fall in my immediate field of interest, but for the sake of “broadening my horizons” I decided to buy the book. The idea that something one reads in a book can change one’s life is perhaps rather far fetched, but this book came close. It definitely changed the way I look at the world and people.
The book is about cultural anthropology, a topic which, until I’ve pick up that book, I did not know exists. It is not a topic that one hears about much. There are no big breakthroughs in cultural anthropology that appear in the news headlines. I don’t ever hear about excited young students that want to study cultural anthropology, but often hear about them wanting to study medicine or engineering. And yet, when I look at the world and what is going on, I realize that cultural anthropology is what we desperately need.
A cultural anthropologist studies cultures and tries to understand how they evolve. Cultures are complex emergent phenomena; a product of the highly evolved human mind and psyche. It is culture that makes humans different from animals. Our cultures protect us in hostile changing environments. People often think it is our technology that does that, but technology is just part of our cultures. Without culture, we won’t have technology.
Humanity has become progressively more complex and interconnected. It is one thing to have a culture when it evolves in isolation with occasional contact with other cultures. However, through colonization and modern technology, cultures at very different levels of development have been brought in close contact. The consequences are often devastating. Modern communication technology, which drives social media, also has severe unintended consequences. While each culture tends to develop its own unique morality, the intense interaction among different cultures causes morality to become diluted. One would think that this interaction would give rise to a unified morality for the world, but instead what we see is a general loss of moral behavior. It is as if the realization of the relativity in morality instills a disrespect of the very concept of right and wrong. This is not a good situation.
The problem is that we do not understand these effects. We do not have the knowledge to predict the consequences or, if possible, come up with solutions; the necessary actions that need to be taken. Governments take action to compensate for situations that occur in their countries, but when it comes to these cultural effects, they act in apparent complete ignorance of the consequences of their actions. There are countries with populations consisting of people with different cultures at vastly different levels of development. The governments of these countries are trying to manage this situation with complete ignorance of how to handle the situation, often with devastating consequences.
Clearly there is a desperate need for better knowledge about how cultures evolve and how they interact; the cultural dynamics. What is the effect of mixing people with vastly different cultural development levels? This is the topic of cultural anthropology. We need more cultural anthropologists.