Postmodernist Anthropology

Postmodern theory (PM) in anthropology originated in the 1960s along with the literary postmodern movement in general. Anthropologists working in this vein of inquiry seek to dissect, interpret and write cultural critiques.

One issue discussed by PM anthropologists is about subjectivity; because ethnographies are influenced by the disposition of the author, should their opinions be considered scientific? Clifford Geertz, considered a founding member of postmodernist anthropology, advocates that, “anthropological writings are themselves interpretations, and second and third ones to boot” In the 21st century, most anthropologists use a form of standpoint theory; a person's perspective in writing and cultural interpretation of others is guided by their own background and experiences.

Other major tenets of postmodernist anthropology are:

  • an emphasis on including the opinions of the people being studied,
  • a sense of relativism for the practices of other cultures
  • rejection of science
  • the rejection of grand, universal schemes or theories which explain other cultures (Barrett 1996).

A critique by non-anthropologists has been to question whether anthropologists may speak/write on behalf of cultural others. Margery Wolf states that, “it would be as great a loss to have first-world anthropologists confine their research to the first world as it is (currently) to have third-world anthropologists confine theirs to the third world”. In the 21st century, the question has been resolved by pointing out that all cultural descriptions are of cultural others. All ethnographic writing is done by a person in from one standpoint writing about others living a different standpoint. Thus, the notion of anthropologists as 'culture brokers' (see Richard Kurin) has been adopted to explain why anthropologists, whether from any given country, write about cultural others.

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