Do Anthropologists Have More Fun….?

Naming no names, I know a fair few historians who deeply envy the life of even your average, garden-variety anthropologist.

For anyone who regards all academics in the humanities as basically the same pedantic, wealth-squandering enemy of the tax-payer, the difference between us is that while historians stick to the past anthropology is the ‘academic study of humanity’ in pretty much any time and place – a study that has its modern origins with pith-helmeted Europeans prodding colonial subjects with sticks and writing luridly about their weird religions and dances.

Weird religions and dances, much beloved of anthropologists

Now while we noble history types sit around in dank libraries, nursing the premature onset of piles and love handles, and inhaling decades-worth of dust off books that even in their own day probably weren’t all that compelling, our anthropologist cousins are out there gleefully bounding around jungles both urban and verdant.

And while we obsess over reconstructing or deconstructing a past life or event – praying that the next stale page-turn yields something helpful or even (God forbid) surprising – anthropologists have real, living and breathing human informants who they can more or less shake by the lapels until they tell them what they need to know.

There may be more to the anthropological method than this, but I’m sure that’s basically it.

'History Today' from The Mary Whitehouse Experience - everyone's favourite image of academic history

In which case anthropologists are undoubtedly the blondes of the academic world – getting out there and having more fun than the rest of us.

I’m feeling this unfair professional disparity all the more at the moment, working here in Japan. I can’t complain about my subject matter – a first generation of Japanese psychoanalysts who spent their time in metaphysical speculation, running away from the police, dreaming about one another’s wives, and generally upsetting the sensibilities of their fellow citizens – but they do all share the unhelpful characteristic of being dead and therefore unavailable for comment.

This leaves the historian a serious amount of lonely graft, while an anthropologist is surrounded by his or her subject matter the minute they leave the house – riding bicycles, commuting to work, playing baseball, having families, visiting the doctor, going shopping, running yakitori restaurants, and all the rest.

To give an example, just in the space of a quick hair cut last week I discovered everything from the manifold ways that young Japanese still get hassled about Pearl Harbour when they visit small-town America to an unexpected reaction by some of them to the devastation of last year’s earthquake: streaming into hairdressing salons like the one I was in.

Before the earthquake a little perk in life, and a mark of who you are (or who you want to appear to be) had been, for some young people, an impressive mane of coloured or sculpted hair – even, or perhaps especially, the boys.

But suddenly a few of these youngsters wanted to go back to short, and back to black.

They told the hairdresser they felt that something had changed right across Japan, that life had suddenly become more serious, and more real. In addition to the change in hairstyle a fair few were even considering a switch to a more ‘responsible’, public-spirited line of work.

As historians I think we’re increasingly creative about what counts as ‘source material’ and what sort of questions about humanity’s nature and past we allow ourselves to ask, but still this potential for any encounter to lead to some little insight is something that anthropologists are very lucky to have as part of their job. For the rest of us, it’s back to the library, to await our inevitable fate:

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2 Comments

  • Roger
    June 10, 2012 - 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Hi Chris,
    Very much enjoyed reading your musings. One advantage that a historian has over an anthropologist is with the choice of topics it is far easier to write about history than tryint to put into words some kind of ephemeral trend going on in Japan. Have you read Speed Tribes? Great anthoropoligical work and the aforementioned hair-cutting trend can fit easily into the post-Bosozoku right-of-passage that most Japanese are required to do at the age of twenty. The next step, according to the budgetary calendar, is to become a shakai-jin, date some co-workers (or, the latest trend of catelogue honeys, much to the honey bee’s dismay!), but an abode and then get ready for the daily grind.
    In my opinion, the biggest trend worthy of note in Japan is the number of babies out there these days. Neither good nor bad, but it is striking. How has the Tohoku distaster impacted these new families lives? Ganbarishmasho(!) has very much become a Ganbatte! Many have got their start in the inshokuten and markting/design industries, which, it could be argued, can lead to higher unemployment, as the new mantra becomes, “We want you!… to drink in our pub” !!

  • Roger
    June 10, 2012 - 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Hi Chris,
    Very much enjoyed reading your musings. One advantage that a historian has over an anthropologist is with reagrd to the choice of topics. It is far easier to write about history than trying to put into words (with profundity) some kind of ephemeral trend going on in Japan. Have you read Speed Tribes? Great anthoropoligical work and the aforementioned hair-cutting trend can fit easily into the post-Bosozoku right-of-passage that most Japanese are required to do at the age of twenty. The next step, according to the budgetary calendar, is to become a shakai-jin, date then marry a co-worker (or one of the latest trend of catelogue honeys, much to the honey bee’s dismay!), buy an abode and then get ready for the daily grind.

    In my opinion, the biggest trend worthy of note in Japan is the number of babies out there these days. Neither good nor bad, it is nonetheless striking, since it is very expensive to raise children in Japan (and beyond the means of many young Japanese). I’m still wondering where the fiscal stimulus came from.

    How has the Tohoku distaster impacted these new families lives? Ganbarishmasho(!) has very much become a Ganbatte! Many have got their start in the inshokuten and markting/design industries, which, it could be argued, can lead to higher unemployment, as the new mantra becomes, “We want you!… to drink in our pub” !!

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