Anthropology as critique

Anthropology as critique

Week 1: Anthropology as “ruthless criticism”

Ryan Schram
ANTH 1002: Anthropology in the world
Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Slides available at

Main reading: Marx ([1843] 1978)

Anthropology is not the solution to anyone’s problems

I argue that the world’s biggest problems are global in nature.

I hope that anthropologists are part of finding solutions, but not because anthropology has solutions to complex problems.

Anthropologists are not experts. They are the enemy of expertise.

Anthropology does not say there are no answers, though. That would be truly hopeless.

Anthropologists always start from the assumption that

Hence, there is always more to learn, and there are always new perspectives to consider. For that reason, anthropology is an exercise in hope.

Anthropology in an unequal world

Anthropology is not naive. The world is FUBAR.

The world today is very unequal in several respects. It may seem like this a permanent reality.

Do you agree? What’s an example of inequality that you think is important.

Anthropology as “ruthless criticism” (rücksichtslose Kritik)

Anthropology descends from a long tradition of critical thought.

Consider the ideas of “the young Marx”, who believed he and his fellow radicals would change the world with critique (Kritik):

“[A social reformer is] compelled to confess to himself that he has no clear conception of what the future should be. That, however, is just the advantage of the new trend: that we do not attempt dogmatically to prefigure the future, but want to find the new world only through criticism [Kritik] of the old.” (Marx [1843] 1978, 13)

“[W]e realize all the more clearly what we have to accomplish in the present—l am speaking of a ruthless criticism [rücksichtslose Kritik] of everything existing, ruthless in two senses: The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be.” (Marx [1843] 1978, 13)

How do anthropologists think?

An anthropologist begins by listening in a special sense.

Thinking as an anthropologist means:

Language lessons

How many of you have ever learned a language that was not spoken at home?

How long does it take to learn a new language?

Do you think you could ever learn to forget your first language? Why or why not?

Socialization is a technical term for a profound idea: We have been assimilated

References and further reading

Marx, Karl. (1843) 1978. “For a ruthless criticism of everything existing.” In The Marx-Engels reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, 12–15. New York: Norton.