Are anthropologists better than you think?

Many economists like to dump on their fellow social scientists, and personally I find that reading anthropology is often quite uninspiring.  That said, I would like to say a small bit on the superiority of anthropologists.  I view the “products” of anthropology as the experiences, world views, and conversations of the anthropologists themselves.  Those products translate poorly into the medium of print, and so from a distance the anthropologists appear to be inferior and lackluster (I wonder to what extent the anthropologists realize this themselves?).

Yet anthropologists have some of the most profound understandings of the human condition.  They have witnessed, absorbed, and processed some of the most interesting data, especially those anthropologists who do fieldwork of the traditional kind.

The rest of us are simply (usually) too blind to see this.  It even can be argued that anthropology is the queen and most general of the social sciences, and that economics, as a social science, is simply playing around in one of the larger anthropologically-motivated sandboxes, namely the economy.

We so often confuse “what can be translated into print well” with “what is important and interesting.”  In classical music there have been performers, such as Jorge Bolet, who are incredible but whose genius didn’t translate well in the recording studio.  That does mean anthropology is very often not a highly leveraged means of status and influence.

I believe that travel — when done intelligently — is the most fundamental method of learning.  And yet most travel books are a crashing bore.  Don’t confuse what you — as an outsider — can consume well with what is good and important from an inside perspective.


Right. A half century or more ago it was not uncommon for non-anthropologists to concede pride of place to anthropology, to assume anthropology was to the human sciences what physics is to the hard sciences.

The decline of anthropology was not inevitable, and it just might be reversed.

Perhaps it's the modern political correctness. I guess a considerable part of anthropology literature would be considered patronizing/racist/offensive today. The archetypal anthropology text from the 19th and 20th century is about the culture of small isolated societies.......look they are so different from "us".

If you open a Chemistry book today, it does not contain any reference to alchemy. Perhaps anthropology needs to reborn as a science and forget it's colonialist past.

If you open a Chemistry book today, it does not contain any reference to alchemy. Perhaps anthropology needs to reborn as a science and forget it’s colonialist past.

That is a spectacularly wrong conclusion. A chemistry book today does not contain any reference to alchemy. Nor did anthropology books of a generation ago. They were scientific, in so far as anthropology could be. *Modern* anthropology has rejected that science in favor of theology. Alchemy would be too generous for modern anthropologists. Look at their response to Chagnon. Heresy hunting and Lysenkoism.

Someone like Edward Evans-Pritchard represented a peak of the field in anthropology. He worked for colonial authorities and so his work had to be accurate and useful - the natives rose in rebellion if it wasn't. Since then, the field has been taken over by people who are solely interested in self-flagellation in order to please their academic colleagues in the West. What the locals do or think is irrelevant.

Are anthropologists better than you think?

Why am I reminded of "Michael Corleone, do you reject the Devil and all His Works?"

My old college chemistry text taught me about Hennig Brand's smelly attempts to distill gold from urine which instead produced stuff that glows, phosphorus, the first element to be identified since antiquity.

If contemporary chemistry textbooks fail to adduce alchemy, they perhaps fail to adduce the science's history adequately, as John Mansfield suggests in this thread.
Are our sciences so embarrassed by their own histories that their practitioners have to bury the details to maintain composure or credibility? Isaac Newton certainly was an alchemist, though this seems not to be popularly appreciated.
(That is: I don't think Pierre Duhem was a revisionist historian, he seems to have taken the history of science seriously, in historical terms as in scientific terms. Feyerabend may enjoy no popularity today, but his views on the history of science bespeak at least a readiness to examine matters without benefit of inherited scientific dogmatisms and "settled facts".)

Having the biggest name in your field turn out to be essentially a fraud may tend to do this to a field. It is a pity, however, that the whole field had to suffer---it may be that the field did not make her a big name, but that her ideas appealed to the times (and the Times.)

Derek Freeman said in his subsequent works that his archival research on Mead's activities convinced him she was perfectly above-board, just wrong. I'm not sure a similar investigation of Colin Turnbull's work would reveal the same.

An anthropologist who doesn't even bother to learn the relevant language may reasonably be thought of as a fraud.

If this were true about anthropology, how would it not place theologians or philosophers ahead of them, since they would include all anthropogy plus systematic reflection on it in relation to the whole?

Sure. Kind of like mathematicians to physicists.

theologians - experts in the field of imaginary friends

philosophy - which is to reality like masturbation is to sex

You're an idiot.

What is reality?

And you're an adolescent.

What is the ratio of orgasms from sex to orgasms from masturbation, and how has that ratio changed over the years?

Can you reformulate that question in the propositional calculus?

The difference is theology and philosophy are not sciences. I don't think the fact that they talk about the human condition means that they "include all anthropology".

Actually the next step up from anthropology is pretty obviously biology. All of social science is just a highly specialized branch of primatology.

Jared Diamond has written several anthropology books which have been very well received. I don't see how you can claim that it's a hard subject to put into print? Maybe you're just reading the wrong material?

Jared Diamond is basically a Darwinist, so he's comfortable propounding large theories that make his books interesting (if you've been bored by "Guns, Germs, and Steel," check out his earlier and more exciting "The Third Chimpanzee"). Cultural anthropology is dominated by anti-Darwinists, so it has gotten pretty unreadable.

Unreadable by neo-social-darwinists looking for scientific sounding cover for their unreconstructed paleo-conservatism anyway.

I read every word of Guns, Germs, and Steel in galleys before it was published in 1997. Here's my mostly favorable review in National Review, which does identify the book's central logical flaw:

"Diamond makes environmental differences seem so compelling that it's hard to believe that humans would not become somewhat adapted to their homelands through natural selection."

Diamond is a geographer at UCLA, not an anthropologist. If my memory serves me correctly, he actually holds his PhD (from Cambridge) in a physical science rather than a social one.

Anthropologists have been attacking Diamond's work (and Diamond himself) for about a decade now.

Diamond is also a leading physiologist (on the human gall bladder). And an expert on birds of New Guinea. In summary, he's a broadly learned man, and it's appropriate that he try his hand at large topics.

Let me pipe up for the geographers here: we don't like him much either. Well, that's not fair, I think some of his ideas are worth reading, (and others, not), but there sure were a lot of walkouts at his talk at the 2013 AAG Meeting. For some people, he comes uncomfortably close to the environmental determinism of Semple and Huntingdon, which is a chapter of the discipline's history most geographers would rather forget. He's more sophisticated than Semple or Huntingdon, who were basically discredited by the 1950s, but you can definitely trace the intellectual lineage.

Kate Fox writes very readable, funny, anthropological books. Although she writes them about aspects of English culture, as she dislikes hardships.

I'll second the Kate Fox recommendation.

or maybe the vast majority of academia is just a fraud.

"And yet most travel books are a crashing bore."

Most books in any genre are mediocre. Since the travel genre includes masterpieces by writers like Patrick Leigh Fermor, Rebecca West, early Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, George Orwell, de Tocqueville, Mark Twain, and WG Sebald, not to mention Herodotus, this has to be one of the more ridiculous generalizations Professor Cowen has ever ventured.

Travel books seem particularly unboring. Generally, they don't let dull writers writer travel books, and the small number of travel books that stay in print tend to be stylistically dazzling and wildly entertaining. Waugh's travel writing about his 1930 visit to Abyssinia is among the most memorable I've ever read, even though he topped it with "Black Mischief," then topped that with "Scoop."

On the other hand, I think I can see Tyler's point: travel books aren't a very good genre for expounding a theoretical insight.

It's not clear Herodotus really traveled much. At least the vast majority of the places he described were based entirely on hearsay. But anyway, good point.

The generalization of anthropologists is also silly. I dare say more people would read a good anthropologist than a good economist. No doubt there are a lot of unreadable cultural anthropologists, but so what? The vast majority of economists couldn't write a layman book if the alternative was the iron maiden.

I went to and searched for anthropology books, by popularity (see

The first two results were One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America's Future and Outliers: The Story of Success, neither of which strike me as the sort of anthropological research Tyler Cowan is thinking of. That gives us
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall, who, according to his bio on the Amazaon book page, a journalist. This book ranks 1,082 in books.

It is followed by Guns, Germs and Steel, published in 1999, Before They Pass", from it's description, a photography book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, by a Writer-In-Residence (rank 3,244).

The first book apparently by an actual anthropologist is Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton (Peopling of the Americas Publications), rank 13,529

On the Economics side, I kept getting a bunch of references to Rich Dad Poor Dad, and other personal finance books, so went at it another way by checking the sales order of a couple of famous economist books:

The most highly sold book by an economist in economics that I could see is of course Capital in the 21st Century, by Thomas Piketty, who is a French economist. Sales rank 314.

Freakonomics, by an economist and a journalist, has an Amazon sales ranking of 897 in books, and Think Like a Freak: How to Think Smarter about Almost Everything has a ranking of 486.

So we have at least two economists, Piketty and Levitt, who have written books in Amazon's top 1000 books of sale, but no anthropologist even makes the top 10,000 in terms of sales.

This author was a crashing bore mostly trying to prove bloodlines in the Amazon's Yanomano: Napoleon A. Chagnon.

Bonus trivia: The son of Theroux is married to the Greek-American actress J. Annison.



And they're not married, just engaged to be.

Sturgeon's law: "Ninety percent of everything is crap.:"

VS Naipaul wrote some great travel books too; "Among the Believers" was rather prescient...

This is an example of a great recent anthropology book:

I got this book a few months ago based on that blog post.

"Travel -when done intelligently" What makes travel to a country better or worse, in terms of your learning from it?

I second that question- Tyler can you do a post laying out your answer?

I would be very interested in a post on this as well, Tyler. At least a post reccommending travel books (that are not a crashing bore) demonstrating this.

I think TC is saying when you travel to learn something from the host country, as opposed to just traveling to get wasted and lying in the sand in some random sunny country you know nothing about, nor care to know nothing about, as in Brits traveling to Greece or Turkey for holiday.

I think RL is saying he has a stereotypical view and dislike of Brits.

My travels to Britain taught me RL is correct.

You have travelled intelligently.

If you learned something about Greece or Turkey, would you think any better of them?

Not likely, but I might have an infection.

I also echo this sentiment.

Do you have any 'theory of travel' books that you would recommend?

Not all anthropology is boring. I remember reading "Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches" in high school and being enthralled. For a more recent writing, there's "On 'gringos' and 'natives': gender and sexuality in the context of international sex tourism in Fortaleza, Brazil." by Adriana Piscitelli, a fascinating account of what happens when Western (Italian) men marry Brazilian prostitutes - available at:

Certainly anthropologists have an interesting perspective informed by an unusual corpus of experiences. However, anthropology seems to suffer severely from causal inference problems. Endogeneity, small samples, and selection bias are rife. A lot of the popular accounts of anthropology seem to simply be conclusions from anecdata. One could make similar comments about economics, but the difference of degree seems quite large. Economics has a body of data that dwarfs anthropology, has a rich (if recent) experimental branch, and tremendous resources devoted to reducing measurement error and improving causal inference.

"a body of data that dwarfs anthropology"

Bullshit. In addition to the corpus of ethnography there's tons of fieldnotes and primary data to examine. If you are actually interested in what people's lives are like in a particular time and place, anthro is going to be much more revealing.

People outside anthro don't perhaps realize that it's not just small villages. There's a lot of work on regions and global circulation at the moment, and there are kinds of knowledge produced by reading across ethnographies.

The difference between economics and anthropology is simple. Things that can be easily and repeatedly measured. Economics sort of has that, physics has it in spades. Anthropology doesn't have much of that. (population, life expectancy, etc.)

I think the problem with both modern and traditional anthropology is that its practitioners feel compelled to tie their observations into some grand theoretical framework. I would love to read anthropological studies that basically describe how a certain practice works in a society, along with observations that contextualize it... Instead, we get a 300 page book full of unnecessary references to Derrida, where a few anecdotal observations are assumed to be evidence of some overarching civilizational truth, whether it be colonialism's negative impacts, the patriarchy, etc. The colonial anthropologists weren't any better... They just saw their research in the light of the "civilizing mission" their countries were engaged in.

Given that you're dealing with tiny sample sizes, as someone mentioned upthread, the best anthropology is simply descriptive. Meta-analyses can be useful but even then you're dealing with dissimilar societies.

As someone who is trained in both economics and anthropology, I think this is a good diagnosis. When I was in graduate school, cultural anthropology was committed to a "hard" relativism and people spent much of their energy worrying about the impossibility of distinguishing themselves as an observer from the social environments they were observing and the impossibility of translating one culture's worldview into another's. To me these are weaknesses that need to be accounted for as one presents one's findings, not the end in itself that it seemed to become for so many. People seemed far more worried when I was a student about "understanding" Derrida than about really doing good fieldwork. Hopefully this has changed, because I think Tyler is correct about the power of the anthropologists' methods.

Speaking as somebody with a degree in anthro, I think economists could benefit a lot from thinking more like anthropologists. By that I mean, looking at cultures to explain behavior.

I'd actually like to get a good layman's feel for the topic. Could you mention a couple of solid antro blogs to get me started?

Here is a list of anthropology blogs on a range of subjects.
I hope you find something you like!


Culture probably does explain a lot of behavior, but do anthropologists have good ways to test those hypotheses?

Anthropology should be a high school course, it's more important in some ways than a course in English, which is, after all, the native language of most Americans.

" Those products translate poorly into the medium of print, and so from a distance the anthropologists appear to be inferior and lackluster"

Economics, on the other hand, produces many volumes of exciting, enthralling, enjoyable verbiage shot through with captivating statistics. Like "Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century". Give me a break.

Yeah, let's compare Frazer's "The Golden Bough" to "Capital in the Twenty-first Century" or George Bird Grinnell's "The Fighting Cheyenne" to "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money".

As for travel, would you rather be stuck on a desert island with the collected works of Paul Krugman or those of Redmond O'Hanlon?

No idea about Redmond, but I'd bet Krugman's would stay lit longer.

Your observation that travel is one of the most fundamental methods of learning is, I think, spot on.

How about a post on "how to travel intelligently?"

If you read TC on food, you should be able to extrapolate.

Another TC observation I fully agree with (and this so soon after the wonderful foreign policy column at Cato). In the end, good anthropological writing has to be informed by basic economic reasoning and good economics requires anthropological narratives and careful human observation.

It may well be the case that the study of anthropology can confer great wisdom and understanding on the anthropologist, and that this knowledge is difficult to capture in print. Fine. But we should see other signs of superiority in lieu of incredible journal articles or books. Are there examples of anthropologists making superior predictions, or giving advice that looks prescient in hindsight? In other words, we should sometimes saying to anthropologists "I wish we'd listened to you because it turns out you were right, but your explanation didn't make sense to me at the time."

(Disclaimer: I have read much too little anthropology and economics to confidently judge "superiority" for myself.)

Reading these comments leaves me dumbfounded (maybe just "dumb" which might mean I'm an anthropologist in the eyes of many of these commentators). I have known anthropologists that are much smarter and more readable than many of the economists I know. And vice versa. How many of the articles in the AER are eminently readable? I find it hard to read the excessive prose used in other social sciences, but no harder than trying to figure out the simple message hidden behind 20 pages of excessively formal mathematics.

Economists are NOT better than other social scientists. Not worse, either. I'd speculate that the variability among each profession is greater than any variability between disciplines. The greatest claim economists can make is that their opinions are more valued than the other social sciences - in terms of market value. But if that is the proof of the superiority of economics, then what about the fact that academics in marketing and finance get paid even more than economists (and have less demanding PhD programs)? I guess the other departments in business schools are superior to the economists. That is exactly the attitude I have seen in many business schools.

Frankly the entire effort to speak of the superiority of one discipline over another I find revolting. And, not marginally revolting, but totally so.

Anthropologists have been studying economists for many years.

They respond to incentives, like bananas.

And, they have unusual sex practices

Which may explain why economists think anthropologists are uninspiring.

Human being: a fruit or vegetable with animal aspirations and a mineral destiny.

Here is a different question: do the components of anthropology form an integral whole? Should perhaps linguistics, physical anthropology, and palaeoanthropology go off on their separate ways and the residuum be incorporated into the sociology department?

Linguistics has gone its own way for roughly a century.

If what you say about anthropology is true, I think sociology would even be more so

Economics uses math. A lot of math. Math is really hard for people.
Anthropology relies comparatively more on narrative.
Everybody can use narrative. Economists can use narrative.
So the status for economists, as scientists, are comparatively higher. Not because they understand the world better.

Indy, I just wanted to point out that many anthropologists actually do use math and a lot of it!
We are a very broad field that encompasses social anthropology, biological anthropology, genetics and archaeology!

See just some examples here:

"Social science" is an oxymoron. What the social sciences are trying to do is to formalize and generalize the human condition. It's mostly a category error. Where they succeed, as they sometimes do in economics, the results are dull, dreary or trite. The only real "social science" is literature, which still manages sometimes to utter something profound.

The most galling thing about economists is the way they sneer at the other social sciences, thinking they are better off for using differential equations or whatever it might be in their overwrought papers, as if that puts them closer to the hard sciences. The proof is in the pudding. Economics has nowhere near the depth of those other sciences, and with any luck it'll soon collapse under the weight of it's own pretense.

General theories about society are terrible in the particular. That's never going to change even as general theories improve.

Anthropology studies the particular, and so very often finds problems in general theories, hence anthropology's antipathy towards economics and Jared Diamond, which focus on studying things in the aggregate.

Economics will always be geared towards the aggregate, just as anthropology will always be geared towards the particular. That's why the two fields will find it difficult to see eye to eye.

Economics will continue to make claims that are largely true but grossly wrong in the particular (markets are efficient!), while anthropology will continue to describe individual people and cultures that are largely correct (unless you're Mead in the South Pacific) and link that to woolly theories that make no sense in aggregate.

Economics and anthropology, by design, see things from different ends of the general and particular spectrum.

An anthropologist's dump on the banker, "Gillian Tett: The Anthropology of Finance"

Who needs data when you've got anecdotes? :)

I think sociologists would be a better subject of a defense. The models produced by sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu, E. Digby Baltzell, and Norbert Elias should be in everybody's mental toolkit.

And in case Polly Hill's great research hasn't been mentioned:

This notion of internally vs externally inspiring is quite profound. I have defined the concept with knowing the terms to define it with. For example I find raising children, or living in the city centre of non-hyped but very nice city - internally inspiring.. But hard to justify the opportunity costs off, because justifying opportunity cost is an external evaluation.
But by naming it, you have helped.

I learned a good share of what I know from travelling (especially the ability to find untold gems by simply respecting that insight can be gleaned from anyone with experience).

Especially prior to the last two years when anyone anywhere actually had anything worth listening to say. People's thinking caps seem to have collectively gone on hiatus, and I'm hoping that it is not a permanent condition.

Reading the local paper and talking BS over 10x too much alcohol with people who don't give a rat's a** who's the King of Spain and who eats from his dumpsters. Great way to learn about what matters.

There was only a small window in time between the advent of modern science and the virtual disappearance of traditional modes of society. It was mankind's last chance to study itself in its most unadulterated state, and it will never be available to scientists again. Never. So what the social sciences really needed more than anything was a cultural anthropology with a muscular, data-driven ethic. Instead anthropology mostly wasted the 20th century with a lazy, anti-empirical, taboo-infested academic culture.

The wasted opportunity is astounding and appalling.

Economics looks for universally true statements about human action. It looks for the rational principles which explain regularities in the
sequence and interrelationships of human and social actions. Anthropology is not so much a precise science as a way of approaching the world: it offers substantial knowledge about local ways of life, world-views and cultural |diversity, but more importantly, it raises questions in a way which differs from the other social sciences. Instead of asking, 'What is a human being?', it asks, 'What is it like to be a human being in this particular society. Both study economic activities and necessities of human. Anthropology deals with the economic activities of simple societies whereas Economics studies the economic activities of complex societies. Anthropology studies economic activities with a point of socio-cultural aspect because these are the part of culture in terms of simple societies whereas the motive of profit is present in the study of Economics.

And sometimes we even own economists at their own game. Point being, you can run thousands of statistics, but everyone, no matter what field you are in, has to really master data.

an exercise in symmetry...

Personally I find that reading economics is often quite uninspiring. That said, I would like to say a small bit on the superiority of economists. I view the “products” of economics as the experiences, world views, and conversations of the economists themselves. Those products translate poorly into the medium of print, and so from a distance the economists appear to be inferior and lackluster (I wonder to what extent the economists realize this themselves?).

humm, weird, it works...

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