Anthropology and Ethnography: Applying Science to International Relations


Home / Anthropology and Ethnography: Applying Science to International Relations

The arms trade is one of the ways globalization connects us. Image by Alvimann.

Globalization. The current model of the over 500-years-old system, otherwise known as colonialism.

Both globalization and colonialism have aided in the creation of an interconnected world and the existence of the field of international relations and anthropology.

The Anthropological Lens

The study of international relations becomes a scientific one, with the help of a little field called anthropology. “But anthropology is not a science” or “it is a soft science if anything, not a hard science,” one may protest.

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, a science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

Though anthropology may be an nontraditional representation of science, it is inherently scientific. Anthropology is the study of humans, from human evolution and survival to one’s role within the world system. Its four sub fields – archaeology, biological/physical, linguistics, sociocultural – attest to the fact that we are all equally important in that we are all human.

Ethnography: Complex Conceptual Structures

Sociocultural anthropology is the study of ourselves through the learning of culture- the collection of data, the testing of theories, and the creation of ethnography. Often inspired by observations of everyday life, anthropologists seek to test a theory’s validity through ethnography. Clifford Geertz, a symbolic anthropologist, one who analyzes symbols within culture, says:

What type of lens do you analyze the world through? Image by mconnors.

What type of lens do you analyze the world through? Image by mconnors.

“The point for now is only that ethnography is thick description. What the ethnographer is in fact faced with… is a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit, and which must contrive somehow first to grasp and then to render… Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of “construct a reading of”) a manuscript- foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior.”

In other words, ethnography is a meticulous description of a culture. A demanding task, as culture cannot be opened like a book, but lived in, analyzed, and understood. Anthropology is an intellectual and practical activity which systematically studies the structure and behavior of the relationship between humans and their realities, through observation and experiment.

Decolonizing International Relations

As previously mentioned, both colonialism and globalization have had roles in creating the international relations and anthropology fields. Anthropology is not perfect; its past and present has moments of controversy. One of its most important contributions, however, is its ability to decolonize- within its own field and in others. Sankaran Krishna, a professor of international relations and comparative politics, makes the following observations on his field:

“… the discipline of International Relations (IR) has been extraordinarily resistant to a decolonizing impulse. Firstly, IR emerged within the United States, a society that is ferociously amnesiac about its own (domestic) history as a settler-colony and an (external) history as a colonizer… The US has instead emphasized its post-colonial status in that it broke away from Britain in the late 18th century and (intermittently) supported the decolonization efforts of third world countries seeking independence from England, France or Japan. This assiduous forgetting of the genocide (of Native Americans) and slavery (of Africans exported to the New World) central to the founding of the United States has carried over into the quintessentially American discipline of IR which often talks of the relations between nations as if they were ahistorical entities which suddenly emerged – all identical and sovereign- sometime in the middle of the 20th century.”

What does the need for a peace conference say about humanity as a whole? Image by Grafixar.

What does the need for a peace conference reveal about humanity? Image by Grafixar.

The histories that international relations tends to set aside are the ones in which anthropological discourse is rooted. It is through the world’s interwoven narratives that one can understand why the world system operates as it does today and one’s place in it.

“… IR has always focused on explaining the conditions that lead to war and ways to prevent it. This has produced an obsession with issues of national security, and especially of the need to avoid ‘irresponsible’ policy or idealism that could lower one’s guard and create the conditions for war. ‘Historical’ issues such as colonialism were deemed less relevant and priority… IR has sought to construct itself in the image of a scientific discipline, one that aims to uncover the invariant laws that govern relations between nations. This emphasis on achieving a universal science applicable in all situations has meant that IR has a strong preference for abstract theory at the expense of historical contexts and specificity.”

It is interesting to think how international relations seeks to focus on war and its prevention as the field, in part, advances because of it. In a sense, sociocultural anthropology exists to explain that which is considered “abstract.”

The most significant parts of a culture are expressed; it is not only music, art, or food. Culture is a part of the mind; it is the signs and symbols that connect the participants together.

Challenged and Challenging, Runs At Their Side

Speaking on ethnography, Geertz states that “a study is an advance if it is more incisive than those that preceded it; but it less stands on their shoulders than, challenged and challenging, runs by their side.” International relations and anthropology are fields which analyze our world; though they have differences, the conversation between them can be enlightening for both.

International relations studies the tangible connections between entities. Things like business, governments, IGOs, IFIs, MNCs, treaties, agreements, canals, all which are solid proof of a connection; in other words, that which establishes a relationship. Sociocultural anthropology facilitates a deeper understanding of the world system as it reinforces the existence of a human reality within global history, something that can be forgotten or overshadowed by the politics of international relations as a field. Furthermore, the entire field of anthropology seeks to produce new information through its study and praxis and strives to further the discussion.

International Relations: Complicated History, Invisible Structure

Though we can acknowledge that its history is complicated, one cannot ignore the fact that the discourse of international relations was born from and into a space of categories, sides, and separates. There is an invisible structure within the field and its language, a structure that solidifies an entity into a position to which they “belong,” whether intended or not. It is a field dedicated to the way in which nations are connected to each other and the way they relate to one another- in size, position, power, etc. The field of international relations requires an existence of separate entities – a space where anthropology becomes a field of impact.

Leave a Comment