“Are anthropologists better than you think?”

The question is asked by Tyler Cowen. A part of his response:

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.

Other hypotheses that occur to me:

  • Language and writing style make anthropology unintelligible to non-specialists. This is also true of math and theory in economics papers, but there’s also a fair amount of accessible and non-technical work in econ. The JEP is the best example but there are others. I would have thought anthropology is easier to discuss in plain english. I wonder if it’s done to create a barrier to entry or signal smarts.
  • Most research in most disciplines is bad. If you don’t know what to look for, your intelligent sampling will probably result in mediocre work on average.
  • Many people, perhaps especially economists, don’t read books beyond the first chapter. So you’d expect them to not fully appreciate the insights of fields where that is important. For example, I think if you judge political science mainly by papers, you come away with a worse impression of the field than otherwise.


15 thoughts on ““Are anthropologists better than you think?”

  1. I think economists are the kind of people who read Class Warriors like Tyler Cowen and mistake them for social scientists, and that basic truth is the core of the problem.