The contribution of anthropology as a discipline to the study of post-socialist developments

Essay, 2011

5 Pages, Grade: 1


The contribution of anthropology as a discipline to the study of post-socialist developments

As a first step I will examine the discipline of anthropology and connect it afterwards with the particularities of postsocialism.

Anthropology may be comprehended to document, analyze, understand and maintain cultural variety of human social arrangements in all their historical diversity.[1] The hallmark of the discipline lies on the understanding of culture. Clifford Geertz emphasises that therefore one has to learn what people think about and to understand the symbols, rituals and meanings that are of importance to them.[2] The difference to other approaches is the focus on webs of meaning.[3] To get to that point, one has to enter the field, directly to the people in order to get a close look from the inside.[4] This nearness brings the advantage that anthropology is also capable to ‘uncontrolled’ aspects.[5] The access in the field to otherwise unconsidered sides, delivers a deeper understanding of culture and offers data that would otherwise stay undiscovered. Anthropologists are skilled in deconstructing generalizations, stereotypes, and searches for universal laws.[6] They produce knowledge of relevance to significant contemporary issues, which is of value to government, policy makers, businesses, technology developers, health care providers, teachers, and the general public.[7]

Jakubowska offers a distinction of anthropology and ethnology. She refers to their geographical and historical origins as to their focus and methodology.[8] The etymology of Ethnology dates back to the nineteenth century when it was supposed to define national identity. Thus, the focus of the discipline is on local and material culture.[9] On the contrary, anthropology finds its origins in the period of colonisation.[10] In terms of methodological differences, ethnology happens rather in teamwork, introspective with cumulative data collection. She understands ethnographers were "elites" who had a hierarchical way to conduct their fieldwork. On the other hand anthropologists sought participant observation. The discipline is more individual, conceptual, comparative and generalizing. A stronger cooperation between the two disciplines would be desirable.[11]

So far Anglo-Saxon anthropology and Polish ethnography were compared. I continue with a closer look on the differences of Eastern and Western anthropology. Kürti and Skalnik dedicated a book on this issue, since they observed actions and institutions, on “the local level but which have often been neglected in the larger anthropology of Europe produced by foreign scholars.”[12] Certainly, some cultural aspects sometimes stay invisible to locals and distance to the culture may enlighten it, but “[n]on-Western anthropologists are contesting the dominance of Euro-American anthropology and offering new perspectives. Their work provides useful critiques of the historically Western, white, male discipline of anthropology.[13]

Franz Boas introduced the concept of cultural relativism which demands an understanding of each culture “in terms of the values and ideas of that culture and [that it] must not be judged by the standards of another.”[14] Eastern European anthropology produces different outcomes, compared to Western European models.[15] The reason for the differences in the same discipline can be found in examining historical developments. First, the origins of anthropology sought more “exotic”, since the connection to colonisation as mentioned above. But furthermore, socialism unfortunately caused restricted access for western scholars. That changed in the 1970ies, when some socialist states softened their policies.[16] Now, a decade after the end of the cold war and even since the post-postsocialism[17], anthropologists may seek to do research on another level with a time lag that allows more objectivity and reflection.[18]

Since the collapse boarders opened up, but besides the changes caused by the different economic and political system, even “Globalization … is a major force of contemporary cultural change.” Cultures mix into a new form but the fact of locality still has to be considered.[19] This phenomenon, namely ‘Glocalisation’[20], has a particular position in the case of post-socialist countries since the transition happened in such a radical way so that it’s even called ‘shock therapy’.[21] Consequently, there is ‘actually existing socialism’[22], meaning that there wasn’t ever an emptying of all social phenomena and their replacement by other ways of life. Thus, the postsocialist issue demands a political as an anthropological dimension in order to grasp all facets on a local the transition caused. Anthropology allows to examine how different aspects of cultures influence market capitalism thus creating unexpected outcomes.[23] It allows in contrast to other disciplines the registration of a moral dimension.[24] The concept of transition is highly under fire among anthropologists for this unconsidered reason in the period of transition.[25] Certainly, a critical point of the discipline is that the research on postsocialism refers to a huge territory with big differences that involve problems of comparability and also that the changes in postsocialist countries are not wimple and unindirectional.[26] ‘Postsocialism’ is an academically construct, but it corresponds to reality so the term is distinct to the critics legitimate.[27] The problem of generalisation is especially in multi-ethnic states. The concept of culture raises major problems in the postsocialist context for several reasons. First, ‘cultural racism’ is exceptionally transparent in a postsocialism and second is on the context. When policies that are transplanted to Balkans and don’t work, the blame is on ‘Balkan mentality’, ‘Gypsy nature’ or the ‘fatalistic Orthodox soul’.[28] “Most anthropologists have been critical of policies based on the transfer of Western models.”[29]

Here is a huge potential of a cooperation of anthropologists and experts of other disciplines. Their integrated approaches can illuminate disintegration and the prominence of barter in the post-Soviet economies and many other areas.[30] The interdisciplinary approach could elucidate why western models didn’t work out in Eastern Europe, and answer the question which lacks these models have to be successfully implemented in these cultures.[31]

The research of anthropology is focused on micro-level, but involves further implications,[32] for instance such as in our AQCIs. Finally I would like to stress the importance of anthropological research in my personal main filed, which is civil society. The big effort, civil society produces, very often doesn’t pay out and are further more even the source of unintended consequences. These failures frequently happen to be caused by an implementation with to less consideration of local conditions.[33] The contribution of anthropology holds the potential of successful and sustainable development work.


[1] Miller, 2007, p. 124, also Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 1

[2] Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 6, also Miller, 2007, p. 121 – 122

[3] Geertz, 1973, p. 4

[4] Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 2

[5] Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 11, or Potrata, 2004, p. 267; i.e. prostitution, New Age

[6] Buyandelgeriyn, 2008, p. 245

[7] Miller, 2007, p. 116

[8] Jakubowska, 1993, pp. 145 – 149

[9] All distinctions of the disciplines in Jakubowska, 1993, pp.150 – 152 and pp. 157 – 158

[10] Jakubowska, 1993, p. 148, see also Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 2, Miller, 2007, p. 119

[11] Jakubowska, 1993, p. 158

[12] 2009, p 20-21

[13] Miller, 2007, p. 121

[14] Miller, 2007, p. 119

[15] Jakubowska, 1993, p. 158

[16] Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 2

[17] Buyandelgeriyn, 2008

[18] Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 10, also Sampson, 2002, quoted in Kürti & Skalnik, 2009, p. 2

[19] Miller, 2007, p. 122

[20] Tomlinson, 1999, p. 152

[21] Buyandelgeriyn, 2008, p. 236

[22] Rudolf Bahro quoted in Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 12

[23] Buyandelgeriyn, 2008, p. 236

[24] Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 10

[25] Buyandelgeriyn, 2008, p. 245, see also Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 1

[26] Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 12 – 13

[27] Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 12

[28] Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 8, see also Duclaud-Williams, 1993

[29] Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 5

[30] Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 5 – 7 i.e. law, development of new administrative and political institutions

[31] Miller, 2007, p. 116, 124; This idea is called “applied anthropology”, also practicing or practical anthropology, it is the use of anthropological knowledge to prevent or solve problems, or to shape and achieve policy goals. One example for the realisation of this idea is found in the work of USAID and handled there under the name of “development induced displacement”

[32] Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 7

[33] Hann, Humphrey & Verdery, 2002, p. 9, also Sampson, 2002 and 2003, Mandel, 2002

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The contribution of anthropology as a discipline to the study of post-socialist developments
University of Bologna  (MIREES - International Research and Studies on Eastern Europe)
Anthropology of Eastern Europe
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MA Sandra Filzmoser (Author), 2011, The contribution of anthropology as a discipline to the study of post-socialist developments, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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