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Anthropology and Real-Life Issues

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Luih Tuckwell

on 10 December 2015

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Transcript of Anthropology and Real-Life Issues

Anthropology and Real-Life Issues
Immigration to Integration
Gambian Women Seeking Asylum in the UK
Human Rights and Cultural Relativism
Although anthropology is based largely on theoretical knowledge, the study of human cultures and societies can also be used in practice around the world to assist in a vast array issues. Anthropologists conduct fieldwork within particular societies, studying elements of human behavior, for example social interactions and rituals. This culturally specific research can be applied to foreign affairs, humanitarian aid, migration issues and even stopping the spread of infectious disease.
With the refugee crisis now worse than ever, issues with migration are now high on the agenda of national governments. The representation of these refugees can be skewed by the media, provoking tension and friction in the public. Even the words used to describe these refugees are emotive. 'Illegal Immigrant' is the most powerful of the terms with the word 'Illegal' giving connotations of criminal behavior, when often this view is completely false. We are given statistics and facts of the crisis, distancing 'them' from 'us' and effectively dehumanising those in desperate need for basic human rights. Anthropologists can work with the media to provide fair representations of these migrants, so that the public can make an informed decision as to the next step in coming up with a solution. They can also work in legal matters involving migration, representing asylum seekers in their claims or assisting in any problems in the translation of culture. Knowledge of the cultural practices of these migrants is essential for the smooth integration of these people into societies.
In The Gambia, female genital mutilation (FGM) rates are high with the prevalence in women being an estimated 76.3% according to a 2013 study. Women often flee the country to the UK in search of protection, however problems often occur in the Asylum process as it is often difficult to prove the validity of their evidence. Anthropologists Pamela Kea and Guy Roberts-Holmes highlight the problems with the asylum process by working with Gambian Women appealing the refusal of their claims, as well as the barristers and solicitors involved. They studied the need for Gambian women to 'produce' a victim identity to be recognised as eligible for asylum. Problems often occurred due to the fact that any evidence was often based on personal experience, which in many cases was not valid. Another problem was that those inflicting the damage were not state actors, therefore the legitimacy of the claims were uncertain. To get around these problems, asylum seekers often have to create a 'victim' identity that is based upon western notions of persecution and subordination. Kea and Roberts-Holmes criticized the legislative systems in place as they seek to disprove the claims of those in need. This kind of research can be used to improve the processes in place so that those in need are not forced to go back to where they are fleeing from.
Once accepted into a country, migrants often find it difficult to find jobs and fully integrate into the society. This is due to differences in the cultural practices and what are considered 'good traits'. Anthropologists can work with these migrants to present themselves to potential employers in a way that is locally 'correct'. During his fieldwork in the U.S.A, Anthony Casey worked with Nepali refugees to aid them in finding work. He found that Nepalese people were far more reserved than americans and make minimal eye-contact, especially with employers. It is also generally considered to be rude to talk about yourself, even in job interviews. These cultural traits limited the refugees as in the U.S.A, individuals are expected to present themselves in a clear and confident way. Casey set up a workshop to help the refugees understand these cultural differences so that they could find work and integrate into American society.
Ever since the introduction of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, anthropologists have debated the concepts, practice, and even the existence of the rights. The debates have all stemmed from the theory of 'cultural relativism'. This is the idea that cultures are incomparable; they must be understood in their own terms. The cultural relativist argument would therefore be that each society has its own concept of rights, which is based upon its unique historical and cultural background, therefore it would be ethnocentric to enforce our western notions of rights onto anyone else. However, many anthropologists disagree with this view. In a statement released by American Association of Anthropology (AAA), they said that "The AAA has long been, and should continue to be concerned whenever human difference is made the basis for denial of human rights." The problem with the cultural relativist viewpoint is that any actions that cause human suffering can be classed as 'cultural differences' and therefore no moral judgement can be passed. This is why for most anthropologists, cultural relativism is merely a theoretical idea which should be used to avoid passing moral judgement before understanding the full cultural contexts, rather than a method which should be put in place rigidly. This is not to say that issues with cultural relativism should be ignored, as the fact remains true that each society will have different concepts of rights. It is therefore the job of anthropologists to conduct research into how we can make these rights universally accepted.

Human Rights: Anthropology in Practice
Anthropological knowledge was required in the creation of the African charter on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is because cultural differences between African and western societies needed to be taken into account for the rights to be effective. In
Anthropology and Human Rights
, Messer states that "Africans, contrary to western notions of the universal autonomous individual with rights, know no individual rights". Rather than focusing on the individual, the collective group is considered the most important thing. This subsequently led to the African charter to state that "peoples" as opposed to individuals had rights, and that "individual freedoms may have to be sacrificed" to support "subsistance and development rights". This kind of research in anthropology remains crucial today within the African continent. Messer argues that research into "subordination and oppression" and what constitutes "full social adulthood" would be beneficial in revising the African charter. Further ethnographic research is essential not only for the African continent, but throughout the world to ensure that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is as inclusive and functional as possible.
Luih Tuckwell
Practicing Anthropology
University of Sussex
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