The New Anthropology

In their recent “Open Letter Demanding the Overhaul of McGill’s Statement of Academic Freedom,” the Anthropology Students Association and the Anthropology Graduate Student Association of McGill University have schooled us about the new anthropology. Here are some of its dimensions:

The benighted old anthropology began with questions and engaged in research to find answers. Cultural anthropologists would head to “the field,” to the people about whom they wanted to learn, whether in the Sudan, the American South, a Pacific Island, a Mediterranean city, or a Middle Eastern desert. They would then live among the people, speak with them, observe them in daily life, follow events as they developed, and collect ritual and other texts, in order to gain an understanding of how people thought, what they valued, how they related, what goals they had, and what they feared, which were sometimes summed up under labels such as “social organization” and “culture.”

The new enlightened anthropology does not begin with a tabula rasa and research to answer questions, but with universal answers. Its “methodology” is to seek cases to illustrate and prove the a priori truths. The central truth of the new anthropology is that everything is about power, and power is always manifested in a class hierarchy, in which the ruling classes exploit, oppress, and demean the subordinate classes. This universal model bypasses the orthodox Marxist economic class hierarchy and struggle in favor of the cultural Marxist identity class hierarchy and struggle. It is the new anthropology’s universal truth that whites always oppress people of color, that men always oppress women, that heterosexuals always oppress LBGTQ++, that Christians and Jews always oppress Muslims, and that “social justice” requires that the oppressed victims rise up and overthrow the oppressors, flip the hierarchy, and take control.

The mandate of the new anthropology is to advance “social justice” and the interests of the oppressed victims. This new version of anthropology could be justly labeled “victimology.” Social organization and culture other than the identity class struggle are seen as ephemeral, a distraction from the true essence of human life, and probably a purposeful obfuscation by an old anthropology aligned with the rulers and oppressors. “Research” in the new anthropology seeks out females, people of color, LBGTQ++, and Muslims to describe their unfortunate victimization at the hands of the usual suspects.

While the old anthropology finds distinctions among people and peoples due to their differences in social organization and culture, the new anthropology unites people and peoples through the magic of intersectionality. For example, African Americans and Palestinians are seen as allies, due to their being people of color suffering at the hands of American and Israeli whites. The new anthropology does not recognise that Israelis are many colors, or that Arabs are recognized as white by most governments, or that for over a thousand years Arabs traded African slaves, commonly mutilated, or that in Arabic, the word (abid) for black person is the same word for slave. For the new anthropology, these details obscure what’s important: the identity class struggle to overcome RACISM!, DISCRIMINATION!, WHITE NATIONALISM!, PATRIARCHY!, HETRONORMATIVITY!, and ISLAMOPHOBIA!

The new anthropological struggle is an international one. That is why cultural relativism, defined by old anthropology as a suspension of the researcher’s values in order to understand better the people being studied, has been expanded to moral, ethical, and epistemological equivalence. For the new anthropology, “social justice” requires that we recognize that all societies and cultures are equally good and valuable; think of it as “cross-cultural justice.” Well, there is an exception: Western Civilization, which is judged by the new anthropology as uniquely guilty of imperialist and colonialist oppression, as the inventor of slavery and the murder of indigenous people, and therefore uniquely evil. This view is dignified by the label “postcolonial theory.”

For the new anthropology, the world, prior to Western imperialism, was a peaceful and loving place in which everyone got along in a cooperative and mutually appreciative manner. Apparently, the new anthropology does not care to mention the hundreds of empires throughout history, their expansionary invasions, or their displacement, killing, and enslaving of indigenous people. Nor are the endless tribal raiding for foodstuffs, valuables, livestock, and captives to serve as slaves, or the tribal wars of expansion and displacement worthy of mention. Slavery and its capture of uncompensated labor was a part of every state system for thousands of years, and invasion and expansion were partially aimed at maintaining the supply of slaves. Pre-industrial states could not support state projects and the luxury class at the low level of production its population was capable of, so uncompensated labor was required.

Even the most superficial acquaintance with history would verify these points, apparently unwelcome truths for the new anthropology. The Achaemenid Empire, founded in 550 BC by Cyrus the Great, conquered and encompassed the Middle East from the Indus Valley though Mesopotamia to the Nile Valley. The Persian Empire fell in 330 BC to Alexander the Great (“Ishkandar” in Persian), whose succeeding empire covered the area of the Persian Empire but extended farther north, including Asia Minor and Greece. The Roman Empire dominated all around the Mediterranean and far north into Europe, up to five million square kilometers, drawing captives from lands as far as Britain to serve as slaves on Roman latifundia and in Roman households.

The Arab Islamic Empire, initiated in Arabia in the seventh century, rapidly invaded Christian and Jewish lands to the north in the Levant, Zoroastrian and Hindu lands to the east in Persia and northern India, Christian Egypt and North Africa to the west, and Christian Mediterranean islands and southern Iberia. Arab historians likened the conquering Bedouin armies to plagues of locusts. Hundreds of thousands of captives, particularly females, were enslaved and distributed to military leaders and Muslim soldiers. The Levant, Egypt, and North Africa remain Arab colonies in the 21stcentury. Following defeats by the Mongol Empire, Arab-dominated eastern lands were invaded by Turkic tribes, one of which succeeded in eradicating the Byzantine Empire in 1453, replacing it with the Ottoman Empire, which came to dominate Arab lands and the Christian Balkans, also taking over the formal leadership of Islam. The Ottomans drew white slaves from the Balkans to serve the Sultan and beyond, as North African Moors or Saracens slave raided in Europe as far north as Ireland into the twentieth century. In the 21stcentury, the Islamic State invaded and occupied large areas of Syria and western Iraq but was finally terminated by Kurdish and American military opposition.

We learn that in the new anthropology, no negative judgement must be made about any people, culture, or region, lest it hurt the feelings of (and make “unsafe”) some who may identify with that people, culture, or region. (The exception of course is Western Civilization and any of its constituent parts, which the new anthropology sees as deserving of being berated, vilified, disparaged, and denigrated in the strongest possible language.) Today’s anthropology students believe that to say “the Middle East is a place where doing harm and being cruel to others is regarded as a virtue and a duty” is a great and dangerous offense against individuals who identify with the region. But these anthropology students and those who identify with the region have not spoken out about the atrocities in which a half million Syrians of all ages and sexes were killed in the recent civil war fueled by Sunni-Shia opposition. Nor do they appear to be offended by the cruel practices of the Islamic State, such as cutting off the heads of prisoners and posting videos, the burning alive of opposition soldiers, and the mass capture of “infidel” Yazidi girls and women, gang raping them, holding them as sex slaves, and then murdering many of them. Apparently the “inclusion” of the new anthropology encompasses Syrian and Islamic State atrocities.

As we have seen, the goal of the new anthropology is “social justice,” of which “inclusion” is a major component. “Inclusion” means that people should never hear anything about their identity reference group that would hurt their feelings. (This, however, does not apply to unpreferred groups: males, whites, Christians, Jews, and, remarkably, East Asians. In practice, members of these categories are often excluded.) The McGill anthropology students who penned the aforementioned open letter are correct in asserting that “inclusion” and “academic freedom” are not compatible. They opt for inclusion, to the exclusion of academic freedom.

The old anthropology did value what the students claim is an outdated academic freedom and a diversity of ideas. This is because it believed that diverse ideas and their competition in the marketplace of ideas was the best way to increase sound knowledge and to approach truth. But all of that is unnecessary for the new anthropology, which believes it has already grasped the universal truths of social justice. For the new anthropologists, the goal is not to understand the world, but to change it into their own image.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain


  • Philip Carl Salzman

    Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Past President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

12 thoughts on “The New Anthropology

  1. This is a great backgrounder. I have one grievance, within this phrase: “This universal model bypasses the orthodox Marxist economic class hierarchy and struggle in favor of the cultural Marxist identity class hierarchy and struggle.” I am not sure there is such a thing as “cultural Marxism” given it contradicts the economic class primacy that is the core Marxist tenet. What is being described is a postmodernist conceptual framework which is at odds with (orthodox) Marxian approaches. I am not arguing that Marxist class analysis (leading to a classless society) is valid, only that the “cultural variant” term doesn’t fit, by my reading. I also realize there are probably people who call themselves cultural Marxists but my complaint remains.

  2. The take-over of one institution after another by “agenda-network” and appointment/tenure control by the “‘race’, gender, class” revolution aka “equality, diversity, inclusion” official ideology was well exemplifed in the UK by the fate of the Institute of Race Relations and then the Royal Anthropolgical Institute, the first of which I was a Member and the second (until I couldn’t stand it any longer) a Fellow, is now being experienced by the final transformation of the Galton Institute (formerly Eugenics Society), of which I have been a Life Member for years past, into another woke puppet, dropping the name of the eminent Victorian polymath. Perhaps it should be renamed “The George Floyd Institute for the Promotion and Perpetuation of Hereditary Disease and Disability” but what’s in a label?

  3. Thank you Philip for this enlightening update on what has happened to anthropology. I studied anthropology in the 1970s in London. Marxism was influential and appealing then, but didn’t cover the whole discipline. This is worse. Truth comes out in the end!

  4. Superb article. One could exchange the word “anthropology” for “psychotherapy” and be almost ready to publish again.

    1. The only problem is that psychotherapy exists in a quasi-legal realm — it includes the power to define one as “mentally ill” and I fear that we are rapidly adopting the old Soviet concepts of “Sluggishly Progressing Schizophrenia.”

  5. We cheered that when fascism and communism were swepped into history’s refuse, the age of ideologically driven scholarship was over. Social justice warriors of today have brought back ideology uber alles. Sad. Like fascism, the only way to stop social justice ideology is to push back. Accomodation will fail.

    1. Yes. Barak you are right.But how to do so ? Has anyone succeeded in doing so in a substantial way?

      George Z.

  6. Precisely.

    Our Story: How Cultures Shaped People to Get Things Done (2015, Routledge) draws two major conclusions, which suggest solutions for the violence that now engulfs us.

    (1) cultures (the assumptions we make about the world and their logical implications) tell us (i.e., rationalize) the choices we make.
    (2) Power relationships determine the assumptions we make and, hence, the cultures we use to make choices.

    Some background – I grew up in the 50s when racism was widepread and explicit. My parents — who grew up in Memphis, TN during the Great Depression — drilled into us that all people are brothers and sisters and should be treated accordingly. BEHAVIOR counted. Color, size, gender, clothing, etc ad nauseum DID NOT count. So, I heard and took for granted MLK’s message long before he spoke it. Since the late 1960s racism has largely disappeared.

    I have lived ~10+ years in West Africa and the West Indies, have both Cherokee and Ashkenazi genes, several of my grandchildren have West African genes and the rest have a combination of Anishinaabe and Lakota and Yurok.

    Note that the assumptions my parents drilled into me count as the heart of Judeo-Christian theology, that we are ALL children of G-d, hence ALL brothers and sisters, who should treat each other likewise. From which one may deduce the last 6 Commandments and Mark 12:31. Which is the founding assumption of the Constitution of the United States.

    But human brains operate in ways that guarantee mistakes, at least occasionally. The most important feature of our brains is feedback from the consequences of choices, which allows us to correct mistakes the consequences of which we do not like. And, to change the assumptions that distinguish mistakes from correct choices.

    Which means that assumptions which conflict produce conflicting behavior. Social conflict thus arises from conflicting CULTURES. The most effective way to address such conflict is for people to identify their assumptions, assess the validity of each, and re-think the morals that drive their choices.

    But this works ONLY if people assume personal responsibility for the outcome of their choices.

    Which is true ONLY for people raised to do so. If not, OTHERS remain responsible for your choices.

    Which goes to the heart of danger. Our brains tell us to stop doing things that yield bad consequences and to continue doing things that yield no bad consequences. Which explains how and why “power corrupts.” People who depend on each other take care to treat each other well and, when they mess up, to apologize and try to make things right. A person on whom you depend but who depends not on you has no such incentive. Thus, if you cede power to someone you invite predation. No one has to “think” about it. Our brains just make it happen.

    Hence, the bottom line to human interaction — cede power, invite predation. ALL humans, THROUGHOUT human history have engaged in atrocious behavior when they could. Which means that ALL humans descend from folks who at one time or another massacred and enslaved others, and at other times fought for what’s right – treating all as brothers and sisters.

    How does an individual maintain his or her power??? By avoiding dependency. Any person not mutually dependent with you for something important should be treated as potentially dangerous. Just the nature of human beings.

    Dependency occurs most frequently in three forms:
    a. think of yourself NOT as an individual but as a member of a group.
    b. assuming that others (the group) should take responsibility for your personal choices.
    c. giving others (the group) the responsibility to care for you and keep you safe.

    If you want everyone to treat each other well, like real brothers and sisters should, we must create INTER-dependencies. evaluate people on how well they treat others, and provide clear consequences for bad behavior. BEHAVIOR counts. Color, size, gender, clothing, etc ad nauseum counts for NOTHING.


  7. Last year in Montreal, representatives from my Ivy League school came up to recruit more Canadians (actually hockey players and indigenous applicants based on their statements and speakers)

    The director of the Alumni association made a land acknowledgement, saying we were on unceded and stolen Mohawk territory. I later pointed out to her that the land was inhabited by St. Lawrence Iroquois for hundreds of years before the Mohawks took it in the 1500s, along with genocide of the Iroquois tribe.

    She was taken aback at my insolence, but then said it’s the Mohawks who were wronged and that’s what matters. Completely incapable of nuance or balance.

  8. There’s a term for mandated ideological purity and enforced adherence to universal truths — it’s called “fascism.”

  9. It appears that the new anthropology has become devoid of what I submit might just be the most important core element in its possession: love, understanding, respect and acceptance of human beings. But as Orwell’s pigs duly noted – some human beings are more equal than others, when processed through the lens of political activism.

    And so we come to the pedagogy of fear and hate. Finding that both of these emotions pass as poor gatekeepers indeed, for the growth of human intelligence.
    Apparently the new anthropologists don’t read much history. Pity.
    That East Asians wind up on their hit list is a very telling thing. They might find that there is much to learn from that quarter of humanity. That when the fevered blush of righteous power still dews the brow, something evil this way comes, and something far more powerful than previously imagined shifts that side of history in ways that favor power itself.
    Perhaps McGill’s anthropologists have forgotten (or never knew in the first place) just what revolutionary zeal did to the peoples of East and Southeast Asia. It might never occur to them to apply their anthropological knowhow toward the uncovering of just a small bit of evidence.
    Imagine for a mere moment – being hounded, persecuted, harassed, oppressed, maimed, terrorized and tortured by people who are decidedly not white or Euro-centric. Certain little devils are indeed, capable of claiming their due.
    Humans do well to contemplate and consider just what they may be capable of. It is that particular flavor of common humanity that tells the whole story.
    If power becomes nothing more than ownership of the truth, then it is a false power. And history teaches us that in that long cavalcade of human affairs, a brief one, as well.

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