Anthropology and critical thinking

Cultural anthropology and critical thinking create a great intellectual synergy that can be deployed every sentient day you have on this earth.

Thinking critically means that you look carefully at a proposition’s premise, which in turn affects the validity of the proposition flowing out of that premise. Casting a searchlight on premises is what cultural anthropologists do. When they study a culture, they look for the assumptions that most of its members use as behavioral defaults in their everyday lives.

Cultural assumptions are typically invisible to the people who use them, however. The mass of these assumptions forms “the way we do things around here,” but most people never think about them, let alone question them.

An assumption is hard at work in this news quote about a woman who, despite the global recession, saw no need to give up her gas-slurping Chevy Suburban: “Hey, I’ve got to get my three kids to school.” She’s assuming that three children will fit only into the capaciousness of a Suburban. That’s her assumption, and she’s acting on it.

In my work as a freelance writer, I constantly use what I learned from cultural anthropology as a graduate student in that most holistic of disciplines. When I interview people I’m writing about, I try to burrow past their accomplishments to get at the assumptions they make about life. It comes down to the difference between the what and the why.

And the deepest why can be the highest form of critical thinking: Making visible the invisible.