Posts By / Holger Schutkowski

A view from afar…

I have recently become part of a fascinating network, the Royal Anthropological Institute, who kindly made me a Fellow. Fascinating, because they have realised, after a longer period of Sleeping-Beautyesque focus on social and cultural anthropology alone, how important it is to embrace the natural science part of anthropology, its biological, forensic and medical strands. An excellent move that will bring Anthropology and its representation in the UK back to its comprehensive and encompassing roots and remit. Good also for BU, because the RAI is recognising our contribution towards educating the next generation of anthropologists, whose combined education in humanities and science produces the rounded and aware graduates society will need in future.

Naturally, the RAI fosters broad-ranging discussions among its members, and their ‘house journal’, Anthropology Today, invites guest editorials on a regular basis. Not long ago, a former Cambridge graduate, who moved on to a highly successful career in the US, reflected on the latest changes to the UK Higher Education system, its commercialisation and consumer orientation (anthropology today). American universities have been operating this for a long time, and they are beginning to pick up the fallout now. Hugh Gusterson’s thoughtful comparison of political agendas here and campus reality there makes interesting reading – if only to avoid falling into the same traps.

Cross BU themes – big but still narrow?

Outlines for the big themes are unfolding, or are they? Let me share some observations. Several weeks ago, the professoriate had an immensely fruitful brainstorming meeting to discuss, among other things, how we can take forward the promotion of cross-University research collaboration and which big research themes would be suitable given their current representation in the funding landscape and their contribution towards societal need. Of the impressive and broadly supported list that emerged, three themes have so far been tackled: Technology and Design, Ageing, and Health & Wellbeing. Their recent descriptions on the research blog, however, reveal what I think may turn out to be a fundamental dilemma. Those three themes, the way they are outlined, can still be run by their home Schools alone and look like the continuation of big themes that were in existence already before we started to brainstorm rather than the roadmap to a wider integration of thoughts and people. I hasten to add here that I hold up my hands for not having engaged enough myself with two of the themes that my area of expertise can contribute to, but my impression is that there may be more people like me out there who just need that little kick. Therefore, for the penny it is worth, here are my suggestions for broadening out the themes on ageing and health & wellbeing.

The ageing society is at the fore, and will continue to be so for generations to come. However, do we trace old age back in time – and by that I mean from prehistory well into post-medieval periods? Do we settle happily with the perpetuated notion that people in the past all died young? How would a better understanding of the size and importance of the elderly cohort in past societies change our perception of old age today? How can we interrogate the most immediate source material to learn about humans in the past – their skeletal remains? Biological Anthropology (or Bioarchaeology) is set up to make the contribution here. First of all, dying young was by no means everybody’s fate. Not infrequently, people lived to respectable high age, comparable with, say, that during the Victorian period (once they survived infancy and early childhood). Vastly improved methods of age assessment from human skeletal remains now provide an increasingly clearer picture of life and death in the past. This information can be most beneficially used to inform research on the life course, differential mortality and patterns of longevity for girls and boys, women and men, in the context of prevailing socio-cultural, political and economic circumstances. I am sure; this can strike a chord with the outline on the ageing theme as it stands.

In a similar vein, health & wellbeing has for a long time concerned biological anthropologists. Palaeopathology is one of the prominent and rapidly expanding sub-fields of the discipline. Using sound, clinically-informed diagnostic approaches, patterns of disease (infectious, metabolic, degenerative, dental, neoplastic etc.) and evidence for treatment and care of the infirm can be reconstructed that provide a fascinating insight into living conditions and ambient socio-ecology of times past.  Naturally, this also feeds back into the Ageing theme, as morbidity is one of the prime causative factors of differential mortality. Palaeopathological diagnosis extends into deep time as well and extends as far back as to include our hominin ancestors who were all but exempt from chronic disease that left traces of skeletal alterations.

I am aware that these two sketches may go too far for some, but I am at the same time convinced that a holistic approach, which explicitly includes the past and which embraces both biological and social sciences, will be able to contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of two defining and prominent themes that have a strong pedigree at BU. All comments welcome.