Letter on the importance of anthropology

man in black jacket holding umbrella walking on street

Dear Reader,

I have been wanting to write this letter for quite a while to clear up a particular matter. The specific issue I have in mind is that of illuminating some major reasons why I took the time to study anthropology and why I consider it such an important area of rumination. Now, please don’t misunderstand – I’m not trying to get you to join me in my quest – only to appreciate its importance. To do this, I thought I’d put pen to paper to briefly show you, with the aid of an interesting example, how an anthropological ‘imagination’ can help us all to better understand others – and ourselves.

So, what the heck is anthropology, anyway? Well, I think some clarity around its intent would probably be helpful. To some degree, I feel it almost stems from a philosophical viewpoint that seeks to answer (one of many) critical questions that have occupied the minds of influential thinkers as to our human existence. The key question of, “Do all humans think the same way?” is one that has not only puzzled many but formed the foundation of philosophical pondering and anthropological imaginings. For this question underlies and forms the presupposition for two others: “Is it possible to understand other worlds, how other people think?” and if the answer to this is affirmative, then “What is the relationship between culture and thought?” (Moore & Sanders 2014, p.1).

Now, if we’re considering culture, it’s then natural to wonder how culture affects us as individuals, particularly our thoughts and actions, and how this may be circular – affecting the cultural institutions with which we co-exist. As perhaps a parent, you may know that living within our modern social processes necessitates following both rules and cultural norms, as well as teaching this information to your children so they may better navigate the world. But what if we’re not truly informed of how cultural structures enveloping us are created and sustained? And what of the specific groups of people who strive to keep these structures of power alive even if it’s not in our general interest to do so?

One such obvious structure to critique – and one with which you are no doubt familiar – is that of capitalism. This pervasive structure has and continues to have a formidable effect on the physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing of people in all facets of their lives. Now, whilst this is obviously an important area to which anthropological interest gravitates – to explore the connections between the meanings and uses that everyday people have of capitalism – it’s also vitally important to study the structures of power that both initiate and sustain projects affecting our lives. Such projects as building initiatives are just such an example – whereby all is not always as it seems when cities are transformed by seemingly sudden expansions of public spaces, monuments, and buildings. Questions arise including: Why has it happened? Who has initiated it and for whom? And how are politics, power, and ideologies mediated through these economic projects?

Well, to give you an example of an anthropologist asking just such questions, I want to tell you about Dr Fabio Mattioli and the work he did in Macedonia in 2014. In his quest to understand why there had suddenly been a government initiative to transform the ascetics of the capital, Skopje, Mattioli initially spent time with construction workers on these building sites. Now, usually a classical anthropological move is to spend time with those workers to ascertain the meaning they give to the spaces in which they work, and whether these meanings align with or differ from the prevalent explanation for the building works; that of the nationalist government trying to refashion the city and the state. Whilst this aspect is certainly important, Mattioli took a novel approach to find out, not just how the workers interpreted their working space, but how various parties linked with the construction works ‘imagined’ capitalism. This eventually ranged from investors to smugglers of products to former spies! But by expanding ‘outwards’ if you like, rather than purely concentrating on the meaning of the space for workers, Mattioli was able to explore more intangible connections showing these building works were actually a material anchor for a speculative economy framing particular political processes – thus helping to cement power for Prime Minister Gruevski. Ironically, whilst most European countries were grappling with the global financial crisis and thus unable to access funds, Macedonia secured 680 million euros for building projects that many Macedonians didn’t embrace. Regardless, the prime minister pressed ahead, but why? Well, Mattioli concludes he took this action to expand the authoritarian regime of both politicians and the rich oligarchs who could ultimately siphon funds to offshore accounts via construction works. Interesting, hey?

So, by looking at this anthropologically, Mattioli could reconstruct the relations of production and finance that allowed Prime Minister Gruevski to come to power. This concept of ‘relations of production’ may be new to you, but it was most notably conceived of by political theorist and social revolutionist, Karl Marx. Marx was concerned with the effects upon society resulting from the nineteenth-century industrial revolution in Britain, and believed it was imperative to consider relations of production. This, he contended, comprised such things as class divisions and labour regimes, and their compositions were direct results of how the productive forces of a society (such as materials, technological capacity, levels of knowledge), were both used and misused. Other theorists, such as Gramsci, Foucault, and Fromm, later expanded this contention by exploring ways in which the powerful use such things as hegemony, ‘governmentality’, and ideology to both attain and sustain power over society. To conceptualise these theories, these thinkers focused on specific areas, such as prisons or propaganda, to provide empirical evidence for their ideas. In this way too, Mattioli specifically started with the building project, referred to as Skopje 2014, to investigate the relations of production being used as a type of cover, enabling the powerful to exude authority over others. He concluded there were not only relations of power emanating from the state over society but also a complex and fragile web of relations propagated and nurtured between the regime, oligarchs, and former Yugoslav intelligence agents! These relations were then translated into the rapid, and seemingly unnecessary, building of nationalist buildings within the city’s confines.

Now you may well be thinking, that’s all very interesting, but what’s it got to do with me? Well, why don’t we think of our own city of Melbourne? Whilst it’s true we’re currently experiencing a population boom and so, of course, need housing, we can ask, “What kinds of relations does this building project hide”? Well, perhaps building spaces is helping to promote a housing bubble that, whilst encouraging such benefits as foreign investment into the state, may also impose an untenable debt upon many individuals and families; possibly inflicting adverse consequences upon the social fabric of society. Nevertheless, the influx of profits from such investments, along with property taxes and fees, allows the powerful to cement their positions of authority. So perhaps then, an alignment between whatever dominant ideologies (think of such things as home ownership) are being pushed by those in power and the best interests of the populace, doesn’t always occur.

Whilst Mattioli’s interest in the relations of production and finance within the Skopje 2014 project emanates from a Marxist perspective, he was also influenced by other anthropologists studying similar ideas within different contexts. One such example is Anna Tsing, who was interested in how Suharto’s Indonesian regime used elements of capitalism to support an “underlying pattern of exploitation and class formation” (2000, p.143). She concludes social processes can develop because of new group identities and interests being formed. That is, the means of production (such as finance capital and finance cronyism) can dramatically influence the creation and evolution of social relations within a society. But in discovering this, it is imperative the ‘anthropological imagination’ be brought to bear, so that hidden links and relations may be uncovered and critiqued. This point is key because, as Graeber proclaims in his insightful book into the proliferation of meaningless work, “teasing out the implicit theory that lies behind people’s everyday actions and reactions is what anthropologists are trained to do” (Graeber 2018, p.64).

So, to finish up, I trust I’ve been able to illuminate the importance of the ‘anthropological imagination’ in its ability to imagine how ‘other worlds’ operate. Indeed, it’s this propensity to imagine and investigate that enables anthropologists to illuminate how others think, the relations between them, and the meanings behind their actions. Whilst Mattioli’s work did not necessarily focus on the meanings and relations of the specific construction workers involved in the Skopje 2014 building project, his work instead informed us of the hidden relations of power that were manifested in this construction. To this end, he succeeded in exposing both the reasons behind why this building project was pursued and why it was represented in nationalist buildings and sculptures. This is important because knowing the relations of production and their link to political, economic, social, and cultural systems helps us to not only know how people give meaning to their environment, but also why. And it’s this latter aspect that, in turn, helps us to further understand and critique the parameters within which we exist.


Burston, D 1991, The legacy of Erich Fromm, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, M.A.

Crehan, K 2002, Gramsci culture and anthropology, Pluto Press, London.

Foucault, M 1991, Governmentality, in: G Burchell, C Gordon and P Miller (eds) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 87-104.

Graeber, D 2018, Bullshit jobs, London: Allen Lane.

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Mattioli, F 2018, ‘Financialization without liquidity: in-kind payments, forced credit, and authoritarianism at the periphery of Europe’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 24, pp.1-21.

Mattioli, F, 2018. Secrets, money, & buildings. ANTH30013 Theory & the Anthropological Imagination. University of Melbourne. Unpublished.

Moore, H, L & Sanders, T 2006, Anthropology in theory: issues in epistemology, Malden, Mass: Blackwell Press.

Pitluck, A, Mattioli, F & Souleles, D 2018, ‘Finance beyond function: three causal explanations for financialization’, Economic Anthropology, vol. 5, no. 2, pp.157-171.

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Tsing, A 2000, ‘Inside the economy of appearances’, Public Culture, vol. 12, no. 1, pp.115-144.

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