THE BLOG
22/02/2015 12:23 GMT | Updated 24/04/2015 06:59 BST

The Anthropology A-level Is Too Important to Scrap

The cross-cultural perspective of Anthropology aims to stretch as widely as possible across the world to examine the fundamental truths we rest on. It allows us to ask, is religion a universal human phenomenon? Are humans selfish by default? Can large societies function without a state? Is there such a thing as a universal moral code?

I know it, so too does Sir Anthony Gormley, Thandie Newton and Russell Brand, to name but four of the 4000+ people who have signed the change.org petition to reverse AQA's decision to get rid of the Anthropology A-level by the end of the year. There is far too much at stake here, not just for the already unstable future of the discipline in this country; not just for the students denied the chance to feed their inquisitiveness; but for a society at large that could desperately benefit from Anthropology's unique, restorative perspective.

I guess from this point of view, I should count myself one of the lucky ones. I may not have been offered it at school, but I discovered Anthropology only a year later, thumbing through prospectuses with the UCAS closing date looming over my shoulder. Here was that course I had presumed impossible, the ultimate in terms of breadth, apparently rolling lots of my special interest - 'stuff to do with people' - into one messy degree, or as a school friend unkindly described it, "like a degree in general studies".

Of course I realise now this analogy does Anthropology - the study of humanity - a grave injustice, but it does pose a question. If its purpose was to help orient us in the world, general studies fell short at voting systems and the duties of local government. On the other hand, Anthropology teaches the possibility of completely different ontologies, questioning the very foundations on which we build our conceptual landscapes.

In many ways Anthropology actually does everything general studies so spectacularly fails to achieve. So I wonder what the effect would have been if, instead of general studies, it had been compulsory for me to take an A-level in Anthropology? Is it possible, as some have alluded to, that our society might be a better place?

The cross-cultural perspective of Anthropology aims to stretch as widely as possible across the world to examine the fundamental truths we rest on. It allows us to ask, is religion a universal human phenomenon? Are humans selfish by default? Can large societies function without a state? Is there such a thing as a universal moral code?

The anthropologist is not limited by the abstract frame of reference of the philosopher or the particular frame of reference of the sociologist. A global human perspective allows these big fundamental questions to be tackled in a pragmatic way, based on lived human experience. An awareness of the complete spectrum of human diversity pushes the Anthropology student to rethink everything they know.

Practically speaking this approach can be totally transformative. For me, Anthropology was in many ways like counselling. I was able to unburden myself one-by-one of all those conventions that had imprisoned me my whole life. For the first time I began to be comfortable with my appearance, my sexuality, my gender. How could these things affect me when they are quite literally made-up? If someone now tells me to 'man-up' or insults the gap in my teeth I can just laugh - and it's a real laugh - because it's funny that people believe in those things.

But it's not just self-love. The study of alternative modes of human behaviour allows us to reflect more self-consciously on our own. Understanding is the key to empathy, and empathy is so often the key to harmony. This is just one of the things you learn when you study Anthropology: It is when we characterise each other through difference that we can build hostilities; if on the other hand we revel in the commonality of human uniqueness, then we can learn to love every one another as we do our own family.

Where else could this be more important than a country like our own? A nation where immigration consistently features as a top concern in public opinion polls? A country where ethnic loyalties have caused race riots and the rise of the far right? A country dominated by a polemic of difference, race, religion and class, not commonality of experience.

Here, now, more than ever, is a place where the principles of Anthropology could do a lot to resolve tensions, to build a society based not only on respect, but on mutual compassion. Here, now, more than ever, we need to urge AQA to keep the Anthropology A-level, not abandon it after only four years.

The eminent British Anthropologist Ruth Benedict once said, "the purpose of Anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences"; but I think she may have fallen a few feet short. In a society where standing out from the crowd so often entails hostility, the purpose of Anthropology is not only to make the world safe for human differences, but to make it better for having them.

This piece has been edited for factual accuracy. A quote attributed to Mary Douglas has now been correctly linked to Ruth Benedict.