The science of studying ‘us’


As humans continue to develop and evolve as social animals, and form complex social interactions and structures, it calls for deep study of social and individual behaviours of the man to obtain an idea of how these structures function as well as to predict the future changes in the social system. Nonetheless, the conventional and rather narrow approach of the sociology doesn’t meet this requisite analysis, because it fundamentally focuses on the development, structure, social interactions and behaviours of human society at a specific time.

That is, indeed, why it is significant that these studies need to be carried out with an anthropological approach to the issue since, in anthropology, unlike in sociology, it pays high attention to the man, in terms of physical characteristics, environmental and social relations, and culture. Thus, the significance of the subject of anthropology is never to be ignored, given that the modern world is unceasingly growing even more complex.

At the same time, the subject of anthropology is also developing at a fast pace to adapt to the growing necessities of the rapid developing society. Ergo, Ceylon Today reached out to several academics at the Department of Anthropology, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, to get an insight into the subject of anthropology and the modern trends of it.

What actually is anthropology?

Speaking to Ceylon Today, Kanishka Wijayarathna, a PhD candidate of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, exemplified about the subject of anthropology.

“Anthropology, in simple terms is the scientific, holistic study of the mankind. That means the central focus of this subject is man. But if we take, sociology for an instance, its central focus is society. In anthropology, the whole focus is on man. So the studying of man in anthropology is done in two main approaches; as cultural anthropology and physical anthropology. 

“Cultural anthropology in a sense is the study of the cultural aspect of the humans and in fact, it covers up such a vast subject area that we have been unable to give a perfect definition to ‘culture’ even today. It said that there have been more than 160 different definitions for ‘culture’. Anyways, the most accepted definition was given by E.B Tylor, who is considered as the ‘father of cultural anthropology’, in 1871. He says that culture is, ‘the complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by [a human] as a member of society’. In short we learn the co-relation between culture and human behaviours in this field.

“When it comes to physical anthropology the focus is held on the physical body of the humans. There we study about the structure and formation, growth and the functions of the human body, and this part of the syllabus is very much aligned with the natural sciences such as biology. In this token, anthropology views the human under both the cultural light and the scientific light.”

Further he mentioned that the cultural and physical anthropology or generally ‘anthropology’ blankets a plethora of other subjects that are being studied individually such as archaeology, linguistics. “Though we don’t specifically distinguish it with the term ‘anthropology’, anthropological studies are commonly utilised in our daily life in these sub fields,” he added.

What so important about it?

Answering to the question, Wijayarathna elucidated how the anthropological studies have been serving the world in a unique manner with a great impact. “Man, actually, is the function of society. Therefore, almost everything is cantered on the man and is affected by his actions. Similarly, the sublime factor which is to be held accountable for plethora of conflicts and issues in society which is ethnocentrism, means to apply one’s own culture or ethnicity as a frame of reference to judge other cultures, practices, behaviours, beliefs, and people, instead of using the standards of the particular culture involved. In other terms it is the belief that one’s own culture is superior to the others. This mind set has paved way for many greater conflicts in the world; take colour discrimination for an example. The White think they are superior and nobles, hence the people of colour are inferior and unimportant. So, the prime responsibility of anthropology is to address these issues.

“If we take this particular issue, the anthropologists studied that the human body, no matter what, is built in a similar biological way (except for the subtle regional differences), in physical anthropology. Then, based on that knowledge, they took a cultural approach to the issue by declaring that the skin tone is determined by the pigment called melanin and the climate in which that particular individual lives, and ergo the skin colour attributes neither superiority nor inferiority to any group of people.”

Explaining further he shared how anthropological studies respect and value the culture of each individual, and above all sees them in a humanitarian perspective. “Even if we are conducting a study on a tribal community, we wouldn’t treat them as if we are from the affluent mainstream society and thus they are of little importance compared to us. Instead, we would treat them with due respect and value their culture, traditions and belief systems, and even take steps to protect them.”

Taking on the topic, Professor in Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Prof. Praneeth Abhayasundere recalled the motives behind incepting anthropology as an academic subject in Sri Lanka. “In the previous century, the local social context was troublesome with numerous divisions amongst the people, based on ethnicity, caste and class, religion and so on. Thus, some academics identified the need of a humanitarian thinking pattern in the education field of Sri Lanka. So, they found out that, teaching anthropological studies as an academic subject was the best method for that, because it promotes love for humanity,” Prof. Abhayasundere shared, reiterating the aforementioned fact that anthropology upholds humanity. “We can utilise anthropology to create a multi-cultural society where people respect each other and love each other. The present applied anthropologists are finding out new ways to apply the learning outcomes of anthropological research studies in various sectors of the society for the betterment of its people,” he furthered.

Digital anthropology

As aforementioned, anthropology is a field which studies about humans. Therefore, it has to change and update parallel to the changes that take place in the society. Now, as the whole world is rapidly moving towards a day of communication technology and artificial intelligence, the anthropologists have developed a new sub-field to study the changes that emerge as a result of the intersection of technology and culture. This sub-field is commonly introduced with the term ‘digital anthropology’.

Prof. Abhayasundere, speaking to Ceylon Today, took an initiate to introduce what this digital anthropology is. “Nowadays, we are living in a virtual or cyber-net facilitated, digital world and it has had a huge impact on the traditional life style. The aspects of life such as family life, food and beverages, entertainment and health also have undergone different alterations with the forthcoming of digital technology. So, this change has to be explored and studied. That is the reason why this subject, digital anthropology, was developed in the world, and we, as the University of Sri Jayewardenepura took efforts to incept the subject in the university system.”

“One might think that digital anthropology is something like computer science or software engineering that demands high technological knowledge, but it is not. In this field, we study how the existing socio-cultural behaviour of the members of the society has and is being changed with the influence of the modern technology,” shared Wijayarathna.

Head of the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Applied Sciences, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Prof. Prasad M. Jayaweera who is an expert on this field, shared his thoughts with Ceylon Today, re-establishing the idea presented previously. “Day by day, the world is entering into a virtual space; we are spending much time with technology and electronic devices. Social media is a very popular mode of communication now. So, in this context, most of the aspects of society have changed. The previously practiced culture might seem to continue in this digital space as well, but the truth is that it has changed a lot. For an example, let’s take this simple activity of eating. In the typical cultural context, eating was not done in public; even a beggar on the roadside would turn away from the road when he eats. Nevertheless, that culture is altered now, and people post what they eat on social media. I’m not saying that it is good or bad, but my point is that these behaviours have changed with the technology.”

Moreover, he elucidated how the social power hierarchies have also been changed. “In the traditional context, we observe some code of respect regarding the people of power and wouldn’t talk against or directly criticise them. Though, in the virtual world, these power hierarchies have been flattened and people do not hesitate to direct their scathing criticisms towards any individual, especially on social media platforms. Their dialectic sense has improved.” Also, Prof. Jayaweera mentioned that the new digital era has enabled people to take a holistic approach to their issues, with the aid and support of the internet. “If you consult a doctor in the traditional setting, you get an advice based on his knowledge system and nothing more. Yet, if you refer internet, you will be exposed to various different knowledge systems so that you can decide on the best and go for it.”

Anthropology in development projects

According to Wijayarathna, applied anthropology studies play a vital role in development related projects also. “Anthropological aspect of any development project is quite important for its success because the development has to be embarked without harming the cultural landscape of that area also. Therefore the anthropological knowledge regarding the target area is utilised before designing the particular project. Let’s say there is an urban development project designed for the Colombo municipality, and we deploy the same project in Mahiyangana area as well. Would it see the full success? No, because the cultural dimension there is different from that of Colombo. Hence, we have to serve for the requirements” he mentioned.

Anthropology in J’pura

The University of Sri Jayewardenepura is a landmark in teaching anthropology. They have immensely contributed for the development of the subject in Sri Lanka. Recalling back the history of the department, Department Head, Department of Anthropology, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Prof. Charmalie Nahallage shared her thoughts; “Anthropology started in our university with the inception of the University in 1959. Prof. P.E.P. Deraniyagala was the one who pioneered, with Ven. Welivitiye Sri Soratha Maha Thera, to develop the subject. Anthropology studies, then, in the sense, was focused only on physical anthropology since it was the specialised field of Prof. P.E.P. Deraniyagala.

However, later on it took a shift to cultural anthropology due to the scarcity of lecturers in physical anthropology. Having developed over a long period, in 2018, we were established as a separate department with the name ‘Department of Anthropology’ for the first time in the university system of Sri Lanka. Senior Professor Yasanjali Devika Jayathilake, Prof. Praneeth Abhayasundere, Prof. Jayantha Jayasiri, Prof. Sepala Samarasekara, Dr. Nelum Kanthilatha, Dr. Tharaka Ananda, and Dr. Raveendra Withanachchi currently serve in the Department of Anthropology and provide their academic knowledge to the students.

“Anthropology is taught in some other universities as a subject, without providing an honours degree. It is always incorporated with other subjects such as archaeology and even in those cases, the focus is only on the cultural aspect. So, it is only in the University of Sri Jayewardenepura that an honours degree is available for anthropology in Sri Lanka.

“Significance in our degree programme is that we provide a comprehensive insight into the subject from both cultural and physical aspects. We have lecturers coming from other faculties like science and medical to facilitate us with that.  Also, our subject content constantly updates with the newest knowledge. Teaching digital anthropology and molecular anthropology evidence that”

“Also, the department has published a book on Introduction to Digital Anthropology, written by Prof. Abhayasundere, Prof. Jayaweera and Wijayarathna. Based on the publications of Daniel Miller and Heather A. Horst who pioneered in bringing about the field of digital anthropology, the book provides a comprehensive overview into the subject matter with references to theories and concepts too.

“Further, the Department of Anthropology of University of Sri Jayewardenepura invites the interested parties to join with them through the official Facebook page Anthropology Crew of University of Sri Jayewardenepura or the university website, since they hope to host many programmes regarding the subject in future.”

By Induwara Athapattu