The centuries-old discipline of anthropology has long struggled with a negative image among minority groups. Many say colonists and societies have used discoveries in the field as justification for mistreating Africans, indigenous people and other ethnic minorities.
Arizona State University officials said they believe that anthropology’s reputation can improve with help from its new School of Human Evolution & Social Change, formerly the Department of Anthropology, which opened earlier this month. It is designed to teach students how to use anthropology with other social sciences to solve modern problems, said Sander van der Leeuw, director of the school.
Anthropology is an academic discipline with roots in the 17th century. The study emerged during the "Age of Enlightenment" — a period in which Europeans began to study human behavior. It also was a time in which colonists were moving into the Western Hemisphere, challenging native inhabitants for their land and resources.
The field makes comparisons between cultures, detailing the different physical traits and origins of various peoples. Van der Leeuw said it’s time to start focusing the study on helping society solve current scientific problems.
"Anthropology should and can overcome the image of it as a tool (of racism) that it had during colonialism," van der Leeuw said. "It can contribute to today’s society." For example, he said, students could study how pollution affects the spread of disease and the Earth by examining illnesses of ancient times.
Students at the school will take courses in several social sciences to broaden their skills, so they will graduate with an anthropology degree rooted in several fields.
Van der Leeuw plans to accept more students into the program, which currently has nearly 220 anthropolog y majors and 140 graduate students. He also hopes to attract more minority students.
Anthropology and several other social sciences are dominated by white students — a trend that some anthropologists have blamed on the discipline’s racial reputation. Nearly 82 percent of the 6,777 social-science doctorates issued nationwide in the 2002-03 school year were obtained by whites, while only 7 percent were obtained by blacks, 6 percent by Hispanics, 5 percent by Asians, and less than 1 percent by American Indians and native Alaskans.
However, social science departments are making progress, said the American Anthropological Association. Anthropology departments have reported a surge in enrollment and degrees.
ASU’s new school also has the new Center for Bioarchaelogical Research, which studies the history of tuberculosis, a disease that has affected a range of species, from elephants to humans, for thousands of years.