I had no idea what anthropology was when I began college, I just knew I loved the course titles. “Language and Culture”. “Gender, Sex, and Sexuality”. “Religion and Modernity”. The cultural anthropology classes covered everything, everywhere, from race to medicine to law to food, from the Caribbean to Africa to Southeast Asia to Kansas. The archaeology classes covered history around the globe, from the birth of nation states to ancient trade routes to the way people made cloth, and everything in between. The biological anthropology classes examined the biology of humans and our ape cousins, and how we adapted over time to survive in amazingly diverse settings. The linguistic anthropology classes examined how we are physically designed for language to the innumerable forms that language takes. In fact, I was a little perplexed as to why anyone bothered with other disciplines. Clearly anthropology had cornered the market on Stuff Related to People.
What I found strange about anthropology was that no one outside of anthropology seemed to have a clear idea of what, exactly, anthropology is. So here, after two decades of study, is my definition:
Anthropology is a science and a philosophy, a way of exploring and understanding others and ourselves in all our global and cultural and biological diversity.
It is hard to be more specific than that, because anthropology itself is so diverse. Because human life is a peculiar blend of biology and culture, it is possible to study it from different angles. My area, cultural anthropology, tends to focus attention on the flexibility, breadth, and depth of cultural expression. The murky nature of life means that we run into questions of biology all the time; is the gender difference observed on a playground a result of inborn genetic difference, of social learning, or of psychological projection of the observer? Most would say it’s a mix, but cultural anthropologists are particularly interested in how those gender interactions look different from society to society across the globe – how do differences in stories, values, politics, economics, family structure, parenting, etc ., affect how boys and girls behave and are expected to behave?
Studying culture can be, well, tricky; people are just so darn creative. Cultural forms vary depending on place, generation, and a myriad other contexts. Most of anthropology therefore is not a hard science because its subjects are not hard. People are notoriously flexible and yet surprisingly inflexible, changing and continuous, and the study of people by people makes for some tricky politics. By its nature, anthropology has to be self-examining; while science controls for variables and tests hypotheses, the anthropologist controls little except her research questions – she just jumps into the mix and attempts to understand what’s happening by participating and observing. It’s a little like understanding physics, not by controlling a particle accelerator, but by becoming an atom and jumping into the fray.
I have always loved Anthropology, but its limitations continue to frustrate me. Anthropology as an academic field is a blend of theory and data (like most academic fields), but it is also a culture unto itself, with its own language, rituals, and barriers to participation. Often the writing is (unduly) dense and obscure, with an entire separate language that takes years of graduate school to learn.
In contrast, through this blog, I hope to open windows into the field, to translate what I find most valuable into everyday relevance. Specific studies or theories provide a starting point from which we can ask questions, rethink our assumptions about how the world works, broaden our knowledge of the diversity of experiences in the world, and perhaps even discuss new solutions for our social problems.
While writing about my own questions, experiences, and research, I will also be drawing on the work of numerous brilliant anthropologists, particularly those who already do the hard work of applying research to public life. What I love about anthropology, though, is its relevance to every corner of life, so don’t be surprised to see examples taken from history, psychology, medicine, economics, law, science, and especially pop culture.
Stories from other cultures around the world aren’t just interesting, they are powerful examples of Other Ways of Being. Ethnographic examples of babywearing, safe cosleeping, and nursing have had a huge impact on American childrearing practices over the span of only a couple of generations (as I type this I am literally nursing my newborn who is tucked snuggly against my body in a baby-wearing wrap). Anthropology also provides concrete data on the actual, lived effects of political and economic theories. Do “trickle-down” economics ever actually trickle down? Is free trade really “free”? Listening to the stories of garbage scavenging cooperatives in Buenos Aires and Free Trade Zone employees in Jamaica reveals the layers of politics and complex power dynamics that support or contrast with the ideologies. In so many areas, from health care reform to immigration policy, from parenting transgendered children to understanding religious passion, anthropology offers a window into human experience and the factors affecting it, allowing us all to make more informed choices.
As an American, I am fascinated by the peculiarities of American culture in particular. While anthropology traditionally has been the discipline which made other, foreign cultures seem understandable to Americans and Europeans, we tend not to think of what we do as “cultural”, but rather as right or wrong, natural or unnatural, politically left or politically right, etc. Hence, most of my writings incorporate questions like: Why do we do this really weird thing? Why don’t we tend to notice how weird this thing is that we are doing? Do other people in other places do this thing in the same weird way?
Who am I, exactly?
In no particular order, I am an anthropologist, university lecturer, former lawyer, and mom of two, but primarily I’m an American with a weird sense of humor, who, when asked “who am I?” am most likely to burst out yelling, “Two-four-six-oh-ONE!” I may also be a complete dork. Jury’s out.
I began my love affair with anthropology as a college freshman, taking “Language and Culture”. I was hooked, and doggedly stuck with the field even while simultaneously working my way through the panoply of middle class aspirations; at the same time I was taking pre-med classes, surveying public health graduate programs, and then actually attending law school, I majored in anthropology then earned my master’s degree. After I finally realized that I did not want to be a doctor, a policy maker, or a lawyer, I succumbed to the field whole-heartedly and got my Ph.D. in anthropology.
I currently teach cultural anthropology as a university lecturer, and am writing two books, one on my field research in religion and scientific authority, the other on medical culture, all while I’m raising two small children. Needless to say, the children are growing much faster than the books.
Please do share your direct personal experiences, links to articles, blogs, videos, and other media which are relevant to the essay, and any tangible data or evidence which supports, contradicts, or refines any claims I am making. I will frequently ask questions at the end of the essays in a shameless attempt to learn more about you and your cultural practices.Please do not share mud-slinging, yellow journalism, abusive commentary, personal opinions about others which are not supported by actual evidence. These comments will be deleted.
Please do not mud-sling, troll, or engage in yellow journalism, abusive commentary, or personal opinions about others which are not supported by actual evidence. These comments will be deleted.
Above all, my love of anthropology is fueled by a deep desire (and a struggling practice) to respect all human beings, even those who chew with their mouths open. While I believe we should look at everything with a questioning gaze, I expect all contributors to and commenters on this site to do so in a polite and respectful manner.
As someone who was an attorney for between 3-7 minutes, I feel compelled to state that the views on this blog are mine and don’t reflect those of my employer.
All of that said, welcome to relevanth. Let the conversation begin!
What do you think of when you hear the field “anthropology”?