An Anthropological Education

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An Anthropological Education

Introduction

I spent a considerable amount of time freshman year fretting over potential majors, until a wise upper classman told me that I would recognize the proper major because it would explain to me how and why the world works such as it does. This may seem foolishly simplistic and obvious, but as an upper classman now, I find myself often repeating this same turn of phrase to those still deciding how the world makes most sense to them, and therefore into which major they shall throw themselves. I discovered recently that I am not the only one who finds academia to speak broadly to one’s worldview; furthermore, I am not the only student of anthropology who sees anthropology in this rosy light. The YouTube video featured above gives a two-minute synopsis of the purpose and scope of anthropological study, and includes the same paraphrased aphorism I heard my first year at Haverford (right around the 1:40 mark).

As I mentioned in the introduction to my third webpaper, I never expected to critique the role of ethnography in an English class. Over the course of the semester I have grown to question the role that truth plays in all our endeavors, and particularly academics. As a senior anthropology major, I have been attempting to complete my own ethnographic research as part of my senior thesis work. When I began to feel frustrated and apprehensive about the limited ways in which I am able to represent the community I am studying, I felt myself looking more closely at the ideas behind ethnography and the cornerstone principles of anthropological thought.

Because of these concerns, I have taken this final project as an opportunity to explore ethnography as a subgenre of non-fiction prose—focusing in particular on the manner in which I have been trained to use ethnographic sensibilities as part of the discipline of anthropology. Ethnography, as the backbone of anthropology and within the category of non-fiction prose, fluctuates between the poles of strict theory and tangible experience. I have also found ethnography to straddle the binary between the narrative and the concrete, and between the theoretical and the experiential. As we have spent this semester discussing and discovering, non-fiction prose as a genre itself presents and contains a variety and versions of truths in a multitude of narrative structures. Looking closely at the ways in which students of anthropology are trained to seek, value, and represent social facts offers a fascinating lens into the hierarchy of truth in education, academia, and Western culture.

The syllabi of several crucial courses offered in the Haverford Department of Anthropology will be considered as critical texts of an anthropological education—representing anthropological realities and the accompanying techniques used to value and discern “the real” worth representing. Through my personal experience as a trained student in anthropology, and through the syllabi of the three courses, Introduction to Anthropology, History and Theory of Anthropology, and Senior Seminar, it is possible to read the narrative of anthropology, as it attempts to represent itself and train the next generation of thinkers and ethnographers. This paper will progress sequentially, looking at each course mentioned above in the order the Anthropology Department intends for students to take said courses. Each class section will highlight a few points from that course which will problematize or elaborate on ideas we have discussed in Facing the Facts: An Exploration of Non-fiction Prose, and comment on our continual obsession with construction of facts in literature, academia and society.

Introduction to Anthropology [Please click for link to syllabus]

Introduction to Anthropology is a class that usually runs in two concurrent sections capped at 40 students each, in order to serve as the baseline for thought on cultural anthropology. The course is closed to students who have any experience with anthropology, which is an interesting and well-known explicit choice to speak only to those with no experience in the field. Ostensibly this is because professors want to leave room for freshmen and sophomores who may want to know more about a new department, instead of having seniors eager to take advantage of an entry-level course.

Obviously this course is also meant to introduce key themes and topics in anthropology, including what it means to be human and how such identities are influences and created, the practice of ethnography, and forces such as capitalism, modernization, globalization and politics of difference. Throughout the course description listed at the top of this fall’s Introduction to Anthropology are questions which seem to all be answered by the same elusive idea. Whether in reference to questions of what anthropology is for, or what it means to be a social being, the end result always seems to be a search for the ‘truth’ of human existence and connection. I would like to say that this poetically simple and romantic answer to anthropological queries is what drew me to the study of anthropology, but I knew only that anthropology as the study of people was what made sense as a lens to view the world—not that the truth of human relationships was what mattered most.

As a freshman in Introduction to Anthropology, I was equally unaware of the use value or purpose of anthropological inquiry. While the syllabus tells me that the end of this semester’s class ended with discussions of “what anthropology is about, and what or whom it is for,” I do not remember many discussions about what anthropology is for except perhaps for the one day we discussed all the types of anthropologists there are (medical, forensic, social, biological, material culture, linguistic, etc). I understood enough from this portion of our weekly Powerpoint that anthropology was sufficiently relevant in the world to speaking proudly about it when announcing to my father that I intended to major in the social science that to him just did not compute. When he sputtered, “But haven’t you taken any economics? What would you do with an anthropology degree?” I replied with a still-eager smile, not to be dampened by his disgust, and shared my joy at having found a major that spoke to me and how I saw the world. He stared blankly and I sped up the pace: “Dad, what could be more important than understanding people in the world?” He ran out of responses at this point, and resorted merely to hanging his head and allowing it to shake sadly back and forth as he left the room.

Despite my dad’s utter lack of enthusiasm, I remained enthralled in the diversity of cultures and intentional reflexivity in my introductory anthropology course. One of the main topics I remember studying most was that of ethnography—a qualitative form of social and cultural research that anthropologist undertook around the world with a variety frameworks and purposes. I devote a considerable portion of my third webpaper to a description of what ethnography is, how and why it functions in anthropological thought, and my own experience as a budding ethnographer for the sake of my thesis. [3RD WEBPAPER] To paraphrase here, I argued that while ethnography can be extremely valuable as a witness to physical experiences, rituals and community exercises that it is incredibly difficult to confidently represent these experiences, let alone extrapolate from them theoretically. I found it impossible to feel that my experience was ‘truthful’ or that my translation of lived experience to written report would do such an experience justice.

In Introduction to Anthropology however, ethnography was still an entity quite distinct from personal experience. We read instead excerpts of famous and groundbreaking ethnographies by Malinowski, Boaz, Geertz, and Mead to name a few. This semester’s class read a contemporary ethnography over the course of the semester by Ann Armbrecht, which while not a famous choice certainly does illustrate the purpose of ethnography for itself. Armbrecht, like the ethnographers mentioned above, seeks to uncover a set of information deemed only factual through her presence and observation of such ‘facts,’ which she then discusses through several chapters on her trip through Nepal. Armbrecht easily demonstrates the power of ethnographic narrative, by providing a descriptive text depicting her personal experience and view on a particular aspect of social life and social space. Anthropology, as shown in the brief video at the top of this paper, hopes to link together seemingly disparate groups around the world through first-hand study. With the addition of theory and proper self-awareness on the part of the ethnographer, anthropology is meant to open doors and build bridges of understanding across national boundaries. Introduction to Anthropology provides several suggested responses to the question of anthropology’s purpose, beyond the answer I offered my own father, the most important being that only with an anthropological understanding of ourselves and others will we be able to inherently see and appreciate the commonalities present in the production of social identities anywhere in the world. This search for patterns among us leads inevitably to a discussion of a shared truth, a common narrative, or an oft-repeated experience, suggesting (erroneously, of course) to young and impressionable freshman in Introduction to Anthropology that truth is out there, waiting to be found by eager anthropologists uncovering the finite realities of human existence.

History and Theory of Anthropology [Please click for link to syllabus]

History and Theory is offered as a course intended for juniors who have just declared as majors in the anthropology department. The class may also contain seniors who missed the opportunity junior because of study abroad, but primarily the course is meant to prepare students for the looming theoretical task of framing a thesis in terms of existing theoretical literature. History and Theory aims to cover all its bases by indoctrinating students into several standard and accepted developed modes of thought in the history and present of anthropology. Movements such as structuralism, functionalism, post-colonial thought, and contemporary engaged anthropology are all covered—each describing a unique set of thinkers’ views on how to discover and formulate truth in human community and social interaction.

I was interested to learn that the syllabus and course specifically intended to cover the relationship between fiction and ethnography. Towards the end of our own semester in this course, we discussed the transformative power of narrative, especially in the context of Robert Coles’, The Call of Stories. One of my final essays for History and Theory was in fact about justifying the potential power of fiction as ethnography. In that essay I discussed how fiction is often as carefully and artfully constructed as ethnography is; truth is, or can be, the basis of both genres and therefore I argued, that genre is not an important distinction in the case of fiction versus ethnography. From another angle, we could say that stories play a crucial role in the experience and thus creation of truth in social science. Or in the beautifully simple text of the opening YouTube video: “stories become truths, which connect us to each other” (1:05 in film).

This presents several issues however, which I have alluded to earlier in this essay as well as in my third webpaper, [Link above] one of the largest issues being that of representation. History and Theory devotes considerable attention to the issues around agency, voice and representation of truth. We discussed the power inherent in writing and in the production of history, put so ably by Chinua Achebe: “until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter.” As Achebe and many others have pointed out, the production of history and cultural capital is a privilege held only by a select few. Flows of power across centuries and nation-states were the largest over-arching themes in History and Theory which directed and framed discussions. These existing power structures dominate the landscape of speech, narrative, and thus knowledge.

One need not dig far to reveal anthropology’s dark past as a tool of colonial rule and / or the ruling classes. Some anthropologists, as we discussed in History and Theory albeit briefly, were among the first to champion and research ideas such as racial superiority and inferiority, as judged by cranium size. Anthropologists were initially just intellectuals who purported to know something about the human condition and interpolated their theories widely. The subhuman status of Jews, the dominant intellectual and physical conditions of Caucasians—this is the history of and truth production in which anthropology was once engaged. I am not attempting to proudly assert that anthropology is a discipline born out of racism; I bring it up only to highlight how perceptions and versions of truthful, ‘scientific’ accounts can be entirely different depending on whom is reporting when.

Anthropology fortunately shifted gears over the years to embody a discipline that not only values difference, but instead seeks it out as a rich space of cultural production and opportunity for social study. Contemporary anthropologists are particularly interested in the growing and globalizing world because it is especially difficult to trace flows of power to one space, and instead the effects of power are crossing state lines and having drastic effects (production of violence through exacerbation of social difference, Arjun Appadurai would argue). As anthropology has become more motivated by contemporary flows of power, and as the discipline has come to realize the inherent power of representing (writing, speaking, etc) the story of a people, a nation, or a minority group, anthropology has developed a an extremely reflexive approach.

It is now standard in the practice of ethnography, as we learned in Introduction to Anthropology and as reported in my third webpaper, to take a remarkably self-aware stance. Ethnographers are expected to acknowledge their own presence in ethnography however they see to be most fit—justifying not just their particular perspective or training on an issue, but also recognizing the effect their presence as a research may have had on the set of truths they intend to represent. While reflexivity is a fairly standard stage in ethnographic production, it does not change the way in which each human being approaches an issue with an inherent bias, some set of familiarities and past associations which color our interpretation and thus representation of any event or community. This is present in our daily discussions as human beings, and is an issue not unique to anthropology but instead a consistent caveat in our production of social life.

With the help of the now-popularized reflexive methodology, anthropology as a discipline has shifted the scope of its truth-telling to qualify notions of cultural discovery as relative to one another. While this concept was mentioned in Introduction to Anthropology as we discussed the movement away from culturally bound definitions of human life, cultural relativism was covered in more depth during the History and Theory course. This idea reminds us that communities around the world have relevant practices which are not superior or inferior to each other, as we cannot compare entities separated by a variety of separate socio-cultural factors and flows of power. In today’s era of globalization, these lines are becoming more blurred, but the basic idea behind cultural relativism is to remember that no community should be understand as more advanced than another. Each social pattern from the Aborigines to the British has value within their own system, though putting the two up against each other carries little merit. This is an interesting idea to consider through the lens of truth seeking which Introduction to Anthropology already established as somewhat inevitable. Each community then, holds a set of standards and realities as cultural truths; anthropologists are interested in these for their inherent value, but when compared with other communities should value all sets of reality, truth and fact as lived by each group, equally.

This feels, or at least felt to me, to be a remarkably weighty request for us burgeoning ethnographers / anthropologists / truth-seekers in History and Theory to balance. We have already been charged with representing our own positionality carefully and actively; we have been implored to move away from anthropology’s roots of speculative science to a respectful, ‘non-fiction’ narrative, recognizing our own role in the creation of this narrative but trying to remove our personal bias such that social and cultural truths and sail freely and fairly around the world, bringing long separate groups together in the common discourse of truth exchange.

…Or at least, that explanation is how anthropology felt weighted to me this fall.

The onus then, as I already lamented in my third webpaper, is placed on the researcher to transport truth from an observed physical experience to a written or visual form without corrupting or diluting it too much in the process of translation. I have actually already illustrated this point about the translation of truth in recreating the vignette about my Dad and my differing opinions of anthropology’s use value. I reported that story here from my perspective and view on what was valuable, in need of emphasis, or in need of omission. Were instead my father to write an essay about the truth and purpose of anthropological education, he may report that there is none, and use such a story to clearly support his argument in the opposite manner in which I have used and recorded it here. The key difference between using this exchange for one purpose or the either is clearly in the differing representation of the same set of details.

Senior Thesis Seminar [Please click for link to syllabus]

Senior anthropology majors are all automatically enrolled in the senior thesis seminar during their senior year. The goal of the seminar class is to assist seniors in developing and implementing a plan for field work, research and culminate in the production of a thesis draft chapter due at the fall semester’s close. During the spring, the seminar shifts away from a class-meeting-a-week to individual meetings with thesis advisors. As a department requirement, all anthropology majors must work with some element of primary research. Ethnography is highly encouraged as this form of research, and so almost all seniors focus their efforts on designing a unique research proposal and project that they will continue throughout the semester, or plan carefully and travel to during winter break. Either way, ethnography becomes a very personal and immediate facet of anthropology during a student’s last year.

Many students in my senior seminar, including me, decided to undertake ethnographic projects which we hope will serve some sort of greater purpose than merely contributing a few more nuggets of truth to the collective pot of knowledge that is anthropology. This particular emphasis on anthropological study has grown in popularity since the 1980s, when anthropologists worried about what it meant to observe and impact a community in need, while doing nothing to better the situation. These lofty intentions however, are not always enough to insure a positive effect. As Anne noted on my third webpaper, one of Coles’ mentors reminds us to keep the best interests of our research in mind with two questions: “Who’s against shorthand? No one I know. Who wants to be shortchanged? No one I know.” I find these questions to be particularly illuminating, as they speak to my earlier point about maintaining truths despite the unavoidable translation from the event itself, to my perception and my notes, and finally then as part of my finished work.

Conclusion

Students trained to think and consider the world around them anthropologically are taught to seek truth in each moment of cultural exchange, social production, and shift of power. The curriculum of the Anthropology Department clearly delineates a thought progression for students to follow, beginning with the blank slate of freshman year. First students are taught to value, prize and derive joy from the discovery of social truths in their fellow man. After whetting a student’s anthropological appetite, they are then indoctrinated into the full theoretical scope of anthropology and probed to discuss the pitfalls, difficulties, and essential methods of the discipline, such that they can defend its weaknesses and move forward confidently as laborers for human truth. At the close of a student’s education in the anthropology department, each must fly free and put into practice those concepts they have built upon for four years. We are expected to navigate confusing intersections of roads well travelled in search of those still open for construction, and asked to fearlessly map a route to the heart of human experience. Once there, it is assumed that we will experience for ourselves the most precious ‘real truth’—the beauty that is shared insight and experience. Each narrative comes originally from an experience; each truth can be written and told as a narrative. I feel extremely grateful for the exploratory conversations around truth in this course, as well as my anthropological education, for honing my appreciation of truth in narrative, ethnography, and everything in between. The introduction of this paper mentions briefly the way in which ethnography and the field of anthropology have swung back and forth between reporting the ‘real’ experience and gleaning theoretical truth via narrative interpretation. As a trained student of anthropology, I would argue that each of these vacillations has been and remains necessary in order to keep anthropology relevant. After all, we as humans both lead and are subject to, anthropological inquiry. Only in social science do we purport to study that which we cannot avoid—ourselves. As I have outlined in this essay, this presents a unique set of challenges as well as opportunities. We must enter into the field of anthropology able to combat these self-imposed and inescapable conflicts of truth production, understanding that we are limited and gifted only by our own abilities. Truth is both what we declare it to be, as well as what we cannot see. Understanding this has been, I believe, the key to my continuing confidence and peace in anthropology.

 

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