The Sentimental Anthropologist

For my first post, I thought I’d present something I wrote quite  a while ago, but still feels like a very current take on my feelings about anthropology.  It was originally written (and delivered) as a commencement speech, in the spring of 2000:

I did my fieldwork in Northern Ireland, and I worked mostly with primary school kids.  These were working-class kids, who lived in the neighborhoods hardest hit by the violence and poverty engendered by and at least partly responsible for the Troubles, the Protestant/Catholic divide.  One of the Protestant schools I was working in was in a neighborhood dominated by a particular paramilitary group, and at one point there was a feud within that group.  This feud spilled over into the homelives of the kids I worked with; two of the boys at the school were kept home for a few weeks because they had witnessed the beating of their dads and uncles, and in particular because they knew to where those men had fled, once the attacks were over.

I had never felt more useless in my enire life.  What good were my observations and analysis of kids’ lives, when there was nothing I could do to stop the violence that tore their families apart.  If I really wanted to effect change, why wasn’t I a social worker?  Someone really doing something about all of this.

As luck would have it, one of my colleagues at Queen’s University Belfast was a social-worker turned anthropologist.  I told him precisely how useless I felt, how meaningless I was finding anthropology at that moment, and wondered aloud what on earth I thought I was doing, anyway.  Noel smiled, because he had had those exact feelings about being a social worker.  “In social work,” he told me, “You only have the energy to deal with what people do.  In anthropology, you can try to change what people think.”

It should be clear to those who stuck it out in the undergraduate major, and crystal for those finishing grad school that we’re not in this for the money.  This is not a lucrative career track, the job that will get you the sweet pension plan.  Of course, there are very few jobs like that anywhere anymore, so I guess anthropology has been ahead of the curve in requiring its students–through the sheer brutality of its job market–to be flexible, to have a number of skills, and to be able to work situations to their advantage even in less than ideal conditions.  Being an anthropologist is, in its own way, perfect training for the kinds of lives we are increasingly living these days, ones fraught with change, and saturated with uncertainty.

I think that it is telling that when someone asks me, “what do you do?”  I say, I’m an anthropologist.  Not, “I *do* anthropology,” but I *am* an anthropologist.  As if it were a state of being, a way of moving through the world.  It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.  It is our gift as anthropologists to have a chance to access the everyday life that lies behind the totalizing categories we encounter so often in politics, economics, history, popular culture.  Whether we choose to examine the lives of our own communities, or of those far away from and foreign to us, we are engaging in an exercise of understanding, and sometimes we are even successful. 

Anthropology is the ultimate big-picture discipline.  In its American incarnation, it encompasses the whole of human existence, social and biological, past and present.  Studying it can’t help but change your perspective, if only to be the one at the cocktail party telling stories about how “they do it in other countries/did it in other times/say it in exotic places.”  Nowadays one can be an anthropologist in one’s own backyard, not just in the far-off places of our early disciplinary history.  I like to think that there is something for everyone in anthropology, if they would only give it a chance.  

For at least the last ten years –probably more, come to think of it, I have thought that anthropology was my passion.  My interest in it is nearly legendary in my family–my mother claims I was using a physical anthropology textbook as a picture book when I was just two, and I went to college as a freshman declared in anthropology, emphasis archaeology.  My marriage has been punctuated by fieldwork, first my husband’s in Ecuador, then my own in Northern Ireland.  My friends are anthropologists, my family has never known me to be anything else.  What else could anthropology be but the central passion in my life?

But where within anthropology does my passion reside?  I thought it was in the life of the traveler, the professional justification to go wherever we wanted because “anthropologists do fieldwork.”  I thought it was the sense that I was coming closer to understanding not just what people do in their everyday lives, but why.  I think I am still attracted by those things, but I have recently decided that the practice of anthropology gives a potentially greater gift.

One of the beauties of anthropology is that once you are an anthropologist, everyone is your teacher.  It doesn’t take a college degree, a high school diploma, or any formal schooling at all to make someone a potential teacher.  We start off in seminars, sure, reading books, discussing articles, writing papers.  But it is an institutional part of anthropology that you cannot just learn from books and the university setting.  You have to go out and live a life, somewhere, you have to have at least some first-hand experience, to inform your perspective, to flesh out your theories, to make what you have to say grounded in the real world, whichever part of that you have chosen to scrutinize.  Our real teachers are the people who used to be called, “Informants;” they are our age, older than we are, and in my case, far far younger.  My teachers were kids, none much older than twelve, and some as young as four.  They were Protestants and Catholics, some from mixed families; they attended segregated schools, and integrated schools.  Very few lived in integrated neighborhoods.  Some taught me by being open to me from the day we met.  Some taught me by avoiding me the entire time I was there.  Others insisted on treating me the way that they treated all adults at school (from a distance), while still others never cut me a break, never allowed me any more status than they would grant one of their peers.  It was on the setting of the playgrounds that I saw that these kids had to be concerned about the Protestant/Catholic divide, and all the attendant symbols surrounding Irish and British Nationalism.  They had to because to ignore the schism that defined so much of their everyday lives would be a devastatingly dangerous decision–one that they really did not have the power to make.  But their attention to that divide, and their concerns about what “the other side” was doing, were motivated by far more basic concerns, about the safety of their families, their friends, themselves, the security of their homes, their place in the world as they knew it then, and whether there would be any place at all for them in their future.

It was a gift for me to realize that I can learn from anyone.  That my growth as a person does not stop once I am no longer classified formally as “a student.”  All that it requires is that I continue to be around people, that I continue to pay attention, that I continue to care.  My most recent teacher in this regard is my daughter, Lily.  She died in October 1999, three weeks after she was born, and in her perfect but far-too-short life taught me some of the most important lessons I will ever learn about what is important in life.  My passion is for the people I love, my family and my friends, and my intention is to build a life that recognizes the importance of those people.  Whether or not I choose to go on and build a career in anthropology, I will always be an anthropologist.  I will also always be a daughter, a sister, a friend, a wife, a mother.  These parts of me coexist, enrich each other, and let me experience all of the pain and the joy that is life. 

Welcome new blogger, Tony Waters

Tony Waters has just uploaded his first blog post to, “Is There A Point To Learning Another Language?” Check it out. Tony comes to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he is a professor, though he is currently teaching in Germany. His books include: Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007)

Welcome Tony!

Is there a point to learning another language?

I am teaching at a German University which trains people to work internationally. This means that classes are held in both German and English, students do internships abroad, and all students are assumed to be fluent in both English and German. Last night, one of the students who did an internship in the UK last summer, indicated that she had heard a British manager indicate that it was not necessary for English speakers to learn a second language, as everyone else is learning English. This of course is a common—and perhaps realistic—attitude among Americans, Australians, and British working internationally, particularly in business and science. Others do learn English, and learn it well. Which raises the question for those of us who are native English speakers, why should we bother to learn a foreign language when everyone else is seemingly learning English? On a certain level, I know that the businessperson my student cited is right. There is an international world out there exemplified by CNN with its multi-national English reading staff. Business people and scientists who jet around the world, holding meetings, negotiating, and pontificating (in English) are also part of this set. There are also substantial middle classes in Europe and Asia which are routinely bi- or tri-lingual, and use their skills at resort hotels around the world. But the international world is more than conference centers and vacation spots. Irrespective of the new found strength of international CNN English, most decision-making does not take place in the international settings English speakers know from quick business or tourist travels. Finer decision-making still takes place in Chinese, Russian, Spanish, German, Japanese, Arabic, or the range of other world languages that do not share English’s privileged status. After the formal negotiation is finished, people still retreat into the ever more private world of their home language, effectively excluding the native English speaker. Does the mono-lingual English speaker lose out on something when this happens?

So at what point does a company insist on foreign language skills from Americans or other native English speakers in hiring, and assignments? Do you insist that the American, Australian, or British person enroll in language courses when they are assigned to a country where English is widely spoken as a second language, such as in Holland, Germany, Scandinavia, India, or increasingly, China? Or does the company save the cost, and take advantage of the willingness of others to study English? It seems that international labor markets are increasingly leaning towards letting us native English speakers take advantage of our situation. My fear though is that this creates an illusion of cultural competency derived simply from the fact that we know airports and hotels, not from the deeper understandings of the cultures of others, which can only be acquired from language study.

I will admit to a bias towards language learning, while also acknowledging that it is a frustrating, tedious, and occasionally embarrassing process. The lessons language learning teaches in humility, and even mental acuity, are valuable. And in the long run, language acquisition is one of the most satisfying experiences one can have. In large part this is because as anthropologists are acutely aware, language proficiency provides a window into culture of others. But are these human justifications enough to change the utilitarian attitudes of a business and scientific world where language is a means to an end, and not an end itself? And given the fact that so many others are willing to acquire English, how will this effect the integration of English-speaking people into the international business world in the long run?

More Business lessons from the circus

stephen_peer_niagara.jpgPeople that have known me for a long time know that I often use circus skills as a metaphor for life and business. When I was learning how to rope walk, my instructor at the time was fond of quoting his instructor (imitating his indeterminate accent) that would always yell at him: “Never jump off the rope! The rope is life!”  What he was referring to is a bad and dangerous habit that young rope walkers can develop. When someone feels like they are about to fall off the rope in practice, they will usually go ahead and step off rather than let themselves fall. It seems to make sense at the time because you’re usually only a couple of feet off the ground, so you just step off and start over again. However, the difficulty is that you create a sense memory to step off the rope when falling, rather than training yourself to fall and grabbing it as you go down. This is the difference between falling off 2 feet from the ground and falling off a rope at 60ft.  At 60 feet off the ground, stepping off has distinct disadvantages compared to the fall and grab method.

And this relates to business how?
People will do the same thing when they’re presenting material that they don’t feel quite confident about. We’ve all heard this a hundred times before; someone is about to give a presentation and they apologize for it in some way. The information’s not quite finished, or that the ideas are not as big as they want them to be. This is the equivalent of jumping off the rope at the first moment you feel like you’re about to fall. It’s the worst thing you can do for the same reasons. It doesn’t matter whether you are just talking to colleagues in the office or you’re giving a presentation to the CEO, it’s the same thing as training yourself to let the fall off the rope happen at 2 feet or 60. You have to commit and believe and trust in fact that what you have to say is important and worthwhile and there are people around that are spotting you so you won’t take that catastrophic fall from a simple 2 feet.

Just a thought.

I finally know someone performing at the met!

Steve, an unknown woman, me and a guy I knew form EPCOT

An old performing friend of mine, Steve Russell will be making his New York City Opera debut at Lincoln Center next month. He has been cast as understudy in a production of Pagliacci with the NYC Opera. Even though he is the understudy, he will be certain to go onstage on October 11 and 19th. You never know when the other juggler/fire-eater will contract some mysterious illness…. or a mysterious illness brought on by the understudy.

This is a picture from about 198o or 81 at the International Mine and Movement festival when he and I were attending master classes with the Avner Eisnenberg. Steve is on the far left, and I am the guy 2nd from the right in the bushy hair.

Congratulations Steve!


For those of you that don’t know of my rambunctious history as a performer. I knew Steve during my 9+ years as a professional performer. I have been a juggler, fire-eater, stilt-dancer, contortionist, several Irish bands, and more and less savory skills. In fact, I learned my juggling and fire-eating from Steve! You may have seen me at festivals and theme parks, or performing on the streets of Chicago, St. Louis, NYC, D.C among others. Where ever I could drop a hat and people stopped to watch the potential of seeing a man set himself on fire. But, it was indeed a living.


More parallels between anthropology and design

As more anthropologists work in the realm of business, parallels between the design profession and the business anthropologist continue. A recent business week article dated August 29 is about the challenges that designers face has they climb the corporate ranks towards the executive suite.

As the article notes unsurprisingly, designers often don’t have the basic skills in management, leadership or finances that someone in the upper management would be expected to learn at a more traditional business program. The same can said of anthropologists entering the business world, with just as few skills in how to be truly effective within the complex culture and language of the corporate environment..

In the past I’ve had conversations with both anthropology graduate programs, and graduate design programs about just this difficulty. I have to admit, it seems difficult to achieve this well-rounded education without turning it to your program into a three-year course of study.

The question is really what you want people to know at the end of the day. Do you want them to have Interest, Aptitude or Expertise in a particular topic area? For example, generating interest in a particular topic area would seem to be more about just simply giving someone to be exposure to know that it is an area of value to them. For example, many cultural anthropologists are not trained in quantitative research methods, it is valuable to have them at least be interested in what those methods have to offer.

When thinking about aptitude, that’s the ability to actually see and start to incorporate the value of other disciplines into your own core discipline. And of course if you’re training someone for expertise then that means you’re trying to make them competent all by themselves in a particular area.

What the best route for creating a multi-disciplinary person?

According to the Discovery Channel, the Earth hates you… it really really hates you.

Fair use from discovery channelI think I have mentioned before how much I enjoy the pseudo- science claptrap on Discovery, The Learning Channel and Animal “If its alive, it wants to kill you” Planet. Hell, I WANT to be one of the talking heads spouting the claptrap. Casting Agents can contact me via this website. There are a number of programs that I really enjoy: Mythbusters, Dirty Jobs, and um…. okay, its a small number.

But I digress. It seems these channels are subject to Medical Student Syndrome. That is what happens when a Med student starts to believe they suffer from any illness they read about in their medical texts. The Indonesian Tsunami is a good example. They immediately pop up with “AMERICAS TSUNAMI, ARE WE NEXT?”. Holy crap, I have to worry about that too? Terrorists, carjacking, boogie men of all kinds, and now I have to worry about waves, asteroids, West Nile virus and also according to Discovery, Yellowstone National Park is gonna BLOW UP. Hell, they even had a show once on when pets attack. Think about that next time you are considering buying your kid an ant farm for their birthday.

Look, fear is not a bad thing. It is an important skill that we have honed over thousands of years of evolution that has helped us avoid being eaten among other inconveniences. But there is a vast gulf between fear as a personal tool of survival and a tool of mass manipulation. Ever wonder why the Homeland Security Advisory System has never, ever been lower that “elevated” since the day it was started?

Tak and the Power of Publicity

jujuYesterday morning my four year old daughter begged me to watch a tv program she had seen advertised earlier this week on Nickelodeon, entitled, Tak and the Power of Juju. For better or for worse, I was popular culture savvy enough to know that the characters and setting of this cartoon are based on a popular set of video games.

Here is my understanding of the show, cobbled together from my one episode and a little reading on their website: Tak (voiced by Hal Sparks of Talk Soup fame) is a teenager of indeterminate age who lives as part of the Pupununu tribe in a jungle setting including at least one volcano (“lava rock” was referred to multiple times in the episode I saw). He is a junior shaman with a cool magic staff with a jewel on top and has a best friend named Jeera who is the sassy, independent, and totally rockin’ chief’s daughter. Jeera is contrasted with the other prominent girl in the tribe (whose name I did not catch), who is depicted as obese, unnaturally strong, poorly dressed, and demonstrates her stupidity by speaking slowly and in partial sentences. Tak is contrasted with the other prominent young man of the tribe, Lok (voiced by Patrick Warburton – Puddy on Seinfeld), who thinks Tak’s magic is unmanly, and prefers to solve problems with a dash of bravado, a pinch of brutishness, and a gallon of misplaced egotism. Tak was given his magical powers earlier than traditional in the tribe, so he has trouble controlling them, and generally getting the “juju” to cooperate. He and Lok compete for the attentions of the both the chief and his daughter, while the very large girl pines for Lok and his chiseled chin.

In the short time I watched (one 15 minute episode entitled “Loser”), reciprocity, oral tradition, and public shaming as a form of social control in a small-scale society were demonstrated. There was a very interesting scene where the tribe sat in a circle around the fire listening to Lok tell the tale of one of his exploits. The details of the story shifted as he took requests from the group and adjusted his tale to keep the pleasure and attention of the chief and his daughter. It was actually a fairly interesting depiction of the flexible nature of certain types of oral traditions and folkstories, as the essential message of the tale (heroic Lok saved weak creatures from destruction by a giant lava rock with his brute strength) stayed the same, yet the speed of the rock, the creatures being rescued, and the method of the rock’s destruction were actively negotiated with the audience.

Perhaps it was the presence of Warburton’s voice (he voices Kronk in the spinoff television series The Emperor’s New School), but I was reminded of the movie The Emperor’s New Groove – a cartoon movie that took place in the Inca Empire. In this movie, the emperor, Kuzco, also a teenager, gets turned into a llama by the evil sorceress Yzma (voiced by Earth Kitt) and has to learn to be a better guy with the help of a commoner named Pacha (voiced by John Goodman). The movie was filled with deliberate historical anachronisms, as is the television show – where Kuzco attends a high school with cheerleaders and a track team – as well as a bunch of smooshing together of attributes of Mayan, Aztec, and Andean cultures that was likely done unintentionally.

So, is any publicity really better than none at all? There’s something kind of appealing about a children’s program set in an indigenous hunting and gathering society, and yet… does it actually increase awareness of the reality of such peoples in the real world? Do kids who love Kuzco end up reading about the real land of Tawantinsuyu, learning for example that “Inca” actually referred to the royal status, not the empire? Or how about Lilo and Stich? No doubt it sold a lot of aloha-wear, but was anyone drawn to a greater understanding of Native Hawaiians and the particular social and political challenges they face as a minority in their own lands?

I’m sure that everyone could add to this list with numerous examples of both animated and live action fictional depictions of historical and anthropological peoples. (I’ll admit to having been a huge fan of the show Xena, which kept its anachronistic tongue wedged firmly in its cheek, for example.) Pocahontas famously got the Disney treatment, and history buffs and Native Americans alike cringed. Interestingly enough, however, I was in Hawai’i the summer after the movie was released and found that the Native Hawaiian children in the activist group I was living with had adopted the song “Colors of the Wind” as an indigenous worldview anthem. They loved Pocahontas and they identified with her desire to share her love of the natural world with crazy capitalist caucasians. It was hard to find anything negative in their enthusiasm, except maybe the naivete.

The fear of scholars, of course, is that children and many of the adults who watch with them, will in fact take these mass-produced, heavily Americanized depictions of other people, places, and times at face value and let it go at that, never seeking out a deeper understanding. OR worse yet, can anyone tell the difference between the non-reality of the characters and situations in Monsters Inc. and the reality of for example, Amazonian tribes with shamans (which is what the Pupununu remind me of most despite their Polynesian sounding name)?

It was hard not to grimace when a comment from a student in my upper division prehistory class revealed that her first instinct was to trust the depiction of ancient Chinese culture in the movie Mulan over the data presented in our textbook. N.B. for you non-professors out there – in the business, when something like that happens and you manage not to have a psychotic break and beat the student over the head in fury it is called a “teaching moment.”

Speaking of “teaching moments,” I want to give a shout-out to my friends at Go Diego Go! on Nick Jr. for apparently creating one of their own. I had already written an ending to this blog when I went online to search for the presale code for tickets to Diego’s new live show… in the course of my search I stumbled across the parent message board and discovered this gem regarding a recent episode where Diego and his cousin go back in time to save a dinosaur: “You almost just lost a fan of Diego last Friday night with the promotion of a dinosaur rescue. No one knows how old the earth is and to state the fact that it could be over 100 million years old is just wrong…Also how do you know when dinosaurs roomed [sic] the earth it could have been with humans no one really knows when dinosaurs roomed [sic] the earth because no one has lived that long…” The individual continues, suggesting that the 9 foot tall beasts that Job fights in the Bible might have been dinosaurs. You can probably predict the rest of the content, or visit to cruise the message boards if you want to read more.

So there it is. I was already leaning to the “ (almost) any publicity of non-Western, non-modern cultures is better than none” side of the fence and this post pushed me over the edge. Maybe that Diego episode gave the child of the creationist-poster something to think about. Maybe his or her curiosity was piqued and books about geology will be snuck home form the library. Similarly, at least Mulan gave me a starting point to talk about family organization and kin groups. Lilo and Stich gave my Polynesian Cultures class an opportunity to not only discuss the controversies surrounding the modern use of the word ‘ohana but also why it might actually be realistic that one of the major figures in the characters’ lives was an agent from Child Protective Services…

So do others agree? Are you delighted when you when you see a fictional television show for children or adults set in another culture? Even if it’s filled with anachronisms, do you celebrate that at least we live in a world where such a show could even make it into the fall lineup? Or do you lament the fact that yet another time period or foreign culture has been subjected to Americanization? Is it worse for laypeople to think that the Ancient Inca were “just like us” only in different clothes and with an unnatural love for the sweet potato? Or would you prefer “they” just didn’t really think about the Inca at all if that’s how it’s going to be? And has any of this prepared us for the upcoming sitcom based on the cavemen characters from the Geico Car Insurance commercials? I guess I will just keep showing up to class and providing an alternative.

Segments don’t rock in part because they don’t roll.

Mark Dawson photoBack in the mid or late 80’s, I remember reading articles asking how PC’s could break the age barrier. At the time there was increasing uptake among a certain part of 20 to 25 year olds and then after that segment, purchasing trends fell off like a cliff. Then a few years later, the marketers and industry analysts were thrilled to note that PC’s had cracked the age gap and more 30 to 35 year olds were buying PC’s! This is an example of something a friend and I used to call a Rolling Segmentation.

Ok, so if you don’t get the joke yet, think about it. It’s a few years later….a few years previously, that 30 year old was… 25. There you have it, the big limit of segmentation: it has a very short-term memory, and never accounts for time. If you change your thinking from a simple segmentation to a rolling segmentation, then you can start understanding arcs of behaviors over time. Its pretty simple. The 20 to 25 year olds simply got older and when they turned 30 to 35 were suddenly treated like new beings that just popped up out of a pumpkin patch as fully grown computer buyers.

If you have not encountered the term Segmentation, it’s pretty common in all phases of business, education, government. You reader, are a segment. A segment is simply a way classifying people, places or things into convenient groupings of people or things with (or providing for) similar needs. For more information on segmentation, you can check out the wikipedia entry. I don’t object to segmentations at all. As humans we have a need to classify things into to groupings for easy mental handling. Like other forms of classifications, segmentations let you communicate in a few words long and complex relationships and descriptions. Of course, that implies the segmentation is correct and insightful to start with. That’s a big problem to start with, but if you at least recognize that segments roll forward over time, you can be on the look out for the errors.