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. 

2 thoughts on “The Sentimental Anthropologist

  1. Cindy Van Gilder

    I think that this was a great choice as a first post! I was lucky enough to read this speech seven years ago, and must say I find it as inspirational now as I did back then.

    You have eloquently captured two aspects of my own “anthropological self” that I find so important. The first of these is that it is simply who I am. It’s not a job, a career, or an activity: it’s an identity. And that identity is as fundamental to how I move through the world, make decisions, and form relationships as is my gender, for example. I’m an anthropologist in the classroom, in the field, at the PTA meeting, grocery shopping, and god help me – even in the bedroom.

    Secondly, you have raised the issue of social engagement on the part of anthropologists. With a few suspicious possible exceptions (What exactly was Napoleon Chagnon doing with all of those axes…?), anthropologists tend to be bleeding hearts whose fondest hope and deepest desire is that yes, their work WILL make a difference.

    That is, we sincerely believe there will be a genuine improvement in the lives of real human beings (and occasionally primates, etc.) because of the information or understanding that we have brought to the world. This is as true of archaeologists and physical anthropologists as it is cultural anthropologists.

    So thank you, Donna, for sharing these thoughts! Color me melodramatic purple, but gosh golly, I, too, am a hopelessly sentimental anthropologist.

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