Everything I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Anthropology Class

‘Tis the season for academic rites of passage and for many of us to say goodbye to the students who have been our intellectual companions for the past four years. Here are some of the (mostly) lighthearted thoughts I shared with my graduating anthropology majors and minors at our department reception this week. *Please note that this was an outline and I elaborated each point with ad-libbed examples from the classes we had shared and with local community examples that would make no sense to outsiders. Also, please see my post below, entitled, “Cindy’s Top Ten Things Anthropologists Should Not Do When They Are Drunk,” if you are seeking more practical advice.

It is a very emotional thing for me to stand up here and think about this group of seniors leaving. So many of you have meant so much to me over the last years. It’s hard to imagine that I will not continue to see your faces in the hallway, in my office, and smiling at me in class.

So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to offer you five examples of what I’ve learned form anthropology that I apply in my daily life.

First: generalized reciprocity rules. As in, it kicks butt. The most successful, longest running, least conflict-ridden societies we know of in human history operated on the principles of reciprocity. Use this insight to form networks, to create bonds, to build community and accomplish goals. Now, keep in mind that the trick to successful reciprocity is in choosing your partners wisely. If you live your life like this, it will come back to you. It’s anthropological karma.

Next, when the emic and etic interpretations of something do not align, there are important things to be learned. I do believe that an appreciation of the fact that emic and etic perspectives can at times be contradictory and yet both true in important ways is a fundamental characteristic of thoughtful, complex anthropology. I also believe this disconnect is always a sign to dig deeper. An example might be when you read something in the paper that seems at odds with your experience of the world. I can’t tell you which of the two is going to be “more right,” “more often,” only that you should pay attention when they don’t match.

Third, cultural relativism does not mean the abdication of opinion. Oh, they will try to convince you that it does. Those people out there who invented the term “political correctness,” will try to tell you that it means “anything goes;” that if you accept cultural relativism you have to accept wife beating, widow burning, and pedophilia as interesting cultural practices that are not the same as your own. It does not; they are wrong. They are twisting the concept for their own purposes – don’t let them. Cultural relativism is about context, insight, and suspension of judgment until a deeper understanding is achieved.

Symbolic capital or cultural capital is key. Every culture and sub-culture out there has its own rules and rewards. Ask yourself, what do these people value? Do I share these values? It is not a level playing field out there. You have an advantage: an advantage in terms of your bachelor’s degree, which is prestigious cultural capital in mainstream American culture. And, of course, most importantly in your outstanding choice of anthropology as the cornerstone of that education! What will you do with that advantage?

And finally, of course, the most famous anthropological insight of all: bone sticks to your tongue. Actually, I’m still not sure what to make of this last one. Like so many things in life, I just know it’s true. Perhaps someday one of you will come to understand its significance and return to explain it – and then the teacher will become the student.

Margaret Mead once said that American culture unfairly and arbitrarily teaches its members that fun is for childhood, work is for middle age, and regret for our twilight years. Of herself, she commented, “My great secret is that I was wise enough to never grow up, while fooling most people into believing I had.” So, go, have fun, work hard, accept regret when it comes, and then get back to the business of having fun and working hard.

I love you all! Congratulations!

3 thoughts on “Everything I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Anthropology Class

  1. Tony

    Great commment, particularly the one about the importance of teaching about cultural relativism and symbolic capital. I wish I had a dollar for everytime I have explained to students that you should not read only those writers you already agree with.

    Some of my best students have been business students who have wandered in to sociology, and sociology students willing to take classes in the business school. The assumptions about the what motivates human beings are different in the two disciplines, and often cannot be reconciled. But because the students are willing to wrestle with contradictory ideas, they become better thinkers for the experience.

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