Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Who Is This Everyday Anthropologist?

(And what, exactly, IS anthropology, anyway?)

Hello, my name is Elizabeth Edwards, and I will be your anthropologist for the day. Perhaps even for the everyday (that's my personal goal, at least). But before I can convince you to give me a perch somewhere inside your brain, from whence I hope to whisper anthropological nothings into your ear as you wander through your daily life, I should probably tell you a little bit about myself.

I have recently completed my master's degree, with an emphasis in anthropology, through the University of Chicago's intensive one-year Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS). This was the first time the official title of "Anthropologist" was ever bestowed upon me, and in fact it was only a little under three years ago that I first considered seeking such a title for myself. But, unbeknownst even to me, I was an anthropologist long before I had any kind of clear idea what the term meant.

In fact, let's pause for a moment to define the term "anthropology," because I've noticed of late that its meaning is not exactly straightforward or widely understood.

Anthropology Defined

First of all, an anthropologist is NOT the same thing as an archaeologist. (I've realized that the two words are very closely linked in many people's minds, a discovery achieved through extensive ethnographic observation—by which, in this case, I mean telling people that I'm studying anthropology, and noticing that the most frequent response is "Oh, so do you go on a lot of digs?")

"Anthropology" comes from the Greek word "anthropos," meaning "human," and thus an anthropologist is someone who studies humans or humanity. An archaeologist is a specific kind of anthropologist—one who studies ancient societies. ("Archaeology" comes from the Greek word "arkhaios," meaning "ancient.") This often involves excavation, but extends beyond that to assorted other techniques and processes as well.

Anthropology, in turn, extends far beyond the archaeological. Other subfields of the discipline include physical anthropology (the study of the human body, ranging from evolutionary studies of humanity's ancestors through modern medical study), linguistic anthropology (the study of language, including its components and development), and cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropology is my personal area of specialization, and involves (as the name suggests) the study of culture, though the question of what precisely "culture" entails turns out to be particularly tricky to pin down.

Culture (Provisionally) Defined

The word "culture" comes from the same root as the word "cultivate," and was initially used by self-designated "civilized" people (who believed they had raised themselves from a "state of nature") to distinguish themselves from the so-called "savages" whom they perceived to be totally devoid of any semblance of self-cultivation. Eventually people (and to their credit, anthropologists were some of the main champions of this revelation) realized that that was a bit of a biased perspective, and started using the term "culture" to refer to the habits and worldviews that seemed to characterize and distinguish ALL people groups.

"Culture" has since been subject to an enormous proliferation of meanings, which are often inconsistent if not wholly contradictory. Some use the term to refer to specific genres of activity such as formalized art, music, and literature, while others understand it to incorporate the whole range of human activity. Some claim that culture consists solely of immaterial components such as symbols, beliefs, and values; others believe that material artifacts are also manifestations of culture. Some speak of Culture with a capital C as something universal to all humanity, while others speak of differentiated small-c cultures, each with its own language, traditions, and other distinguishing characteristics.

While the debate over which is the "true" or "proper" meaning of culture is not one I will make any effort to settle at the moment, there are two definitions of culture I find particularly interesting, which I will be using to frame the various topics I explore in future articles. The first identifies that which is learned or acquired through imitation of others (rather than being independently devised or discovered), and the second involves what Ralph Holloway has called "the imposition of arbitrary form on the environment." (Of course, Holloway constructs this definition in order to assert that humans are the only animals exhibiting culture, a claim by which I am not personally completely convinced, but that is beside the point—for the moment, at least.)

I will delve more deeply into these two definitions, and their implications, in a subsequent article, as I would like for the moment to turn from this tangent back to the subject at hand—namely, my own introduction. But I hope this has provided some helpful background regarding the admittedly slippery term "anthropology," and the even more slippery concept of "culture" (at least enough to tide us over for the moment).

Back to the Anthropologist

As I said, I became an anthropologist long before I had any inkling about the definition of the term. What do I mean by this? For as long as I can remember—and for the archaeologists among my readership, the written record (as preserved in my diaries and other assorted compositions) confirms this claim beginning in January of 1992—I have been fascinated with the patterns of human behavior, the meanings that people attribute to those behaviors, and the ways that beliefs and understandings impact how people interact with one another. I have a habit of carefully observing the world around me, taking note of interesting social phenomena, and formulating theories to explain both the regularities and irregularities I came across.

It was not until after I graduated from college (without taking a single course in anthropology—in fact, it was almost as though fate had intentionally intervened to prevent me from doing so, since the only courses that scheduling reasons ever forced me to drop during my undergraduate career were the two Comparative Sociology classes in which I had enrolled) that I learned that the study of humanity was not merely a fascinating hobby, but a legitimately recognized academic discipline. When I began looking into the matter further and encountered a description of ethnography (the primary research method of the cultural anthropologist, which involves immersing oneself in a particular field site through engaged participant-observation, recording detailed written fieldnotes of one's experiences, and subjecting these notes to subsequent formal analysis), I flipped back through the fifteen volumes of journal entries I had been keeping since second grade and realized I had undergone a full apprenticeship in the process without even realizing it.

Since I was, at the time of this epiphanic revelation, in the process of deciding what sort of graduate program to enroll in, I decided to formalize my obvious anthropological inclinations through academic training. This led me to the University of Chicago's one-year master's program, which provided me with a thorough and rigorous grounding in social science theory in general, and academic anthropology in particular.

Although I relished the challenges the program presented and appreciated the opportunity to see the mode of inquiry I had long been pursuing on my own terms applied in a more official, widely recognized format, upon completion of the program I ultimately realized that my true passion did not lie in conducting theoretical studies and translating them into "academese" for the perusal of a few other experts in some obscure field. Rather, I wanted to continue to examine the anthropology of the everyday—using the methodological tools and theoretical frameworks I had learned through my academic training to gain insights which I could then express in a manner accessible to the general public. It is for this reason, and to this purpose, that I have started this blog.

I believe firmly (for reasons to be discussed at greater length in subsequent articles) that an anthropological perspective can be of both interest and benefit to all people, whether or not they themselves are as anthropologically inclined as I am. Anthropology encourages an open-mindedness increasingly necessary to navigate the modern world of ever-expanding horizons. It probes the underpinnings of the basic patterns and frameworks that shape our lives, revealing the ways that our seemingly freely chosen actions are often shaped and constrained by our own cultural context. Awareness of this process can, I believe, pave the way for increased independence from these controlling influences, allowing us greater control over our personal behaviors and over, not only our individual destinies, but the destiny of humanity as a whole.

I hope you will read on, and give me the opportunity to convince you that becoming an everyday anthropologist can be as rewarding, and ultimately indespensable, as I have found it to be.

*Note: I have intentionally attempted to keep the definitional portions of this article simple and non-technical. If you are interested in more specific or in-depth background on the topics of anthropology and culture, I am happy to point you in the right direction. Feel free to post questions or areas of interest in the comments.