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Skeptism in Anthropology Classrooms

If I’ve learned anything this teaching term, it’s that it is always appropriate to have conversations with students about cultural relativity, etic/emic distinctions, and insider/outsider dilemmas despite the fact that many students protest that ‘they’ve heard it all before.’ Earlier in the term I blogged about student reactions to the film Holy Ghost People. In that case, some students had a hard time accepting the possibility that the religious rituals they witnessed in the film were actually taking place or were real.

Now, a similar thing happened when I showed the film The Kitchen Goddess to students studying gender and sexuality. The film shows vignettes of women in Canada’s maritime provinces offering pyschic readings in their kitchens to friends and family. I use the film in conjunction with lectures on gender and religion and try to raise questions why these activities are typically conducted by women and how these beliefs complement participation in other churches in the area.

After the film, several students expressed significant skepticism about the psychic abilities of the women they saw. They worked hard to offer alternate explanations — these are ‘intuitive’ women. I think we agreed that these women provide a community service which acknowledges empathetically the stresses community members face in their daily lives. Like shamans in other cultures, the kitchen psychics offers personal mediation with the supernatural and their reputation depends on their success.

Still, I was left feeling I should have done more to ask students to consider the meaning of these activities in the lives of practitioners and clients and less in terms of their own belief systems. Does student skepticism imply that others who believe are somehow stooges? Why don’t students express similar skeptism when they watch Witchcraft Among the Azande?

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  1. jamie wrote:

    As I think about this, perhaps it is not a question of whether the students really have a handle on cultural relativity or not, but a question of how they construct their categories of self and other. The students have no problem seeing the Azande through culturally relative and emic lenses since they are clearly the other, but in the cases of maritime women or American holiness pentecostals there is a recognition of difference, but these groups are still seen as close enough to be “one of us”. The students are culturally relative and don’t question the Azande practices because Azande are clearly the mysterious other that we can’t claim to truly know. As a result, we don’t feel free to pass judgement on them. The North Americans, however, are fair game for skepticism and criticism since they are just like us and we feel that we know them. I guess may argument comes down to something like: If they are “other” we are culturally relative, if they are like us we can be skeptical because cultural relativity applies to situations where we are talking about other cultures not our own.

    Saturday, April 1, 2006 at 2:33 pm | Permalink
  2. As anthropologists, we become familiar with other cultures and yet try to avoid such criticism once we do. Is this different than already being familiar with the culture in question? I’d suggest that there are lots of ‘subcultures’ that we don’t know enough about to be skeptical of them and their practices. I’m not sure that makes them fair game.

    Monday, April 3, 2006 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  3. Jamie wrote:

    I think that we approach things differently when we are dealing with cultures that we are more familiar with (although I agree entirely with you that it shouldn’t be). In my experience it just seems that people feel far more free to pass judgement on those they deem more like themselves than they do on those who are obviously different. I don’t believe that this is appropriate for anthropologists since, as you mention, we should be able to recognize the variety of “subcultures”, but I think this is the unfortunate truth for many of the students that I hang out with. I see them (myself often included) readily accept the beliefs and behaviour of someone in a far off place, but get impatient with, and reflect little on the behaviour they see around them every day.

    I hope my last post didn’t seem like I agree that the N.A.s should be considered fair game for skepticism. It was more just an observation.

    Monday, April 3, 2006 at 7:50 pm | Permalink
  4. It’s all good, Jamie … I understand your point and agree with you. My experiences teaching this term confirm what you are saying, to be sure.

    Wednesday, April 5, 2006 at 8:28 am | Permalink