Skip to content

Observations from the Podium: Classroom Notes Winter 2009

Update: picked up on my grand theories v. local particularities question and the comments received there are helpful. With the comments here, (and others on SACC-L) I think I have some new material for reworking lecture notes on emic/etic distinctions. Thanks to all.

Original Post: This semester, my students in introductory cultural anthropology and the anthropology of religion are provoking me to think hard with probing questions. My students are also making interesting observations after my presentations of my fieldwork experiences. I’m sure my answers and responses to them are less-than-satisfying in their eyes.

Here are a few observations from the front of my classroom:

1) More than usual, some of my students are interested in grand theories that explain everything (most things?). Evolution (ie adaptation to specific environments) is popular as an explanation for cultural difference. In this context, cultural diversity is simply a veneer over common structures like religion or economics. We really are the same everywhere despite the cultural anthropologist’s assertions that ‘local’ difference is worthy of study. (Emic/etic distinctions are in play. Indeed the value of cultural anthropology is questioned.) Is this the ‘Jared Diamond Effect’ where people gravitate to seemingly tidy explanations that cover every possibility? Why are big explanations more appealing than presentations of local nuance?

2) I find it increasingly difficult to convey the challenges of doing participant-observation fieldwork. After describing an observation I made during fieldwork, and then hedging about how to explain it, I was asked why I simply didn’t ask a follow-up question of my informant. After hesitating, I rambled, giving a range of reasons:

i) I didn’t know at the time a follow-up question was necessary;
ii) I was uncomfortable probing further because the observation related to something that was very personal to my informant;
iii) I was used my informants answering ‘I don’t know’ or ‘we’ve always done it that way’;
iv) the point came up in the context of a conversation, not an interview, and follow-up wasn’t possible.

I see that the students are making me their informant. Am I doing what my informants do when they say ‘I don’t know’?

3) Students struggle with the possibility of multicultural people (or simply bicultural people). Isn’t it possible to be Christian AND ‘traditionally spiritual’? Can’t you live syncretically? Can’t you practice more than one religion serially and be faithful to each one? I wonder if the difficulty in conceiving of these possibilities is the result of media coverage of religious extremism or fundamentalism which says something like ‘You are a Christian and THEY are not’. In essence, the questions suggest, being Christian (or whatever) is only possible in the absence of other beliefs. (Group boundary maintenance and definitions of insiders and outsiders are certainly in play.)

Are these age-old challenges for anthropology instructors? Any reactions?

Sphere: Related Content


  1. Jamie wrote:

    I believe that your Jared Diamond comment hit the proverbial nail on the head. While I am not an instructor or anything, I have, nonetheless, noticed that tidy envoironmental determinist models like Diamond’s are becoming more common in the conversations that I have with people about anth. Perhaps it has something to do with the current trend toward globally focused “green” thinking that often relies heavily on ecological models. I know that I have been trained to think along evolutionary and ecological lines since I was a kid and the big picture/systems approach is my natural fallback position.

    Another possibility, one that definitely holds true for me, is a reaction to the seemingly endless deconstruction and “splitting” that goes on in most of my soc and anth classes. I have to admit, I get a bit of a rush when I throw caution to the wind and let myself ignore the “grand theories are sooo 19th century” dogma that is understandably a big part of most undergrad programs regardless of discipline. Instead of playing by the rules and challenging everything with the anthropologist’s favourite question “but what about culture X” I am often enticed by the comfort and certainty of a grand theory that makes sense of all of all the nit-picky distinctions that I have to deal with in so many of my classes.

    Saturday, March 7, 2009 at 10:50 pm | Permalink
  2. Jamie … nice to hear from you! I hope you are well. And thanks for the thoughtful comments. Yes. There is something appealing about grand theories. And I am not for a moment suggesting that they are not useful or necessary. They are. I’ve simply been struggling to walk the line between being culturally relative and all-encompassing. The rub, I suppose.

    Sunday, March 8, 2009 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  3. Zora wrote:

    I’ve finally reached what seems to me to be a fruitful equipoise between grand theory and particularism: non-linear dynamic systems theory. Also known as complexity theory.

    A good example of a non-linear dynamic system would be climate/weather. You can isolate some of the mechanisms that produce emergent patterns, but you can’t predict exactly what will happen. There are too many random happenings, too many particulars. Ditto, with humans, you’re dealing with organisms that share a range of perceptions,emotions,instincts, and interpretive mechanisms, organisms that are shaped by and create histories and cultures … there are underlying commonalities but their interaction is unpredictable and the emergent patterns that they form, ditto.

    (Don’t you get the feeling that when looking at humans, you can drill down, deeper and deeper, into the particulars, and that each level is just as full, as interesting as the level above? Fractal.)

    The conclusion that I draw from this is that the way forward is looking at humans as whole (all cultures, all history). Cutting the study of human beings into separate disciplines, few of which communicate with each other, is an accident of academic history, and it keeps us from looking at Homo sapiens from the broadest possible viewpoint.

    Which would possibly be a dialogue between a Martian view (we have studied the curious lifeforms on the neighboring planets for a million years) and an human view (this is how it feels to be one of those lifeforms).

    Assuming, of course, that the Martian and the human can communicate with each other. Thinking about how that might be possible …

    Throw that at your students 🙂

    Monday, March 9, 2009 at 7:29 pm | Permalink
  4. Zora … wow. Very neat. I confess I do prefer the ‘drilling deeper’ aspects of anthropology but I think you (and others) have renewed a long-lost search for an all-encompassing theory of human behavior. Thank you!

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 7:35 am | Permalink
  5. eb wrote:

    “Isn’t it possible to be Christian AND ‘traditionally spiritual’? Can’t you live syncretically?”

    The problem with this statement is that Christians have a book that tells them how to live their lives. This book is known as “the Bible”.

    Now the bible tells them that they are to do things like have no other gods before the Judeo-Christian God (from the ten commandments). Also it tells them that they can’t serve two masters (a reference to having two religions, that’s from the gospels).

    Sure there have been places where Christianity is the dominant religion but remnants of the older religion(s) have lived on within the culture; BUT Christians have worked (and are still working) hard to irradicate them.

    On another note; the reason I’m not a Christian has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with “the media” it has to do with my personal interactions with Christians.

    Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 6:26 am | Permalink
  6. Interesting eb. My experience suggests that the bible notwithstanding, Christians do participate in activities that would be deemed un-Christian or contrary to the bible. I still wonder — can’t you be faithful to more than one religion, either through the blending of traditions or by participating serially in different religions? I think there are lots of examples of doing each one.

    Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 9:10 am | Permalink