Update: Savageminds.org 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?