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Why You Should Study or Take Anthropology!

By Dr. Laura Appell-Warren, Director of Global Citizenship

Ever since I graduated from college I have been faced with the challenge of explaining what it is that I do.  When I tell people that my field is anthropology, they almost always say something like this:  “Wow, that is cool, what do you dig up?” or (and this is even worse) “Oh, just like Margaret Mead.”  Now, I am NOT an archeologist so I never dig anything up (well maybe some worms in my new garden in Maine).  And, while Margaret Mead may be a well-known female anthropologist, she is very controversial within the field and I would rather not be associated with her.  Sometimes when I have energy I say that I am a psychological anthropologist, but that usually produces blank stares or a change in the conversation. So my dilemma has always been this,  do I say that I am in education, which, while true,  avoids the whole issue because it doesn’t convey the passion I feel for anthropology, or do I try to gently educate the well meaning people who seem clueless about the field of anthropology.

With the field of Global Citizenship emerging, and my role as the leader of that portion of the St. Mark’s 2020 Strategic Plan, my passion and energy to explain anthropology  has been renewed.  This is the case because, quite simply, Global Citizenship and anthropology are very similar.  As Ruth Benedict, a famous female anthropologist who I do admire, is purported to have said, “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference,” and isn’t that what we also hope Global Citizenship will do?

Anthropology[1], quite simply, is the study of mankind across cultures and across time.  The distinguishing feature of anthropology is that it takes a holistic approach to the study of mankind, focusing particularly on the interconnectedness of systems both within and across cultures. In order for the study of mankind across time and across cultures to be effective, there are many branches of anthropology; some of which may be familiar and some of which may not be so familiar.

1. Anthropologists who study humankind of the past are archeologists.  They dig up old settlements, graveyards, and even latrines, and piece together the puzzle of how people lived many generations ago.  Indiana Jones may be the most well-known popular culture archeologist, however, my college advisor might be a better example.  Philip Kohl’s work focuses on showing that cultural evolution during the Bronze Age occurred because groups became aware of the practices of neighboring groups rather than relying solely on inventions taking place within their own community. Professor Kohl has held digs in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.

2. Forensic anthropologists have gotten a lot of press through the television and book series “Bones.”  Forensic anthropologists often work with law enforcement agencies and governmental agencies to help identify skeletal remains to help solve murders, to help identify soldiers lost in battle, or to identify those buried in mass graves.  The Smithsonian Website has a good description and discussion of the kind of work that goes into forensic anthropology; it is fascinating work and includes a fair amount of artistic license. Check out the website to see how and why.

3. Linguists study how languages change over time and how they are related.  Some linguists study only written languages and others focus on languages that have not yet been written.  Noam Chomsky, perhaps one of our most famous linguists, focused his research on the how the underlying structures of language are biologically determined in the human mind and thereby genetically transmitted[2]. Yet other linguists, like my sister Charity, look at oral literature to understand the values and history of a culture with an unwritten language.  The beauty in some of this oral literature rivals any of our classic texts and is often accompanied by complex and beautiful music – and it is all memorized!

3. Biological anthropologists look for ways that humans have evolved and also how and why humans differ biologically.  Jane Goddall and her study of chimpanzees may be the most famous example of a biological anthropologist because she was able to debunk the myth that only man used tools. Additionally, her work also informs the work of evolutionary anthropology because humans and chimpanzees share more that 98% of the same DNA. However, the work of Helen Fisher, which has influenced many dating web site, may be more interesting.

4. I find the field of cultural anthropology to be the most fascinating because it is the study of human cultures today.  Cultural anthropologists seek to understand how and why cultures vary and how and why they are the same.  In addition, they seek to understand why cultures change over time and the influences that instigate that change. In order to effectively study another culture you need to go and live within that culture for an extended period of time; you need to be a participant and an observer and you need to learn as much as you can from the people with whom you are living.  I have had the opportunity to do this several times in my life and have found it to be some of the most interesting and rewarding work that I have done.  It has also pushed me far outside my comfort zone and enabled me to look at the world through the eyes of people whose lives are in some ways very different but in other ways are much the same.  I am happy to say that I have friends who live in the mountains of Bhutan and Tibet, in the jungles of Borneo and in the cities of Denmark, Holland, Australia and Swaziland!  And, it is my training as an anthropologist, or as a global citizen, that has allowed me to understand what it is to be with and to appreciate people of such diverse backgrounds and interests.

Because there are so many different aspects of human culture to examine many cultural anthropologist decide to specialize further.  In my case I became a psychological anthropologist and have focused my research on how different cultures perceive children, how they raise children, and how and when they understand a child to have achieved personhood (check out my website to find a definition of personhood).

My sister Amity, also a cultural anthropologist, focuses her research on cultural ecology, more specifically on property rights and how control over and access to natural resources is defined, negotiated, and contested by different stakeholders. My father and mother have spent their lives as research anthropologists and were therefore able to spend many years with the same ethnic group, the Rungus Momogon, in Sabah, Malaysia. With their depth of knowledge based on their years of participant observation my parents have been able to understand the more traditional culture of the Rungus Momogon as well as the impact of social change on the culture and on individuals.

Daughter

(My daughter learning how to make delicious dumplings from my Tibetan friend.) 

I am always hard pressed to think of an academic field that involves more fun, more adventure, and that provides a better depth of understanding of what it is to be human.  In fact there is not one single field in which anthropology wouldn’t add considerably to one’s understanding. You can be an anthropologist who: teaches; works in a human resources department at a company like Google; works for a non governmental organization or for a government; works for a hospital; works as a social worker.  Or, one can take anthropology simply because one wants to be a better global citizen!  One wants to be better equipped to understand people who are different and because one wants to be better equipped to develop meaning relationships with people from vastly different parts of the planet.  In short, everyone should take anthropology!

Dr. Laura Appell-Warren has been teaching at St. Mark’s since 2007 and currently focuses most of her attention on the Global Citizenship Initiative, which offers many exciting programs for St. Markers.  In addition to cultural anthropology, she teaches Sacred Places and Third Form Seminar.


[1] See Ember, Carol R and Melvin Ember (2010). Cultural Anthropology. Boston: Prentice Hall for a full discussion of this topic.  In addition, much of the content from this article can be footnoted to that text.

[2] Lyons, John (1978). Noam Chomsky Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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