I am convinced that Margaret Mead is one of the few anthropologists that anyone outside of academia has ever heard of, but I am not completely sure why this is the case. Is it because she wrote for Redbook, or because she wrote about teen sex? I have no idea, but I can tell you that most of my family and friends don't really know what it is that this anthropology thing is all about. And who can blame them? Anthropology isn't exactly the most visible of academic disciplines, now is it? While the economists have folks like Paul Krugman, and the cultural theorists get plenty of mileage out of Slavoj Zizek, who is the number one anthropologist in the public eye? It's Mead, I'm telling you, and, considering the fact that she is no longer among the living, this is something us contemporary anthropologists have to do something about. Nothing against Margaret Mead, but it would probably be a good thing if we were known for more recent--and breathing--practitioners. Ya, I like her famous quote about the power of small groups of people too, but seriously, it's time to move on.
Part of the issue is the fact that a lot of people have no idea what contemporary anthropologists do these days. Do they study insects, dig up dinosaur bones, or wander around exotic jungles wearing fashionable colonialist gear (you know, pith helmets and so on)? These are some of the generic images about "anthropologists" that are out there. Really. We are mired in the past, slogging through stereotypes, and ridiculously misrepresented. And it's our own fault, mostly because we have refrained from public debate and conversation for some reason or another. Maybe it's about time for that to change? People ask me all the time what I do, and I often answer them with something like: "Well, I study anthropology." Sure, I could probably be more creative--I'm working on that. My response is generally followed by a short pause, and then a version of this question: "Anthropology? What can you do with THAT?" Often, people ask me about the job market, or if there are still lots of digs I can do, or something like that. How are they supposed to know what to ask? But here's the thing: people are actually pretty interested when I start telling them about what I actually do, and to me this is promising. There was, after all, a reason why I ended up in anthropology in the first place, and it makes some sense that other people might find what I do interesting as well. So there's hope after all! Maybe, considering all of the anthro-misunderstanding that's going on out there, it's time for anthropologists to start talking more about what they do, why they do it, and what, exactly, this "anthropology" entails.
Since I am a fan of complete thievery, I am going to steal someone's idea to explain what anthropology is all about to me. Anthropology, to rip off the late James Deetz, is about the "small things forgotten." At least, that's how I see it. Anthropology is a way of looking at things, people, and events that are all around us--it's not just something that applies to distant, exotic, and supposedly strange societies that exist somewhere out there on the edges of our imagination. Anthropology is like a tool kit, or maybe a lens, and it's pretty useful, if you ask me. It requires no plane ticket or distant passage to be employed (although it still works in those cases too).
This is the part of my essay where I get to the point. Just to illustrate what I am talking about, I think I'll provide an example of what I mean when I say that anthropology is all about the "small things" that we encounter in life all the time. The photograph at the top of this post was taken at a Spanish mission in Southern California (Orange County, to be more precise). The picture is of a small diorama that depicts Native Americans and Spanish colonial authorities interacting--building the mission, "discussing" the Bible, and so on (more here). It happens to be one of the missions that I remember going to when I was a kid. I used to love those trips. In fact, it was at this mission that I first saw an actual archaeological excavation, which gave me an understanding of archaeology/anthropology that was a little more realistic than the celluloid exploits of my hero of the time, who happened to carry a bullwhip (hey, I was about 8). Those kinds of trips shaped my understandings of local histories, of course, along with my schoolwork. From what I can tell, I had a pretty typical public education, which included almost zero knowledge of the actual histories of the Native Californians. That's just the way things worked in those days: we learned plenty about the histories of World War II and the Civil War, but when it came to the details of the histories of our own state (beyond the Gold Rush and the March Westward), there were some serious historical gaps. And those gaps have their political consequences. The absence of information is just as powerful in shaping historical knowledge and understanding as anything that's actually put into textbooks, that's for sure.
As a good little public school student, I did learn a bit about California history, but what I mostly remember was making a replica of a mission out of cardboard and popsicle sticks. It was the thing to do in fourth grade, after all. But I never thought to ask where the people who made those missions came from. It never really crossed my mind, since I was mostly concerned with the batting average of Rod Carew, the travails of Luke Skywalker, and things of that nature. This is how history works in some pretty subtle, yet powerful ways: the glossing and elisions start pretty early on, and they shape how we understand silly things like truth and reality. Years later I went back to that mission, and the same place held some pretty different meanings. After starting to study anthropology, and learning about the histories and archaeologies of California (through Robert F. Heizer, A.L. Kroeber, W.D. Strong, and numerous others), the whole landscape of my childhood began to look shockingly different. That's what happens when you tack on 10,000 years of previously silenced histories. All of those little things, like the seemingly innocuous diorama that represents the "histories" of the mission, began to embody some radically different meanings as well. That's what anthropology is to me. It's the histories, experiences, politics, power relationships, and, ultimately, human stories that are all around us, buried in quotidian details. We just have to step outside the usual curriculum--the indifferent bubble--and take the time to look. And then, probably more importantly, we have to find ways communicate what it is that we see. The histories are there; it's a matter of taking time to make them apparent. That's anthropology.
Graduate Student in Anthropology and occasional photographer.
University of Kentucky, Lexington.