Thursday, March 10, 2011

Anthropology as Collaboration - Alyson O'Daniel

I sat with my sister as we sipped coffee and flipped through the endless pile of catalogues she receives on a monthly basis. When I am home to visit, our usual routine upon wakening is to have our coffee while we sort through the catalogues in search of furnishings to fill a shared imaginary dream home. This routine allows us to collaborate on a project of sorts that is incapable of being jeopardized by time, distance, and hectic daily life schedules. The actual project is far less important than the brief moments of collaboration and connection. On this morning, however, I casually mentioned that I would like to have a job that paid me to sip the coffee I was drinking and critique the wares my sister and I were examining. She looked at me and said, “Well, what do you do? I mean, really.” I laughed thinking she was joking around. She wasn’t laughing. With pursed lips and a questioning look my sister had asked the dreaded question, “What is anthropology?” I honestly didn’t know in that moment how to answer her in a meaningful way. “The study of humans across time and space,” although perhaps technically correct, says little of what I do and why. I answered instead that I try to understand life through experiences not my own. “Huh,” she replied. That was the end of that conversation.

This moment with my sister is not unlike the introductory courses I teach. Students pile into my classroom to find out what anthropology is. Some have never encountered the word “anthropology” in any other context. Others have only some vague notion about archaeology and distant cultural others. In this space, I teach them about the four sub-fields, about human diversity, and about cultural change. My lectures and class discussions invite students to grapple with concepts such as culture, gender, power, and inequality. At the end of the semester, however, students rarely seem satisfied with the definition of anthropology we have achieved. We have covered methods, some theory, and a whole host of anthropological concepts, cultural processes, and social circumstances. Yet, I too am rarely satisfied with the end result; it seems to reinforce the popular notion that anthropologists are mere curators of the banal, unusual, and sometimes cruel things that human beings do. I feel as though I have made anthropology seem cerebral and somehow disconnected from daily life. Without directly answering the question “what is anthropology,” I leave its definition vulnerable to my inexperience as an educator.

Anthropology is not a discipline or a practice that lends itself to easy conversational summation. Whether I am talking to my sister or teaching a classroom full of college students, I find that “anthropology” eludes neat and definitive characterization. I feel this is appropriate given the complexity of the issues we study and the frameworks of analysis we employ. I value most that anthropology is an empirically-driven and cumulative research perspective that is responsive to changing social conditions. To me, this means that anthropology is a discipline that allows its practitioners to “know the social world” from multiple vantage points—simultaneously. It highlights the connections among us all, for better or worse, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I love that my life’s work can never be complete. It can never be regarded as unequivocal truth. And, it can never be mine alone. For anthropology, as I see it, makes collaborators of us all.

Alyson O'Daniel
Recently completed her PhD in anthropology at the University of Kentucky.

1 comment:

--melissa said...

Beautifully stated. I 100% agree.