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Cultural Exchange through the Movies (LINK)

Americans may feel privileged to have such access to films and television. Indeed, we’ve reached (perhaps even surpassed) a saturation point in entertainment media. What we forget is that audiovisual media is a major cultural conduit—or rather a network of connective fibers that generate and shape our social consciousness—and its immersive qualities are well suited to cultural exchange. A few months ago, I attended a screening on campus of a film about HIV, filmed and produced by the Datoga in partnership with anthropologists. The film is particularly ethnographic in a grassroots sort of way, in that its target audience elected its own informants, those the community deemed trustworthy, and used prevailing cultural symbols and expressions to communicate the often Western-centric rhetoric of HIV/AIDS awareness. (The film is here.) The idea of a shared cultural consciousness permeating its works was a hallmark of Straussian structuralist anthropology, but in a post-postmodernist age, the understanding of the lattice effect of structure, ritual, symbol, and ethos has proved particularly fruitful in applied visual anthropology. While the Datoga project was an example of applied visual ethnography, with an explicit educational purpose, a recent NYTimes article discussed the approach from a different standpoint: culturally applied filmmaking.

What [the Iraqi filmmakers] definitely don’t have at home is a film industry, something being addressed, at least to a degree, by the nonprofit International Film Exchange. The exchange brought the students over from Baghdad where, several weeks before, the filmmaker Bill Megalos of Los Angeles had conducted a 10-day workshop on storytelling and editing. The exchange is devoted primarily to cultural give and take and international understanding. But in the case of the Iraqis, it may help create a base of knowledgeable filmmakers, a “crew” as the young men themselves called it. Since the economic sanctions imposed after the first gulf war, making films in Iraq has become all but impossible.

“It was my family business,” said the bearish Salam S. Mazeel, 35, whose mother was a sound designer, and who wants to be a cinematographer like his father. “But in the ’90s, everything stopped. We go to the hard times. No money, no hope.”

After his father died, his mother quit the business to raise her children; there was no cinema anyway. “That’s how it was,” Mr. Mazeel said. “Now, maybe something is different and we come to America and there are a few things in our minds. Like how to apply American rules to Iraqi movies.”

The article goes on to discuss how Iraqi films could take a cue from Hollywood movies and move away from the previous emphasis on style that European cinema demonstrates:

Years ago, Iraqi filmmakers would regularly attend VGIK, the Moscow film school; Iraqi film was influenced far more by European than American cinema. In Los Angeles, the Iraqi visitors were being advised by almost everyone to make their stories clear, to emphasize narrative over style.

That’s an interesting thing, considering the woefully incomplete or slapdash plots seen in much Hollywood fare. But truth be told, the expressionistic, avant-garde philosophy, seen in Soviet cinema and developed in later German and French films, has been relegated to the indie circuit in the U.S., the fortress of solitude for disillusioned American film buffs. The interest in plot in the United States derives partly from the well-made tradition that was popular in Britain and the U.S. around the same time the film industry was developing, and partly, I believe, from a capitalist ethos. But that’s a topic for another blog.

What’s intriguing about Megalos’ workshop for Iraqi filmmakers is its prescriptive purpose. It is a shade of the cultural imperialism the U.S. holds around the world. Are our films successful overseas because of their effective narratives, as the article suggests? Or because of the corollary economic influence? And films are products, as we know. Moreover, after congratulating ourselves on bringing democracy and peace to Iraq (at least for a moment or two), it seems an echo to claim artistic benefits to them as well.

However, the infusion of the Iraqi filmmakers’ films with their distinctive ethos, under the auspices of Hollywood economic,  political, and aesthetic structures, is not only the product, but the method, of cultural exchange. It is a new kind of ethnographic filmmaking, in which the individuals’ culture is writ large through collaborative works, nestled within a historical portrait of fluctuating, overlapping sociocultural conditions. It is why films are of interest to anthropologists, and why anthropologists continue to use films to communicate ideas. It is probably clear to the International Film Exchange; thanks to the U.S.’s economic power, Hollywood has the tools of the trade to empower all filmmaking cultures, with the end goal being understanding of humanity, not imperialism.

 

Related: Activist Filmmaking

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‘The Art Guys Marry A Plant’ Removed From Menil Collection Under Mysterious Circumstances (LINK)

Fascinating example of the interaction of social biases, art, and politics.

When the Art Guys married their sapling, “the whole thing was an environmentalist gesture,” The Believer expressed in their profile of the duo. Yet critics of the work refused to see how the act could exist separate from the heated climate of the gay marriage debate, even though both artists were already married to women. Many accused the work of belittling gay marriage and encouraging homophobic logic, namely former Houston Chronicle art critic Douglas Britt. In his review, Britt, who himself is gay, argued the work “reinforces the ‘slippery slope’ argument that if we let gays wed, next we’ll allow people to marry animals, and so on.”

Britt was so offended by the work he created a performance piece of his own to show, in his words, “what really marrying for art, not pretending to, could look like.” For his piece, “The Art Gay Marries a Woman,” Britt found a straight woman he had never met via Twitter, married her at a gay strip club, and changed his last name to Britt-Darby.

via ‘The Art Guys Marry A Plant’ Removed From Menil Collection Under Mysterious Circumstances (PHOTO).

via ‘The Art Guys Marry A Plant’ Removed From Menil Collection Under Mysterious Circumstances (PHOTO).

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Inherited Discrimination

Recently I Facebooked this post from Bunnika discussing the relative vs. actual progress for women’s rights, and the rhetorical strategies of men’s rights advocates. She demonstrates how men’s rights rebuttals often depend upon the vary ideologies and stereotypes that enforce gender inequality. Almost immediately, I got a comment from a gentleman calling out the “poison” and “inequality” of the post. If you read Bunnika’s blog, you’ll know this is hardly the most “fightin’ words” of her repertoire. The commentator argued that society is full of institutions like feminism, and because feminism is now so ingrained, it’s difficult for men to fight it when their rights are being infringed upon. He urged me to consider both sides rather than hiding from discussions like most feminists he’s encountered. Well, I have, and even talked with him, and he’s the one who didn’t respond. The truth is, movements like feminism and MRA are both in response to perceived inequality. Our learned definition of our gender identities inform every sex-based argument we have.

That said, there is clear sex discrimination against women in the workforce, in the legislatures, and in culture. I’m not going to post statistics because as my commentator pointed out, fighting statistic against statistic is time-consuming and ultimately pointless. As a theatre techie, a gamer, a writer, a (former) retail worker, a student, a political activist, and a sexual partner, I have in every one of those vocations been demeaned, ignored, ridiculed, or undermined based on my sex. Do I perceive myself to be underprivileged? Yes, in the sense that I must remain aware of the challenges, of the odds against me. I learned that I could rarely grab a screw gun or pick up a large package without some man rushing up to me with concern. This “helpfulness” is based upon an assumption that women should not be strained, physically or otherwise. Every election season we have politicians expressing concern over whether or not a female politician can balance her career with her family. And when even sex symbol Beyonce calls out the gender pay gap, we realize that even women in power can feel relatively lesser. MRA may argue that men are increasingly diminished in American society, but are they reacting to ideological shifts in gender perceptions or to practical shifts in, say, Congressional seats? As an anthropologist, I cannot declare which side is “right,” but I can ask how both movements are impacted by their culturally-learned assumptions, and how the hegemonic ideologies inherited by both inform the agency of social actors.

It’s not just sexism and sex-related movements that are driven by these psychosocial processes.  Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) recently

criticized the grant money that will soon be coming to eastern North Carolina for one reason: it will be used to buy books about Muslim culture. […] Jones protested that the money was unfairly benefiting Muslims and harming Christians, as he explained in a local TV interview. […] Jones told WITN he wrote a letter in response to the grant to a local Christian organization, asking for them to provide an equal number of Judeo-Christian items to offset the new Muslim culture books in the library’s collection.

This equation of inclusion with promotion is a part of white Western ethos that seriously impacts institutional equality. By the same token, feminists’ ideology of inclusion has led many men to criticize feminism for its promotion of women. As I once tried in vain to explain to a conservative ex-boyfriend, if the scales are uneven, one must add a little more weight to the lesser side, and that was the goal of political feminism. Unfortunately, no amount of logic can sway some men who grew up with a historically learned idea of male superiority.

In a similar case, a documentary I just watched about the battle in Tucson, AZ over Raza classes in Tucson High showed that the program’s opponents were horrified that students were engaged in “non-white” learning. The Hispanic students and teachers in the program were accused of communism, sedition, racism, and anarchism, among other things. The program, which had increased the graduation rate of Hispanic students, was ultimately dismanted by Gov. Jan Brewer, under recommending of the state school board’s findings that the classes “indoctrinated” Hispanic students into “non-American” ways. The teachers’ lesson plans? Mexican history and culture, the Spanish language, and discussion of Hispanic culture in the United States. That a non-white approach was included in the public schools was a cause for outrage among conservative white Arizonans.

As was the case with the civil rights movement, and as we see with continued work for gender, racial, LGBT, and ethnic equality, social movements are ultimately won by the force of the actors’ argument and their manipulation of prevailing ideologies to their benefit. As a certain dialectic must occur for change to do so, we can hardly condemn any movement for their explicit intent, but only their methods.

See also:

Male Jurors More Likely to Find Fat Female Defendents Guilty

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The Role of Competition in American Movies (LINK)

This short essay on Sociological Images discusses a trope in American film. As a capitalistic society, one would expect themes of competition and conquest to dominate our culture. Interesting, isn’t it, how the predestined fate of the tragic hero has been supplanted by the possibility for absolution, based upon social conquest?

 In British films of the sixties – “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” or “This Sporting Life” for example – athletic contests bring a heightened consciousness of the class system.  But in American movies, regardless of the setting – the boxing ring, the pool hall, the poker game, the karate dojo, the dance floor, etc. – competition works its magic and allows the heroes to overcome all personal and interpersonal problems.

via The Role of Competition in American Movies » Sociological Images.

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Photography and Making Meanings

Currently at UF’s Harn Museum of Art is the wonderful  “Modern Impulse” photography exhibition. It’s a stunning collection of beautiful, sometimes disturbing images from America and Europe between WWI and WWII. This was a period of great creativity in the medium; photography shifted from being a means of documentation to an avenue of expression. The work of the featured Czech artists, especially Josef Sudek, is particularly lovely and fascinating; their manipulation of the camera makes one rue the concept of “snapshot.” The collection demonstrates how social meanings were shared, deconstructed, and reconstituted in this period, especially in the images of unsafe factory conditions, segregated public buildings, and homelessness. The raw, emotional work of Walker Evans, featured in the show, causes the eye to linger.

Photography became a means of social change in this era, and has continued to mediate meanings and inspire activism to the present day. Consider the work of Pieter Hugo, Sebastião Salgado, and Manuel Rivera-Ortiz, in addition to filmmakers like the late Tim Hetherington.

The Harn collection also features the gorgeous work of Group f/64, who championed unedited, naturally lit photographs as expressions of truth. (Hm, would Walter Benjamin agree?)

Additional reading:

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Naming Through Name Brands

I have been so busy with papers that I haven’t had enough creative juices left to write a blog post. But the documentary on graffiti artists reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to discuss for awhile: branding. Graffiti artists will “tag” their artwork (or just the walls of public restrooms). It may not be known to all who view it, but it is a pictographic signature. As graffiti artists work in a visual medium, this is not surprising. However, a similar process may be seen in social media, as people construct multimedia “signatures” that import and transmit their personality (or what they desire their personality to be; we are what we do).

The modern concept of brands dates back to the 19th century, when manufacturers imprinted their goods before shipping them miles away. Around the turn of the 20th century, companies began to develop advertising based on their trademark. The rise of radio and broadcast television was a natural boon to advertisers, who drafted audiovisual texts to accompany their slogans.

Brand identity describes the psychological associations of a product that purportedly mirror the interests and emotions of the target audience. While the effectiveness of this technique has been demonstrated over and over again in market research studies, few have considered how consumers reappropriate brand identities to describe themselves. Except of course, certain advertisers who observed this brand fandom (e.g. “I’m a Mac”).

In a previous iteration of Facebook, users could install modules on their page that incorporated logos, religious symbols, celebrity images, witty sayings, TV/film quotes and musical lyrics, and other such cultural memes. This capacity is gone on Facebook, but has been renewed with force by Pinterest. Similar to the “biographical collage” projects we had in grade school, but heavily incorporating advertising logos, images from mass media, and TV/film stills, these collages show that users do not mere fall for brand identity, but construct a branded identity themselves.

What symbols do you surround yourself with? Are you a Coke or a Pepsi? A donkey or an elephant? A Trekkie or a Lucas nerd? A Mac or a PC? McD’s or BK? …the possibilities are endless.

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Why Retail Sucks: Difference Between the Haves and Havenots

The study of customer service seems primarily reserved to business-oriented, sociological research, or so my database searches would suggest. However, it is certainly a problem for anthropology. Bullying behavior does occur among adults, and notably in the customer-server sphere of interaction.

Jürgen Habermas notes in chapter V of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere that as the market has become privatized, businesses became distinct and protectionist; meanwhile, the public sphere experienced “stateification” to the point that the line between public and private became permanently blurred. I believe this blurring accounts for the problems of interaction in the world of customer service: vestigial conflict between public and private, business and consumer, is played out through servers and customers.

According to Habermas, the public service sector was developed to alleviate the imbalance created by increasing social costs upon economic growth (p. 147). This “intervention” also increases tension between oligarchic reality and public consumption. Furthermore, service representatives become the face of an organization to a consumer; their privacy is temporarily suspended, their identity conflated with that of the company or government, for the sake of mediation between disparate levels of production and consumption.

Put simply and applied to contemporary America, state/public agencies and private businesses are often self-contained and run by private individuals, even if the company is publicly owned. Their interests may be at odds with their economic and social costs. They also require the public’s attention. Through public service announcements, advertisements, press releases, and other types of marketing and promotion, they negotiate their relationship to the public. This means that an employee of any type of service establishment is representative of the organization (see p. 153), yet a private person; they interact with the public, which is also comprised of private persons. See the potential for conflict?

Examples: A customer attempts to return an item but is outside the return period set at the executive level. The cashier declines to give the customer money back for fear of losing his job, or having the money taken from his pay. The customer takes the denial personally and insults or bullies the cashier. The cashier defends himself by citing the business’ policy. The customer requests a manager, by whose higher authority is more representative of business interests. The manager is actually more concerned by the business’ interests and fears losing respect, privileges, or even her job if she drives away a customer. She makes an exception to the policy; the customer believes the cashier to be wrong, bullheaded, or just discriminatory by denying the return, but is the only one to walk away feeling resolved.

In addition, the public sphere has devolved from a distinctie sphere of public intereaction into an artifically connected web of private spheres (see pp. 162-64). The extraordinarily wide gap between the producers and consumers contributes to this tension. The closer one gets to the top, the easier to alleviate (hence why customers have learned to call for managers or otherwise escalate the issue). You will see less of the “customer is always right” attitude, although this too has changed from its original conception and has a distinctive American iteration, in smaller or independent businesses.

Although childhood bullying is a more pressing topic in the news, I am fascinated by these tensions and resulting behavior in the public sphere, if only to answer my own questions about how I’ve been treated on the job I worked to support myself through undergraduate to the present. Examples:

  1. A pleasant customer, attempting to make conversation, asked me leading questions about whether I still lived at home, when I graduated high school, and what I liked to do when I wasn’t working. I made the mistake of answering honestly, that I had moved to Gainesville as an adult and had just begun to pursue a Master’s. He suddenly changed in demeanor and said, “Oh, yeah, in what, fish-catching?” [I work in a pet store.] and laughed derisively. I said, “No, anthropology.” He said he didn’t know what that was, glared at me, and was unpleasant for the rest of the encounter.
  2. I get told I “must like working here” several times a week. Yes, told, not asked. Usually this is combined with an overuse of my name (or, if you’re like one customer we have, addressing all employees by the name of our company) and slower-than-normal speech when addressing me.
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“Us vs. Them”: How the Media Can Breed Hate and Inequality…or Love and Social Change

As most anthropologists know, the roles that people inhabit and are assigned in society are neither inherent nor permanent. Categories and classes of people are historically built, and change occurs in both membership and definition upon economic changes, new ideologies, or technological development. However, these psychocultural systems and biases are perpetuated through both language and praxis. The labeling hypothesis, developed largely by Erving Goffman, maintains that the connotations, expectations, and implications of a label form the scope of the role inhabited by a person with that label. Moreover, class, racial, sexual, and other distinctions are drawn in part by opposing labels.

The construction of “us vs. them” is accomplished in myriad ways and in almost every social venue. It is done in workplaces, schools, families, and in the public sphere. It is used by politicians and pundits to draw lines between the audience and the party’s opposition. It is used by religious leaders to explain why followers are privileged over the non-believers and the wrong-believers. It is even used by reality show hosts and teen romance writers to divide the audience into two camps who can compete and thus increase viewer- or readership. I would like to briefly review some recent news items to demonstrate how “us” is divided from “them” via the media.

According to Megan Reback of the Women’s Media Center:

More than a decade has passed, yet the deep hatred in the United States of those who practice Islam has not subsided. In fact, the radical right – which has increasingly become part of the GOP’s status quo – has held onto these beliefs both proudly and shamelessly.

Some weeks ago, I confronted startling evidence of this mindset as I disembarked from a Metro North train at the end of my weekday commute to and from New York City. Amid the familiar army of black and navy blue suits eager to join families for dinner, I noticed a stark, black advertisement with red, white, and blue type: “*19,250 DEADLY ISLAMIC ATTACKS SINCE 9/11/01 *AND COUNTING. IT’S NOT ISLAMOPHOBIA, IT’S ISLAMOREALISM.”

According to Mother Jones magazine, the ad and others targeting New York and San Francisco commuters are sponsored by the anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller. She made headlines last year when she backed other ads castigating a proposed Islamic community center near ground zero, calling it a “mega mosque” and a “victory mosque” that celebrated 9/11. … By mid-2010, Geller became a fixture on Fox News, commenting on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the threat of Muslims and Shariah law in the United States. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers Geller’s organization, Stop Islamization of America, a hate group.

The anti-Islam ads, however, are not random outliers or radical statements. Instead, they represent a fear and hatred of Muslims and Islam that has been particularly rife of late.

Reback recaps some anti-Islam statements by GOP members and the attack on the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and concludes by characterizing the ad described above as unproblematic except in its reflection and perpetuation of hate by a major political party. Which is a pretty big problem, to say the least. The ad’s language is hard to deny, as well. Even a person ignorant of the details but who still gets nauseous thinking of 9/11 would see that statistic, consider its impact, and be more inclined to think of Muslims as dangerous, violent people. The pejoration is done very simply, over repeated exposure to these blanket statements that play on the emotions. This is the entire purpose of rhetoric.

Here’s a more mundane example:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iuG1OpnHP8?rel=0]

Women don’t enjoy this military action movie because it is “our” movie. And this is “our” drink. The us-them division couldn’t be more clear. This ad plays on stereotypes of movie and drink preferences to (over)compensate for the suggestion—already socially constructed—that a low-calorie drink is feminine. The ad ends by proudly exclaiming that women could keep their “romantic comedies and lady drinks,” because Dr. Pepper Ten is a low-calorie drink that’s appropriate for men.

Of course, these ads are very plain in their intent. The anti-Islam ad was clearly intended to incite anger towards a group of people deemed “other,” in an attempt to curry favor for a particular group of organizations. The Dr. Pepper Ten was clearly intended to be ridiculous enough to sell a product. However, its affirmation of gender stereotypes is distressing in an era where women are earning more and more yet comprise 17% of Congress, are vastly underrepresented in Hollywood, and are at risk for domestic violence, which encompasses a range of crimes that number, in reported cases in Florida alone, in the thousands.

We also cannot ignore the rhetorical power of non-advertising visual media. Stories are excellent vehicles for ideology and both tools and venues for social construction as the audience absorbs, reacts with, and retells the story. In 1998, “Will & Grace” popularized the first flamboyant gay characters on television. Unfortunately, the gay comic relief became somewhat of a trope, repeated endlessly on various sitcoms or on dramedies such as “Sex and the City.” A new class of “homosexual person” had been formed, and while the likable characters, their unrealism stood in stark contrast to news reports of various violent or pedophilic acts by gay men, encouraged by and conflated with anti-gay campaigns by conservative and/or religious outfits.

Eventually non-flamboyant gay characters featured on longer-form shows that allowed for character development, including “Glee” and “Modern Family.” Now, as though to trumpet the progress of positive gay representation in entertainment television, NBC’s “The New Normal” has hit the small screen, and follows the lives of a gay male couple exploring their options for children. Unfortunately, the rhetorical intent of the production, however important, may not be as salient as the symbolic content, which involves a certain exoticization (“them!”), explains Frank Bua of The Huffington Post:

[M]any of the show’s generalizations are likely more damaging than entertaining: Gays are wealthy, materialistic effetes with crazy disposable income. Gay men randomly wake up and decide that they want a child as the latest must-have accessory. Prospective parents look through a catalog of egg donors like they are recruiting for the HJ. A gay couple? One part effeminate man-boy, the other part a football-watching handsome dude

While Bua bemoans the show’s shortcomings, it is nonetheless clear that social change is happening, more visibly and perhaps more quickly, thanks to mass and entertainment media. Furthermore, each of these examples should demonstrate why studying the media is so revelatory of the process of construction; the understanding of these processes allows us to deconstruct enough to put the spare bits towards change. If we want it.

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Bullying in the Media

My primary research interest, and my intended career, is to work in and study film and theatre as means of social change. Obviously this is a broad area with many applications. One particular focus, and one that encompasses and requires the study of mass media as well, is on the phenomenon of and sociocultural response to bullying in schools.

Bullying has garnered much national attention in the past few years, in part due to the controversial anti-bullying laws passed in states such as Massachusetts and the increased reportage of suicide among young people who have been bullied, such as Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clementi. The media has even adopted a phrase for this horror: “bullycide.”

As many have noted, bullying was given new wings by the advent of social networks and an increased percentage of user-generated content. Current opinion in the field of child social psychology holds that bullies are not “kids being kids,” nor products of broken or lower-income homes, nor inspired by violent video games. Bullies bully because they can and want to. (See the writings of Barbara Coloroso and Jessie Klein for more information.)

Even the entertainment media reflects this change in attitude: no longer limited to childhood adventures in which the school or town bully (singular) is an obstacle or challenge to the protagonists, films like Mean Girls and Bacheloretteand TV shows like “Glee” and “30 Rock” address cruel behavior among teens and adults, in school, work, and social venues.

Thankfully, the same technology that empowered bullies can now be used to stop them, and, we hope, to dispel information and ideologies to cut bullying at the roots.

The media has a pivotal role in the campaign against bullying: by portraying the victims of bullying in a sensitive, if sometimes oversympathetic light, and reporting in full detail the nature of the incidents, they change what would have been a sad but pointless story into a piece of a larger story that is depressing enough to motivate action. Their real challenge, though, is not to demonize the bullies for the sake of a dramatic story, but to report them as people who made costly mistakes that, to an unbiased observer, are able to see how to prevent those mistakes from happening again:

The first step, however, is to dispense with the image of bullies as mere Scut Farkases waiting to be challenged and conquered. Bullies are not adverse object lessons for an educational system; they are the very antithesis of education. They are no more a natural part of learning than is parental abuse a natural part of growing up. (source)

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Anthropology: the Professional, the Philosophical, and the Practical

When I tell people I am studying anthropology, I quite frequently get one of these responses:

  • “So you dig up pots?”
  • “So you study dead people?”
  • “So you look for dinosaur bones?” (yes, really)

It is probably most indicative of a highly professionalized culture, in which disciplinary alignment rarely intersects with job title, that the term “anthropologist” means little to people, but smacks of something archaic enough that people assume its subject is necessarily archaic as well. It’s also partly due to the paucity of anthropologist characters in popular films and TV shows who vaguely resemble real anthropologists (i.e. not many of the hapless characters in scifi flicks on whom the writers have slapped a random scientist label—hello, Prometheus). And the few that exist, of course, engage in wildly unusual quests and work in exotic or hyper-nerdy locations: Temperance Brennan, Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon (symbologist…?).

An anthropology major is number 15 on a list of the majors with the highest unemployment (link).* It doesn’t sound too bad until you review a list of majors at major universities. (here’s my school’s). I wonder if the increasing gap between academia and job placement for the social sciences is at least partly due to a misunderstanding of anthropology. How many jobs have I been turned down for because someone thought I looked at things in the ground? (Hence my necessary return to school.)

Anthropology has a long and, sadly, somewhat sketchy history. It wasn’t until the late 19th century and the likes of Lewis Henry Morgan and John Wesley Powell that anthropology began to be a matter of ethnology, not armchair anthropology of the exotic, nor evolutionist comparative biological anthropology. Later, the blooming generations of Boasian anthropologists began to work for various government agencies, such as the Bureau for Indian Affairs. This was a good moment to be an anthropologist, if only because their insights into other cultures proved useful in native negotiations and in war time (e.g., The Chrysanthemum and the Sword).

In the postmodernist 1980s in America, a new hyper-relativist, activist trend emerged in anthropology that marked the final phase of anthropology in the job market. We had gone from the self-assured, racist, positivist ethnographer, to the state-sanctioned, exoticist, empirical ethnologist, to the doubtful, self-reflective, cultural detectives. Bolstered by people like George Marcus and Michael Fischer, anthropology in the postmodernist flavor, like the literature and philosophy of the time, questioned everything in order to answer a few things, and managed to insult American sensibilities (both anthropologists and non-anthropologists) in the meantime. It’s my guess that this trend greatly affected attitudes towards anthropology in laypeople, such as my religious, conservative aunt, who once railed against political correctness and expected acceptance of “sinful” lifestyles thanks to anthropologists (without having asked me what I was studying in school). It probably also contributed to a characterization of anthropologists as weird or even non-cultured (like Bones, who has little psychocultural connection to the society in which she lives).

Fact is, in an increasingly globalized yet politicized world, in which most people have anywhere from an occasional to a constant connection to global markets of information and products, it’s more important than ever to understand modern anthropology’s fundamental question: why we do the things we do. The same question permeates all fields of anthropology and gives us a scientific yet practical approach to all pursuits. It may not be reflected in the resumés that land on the hiring manager’s desk, or in curricular requirements in universities, or in popular culture, but the ability to reflect on one’s own behavior and their society, to imagine oneself in another’s shoes, to communicate efficiently with someone of a different walk, and to understand the purpose of one’s own and others’ actions, can benefit people in those top-hired areas—business, medical, education—as well as people in the supposedly unhireable majors of art, architecture, liberal arts, humanities, and history.

After all, anthropology is the study of humanity, and last time I checked, every aspect of your  life involves just that.

* Doesn’t look too good in this breakdown either.

Resources: