Open the Door: Anthropological Theory

The last semester-long class from this last semester was also my last class on anthropology days. I realize the title might scare you away, but in reality I had a blast – my prof teases us and himself frequently, the majority of people in the room are friends, and I sat next to/between two good friends, who constantly teased each other and me. Surveying the history of anthropology, this course asked, “What is anthropology? What are the duties of the anthropologist to the community studied? Should the anthropologist act as an advocate for vulnerable demographics in the studied community? How much does the native culture of the anthropologist affect their interpretation of a foreign culture? How do cultures change? From which perspective should an anthropologist study a community – using only what the people know or incorporating outside analysis?”

Theories are the foundation of any discipline; anthropology is no different. We started with founders of anthropology and sociology, reading authors like Lewis H. Morgan, Edward Burnett Morgan and Émile Durkheim (late 19th century). Soon we began reading essays from the middle of the 20th century from authors on symbolic anthropology like Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, and Mary Douglas. We finished up the course reading postmodernists (Renato Rosaldo, Leila Abu-Lughod, Arjun Appadurai) and American Anthropology Association ethical codes from 1948 (UN Declaration on Human Rights) through 2012.

The most heated discussions revolved around the recent debates around the anthropologists’ ethical responsibilities to the communities at the heart of their fieldwork. (We’d debate for an hour in class, then I ate lunch with a couple friends also in theory and talk about it, then went to work with other friends, again in the class, and talk about it more!) Here’s a case study from one assignment (another take on the American War on Drugs):

An anthropologist studies the pressures around a teenage male in Mississippi that force him to choose to be a crack dealer. This anthropologist has the closest relationship to the teenager drug dealer and his mother, who is very concerned about the consequences to both her son and herself if the former becomes incarcerated. The anthropologist also maintains a good relationship with the local law enforcement to get the perspective of the police. The local magistrate has told the anthropologist to report any drug dealing to the law enforcement. The teen at the heart of this research has six months until his 18th birthday – if the anthropologist reports the teen, he’ll get sent to juvenile reform. If the anthropologist doesn’t report the teen and he gets caught (highly likely), the young man will go to the maximum security prison at Parchman. (The anthropologist should act according to the AAA’s Ethical Codes.) Should the anthropologist intervene?


About landje03

A passionate outdoor educator, I hold a degree in anthropology. While not a salaried academic, I pursue various thoughts stemming from my experiences and their intersections with others' experiences. I also love to start conversations, so comment if anything tickles your fancy.
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