Investigating Culture
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Investigating Culture

An Experiential Introduction to Anthropology

Carol Delaney, Deborah Kaspin

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eBook - ePub

Investigating Culture

An Experiential Introduction to Anthropology

Carol Delaney, Deborah Kaspin

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About This Book

In its new Second Edition, the innovative and ever-popular Investigating Culture has been updated and revised to incorporate new teacher and student feedback. Carol Delaney and Deborah Kaspin provide an expanded introduction to cultural anthropology that is even more accessible to students.

  • Revised and enhanced new edition that incorporates additional material and classroom feedback
  • Accessible to a wider range of students and educational settings
  • Provides a refreshing alternative to traditional textbooks by challenging students to think in new ways and to apply ideas of culture to their own lives
  • Focuses on the ways that humans orient themselves, e.g., in space and time, according to language, food, the body, and the symbols provided by public myth and ritual
  • Includes chapters that frame the central issues and provide examples from a range of cultures, with selected readings, additional suggested readings, and student exercises

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Information

Year
2011
ISBN
9781444396911
Edition
2
CHAPTER 1
Disorientation and Orientation
Introduction; how culture provides orientation in the world; what is culture and how do anthropologists investigate it? Learning to think anthropologically.
Introduction
A number of years ago, I was asked to teach a course on anthropology and comparative religion to incoming freshmen at Boston University. I was intrigued because freshmen do not usually enroll in anthropology courses and often do not know what it is. Furthermore, the course was to begin in two weeks, leaving me very little time to prepare a syllabus and order books. Consequently, I decided to take a bold approach. Rather than trying to do a typical survey course, beginning with human origins and moving on to hunters and gatherers, and then peasants, to modern urban society, I decided to treat the course as an anthropological experience. I wanted students to imagine themselves as anthropologists coming to study another culture, for, although they wouldn’t think of it that way, that was a part of what they were doing when they entered college. I wanted them to learn not only about anthropology, but also about being an anthropologist.
That original course was an adventure for all of us, and it was a great success. However, when I first went to Stanford, I was not able to teach it as a freshman course because freshmen were tracked into a number of prescribed large lecture courses. Instead, I taught somewhat revised forms for upperclassmen, for students planning to go abroad for a time, and at the Stanford campus in Berlin. Other professors borrowed it, modified it, and taught it at Stanford campuses in Spain and Italy. When the university instituted a “freshman seminar” program, I was able, once again, to teach this course to entering freshmen. While the course can, obviously, be taught in a number of contexts, I still think it works best for freshmen as they enter college or university, not because the material is simplified, but because their experience is fresh.
The course is an innovative way to introduce students to anthropology, and because it has been a success, I was asked by the publisher to write a textbook based on it so that it might become available to students elsewhere. Although each chapter is devoted to one of the topics I discuss in class, such as space or time or food, it is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis of any one of them. Otherwise, each chapter could easily have become a book on its own. Even less is this book meant to be an in-depth analysis of American, British, or any other culture, although it is intended for use in the United States and United Kingdom. I juxtapose a range of material – classical anthropological material about a variety of cultures; contemporary items drawn from the newspaper, the Web, Stanford, and Brown; and ethnographic material from my own fieldwork in Turkey – for the purpose of generating ideas and indicating the range of areas for further exploration.
While this book is a general introduction to anthropology, it also reflects my own journey as an anthropologist. This includes my graduate training at the Harvard Divinity School and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, my academic concentrations on gender issues and the Abrahamic religions, and my personal life as a teenager of the 1950s, a young wife of the 1960s, a divorcee, a welfare mother, and so on. All of this led me into and informed my academic career. This is how anthropology (and any life path) unfolds: the personal intertwines with the professional. So too, another anthropologist could write a similar book (or design a similar course) using the same canon of classic and current anthropology, but would read that canon into his or her own areas of specialization and personal biography. I think the subjective experience reveals the relevance of anthropology to everyday life, although this necessarily means that other worthwhile issues – including those of particular interest to the readers – are overlooked in the process. Such omissions are not meant as dismissals, but as invitations to take an anthropological approach to your own topics of interest.
I wrote the first edition of this book as my own enterprise, but the second edition is a collaborative effort with Deborah Kaspin. She was a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago while I was, conducted fieldwork among Chewa in Malawi for her dissertation project, and more recently pursued fieldwork among modern orthodox Jews in New England. She has taught at several places of various types – private and public, universities and colleges – which are listed in the preface. Kaspin’s contributions to the second edition include material from her own research, updates on topics in the first edition, and occasionally slightly different interpretations of issues developed in the first edition. She also pushed to make the subject matter more accessible to a wider range of students and educational settings. It is our hope that the new edition accomplishes this.
The goal of the second edition, like the first, is not to teach about other cultures. That is the normal pedagogical approach adopted in schools, but it is passive and distanced learning. I believe that people learn best when they are actively involved in the process. You will learn about anthropology and about culture by learning how to think like an anthropologist, that is, by becoming amateur anthropologists. Not everyone is able to go to another society to gain this experience, but it is possible to simulate it. As I illustrate below, you will learn to draw analogies between your own experience of entering and becoming acclimated to college life and the experience of anthropologists who go to study another culture. Both can be quite disorienting, at least initially. Hold on to the disorientation for a while, because it provides some mental space from which you can grasp, as they occur, aspects of the new culture you have entered and how these aspects relate to each other. Even while the focus must be on your own environment, the aim is not to illuminate merely the “culture” of your particular school, but also to explore the way those particular aspects connect to and represent concepts, values, and structures of the wider culture. Indeed, I think the use of the word culture in that restricted sense is inappropriate.
Clifford Geertz, probably the most influential American anthropologist of the last 40 years, made the point very clear: “[T]he locus of study is not the object of study. Anthropologists don’t study villages (tribes, towns, neighborhoods …); they study in villages” (1973: 22). Substitute college for village, and you will see what I mean. Although I conducted my fieldwork in a village in central Turkey, my aim was to try to understand something about Turkish culture and how it was inflected in that one place. Analogously, the object of your study is the culture of your country even as you investigate it in your particular locale. My goal is to get you to learn experientially, to get you to adopt an anthropological approach that you can use to investigate any social or cultural phenomenon in any culture. Prerequisite is a mind open to new ways of thinking about things and willing to take nothing for granted. Anything is available for inspection, including the most ordinary, mundane items and events such as a McDonald’s hamburger, a pair of blue jeans, a cell phone, a birthday or New Year’s Eve, and so forth. These items and events are clues you can use to investigate your sociocultural system. Each of them provides a window into a much larger set of beliefs, power relations, and values. For example, what would you make of a community that celebrates death days rather than birthdays? How might that fact relate to other facets of that society? What other kinds of questions would you need to ask to begin to understand not just that practice but also the culture in which it occurs?
Disorientation
The experience of beginning college can be exhilarating, anxiety producing, and disorienting. This is magnified for those who come from other parts of the country or from foreign countries. Even when the language is familiar and you have not moved from your home town or city, college life is different from high school. You are entering a new world. You don’t know where anything is or how to find it; you don’t understand the time schedule or how to manage your time; you don’t know the lingo – the insider abbreviations and acronyms; and you don’t know the code of dress or behavior. For those who go away to college, it might be the first time you are away from home alone. It might be the first time you share a room with someone or have a room of your own. It might be the first time you have to schedule your own time.
Listen to the echoes of your experience in one of the most famous and oft-quoted sentences in anthropology. It was written by Bronislaw Malinowski, who is credited with inventing the anthropological method of intensive fieldwork. At the beginning of his work in the Trobriand Islands in the South Pacific, where he was interned during World War I, he wrote,
Imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to a native village, while the launch or dinghy which has brought you sails away out of sight.
([1922] 1961: 4)
An analogous translation might be something like:
Imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone in your room but with unfamiliar people nearby, while the car that brought you drives away out of sight.
Many students, just like many anthropologists, get a feeling of panic at that moment: “What am I doing here?” “Why didn’t I go to X?” “I want to go home.” Anthropologists call this feeling of panic culture shock. The term is credited to Ruth Benedict, but Cora Du Bois defines it as a “syndrome precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all your familiar cues” (cited in Golde [1970] 1986: 11); in short, you become disoriented. Culture shock is not confined to that initial moment but can resurface at various times at the beginning of any new adventure. Nor is it confined only to anthropologists or to students, for it can occur at other life-changing moments, for example when you take a new job or move to a new city. Anthropologists who have studied the phenomenon of culture shock have noted the following telltale signs: “frustration, repressed or expressed aggression against the source of discomfort, an irrational fervor for the familiar and comforting, and disproportionate anger at trivial interferences” (Golde [1970] 1986: 11).1 It is useful to keep this in mind during the first few weeks of college life.
As an example, let me tell you about something that happened to me when I began my fieldwork in Turkey. I was excited to be there and ready to begin my fieldwork, but I didn’t know how I was supposed to go about it or where to start. I recall that I got a craving for vanilla yogurt. This was a very trivial thing, and I was never even that fond of yogurt at home, but in Turkey I had to have vanilla yogurt. Now you have to realize that Turkey is full of yogurt; it is one of their basic foods. Yogurt, yogurt everywhere, but no vanilla to be found anywhere. I was frustrated and angry: how could they not have vanilla? What kind of people are they anyway? I began a frantic search, feeling that I would not be happy until I found it; vanilla yogurt would be my comfort food, my little piece of home. I eventually found a few desiccated pods of vanilla in a spice shop and ground my own. After that, I was prepared for anything.
In order to avoid severe culture shock and to overcome students’ initial disorientation, it is no wonder colleges set aside some time, often several days, for “orientation.”
Orientation
An orientation program is, obviously, intended to help you get oriented in the new environment. Often you are told something about the history, the resources, and the rules of the school; you are shown where to go for class, for books, for food, for exercise, and for help if you get sick. Such a program helps you to get your bearings, literally and figuratively.
The purpose of orientation programs is to help you feel at home and become acclimated to your new environment. It can also be viewed quite productively as an initiation ritual, for it does initiate you into your new status – that of undergraduate. Initiation rituals are one type of rites de passage first analyzed by a Flemish anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep in 1909 ([1909] 1960). Although there are a number of rites of passage, rites that mark transitions from one life stage to another, such as at birth, puberty, marriage, and death, Van Gennep focused primarily on initiation rites that occur around the time of puberty in a number of small-scale, kinship-based, hunter–gatherer societies, namely, those societies we have so condescendingly called “primitive.”2 Initiation rites are the rituals that transform youths or adolescents into adults; during the rituals, they are initiated by tribal elders into the lore of the tribe and into adult responsibilities. In some places, the rites occur over a number of weeks or months, but in others they have been known to last several years. Among Australian aborigines, for example, the initiation rites traditionally took about four years, exactly equivalent to a typical American college education.
According to Van Gennep’s schema, most rites de passage have three stages. The first is rites of separation, when the person is detached from his or her group or family; the second is made up of rites that characterize the liminal period, which is the transitional stage. Victor Turner, a famous British anthropologist who developed Van Gennep’s schema in his own studies of ritual, characterized this stage as “betwixt and between” fixed statuses when a boy, for example, is no longer a child but not yet a man with adult responsibilities (1967: 93–111). The third stage includes the rites of reaggregation, when the transformed person is inserted back into society.
You will have to analyze your own orientation programs for some of these features. The example that follows, from Stanford University, is meant to be used for comparative purposes and is not held up as the norm or as an ideal. I use it only because it was my locale. While some of the particulars vary from year to year, the orientation program follows quite closely the pattern laid down by Van Gennep. It is primarily for freshmen and takes place over a three-day weekend, before the other students arrive. Students leave their homes, familiar surroundings, and friends. This is the beginning of the “separation” phase. On Friday the freshmen arrive, often with their parents, siblings, and sometimes friends in tow. Some come by c...

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