Cheap Thrills and Elementary Anthropology

For the lay person, such as myself, the main evidence of a problem is the simple fact that ethnographic writing tends to be surprisingly boring. How, one asks constantly, could such interesting people doing such interesting things produce such dull books?”

I came to anthropology through journalism but wanted to do the research and be one of the popularizers. Yet, I soon realized many popularizations are not written by anthropologists, whose work is too jargon-filled for public consumption. I have heard from colleagues opposed to such public anthropology that the complexity of culture is poorly represented through public renderings, but sometimes a sufficiently complex representation is too complex to be easily understood.

I suggest a two-pronged means of dealing with this seemingly de facto problem with anthropology. We can and need to start teaching children anthropology earlier so they can developmentally build their understanding of human cultural complexity, and we should help them build up their understanding by making real anthropology experience accessible and interesting.

Anthropology is Elementary (and Primary)
What will undergraduate education be like when our students show up having had anthropology since they were in 3rd grade? How sophisticated will public understandings be? Will otherwise intelligent people make quips that we write boring books once they understand them as a matter of course because they are simply better educated in anthropology? Yes, I see the glass half-full sometimes, but I have also heard a 4th grade child explain developmental origins of adult disease theory better than some graduate students.The Department of Anthropology at the University of Alabama is teaching children anthropology earlier through a course called “Anthropology is Elementary.” This course, taught by graduate students, trains our upper-level undergraduates to teach anthropology in partnership with local elementary and middle schools. We have developed this approach over several years and been humbled by the capacity of children as young as 8-years-old to learn what we had thought too complex for them. We began with a general four-field course one semester per year and have expanded to “Anthropology of Costa Rica” in the fall and “Anthropology of Madagascar” in the spring. Each course covers garbology, museum interpretation, symbolic communication, cultural relativism and diffusion, primatology, human evolution, Mendelian genetics and race, and forensics. Additionally, undergraduate instructors develop new lessons and activities each semester.

Author Chris Lynn, doctoral student Max Stein, and Tuscaloosa Magnet School Elementary students demonstrate tongue-rolling, a Mendelian trait. Photo courtesy Virgil Roy Beasley III

Author Chris Lynn, doctoral student Max Stein, and Tuscaloosa Magnet School Elementary students demonstrate tongue-rolling, a Mendelian trait. Photo courtesy Virgil Roy Beasley III

What will undergraduate education be like when our students show up having had anthropology since they were in 3rd grade? I want to be able to go deeper than the gloss of nature versus nurture before they get to college while keeping anthropology interesting to the general public.

Another means to overcome the so-called dull barrier is simply to keep anthropology accessible. While local archaeology field schools are common, it’s important to develop biocultural research opportunities that are available to students by which to reinforce the early training I mentioned in the last section. It is doubly important to validate that this research is real. Several of our faculty and students have conducted local projects that create opportunities to integrate undergraduates and collaborative publishing. A few decades ago, Bill Dresslerconducted one of the seminal studies in the cultural consonance approach, studying the influence of discrimination stress and structural violence on depression of African-Americans in Tuscaloosa, a study doctoral student Lessye DeMoss is planning to update for her dissertation work. More recently, Kathy Oths studied the local farmers’ markets in conjunction with student researchers, investigating the intersection between the culture of the green movement and the nutritional impacts of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Students Ashley Daugherty, Caitlin Baggett, and Linnea Moran conduct an assessment at Head Start. Photo courtesy Sarah Elizabeth Morrow

Students Ashley Daugherty, Caitlin Baggett, and Linnea Moran conduct an assessment at Head Start. Photo courtesy Sarah Elizabeth Morrow

Jason DeCaro and collaborators received a grant last year to assess the efficacy of Head Start in Tuscaloosa County. This biocultural study integrates student researchers from across our university. In the fall 2014 semester alone, according to graduate coordinator Sarah Morrow, they involved over 100 undergraduate researchers in the project.

I train undergraduates in neuroanthropology by involving them simultaneously in multiple projects coordinated by graduate students, some of which focus on ethnographic methods while others are more social psychological in nature. The goal of this approach is to provide students breadth of exposure through projects that are catchy. For instance, master’s student Johnna Dominguez recently defended a biocultural thesis on the social and immunological impacts of tattooing among southern women. Graduate student April Boatwright is collecting qualitative data about fireside behavior to complement physiological data we have assembled over the past several years. Juliann Friel is assisting in studying the influence of evolution education on emotional physiology. Andrew Bishop, now a Ph.D. student at Arizona State, assisted me in a social study of religious-commitment signaling in churches. Jonathan Belanich, currently at Mississippi State, has been helping with a study of self-deception and mating success. Perhaps most attention-grabbing, Erica Schumann integrated training in animal behavior and human sexuality to test a hypothesis about cunnilingus by watching bonobos at the Fort Worth Zoo.

Involving undergraduates in research is certainly not unique, but many of these experiences would be lost to posterity if there were not publishing opportunities. The quality of undergraduate training experiences are significantly enhanced through them submitting work to journals like JOSHUA: The Journal of Science and Health at the University of Alabama, EvoS Journal, andNEXUS: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology. These peer-reviewed, undergraduate journals provide invaluable services to the discipline by enabling students to hone their skill sets and take greater pride in their work.

This emphasis on pre-undergraduate and undergraduate development will enhance the anthropological perspective of the general public and make the complexity of culture more comprehensible.

This post originally appeared in Anthropology News‘ June 2015 “Knowledge Exchange.”

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