Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Newbie Preconceptions: How 101 Views Anthropology

I spent my last post bemoaning the canceling of some anthropology sections and pondering if better public branding would help. Keeping with such marketing-inspired thinking, I attempted some focus group research last week in the first meeting of one of my cultural anthropology sections to see what the preconceptions of young Americans with no experience in anthropology were.


The vast majority of students in my courses are completely new to anthropology and I am likely the first (and probably only) voice they will hear about the discipline. So before I began any kind of substantive discussion, I asked what students thought when they heard the term, anthropology. Very quickly, unsurprising responses came bubbling up...”traditions,” “languages,” “religions,” “cultures,” “lifestyles”...These words consistently come up every semester. So, at some level, students “get” a part of what anthropology is all about, but they are missing the critical connective tissue that integrates such plural nouns.

And while the terms my students offered do cover important aspects of anthropology, they seem like a fragmented potpourri of foreign language class “culture day” activities. If this was how I conceived of the course, I can’t help but conjure students cooking up different foods and wearing different clothes every week. It’s not my intent to completely disparage such preconceptions, but it does wander into the realms of stereotyping and essentializing. On a similar note, the Generation X cynic in me oftens sees such approaches as simply lame. My sense is that subsequent generations share the same apathy. In my own classes, I really work to get students to get the much bigger and more exciting/interesting/cooler picture of examining what it means to be human, so I hope they won’t offer such responses in future situations where they need to reflect on anthropology (what those situations might be, I’m not sure, but I hope they do run into them).

This reminds me of Ulf Hannerz’s recent paper from American Anthropologist where he offers the brand identity of “Diversity is our Business.” Of course, he goes into much more detail in the paper, but the whole point of branding is the development of a simply distilled and easily remembered slogan. As such, I’m afraid that “Diversity is our Business” uncomfortably fits with my students’ preconceptions and would continue reproducing an image of anthropology as a “butterfly collecting” discipline that documents typologies.

Even disciplines with much better name recognition are significantly misunderstood by the public. As a department chair of a general social sciences sort of department, I regularly deal with quite a few psychology courses--both scheduling sections and hearing student complaints. On the scheduling side, I can offer lots of psychology courses and they generally fill. On the complaint side, students often weren’t aware what they were in for. I’ve heard more than a few student innocents recount the woes of PSY 101--way too much neuroanatomy. The general preconception here seems to be that the discipline is all about figuring out the personality of one’s self and those around you and many find the content of the actual discipline difficult and uninteresting.

In light of all this, I’ve recently reread through Greg Downey’s response to Hannerz as well as the comment thread. From that, it’s clear that creating a quick and easy slogan for a discipline that examines the mind-bogglingly, multi-faceted question of what it means to be human is a difficult task. I’m not so sure it can be sloganized.

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