Introduction to Cultural Anthropology

Syllabus 2015
Syllabus 2012

This course provides an introduction to the basic concepts, theories, and methods of cultural anthropology, an academic discipline that studies human diversity across time and space. Students who take this class will obtain a broad overview of cultural anthropology, greater understanding of how anthropological knowledge can be applied to myriad other disciplines and vocations, and a better appreciation for the cultural diversity that they encounter in everyday life. In addition to exploring anthropological research on myriad facets of the human experience, students will undertake their own mini-projects using several key ethnographic methods, including interviews, media analysis, and collaborative knowledge production. Designed as a foundational course for students pursuing a major or minor in anthropology.

Shamans, Cyborgs, and the Limits of Human Nature


What is human nature? What characteristics do all humans share? What separates us from non-humans, whether they be animals, machines, or supernatural icons? In this course we will examine these questions by focusing on the limits of human nature, searching for the outer boundaries of our collective identity. Beginning with profiles of our closest non-human relatives—living or prehistoric, from bonobos to Neanderthals—we will progress to charting the vast diversity of human nature by examining uncommon individuals from societies across time and space. From prehistoric Siberian shamans to twenty-first century cyborgs, from divine emperors to megalomaniacal dictators, the thread that links these diverse figures is their liminal status at the limits of human nature. Whether they are half-spirit, part machine, incarnations of the gods or embodiments of nation-states, these figures invite us to reconsider our assumptions about human nature and the parameters of normality. We will consider the practices of these figures and their social roles within their historical and cultural contexts in order to gain a better understanding and appreciation for the importance of diversity and creativity in humankind’s adaptation as a species. We will also engage questions about the future of humanity and the impacts of technology in influencing our ideas about ourselves and the world we inhabit. Drawing from anthropology’s broad base of knowledge—including insights from archaeological and biological anthropology—our investigation will span topics such as religion, human evolution, language development, social organization, science & technology, and ethics & human rights.

Memory, Truth, Justice:
Violence & Human Rights in Contemporary Latin America


This seminar explores issues of violence, human rights, and transitional justice in Latin America through a focus on the anthropology of collective memory. In this course, we will examine the legacies of state-sponsored violence against civilians in several Latin American contexts, focusing particularly on case studies in Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Our understanding of these cases will be enriched by an attention to the historical contexts of violence, including the structural effects of colonialism and exclusionary forms of nationalism. We will focus especially on questions of gender and ethnic discrimination, the history and meaning of nationalism, and ethnographic research and writing methods. We also consider different frameworks for conceptualizing collective memory, and ask how memory, history, and fictional literature are differentiated by power and purpose. Students will apply the new intellectual tools provided in the course toward independent research on a related topic or case study.

National Narratives and Collective Memory


This course examines how national narratives shape people’s ideas about nation-states—their own and others’. We will consider the cultural, psychological, and political aspects of the narratives used to interpret the past and understand the present. In addition to reviewing conceptual foundations from the humanities and social sciences, we will examine particular national narratives as case studies. The course also examines several strains of thought on collective memory, a concept of perennial interest among social scientists and the lay public alike. In order to help clarify the meaning of “collective memory” and distinguish it from history or individual memory, we will investigate the genealogy of the concept and discuss facets of collective remembering in our own society and others. We will discuss the roles that various social and psychological phenomena play in producing and reproducing memories of a group—from extraordinary rituals to everyday practices. Along the way we will consider timely questions related to collective remembering: How do ceremonies and re-enactments reconnect participants to the past? In what way does language reveal forgotten history? Why do “textbook wars” spark passionate—sometimes violent—protests? How does remembering—or forgetting—the past influence our reimagining of the future?

Methods in Anthropological Inquiry


Anthropology’s theoretical interventions have taught us to look beyond our own relatively limited ways of living and to recognize humankind’s diversity and capacity for social change. Anthropology has also provided the methodological tools we need to better understand, analyze, document, and explain our diverse and dynamic beliefs and practices. This course provides a survey of the key methods of sociocultural anthropology, including the overarching methodological orientation of ethnography: the careful, empirical collection of information about people and the representation of that information in an ethical, accessible, and meaningful manner. We will discuss the context of ethnography within the social sciences, including contemporary examples of ethnographic writing, ethical and practical concerns about the method, and the history of anthropology’s relationship to ethnography. Ethnographers seek the inside point-of-view on the topics they study, building relationships with their research participants over the course of many months or years. In this course, students will identify a group, institutional setting, or community of practice (e.g., a political organization, a homeless shelter, a medical services provider, etc.) and conduct independent research on a relevant issue impacting upon that group of people.
Students will gain first-hand experience in the various phases of constructing their own ethnographic projects, including focused instruction on interviewing, participant observation, survey & questionnaire design, spatial analysis and representation, and multimedia analysis. During the semester, each student will learn and practice anthropological methods through the course readings, discussions in the class workshops, participation in the online forum, completion of methods assignments, and instruction provided by the professor. The format of the in-class meeting time will be arranged as a workshop, in which each participant—including the professor—will present the results of their ongoing investigations and writing projects in order to benefit from the collective knowledge and constructive criticism of the group. As a final project, students will prepare methods portfolios that display the skills they have mastered, as well as ethnographic reports that describe the knowledge they have gained about their chosen topic of interest.

Human Sexuality:
Cross-cultural Perspectives


The purpose of the course is to provide students with a critical awareness of the discourses, histories, and politics surrounding the concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality—social phenomena that play important roles in our everyday lives. Human sexuality is a fundamental aspect of life for every person, playing pivotal roles at different points in one’s life history. Sexuality is also intimately related to other important issues in society at large: all social reproduction depends foremost on sexual reproduction, a fact well-understood by states, social movements, and politicians of every creed and ideology. Yet, discussions of sex and sexuality tend to be taboo or, at best, are restricted to adults. Consequently, this important domain of human experience is often poorly understood; many people live in ignorance or fear of their own personal sexuality. Students in this class will learn to challenge ignorance through research and discussion. Through the study of human sexuality, we will explore inter-personal relationships and race & ethnicity, spiritual beliefs and religious doctrines, personal wellbeing and public health, among other topics. Our investigation will survey the ever-growing diversity of expressions of sexuality in U.S. society, as well as distinctive forms of sexuality encountered in other cultures—revealing that the “normal” range of human sexuality is far more extensive than most people realize.

The Anthropology of Food and Eating


This course explores the cultural meanings and social functions of food and eating in different groups around the world, including the curious rituals that we employ in our own dining habits. Although food is a basic need for all human beings, we will see that ideas about what is edible—and how one should eat—vary widely between cultures. Topics include: anthropological explanations of religious dietary laws, the gendered division of labor in food preparation, the aesthetics of food and taste, diets & body image, and the significance of food rituals. We will also examine the political economy of food production in different social and historical contexts, including applied research into local nodes in the networks that provide our own sustenance: farms, grocers, markets, and food banks in the local area. Our toolkit will include classical works in social science and early anthropology; first-hand accounts of travelers, cooks, and diners; examples of the latest ethnographic accounts of food in the era of globalization; and training in field research methods for the purpose of gathering our own information about issues of personal interest and local importance. Finally, no exploration of food would be complete without engaging in the most practical approach: tasting. Our class will celebrate milestones in our research progress by engaging in tastings of delicacies from different places and time periods. As a course that applies a wide range of knowledge toward understanding a topic of immediate concern to most students, this class functions both as a survey of social theory and as a gateway to anthropology for students in other disciplines.

Political Anthropology of States and Societies


This course is divided conceptually into two components: during the first half of the semester, we will review the long history of political themes in sociology and anthropology in order to flesh out and critically examine the various arguments that have come to define political anthropology. We will review the classic structuralist and conflict theories of early 20th century sociologists, the crucial critiques by feminist and postmodern theorists in the 1970-80s, and the more recent turn to focus on micro-politics of power, violence, and statecraft in a globalizing world marked by the simultaneous dismantling of the old State and rise of new Nation(alism)s. In the second half of the course, we will apply our new knowledge of theory to investigate numerous case studies of political action and resistance. As a class, we will examine the histories of colonialism and revolution in the Americas; the co-optation of preceding forms of governance by emerging or invading elites; relationships of power and legitimacy between local and global institutions; the role that memory and history play in shaping political identity; and many other topics related to power and resistance in human groups. Students will also adopt a topic of interest in order to prepare independent research papers—through archival research, ethnographic interviews, or some combination thereof. Throughout the course, a special emphasis is placed on re-imagining the possibilities of human political forms. Beyond studying past and present institutions of power and authority, we will ask what our politics may look like in the future—and what role we play in helping to influence social change.

The Anthropology of Peace & Conflict


This seminar provides an introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies with a special focus on anthropological approaches to research and analysis. In this course, we will examine specific examples of conflict and peace-making based on ethnographic research from a variety of local contexts around the globe. No two wars are identical, nor do different societies follow the same paths to peace and justice after conflicts have ended. Moreover, organized warfare is not the only form of conflict that has led to the redistribution of power and rights: social movements have used strategies of nonviolent conflict to further the rights of minorities and oppressed peoples in many countries. We will focus on the experiences of reconciliation in Germany, Guatemala, South Africa, and Spain in order to develop a deeper understanding of the social phenomena of conflict, violence, and justice across cultures and over time. Our intellectual toolkits will be furnished by multi-disciplinary scholarship in Peace and Conflict Studies, including contributions from all four fields of anthropology, to address the driving questions within the field: Is conflict a part of human nature? Do all societies condone violence—and in what circumstances? What strategies can groups and individuals adopt to prevent violence and restore social trust after conflicts end? What can we do as scholars and citizens to further the goals of social justice and “positive peace”? This course will serve as a starting point for further engagement with Peace and Conflict Studies in graduate studies and beyond.

The Anthropology of [Latin American & Caribbean] States and Social Movements

This course provides a survey of social theory about States and social movements, and more broadly about power and resistance in diverse contexts. Students will draw on foundational texts by such scholars as Marx, Weber, Althusser, Gramsci, Habermas, Foucault, Scott, Anderson, Ferguson, and Aretxaga to build understandings of power, governance, resistance, and agency. We will examine these forces at play in several case studies and broader ethnological works, as well as in current events unfolding around us. Students will gain a broader understanding of the development of social theory and a deeper awareness of the political effects of daily practices. By linking foundational theory, historical examples, and contemporary events, the class helps to demonstrate the practical importance of critical research for becoming informed and agentive contemporary citizens.
[This course is designed to alternate in iterations between a Latin American regional focus and a more global focus that draws from case studies around the world.]

Human Rights in Intercultural Perspective

This course provides an introduction to legal and political anthropology, as well as the anthropology of development. The course will begin with an investigation of the historical and political contexts that led to the creation of several key international legal frameworks, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2008). Beyond simply focusing on the intentions of the authors of these laws, we will draw on ethnographic texts and media to look at how they have been implemented in local settings around the globe, often in surprising and innovative ways. The course will move beyond formal frameworks to investigate how Human Rights has become a powerful discourse in its own right, examining specific adaptations of the idea by groups such as the EZLN, the “hacktivists” of Anonymous, and contemporary faith-based movements that combat human trafficking.

Contemporary Cultures and Societies of Latin America

This course serves as a gateway to Latin American Studies, grounded in anthropological perspectives and an overview of the historical relationships among Latin American nations and with the United States and Europe. The course will juxtapose key ideas from influential literature and social theory—such as mestizaje and the “cosmic race,” indigenous rights and the politics of difference, and the political economies of neoliberalism and the New Left—with specific ethnographic case studies that help to exemplify and complicate such grand-scale theories and explanations. Students will gain a better understanding of the history of the region, particularly the lasting effects of historical relationships of power, and an awareness of the incredible diversity of cultures and societies in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Teaching Philosophy

My teaching philosophy is rooted in the same commitments that drive my engaged research in Guatemala: helping under-represented peoples in their pursuit of higher education and preparation for leadership. This commitment to epistemic parity manifests through three teaching strategies. First, I draw on interdisciplinary knowledge and innovative pedagogies to make my classes more welcoming, engaging, and meaningful for all participants. If “the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences,” as Ruth Benedict claimed, then successfully promoting anthropological ways of viewing and being in the world is a worthwhile goal in itself. The secret to my strategy is hidden in the final sentence on each of my syllabi: “I reserve the right to revise this syllabus as necessary.” This inconspicuous caveat represents my willingness to modify my classes in response to the needs and interests of my students. As the semester progresses and I learn more about the backgrounds and aspirations of the students in my class, I look for ways to incorporate their interests into our approach to the course objectives.

I often adjust the examples I use to illustrate concepts, in order to enable students to share their unique knowledge and experiences. The entire class benefits from the engaging discussions that follow when a student recognizes a link between the course material and her own areas of expertise. For example, by presenting a short description of American Sign Language during a lesson on linguistics, I created an opportunity for a student to describe the role of ASL in her own family across multiple generations. This discussion introduced concrete examples of the ways that ASL, like other languages, has grammar, slang, and regional accents; it also surprised several students, challenging their assumptions about ASL. I also give assignments that are structured to teach course objectives, but flexible enough that students are often able to creatively pursue topics of their own choosing. For example, my ‘applied methods’ assignments simultaneously provide experiential training and feedback in the fundamental fieldwork methods of anthropology, while encouraging students to approach a topic they find interesting from new angles, as ethnographers.

My second strategy is to intentionally encourage the participation of quieter students, particularly those who may feel isolated by cultural, ethnic, and class differences from the student majority. As a first-generation college student from a small Southern community, I have felt out of place in academia on many occasions. I developed several simple techniques to gain the confidence to collaborate with peers from different, often more privileged backgrounds, and now I adapt them to help my students. For example, I include ice-breakers and group interactions to ensure that everyone has a few familiar faces and learns more about their classmates. I start off each class with discussions of lighter issues and news, in order to help students over the initial hurdle of speaking. I also use private online forums such as Blackboard as a space for students to discuss assignments and other topics. I find that students who are less comfortable with public speaking may adopt this online avenue for sharing their ideas, and ultimately everyone benefits as the forums become a valuable crowd-sourced archive of knowledge about the course material. I encourage students to meet with me one-on-one to discuss their plans and share ideas, and I have especially enjoyed success in helping diverse students figure out their options for summer research opportunities.

Finally, the third strategy for advancing my teaching philosophy is to invest heavily in students’ communication abilities. I consider clear writing to be the most important skill that college offers, and the ability to communicate one’s ideas and opinions is a prerequisite for successfully having an impact on the wider world. In short, it does little good to inspire my students to value human diversity and stand up for the rights of others if they lack the ability to make cogent arguments. Accordingly, I assign writing projects at regular intervals throughout the semester and I provide detailed feedback. For longer research papers, I often require multiple drafts in order to help students stay on track. I introduce techniques for organizing ideas, such as mind mapping and preparing diagrammatic outlines of their writing projects. Whenever students bring me a paper draft to read, I assign them a task to perform while I look over the document: take an index card and write their thesis argument on it. If they struggle with this task, their concern over the organization of their papers is superfluous; I help them re-think their project until a clear argument emerges. I also encourage students to master other literacy practices, including the ability to critically read and analyze images, music, and social media—and to produce such ‘texts’ of their own. In classes that usually end with a research paper, I often offer the option to submit final projects in alternative forms of media. In one instance, several students created impressive documentary films that drew from interviews, archival research, and editorial decisions about filmography and narrative structure. We convened a special meeting of our class after the semester’s end to come together and screen these films and to discuss how they reflected course topics, followed by a fruitful question-and-answer session with the filmmakers.

I have seen the effectiveness of my teaching philosophy clearly in students’ increased investment as our courses progress: they pay more attention, come to class better prepared, and look forward to discussing the assigned readings. By the end of the semester they have not only met or exceeded the objectives for the course, they have gained new enthusiasm for anthropology, and mastered new methods and theories to apply to their other studies. Students have expressed approval of my strategy in their own words, including in course evaluations that note how I “incorporate modern events into whatever concept is being discussed in class that day” and that “Discussions were intriguing and applied to all the different backgrounds that students had.” The most rewarding responses were students informing me that they had added a major in anthropology, thanks in part to my showing them how it related to their interests and career goals. Although few of my students will go on to become professional anthropologists, every student who participates in my classes will be introduced to other ways of being in the world and will, hopefully, find their way to make a positive impact.