Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Social Anthropology: Going Back to the Mother Ship

Merrimack River Bed
This semester I have had the great privilege to have been allowed to teach the course "Social Anthropology", and I am loving it!  Offered by the sociology department of UMass-Lowell (we don't have an anthropology program at our university), it fulfills the undergraduate core curriculum requirements for a social science.  45 undergraduates are sailing on this ship with me.  I don't think they've ever had an instructor who keeps saying--Thanks so much, I am so glad I have been allowed to teach this class! 

I call this experience "going back to the mother ship", meaning that as a qualitative researcher I am going back to the roots of anthropology--its definitions and arguments.  This has been a great refresher for thinking about the history, meaning, and techniques of qualitative research.  I have been teaching qualitative research in some form since 1999, and I didn't realize that it (or I?) had become a bit stale. 

Teaching social anthropology requires I think and talk about:  what is culture? This is something I realize I had stopped thinking about at some point in my career.  I guess I thought it was implied in everything.  It's great to have it brought back front and center.

In my doctoral qualitative research course, at the beginning of the semester we talk about: what is numerical/non-numerical data and we debate the various paradigms.  Philosophy leads and practicalities come next.

In social anthropology, however, I started by jumping into examples of descriptive vs applied anthropology--after all, these are undergraduates--and, quite rightly, they would like to know:  what do these people do?  Why do they do it?  And, can you get a job in this field?

Of course, this semester--Spring 2015--has been exceptionally snowy and we have had many class cancellations, but I think we are beginning to get into a rhythm now at Week 6.  We had an exciting class today on the topic of subsistence and economic strategies for survival.  The class was divided into multiple small groups focusing on foragers, horticulturalists, pastoralists, or intensive agriculturalists.  It was fascinating to watch the way discussions of the characteristics of these different economic strategies led students to consider how different cultural areas (marriage, kinship, language, religion, political structures, etc.) are connected to the economy.  By the end of our class time, I was quite impressed with the ways they had dug into this topic. 

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