(No, it's anthropology.)
When I first told people I planned to get my master’s in social anthropology, the most common reaction I got was a blank – at best quizzical – stare. From my dad (who, it should be mentioned, does want what’s best for me but is absolutely positive that what’s best for me is an MBA) it was a “that’s great, Ashley!”, in a voice multiple octaves higher than his normal one. He then began to send me National Geographic articles about excavations of ancient sites which, while vaguely interesting, had nothing to do with anything as far as I was concerned.
It is a common mix-up, anthropology and archaeology. But I wanted to end up in a different kind of field than the ones archeologists find themselves digging through. Rather than dusty artefacts, I imagined working with people, interviewing them, observing them participantly, discussing things collectively; in short, doing ethnographic fieldwork.
I say this as though anthropology is obviously a more logical and relevant career choice than archeology, but we did learn some very niche things in the master’s program that makes the degree an even tougher sell to people like my father. Recently at Razor, I thought maybe I had been given an opportunity to prove anthropology’s pertinence to real life and work. I was assisting in a fact-finding mission for a potential project with regards to a topic that is endlessly fascinating to anthropologists: menstruation.
We had spent a week on this theme in my kinship, sex, and gender course, and, consequently, I had done a lot of reading on the subject. I enthusiastically began to tell some of the other Razors about an ethnography I had read in which epidemics of mass hysteria were inexplicably erupting on Japanese-owned factory floors in Malaysia. The Japanese managers had no idea how to explain this phenomenon or treat the women – it took an anthropologist and some on-the-ground research to determine that the women thought they were falling prey to spirit possessions because of cultural beliefs about crossing spatial boundaries from rural areas to urban ones while having their period. It’s a gripping image – spirit-possessed women in hysterics on factory floors – and captured the imagination of other Razors who asked me to send along the article.
That was when I realised that it had been written in the early 1980’s.
Anthropological content is absolutely fascinating, if potentially outdated and esoteric. In my course I learned about things ranging from the affective nature of fake-official documents in North Cyprus; the strategies enacted by patient activist groups to draw attention and funds to racialised diseases like sickle cell anaemia; little houses in Tanzania, and modern polyandry in Russia. I got to write my dissertation about the intersection between DIY biologists, the punk movement, and ethical democracy.
While the content is admittedly arcane, anthropology’s methods and theories are extremely valuable. In the early 1900s, Bronislaw Malinowski, the founding father of the discipline, noted the importance of distinguishing between what people say they do versus what they actually do. Now researchers in all capacities, not just academic ones, must engage with this distinction. In fact, it is what distinguishes market and design researchers (who focus primarily on attitudes) from user-experience researchers (who focus primarily on behaviours).
There are even times when someone in the Razor office mentions some kind of social pattern that is emerging from fieldwork we are conducting, and I think to myself, ‘Ah, another example of Foucault’s technologies of the self!’ or, ‘No wonder Bruno Latour interrogates cultural understandings of what is ‘natural’!’. In these moments, anthropology is incredibly relevant to my work and my life, and opens up insights and ideas I may never have made the connection to, had I not studied it.
Then again, there is a reason I keep those thoughts to myself; even I roll my eyes at how pretentious I sound in my head.