Why You Should Take an Anthropology Course
Whether it’s fictional characters like Indiana Jones or those from the television show Bones, anthropologists have a reputation of being portrayed as adventurers. They travel to remote lands, live with unknown tribes for months, study history, fossils, art, and of course wear the classic, khaki safari hats! But the venturesome impression they make in popular media bears little in comparison to how fascinating the actual field of anthropology is. Here’s why you should take a class in anthropology at least once in your life — besides the bonus of getting to feel like Indiana Jones!
The most basic definition of anthropology, as my professor puts it, is the study of “the other”. What this means is that anthropologists study cultures, societies, and civilizations much unlike our own in order to learn more about ourselves, the world, and mankind in general.
Anthropology is also quite different than archeology, which is a separate field that anthropology is often confused with. Anthropology isn’t exactly digging up bones — it’s studying how all types of human societies work, develop, and function. It often involves fieldwork, but more so living with and making observations on the culture of study rather than searching for fossils.
Some aspects of the modern-day ideology of anthropology are actually very applicable to our everyday lives, and after having completed just my third week of an Intro to Cultural Anthropology course, I have already learned so much about how this area of study can teach us about our lives, and how we should live our lives. To begin with, because anthropologists study civilizations and societies different than their own, the field has adopted a collective perspective of viewing the “other”, or societies that are unlike their own, as different rather than inferior than them. Because anthropologists can only view other societies through the lense of their own culture, there is no objective way of observing another civilization (anthropologists are people too, they have biases!).
This is why when anthropologists study other societies, they try their best to compare aspects of the culture they observe within the context of only that culture, and not compare them to others. For example, the Maori in New Zealand are famous for their wide range of tattoos — particularly Ta Moko, a facial tattoo art. Anthropologists learned to consider these elaborate tattoos as an integral and highly esteemed aspect of the Maori culture, rather than comparing them to that of Western culture where facial tattoos are not nearly as common or socially acceptable, and labeling them as primitive or savage because of this. Often, Western culture is viewed as the “default”, or the baseline culture that we consider normal, and we tend to isolate non-Western societies by pinning them as the “other”. But considering each culture in their own right — and not comparing them to our own — helps us better understand these societies without downgrading their worth.
What we as a society have to learn from this outlook is to not assume that people’s differences are inferior. Think of differences as simply alternative ways of life. For example, if you have a friend who prefers to eat her meals with her hands rather than cutlery — as many South Asian cultures do — think of it as simply an alternative to using a fork and knife, rather than making negative judgements about her eating habits.
Another teaching in the methodology of anthropology is to be open-minded and curious about the world. It is very easy to get wrapped up in the busy loop of one’s own life, but it is so important to break out of that loop every once in a while to expose yourself to something new, challenging, and even uncomfortable. Anthropologists do this all the time; they often spend months, even years, living amongst societies that are drastically different than their own. But from these experiences, they learn to embrace people’s differences and understand that there is an infinite amount of possibilities beyond the boundaries of their own lives. Try taking a page from their book and do things that are outside of your comfort zone — you will find that you gain a lot from it!
Finally, anthropology has a fun side as well! One of the projects we are assigned in my class entails breaking a certain social norm in order to judge the reactions of others. For example, paying for a coffee at Starbucks with Monopoly money or sitting right next to someone on an empty bus. Through conducting these small experiments and testing these unwritten rules of society, we can become aware of regulations that we follow almost subconsciously within our daily lives.
There are aspects about anthropology that can truly help us become a better society. From learning about others, we learn more about ourselves and how to treat others. Take a class if you ever get the chance. You won’t regret it!
**Disclaimer: The ideologies described above do not represent the perspectives of every contributor in the field of anthropology. It is however how many modern-day anthropologists view their field, and it is how I understand it and prefer to view it as well.