Dr. Anthropologist

Your engagement with social anthropology will radically transform the way you see the world and yourself, and the way you understand yourself. — Dr. Camilla Morelli, Professor ‘Peoples, Culture and Language’

I feel incredibly fortunate and elated to begin a PhD programme at the University of Bristol. It’s as though I’ve travelled through a time warp and transformed into a 20-something year old again — clubs, societies, ‘freshers week’, lectures, new friends — as though the previous month marked the beginning of a new incarnation of myself and the old life passed away.

A few weeks ago, I met with my supervisor and attended my first lecture. The lecture series is called ‘Peoples, Culture and Language,’ and it’s an introductory course for social anthropology, which is what I will be studying for the next three to four years.

Many people who know me and my background in teaching English ask, ‘Why anthropology?’ After all, my degrees in English and Education have offered very little knowledge as to the research methods and fieldwork used by anthropologists.

My answer to this question is that nearly all of my life experiences (from starting out in the United States military in 1998 to living and working in Bristol, UK in the present) have shaped my worldview into one that seems astonishingly well-suited to a research degree in anthropology. When I stumbled across an overview of the Archaeology and Anthropology programme on the Bristol University website, I could hardly believe that there was a discipline that merged all of my seemingly random interests and experiences into one. Folklore and storytelling, creative writing, fairy tales and animation, teaching, travelling, genetics and evolutionary theory, science-denialism, social issues such as racism, sexism and climate change, environmental conservation… yes, the list does keep going!

I’ve decided to create a blog to complement my research, partly to reflect on my experiences and creative projects, but also to communicate with others so I can engage more deeply with the learning process. My hope is that you can share and gain valuable insights, as well!

What is social anthropology exactly? There’s not one simple answer, of course, but what subject worthy of study does have simple answers?

Anthropology is not so much a precise science as a way of approaching the world: it offers substantial knowledge about local ways of life, world-views and cultural diversity… Instead of asking, ‘What is a human being?’, it asks, ‘What is it like to be a human being in this particular society?’ — Thomas Eriksen 2010

Anthropology is also comparative in that it not only aims to understand the unique aspects of a particular society but also the ways in which all human lives are similar. Three broad questions give a glimpse into what anthropologists aim to understand:

— Questions from the lecture slides of ‘Peoples, Culture and Language’, Dr Camilla Morelli

The first lecture I went to asked us all to discuss in small groups the difference between the universal and the particular. The questions were:

Is anything universal?
Are there any universal rights and wrongs?

My small group made several suggestions:
  • food
  • love (though kinship seems to be a more accurate word)
  • fear
  • the need to belong
Other groups suggested:
  • authority
  • taboo
  • rules of behaviour

The French anthropologist Claud Lévi-Strauss argued that the incest taboo is universal in that all human societies have rules about sex and marriage between close relatives, about which are permissible and which are not. Not surprisingly, his theory was hotly debated by other anthropologists!

What do you think? Is anything universal?

I will be going into more detail about what I intend to research in future posts; but in the next blog post, I will discuss the fascinating lecture topics from ‘Peoples, Culture and Language,’ starting with the complicated history and assumptions of Social Anthropology.

Here is a sneak peak>>>

A brief timeline of anthropology. Image credits from left to right: James George Frazer, Author: Contemporary photograph, public domain; Ana Cofiño, Author: GobiernoDeGuatemala, Creative Commons.

Speaking of ‘hipster culture’ as a topic of interest, take a look at this music video ‘The Hipsters are coming’ by Offbeat, a spoof of hipster culture in Bristol.

Thanks for reading my first blog post!

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