The Anthropologist’s Disclaimer

Many people I meet, even people I talk to on a regular basis, do not have background knowledge of anthropology, and I think that is fairly typical. Anthropology isn’t taught in the American public school system and most people have only had a limited introduction to one of Anthropology’s subfields.   Archeology or Forensic Anthropology are commonly brought up as points of reference. Indiana Jones and the tv show Bones being the most famous, albeit fictional, anthropologists today. These are indeed crucial parts of the holistic endeavor to understand human beings, but the methodology employed is so drastically different that I think people are still left wonder what exactly it is that I do.

Anthropology is the study of what it means to be human, and the wealth of variation of culture and physiology that includes. Cultural anthropologists are primarily focused on cultural groups and cultural issues around the globe as they pertain to currently living people; as you might imagine this takes an incredibly wide range of forms.  From studying HIV clinics in Bolivia to urban development in China to Forestry and Sustainability in the Philipines to grieving practices on Facebook, anthropologists do research anywhere humans are. This research is most commonly referred to as ethnographic fieldwork or sometimes ethnography for short, but an ethnography is really the written product produced documenting anthropologist’s cultural observations. The two most important methodological tools of ethnographic fieldwork are participant observation and ethnographic interviews.

The exact type of hard data each anthropologists documents during this ethnographic experience may vary, but one pattern repeats–tried and true. This method yields incredible, invaluable insight into the culture group being studied, allowing anthropologists to properly situate other more tangible data within its cultural context. Additionally, living with those we study and participating in their daily lives has offered anthropologists countless serendipitous opportunities for uncovering deeply insightful findings. These might come as a chance encounter, an illegal cock-fighting match, a midnight conversation, even in one case a late night police raid on the village an anthropologist was residing in (Greetz 1977; Bernard 2011). Such serendipitous events provide the researcher with an anecdotal stories that exemplify or illuminate key aspects of the human condition, which are frequently worth more than the several months of diligent pursuits of other methods. Other times such as serendipitous event is an experience that provides a unique perspective on the issue being studied, situating the researcher to have both the outsider objectivity and a momentary shared insider experience.

It is fair to say that participant-observation isn’t entirely well-defined even by and for anthropologists who employ it. How do you know when you are doing participant-observation? How do you know you are doing it correctly? These questions have probably haunted anthropology graduate students since the beginning of American Anthropology. Participant-Observation was invented when anthropology first shifted from an armchair discipline to one that required going to the “field.” Now part of the authority of the anthropologist claims comes from actually being there.  This later came under critique, as did the anthropologist’s authority, in general, but the necessity of going to field to gain firsthand insight into a culture weathered the storm.  In essence, participant-observation is about achieving the same type of organic first-hand exposure to a culture that language learners seek from language immersion programs.

Participant-observation might be defined as the process of living in a culture, alternately with the community of people you are studying, while keeping a detailed record of your observations of public events, daily life, and casual conversations. As anthropologists live in their field site, every communal activity, and human interaction offers the potential to yield insightful information. Anthropologists learn through immersion, living in the same cultural context as the people we are studying. We call it participant-observation occasionally even deep hanging out in an attempt to over emphasize the causal nature of one of our greatest tools. But the point remains the same; we need to absorb the social context while simultaneously analyzing the layers of that social reality and how they might affect the situation being studied.

However, the third vital gift of participant-observation is that it is the perfect set up for ethnographic interviews both formal and informal. Anthropological literature talks a lot about building rapport. What this really means is that you need to establish a relationship with your participants and your community. While informed consent in its strictest sense isn’t required, during the participant-observation stage of research, this is the ideal time to inform community members about your research. They need to know who you are, why you are there, and hopefully after you’ve shared some real genuine human interaction you can begin to build a relationship and trust. Being a part of the community, rather someone that just shows up one day out of the blue wanting to ask questions helps. Informal ethnographic interviews, in all honestly, are really just casual conversations. In participant-observation settings, think community social events, these can actually be allowed to start organically and on equal terms. Once the anthropologist has the lay of the land, after conducting participant-observation for a while (the length of time is always up to the researcher), then she can start looking for people who are willing to be interviewed in a more formal setting. But again, it helps here that the people already either know her or know people who know her. I still like to refer to these as ethnographic interviews albeit formal ethnographic interviews to emphasize that the interview is informed by participant-observation unlike for example interviews of randomly selected college students participating in a psychology survey or a sociological questionnaire.

Cultural anthropologists may also employ a host of other data collecting methods: household surveys, kinship charts, taxonomies, ethnographic decision models, photography, videography, cartography, online questionnaires, and even analysis of digital data like tweets.  But participant-observation and ethnographic interviews are our bread and butter.

I have explained them thoroughly to give you my warning, or disclaimer if you will.  Once you start conducting participant-observation and ethnographic interviews, you’ll never actually stop.  Sure, an anthropologist isn’t always keeping detailed notes about all of life’s observations. But come to think of it, even when I’m not on field note taking duty I still make notes about all my “Fascinating!” observations as soon as I can get to my nearest notebook, cell phone or laptop. After I tell someone or write it down, it keeps the idea percolating in my head and it helps me remember. But that’s not the important part. The important part, it that once you learn how to do participant-observation and then follow it up with thoughtful ethnographically charged questions, well… you sort of can’t turn it off.  These tools of inquiry become part of how you think and engage with the world. I was in the mountains on retreat with my friends last weekend and I caught myself doing it, but I didn’t realize what I was doing until I’d already asked the question. It wasn’t in any way related to my dissertation research or really any topic that I’ve directly studied, but I was curious. Then it happened again while I was in a fitness class on Monday. But that is the thing isn’t it, ALL of Human Diversity and what it means to be human, that is what I study.  So if you are human and you are talking and doing your thing, whatever your thing is, I’m probably unintentionally studying you. Dear friends, family, communities in which I live, my apologies and warning in advance.

An anthropologist is always conducting research to some extent. Once you learn the tools of anthropology, you cannot simply turn them off because you are at the dinner table with your in-laws or in dance fitness class or listening to someone tell you about their yarn store. I can’t possibly wipe out informed consent forms every time I get inspired, plus I think it might start freaking out those close to me.

So for my friends and family, this is a friendly reminder, I’m an anthropologist and this is what I do. Before I actually publish any stories directly about you, I will always try to go back and ask your permission and give you a chance to preview it. Don’t worry I always change names to protect the not so innocent. Excepting some of the members of my family, of course, who chose to be identified in previous research as it pertained to family history.

For all my past, current and future research participants reading this, I hope this gives you some insight into what anthropology is and what I do with it. I always want you to feel like we are collaborators in the research projects you work with me on. I want you to feel proud reading what I write especially when it pertains to you. I plan to always publish a public audience version of all my material well in advance of any academic publications. If there is anything that concerns you, please feel free to contact me at sydneyyeager@gmail.com

Mobile Health in Context

Mobile Health in Context: How Information is Woven Into Our Lives  

@SusannahFox @PewResearch

Susannah Fox from Pew Review Research put together an excellent presentation of the latest health and digital technology related statistics.  The slides are concise, accessible, and thought provoking.  Can we put cell phones to use improve health and health information seeking strategies?   

I came across this presentation of data at exactly the right time thanks to Carol Torgan.  The information will be incredibly insightful to my future dissertation research and will go along way in demonstrating the significance of my proposed research.

DANG Panel Accepted

The BRIDGING DIGITAL AND PHYSICAL PUBLICS: DIGITAL Anthropologists’ CURRENT ENGAGEMENTS WITH 21st CENTURY PUBLICS panel has been accepted!!  It is being reviewed by the Society of Visual Anthropology. The panel with include the following papers:

Anastasiya Travina (Texas State University-San Marcos)                    500,000 Tweets and Posts During The First Two Hours Of The London Olympics: Does IT Mean The Olympics Is A Universally Lauded Event?

Meghan M Ferriter (Smithsonian Institution Archives)                           “It Boils Down to Respect”: Defining the Values of a Fandom Through Conflict Online

Sarah Elaine Dillard Mitchell (Indiana University, Department of Anthropology)                                                                                       TIFF’s Immediate and Mediated Public: Social Media, Public Relations, and the Economies of Talk At the Toronto International Film Festival

Michael P. Oman-Reagan (Hunter College of the City University of New York)                           Occupying Cyberspace: Indonesian Cyberactivism and Occupy Wall Street

Laura C Jarvis (Southern Methodist University)                           Facebook Or Face-to-Face: Studying Youth In and Out of the Field

Sarah S Ono (Department of Veteran Affairs)                                         By the Time We Get to the Station Will the Train Already Have Left?: Keeping Up With New Media in the Public Sector

Alissa Beth Kaplan Soto (Hunter College)                                    Women’s Autonomy Through Self-Insemination and Cyberspace

Congratulations and Thank You to all the panel participants and DANG!

Check Us Out on the 112th Annual AAA Conference!

 

Nationalism, Communitas, and Spiderman…

Considering I was in Ireland for the 4th of July, I decided to get a little imaginative in the way I celebrated America’s Independence Day.  Greg and I went out to eat, I got a milk shake and we watched the late showing of the new Spiderman movie in 3D.  (The 3D is totally worth it on this movie)  Now, one important thing of interest to note is that in Ireland, the Irish celebrate the 4th of July.  Greg was actually a bit surprised by the depth to which the celebration extended beyond simply going out to the pub for a drink to celebrate.

We took the day off, had a relaxing meal at one of our favorite pubs and then headed into Castlebar (the nearest city with a movie theater).  However, it was in this “time-off” that I had a major realization about the connection between Nationalism and Communitas, and it is all thanks to The Amazing Spider-Man.

So what is communitas, you might be asking? The best way to explain it to people who grow up in a Western culture is to say it is that feeling in which your sense of self is fully united with your sense of community.  It is a moment in which your sense of individuality is overwhelmed by a strong feeling of community.  Communitas is in essence community spirit, but a sense of community spirit which deeply resonates within you.  It is found in those moments in which you deeply connect with others because you know in that moment you and a those other people are experiencing almost exactly the same thing.  Anthropologists describe this happening in rites of passage, pilgrimages, and moments of community action.

Communitas is the feeling of oneness, togetherness, solidarity, and deep sacred connection with others.  Now the community can be as small as your cohort growing up or as large a nation.

What does this have to do with the Amazing Spider-Man?  Well, not to give any spoilers, during a particular scene I was flooded with a feeling of communitas.  It was actually a pretty profound moment for me because it was the first time I realized that that perticular feeling was communitas.  I’ve had an intellectual understanding of the term for about four or five years now, and I’ve experienced the feeling numerous times throughout my life without putting a word to it.  Experiencing during a movie, and realizing it, however, opened up a large can of worms for me.

Wow I just felt communitas during a movie…

1) If communitas can be generated, felt, and shared through movies …  then it is possible to share through all forms of digital media I bet.  This reminded me of my friend Jacob Oliver’s honors thesis about music and how people today have come to experience as sense connection to particular pieces of music which were really important to them really hitting home to their situation in the moment in time.  Movies do this as well.  Like it or not, movies, TV, and music connected all of us digitally long before the internet.

2)   Nationalism…  Sitting in a theater in Western Ireland, in a room full of 50 or more people, Gerg and I were the only Americans.  I am not always the most patriotic person, but in that moment, I was an American.  I was filled with patriotic pride and an overwhelming sense of connection to America and Americans.  I argue this is how communitas functions to make self-identity and group-identity unite absolutely, even if it is only for one moment.  The implications for humans as a social species cannot be underestimated.

However, beyond the importance of communitas to community building and group solidarity, I was also taken back at the notion of me feeling communitas while watching  Spiderman and people in New York City.  I was born and raised in rural Arkansas about as far from New York City as you can get and still be in the United States.  Both distance and culture separate me from these people.   I’ve never been to New York City outside of the airport, either.  And currently, I am not even in the United States.

Yet somehow, I was able to experience this deep-connection from Ireland.   Communitas at the national level was never something I considered before that moment, yet as I finished watching the movie it was staring me straight in the face.  Isn’t national communitas exactly what the nation as a whole had experienced in the wake of September 11th?

3)  Spiderman is a hero in American mythology.  Ok, ok… I knew this before but the profoundness of Spiderman as American mythology did not truly set-in until I realized there was a spiritual dimension beyond the “moral of the story.”  For me at least, “real” mythology has to not only guide its readers to culturally specific ideals and heroic behavior, but it also has to unite those readers on a deeper, spiritual level.  I suppose, in essence I am saying that while mythology from all over the world has lessons to teach us, it is the culturally specific mythology which holds the most power over the reader.  It gives us the cultural script of what it means to be heroic and villainous.  The aspect of mythology lost on many Modern Americans, is that the hero does not have to have actually lived to be REAL.  For a myth to truly be American, it must then speak to American culture and adhere to the Religion of America.

The concept of the Religion of America is something Religious Studies Professors and Theologians have put forward and it is something that my mind has toyed with since I took a course on Religion in the US with Dr. Jim Dietrich and Dr. Julia Winden-Fey.  The idea is that beyond the formalized religions and denominations of the United States, there is a separate and distinct Religion of America which is very much tied up with patriotism and matters of state.  The idea is that despite the separation of (a particular) Church and State, politicians, the government, and public events at large still very much acknowledge a form of spirituality which embodies American ideals and is devoid of the sectarianism that might indicate divine preference for one faith over the other.  In other words, the God of America is the God of liberty, equality, freedom of choice, and responsibility of freedom, but this God is no less Mormon than Catholic, no less Christian than Muslim.

Spiderman is an American hero and his story is a heroic epic of American mythology.  When his story is told well, it is capable of inspiring people to achieve the heroic ideals he stands for and it strengthens our connection to one another.

Questions to Ponder:

Did other people experience communitas while watching Spiderman?

Was this feeling of communitas limited to Americans?  How does nationality influence media’s ability to provoke communitas? 

What role does communitas play in social health?  Do moments of communitas impact our sense of social well-being? If so, what are the ramifications for our mental and physical health?

Where do people experience communitas on the national level?  What events, experiences, and media provoke communitas on such a grand-scale?

If you have an experience of communitas you’d like to share with me please feel free to email me at slyeager@smu.edu  I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences.

Also, please take a second and respond to my poll:

Ireland 2012

Preliminary Fieldwork/Pilot Study in Western Ireland 

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, this summer I am going to be in Ireland conducting an 8 week preliminary investigation of Irish Folk Medicine (a subject which is far more complex than that description might led you to think).  Irish folk healing insects my two academic areas of specialization medical anthropology and the anthropology of religion.   I am particularly interested in the impact of belief (as an action/neurophysiological process) and beliefs (body of knowledge) on wellness- health maintenance and illness recovery.  I hope to investigate this in the context of Irish folk medicine.  So in short, this 8 week long trip to Ireland will hopefully let me meet and discuss my topic with Irish anthropologists and folklorists; interview Irish people about their experiences and knowledge of Irish folk medicine; determine an appropriate location/locations for me to conduct my research; and establish the significance of my research within the local context.  Here’s hoping!

UpDate on Graduate School Progess

I just completed my 2nd year of graduate school.  I passed my comprehensive masters exam and graduated with my Masters of Arts in Cultural Anthropology.  This fall I am continuing in the Southern Methodist University’s PhD program for Cultural Anthropology.

(I am at the point where I am still having to remind myself I actually have my masters and then proceeding to do a little happy dance)

Massive hurdle overcome, I am currently preparing to go into the field and conduct my preliminary fieldwork.  This means two months in Ireland beginning my hands on research.  The healers I plan to work with don’t advertise to the public or have their numbers listed in the yellow pages so this summer’s research is going to begin by covering a lot of ground and investigating the project’s potential.

I am both incredibly excited and nervous at the same time.

I was very lucky to receive funding from an endowment to the Anthropology Department at SMU for my summer research.  I have my expedited IRB all but approved.  (I only needed to add three small details).  But somehow, I still feel like there is some key piece of advice or preparation I am missing.  However, I am guessing this is just nerves and anticipation.  After all, I was lucky enough to have an entire course of anthropology methods this spring.

One more week of preparation….  I leave June 6 and I plan to keep my blog up to date with photos and posts about my research while it is happening.

Wish Me Luck!