Quandaries (about quandaries)

Before returning to the academic world, I fancied myself a “writer” and/or “social critic” of sorts. Though, of course, this was more of a theoretical stance than a practical one. I loved to sit around write down little fragments that were maybe unique in some abstract, pathological sense. My A.D.D. looked alright on paper, in other words. I could even be convincing.

I had literally zero conception of “social science” at the time, nor did I care to learn about that or any other official discipline. It was not until I got iTunes University and downloaded a UC Berkeley lecture from the archeologist Rosemary Joyce called The History of Anthropological Thought that it really sunk in just how relevant the social sciences were to my interests. Joyce discusses the philosophies behind different anthropological theories and methods from the late 19th century to now, and absolutely kicked me into full academic rigor. Or so I thought.

This, my first introduction to anthropology, turned out to delude me further into strictly philosophical lines of thinking. I took the history of anthropological thought to be the history of anthropology, and even more problematically, as the way to be anthropologically engaged – to study the philosophies of anthropologists.

                                                  I WAS SO WRONG

As I further approached the end of my undergraduate career, I realized just how distorted I was – reading books that I hardly understood, disregarding the importance of actually ethnography, drawing loose connections to and conclusions about human behavior from discursive subject matter and generally putting the cart before the oxen (that is – waxing anthropological before knowing anthropology).

All this premature postulating hasn’t resulted in a terrible GPA or anything like that (it turns out that my bullshit is entirely worthy of a BA), but it has caused me to be hyper-cautious about what I call “legitimate social science” versus essentially playing “fantasy anthropology,” or  “reading the work of theorists and foregoing the real work involved in learning about .”

Social scientists obviously are aware of the dangers of their discipline – that people like me come along and learn a few things about Levi-Strauss or Bourdieu and think they know all there is to know about anthropology. This is presumably not as much of a problem in hard sciences where speculation is not so easy to give a persuasive sheen (though this still happens with surprising frequency). But social science is a different thing altogether – its subjective nature often means that speculation is a necessary stepping stone to more solid theoretical footing.

I first saw anthropology as a perfect mixture of theory and practice, at least that’s what I said (while ignoring praxis nearly entirely). My writing abilities arguably made the problem even worse, because I could articulate things just eloquently enough for those unfamiliar with the discipline to be convinced. It is now at this late hour of my evening-as-undergrad that I finally admit my complete dearth of knowledge about the underpinnings of anthropology, such as kinship structure, religious/ritual practice, gender conceptions and so on. I have knowledge of them, I can explain what they are, and even give a few examples. Maybe that’s all that is expected of an undergrad, but I doubt it.

In future posts, I hope to describe my journey into the practice social science (anthropology, sociology, and otherwise), not just memorizing statistics like a sports fanatic in the bleachers, but doing the work that goes into being social scientist.

 

Kurt Vonnegut on Anthropology in Slaughterhouse-Five

I read Slaughterhouse-Five over break, and this excellent quote made my night.

The Anthropology Cap

I think about my education sometimes. I went to the University of Chicago for awhile after the Second World War. I was a student in the Department of Anthropology. At that time they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody.

They may be teaching that still.

Another thing they taught was that no one was ridiculous or bad or disgusting. Shortly before my father died, he said to me, ‘You know – you never wrote a story with a villain in it.’

I told him that was one of the things I learned in college after the war.

View original post