Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Anthropology, How Do I Love Thee?

Let me count the ways.

Rex over at Savage Minds issued a call to the anthropology community to pen (or type) a love letter to the discipline. I'm slightly over Rex's seven-day deadline but I figured late roses are better than those never sent. Mine is a personal story, and I've gone back and forth as to whether it should be shared, but here it is.

In high school, I was determined to be a scientist. Of the lab coat variety. I could frequently be found in the science department offices, and developed a close relationship with the department chair, Sue Appel. I ate lunch with her regularly, I helped with her filing, I even fed her hissing cockroaches on occasion. She helped me unravel the mysteries of genetics, and then she retired. Her replacement, though a fine teacher, could not replace her as a mentor. And as I moved through chemistry and physics, though the interest was there, my attention was occupied more by questions of identity and behavior. How are we shaped by our relationships with each other and our environments? These questions were driven by a deeper desire to know myself: I was absolutely wrapped up in the connections we have with each other and our world.

During senior year, my high school offered a social science research elective. At the time, my school was experimenting with replacing our standard bell system with music during passing. There was concern over the choice of music, and many felt that the change was disruptive. The system was reverted shortly back to the standard bell system. I was outraged. We hadn't tested the new system properly—the administration had reverted back to the standard system because a few teachers complained. I was determined to find evidence to switch the system back or to prove that it was disruptive. What was the relationship between mood and music and productivity? This became my project. I got the administration to agree to a trial period to let me test and observe. I trained participant observers and assigned them to classrooms. I surveyed teachers and students. I even got other schools involved in my tests. The project won an honorable mention in the Solomon Smith Barney Quality of Life competition (1999), and I was hooked. I would always need to know—and to expose—these sorts of connections. (FYI: Though I had evidence to show that certain types of music might increase productivity, the correlation was not strong enough to enact a change.)

Freshman year in college, I found myself sitting in Introduction to Anthropology. The questions that driven me to the social science elective began to turn inward. I come from a legacy of immigrants. My grandfather was an indentured servant. And it's likely that my maternal great-grandparents were as well. From what I've been able to piece together, it is probable that these distant ancestors left India via Goa and journeyed to Trinidad in the early 20th-century—the practice of indentured labor was not abolished in the Caribbean completely until the 1920s, and may have continued under the radar after that. (Trinidad did not gain her sovereignty until 1692.) My parents continued this tradition of immigration, bringing our family to New York in the early nineties. The political state of the country and personal economics kept me from the island of my origins, and I spent a long time forgetting this part of my history

But then, I discovered—or rediscovered?—cricket. I also found the writing of CLR James and VS Naipaul and began to question this part of my story—what was my history, and how did it fit with the person I was then? The person I would become? I started to look at the relationships contained within immigrant communities, and how they function to link immigrants to their histories and establish authority in their host country. So it was that I found myself sitting in Kevin Birth's Peoples of the Caribbean. I was driven by a need to know and this was the only way I would satisfy that curiosity. Kevin, a psychological anthropologist, pointed me to Peter Wilson, Gregory Bateson, Jacques Lacan, and Franz Fanon—the self, schismogenesis, muddles, and masks melded to become my anthropological legacy.

Durkheim and Mauss, whom I have explored at length on AiP, added to this complex milieu. Lawrence Hirschfeld, another psychological anthropologist, would give me the tools to discuss race and theory of mind, and would guide my questions of identity to the digital space. My relationship with anthropology has been fueled by this quest to know—both myself, and the world around me, and to understand how the intricate and tenuous connections that bind us, actually work to shape us. This desire to know has shaped Anthropology in Practice, with the hope that I can inspire others to ask similar questions.

Anthropology, I love you because you've allowed me to discover the world on my own terms. You've allowed me to find a history I thought lost, and to inspire others to look within as I have. I love you because you bring together so many ways of knowing, from so many disciplines, and you weave them together into a brilliant narrative to generate the human story.


  1. great post! i think we're all in a polygamous relationship with anthropology :)

  2. Anthropology sure seems to get around, no? ;)