Friday, January 21, 2011

thinking like an anthropologist

You can expect a lot of teaching-related posts in the near future. I'm teaching Intro to Cultural Anthropology and Intro to Biological Anthropology this semester. I used to teach these classes MWF, but I've switched to TTh. The TTh sessions are 100 minutes, so I need to break up the classtime and avoid too much lecture. Even if my students would patiently sit through 100 minutes of lecture, I'm not sure my voice would hold out; I have 3 100-min classes back-to-back (6 hours straight of teaching, with just 20 minutes in between each class).

Wednesday night, fueled by desperation for an activity that supported this week's theme of "What is Anthropology?" in my Intro to Cultural class, I came up with the following. I call it "Thinking Like an Anthropologist". First, I gave a lecture on how the anthropological approach differs from that of sociology, psychology, political science, etc., etc. Then, I give them this handout:

Activity: Thinking Like an Anthropologist

Divide into groups of 3 or 4. Please make sure you are sitting across from each other, not all in a row, so you can see and hear each other. Read the case studies below and think about how an anthropologist might approach them. How would an anthropologist's approach be different from that of another researcher (an economist, ecologist, etc.)?

For each case study, answer the following questions:

1) Which community(s) involved in this controversy/event could the anthropologist study? (Who are the people affected or involved in the case study?)

2) What specific research questions should the anthropologist ask within those communities? How might the knowledge gained help solve the problem or shape responses to it?

The Amazon Rainforest is threatened by development. As regional population grows, farmers are clearing the forest for land to feed their families. Large businesses also have interests in the region, especially mining and cattle-ranching. Some local indigenous communities have fought to keep outsiders off their lands. Government agencies are divided in their approach to the shrinking rainforest, since it is both an important environmental region and a critical economic asset. Brazil has suggested a giant nature reserve to keep all development out of the region, but much of the ongoing deforestation is already illegal.

Public health officials are concerned that modern patterns of transportation and travel could lead to disastrous epidemics of new diseases. Such diseases could originate anywhere, but many diseases begin in farming communities, when an animal virus mutates and infects humans. Disease can then spread through tourists, migrant workers, traveling businesspeople, visits to family in other regions, etc. Once introduced into an airport or major port city, the spread of disease can be difficult to contain.

In 2005, the city of New Orleans was 80% flooded by Hurricane Katrina. The after-effects of the hurricane are still felt in the city. While many people suffered losses, the poorest residents were the hardest hit, and recovery remains slow in many of these neighborhoods. Many government and non-governmental agencies continue to rebuild New Orleans, but there are barriers to full recovery, including bitter political arguments over how money should be spent, and whether biases against the poor and residents of color shaped responses to the crisis.

Before letting them loose on the case studies, I gave them an example of another research project (one relevant to the spread of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa), and how I would answer the questions I had posed using that example. Then, they had a good idea of what I was looking for, and it eased them into the activity.

The students discussed these case studies for a good 20 minutes, and almost all of the conversations were intense and on-point. I was impressed that they put so much effort and thought into the topic, especially since there are 70 students in the class, and I can't be everywhere at once. After they had had time in small groups, we discussed the cases as a class. I wrote on the board the subject communities they suggested, and then we discussed the research questions that would be appropriate to each of them. The students did a great job in thinking through the complexities of the problems, and recognizing that research in a wide web of inter-connecting communities could be relevant to the problem at hand. For example, students suggested that anthropologists could work with U.S. consumers of items produced from the Amazon, to understand what factors influence the consumption of materials with high environmental costs.

The activity began in desperation, but I think it's a keeper.

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