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Thinking Like an Anthropologist: Understanding Culture and Society with Social Science

Session B: July 20 - July 30, 2021
9:30 a.m. - 12 p.m.
Philosophy and Society
Sarah Carson

Anthropology is the study of people, past and present. It “makes the strange familiar” by seeking to understand different cultures and “makes the familiar strange” by encouraging us to think more critically about our own. In this introductory course, we will explore cultural, genetic, and linguistic variation across time and space and reflect on what makes us human. We will survey anthropological concepts, methods, and case studies, and learn about the discipline’s important applications for policy, understanding history, and even solving crime. What can we infer about social and cultural values from a candy wrapper, or the symbols on a tombstone? Students will gain an understanding of research methods including participant observation, interviews, discourse analysis, and analysis of material culture, and have an opportunity to conduct their own ethnographic research and reflect on the social changes wrought by COVID-19. To "think like an anthropologist" means seeking to understand other points of view while learning something about ourselves.

This class will be held synchronously, and students will be asked to access websites outside of Penn’s website, such as external museum websites. The below schedule and assignments are subject to change.

Goals for Students

  • To learn about different ways to study people, culture, and society to help solve problems and understand the world
  • To gain an understanding of quantitative and qualitative social science research methods and when to use them
  • To reflect on cultural differences and alternative perspectives and connect with others
  • To encourage deep and critical thinking about the “ethnographic experiences” we encounter every day
  • To be exposed to areas of research, practical applications, and possible careers within anthropology

Possible Assignments

Independent Ethnographic Research Projects
After learning about the ethnographic method during week one, students will be expected to think anthropologically and choose a social activity from their own life to participate in, observe, and reflect on over the weekend and during week two. Students may choose to focus on how an activity and the meaning of “social” has changed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the final course period on day 9, students will present a description of their topic, its significance, and their critical reflections on the experience as an ethnographic vignette. Students will have 7-10 minutes to present for the class.

Field Journals
Students will develop their observational, interview, and analytical skills and practice ethnographic writing strategies such as “thick description” with short field note-taking and reporting exercises that may take place within or outside of class hours. Possible topics include:

  • Observing an outdoor area. Students will note their observations with prompts such as: What is the layout and purpose of the area? Describe the surrounding buildings and landscape. What people are present in the space and how are they using it? What are they doing, wearing, etc.? How are they moving and interacting?
  • Choosing a friend or family member to observe and anonymously describe. What makes their voice distinctive? What are their physical features? Clothing and personal style choices? Do they have any unique mannerisms or tendency towards a certain affect?
  • Identifying a friend, family member, or acquaintance who has experienced living in multiple countries or regions within the U.S. and conducting a short interview with them about their cross-cultural experiences. International students may take this as an opportunity for self-reflection instead. What has been most surprising about variations in daily practices? What things (food, lifestyle, language) are most different? What is similar? Have they experienced moments of cultural misunderstanding?
  • Room map analysis. Consider an area of home to write a short report about in the style of an archaeological report. If there was a natural disaster today that wiped out all humans, what could alien archaeologists in hundreds of years infer from the room and the objects in it? Describe their findings and the insights they gain from them.

Assigned course readings will be posted on Canvas. Students will be expected to complete and reflect on assigned readings, as noted below. We will engage with these readings in class discussions, so completing them and their associated reading guides, when applicable, is critical. Note: readings are subject to change and may be truncated to better fit the virtual class format.

Virtual “Field Trips”

Students will have the chance to virtually explore the British Museum and the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology independently as well as through a guided virtual tour of selected galleries. Students will learn about material culture analysis and then gain in-depth experience by participating in an Object Biography exercise with an object of their own.

Cemeteries are a living space within a community as well as a resting place for the dead. Funerary architecture offers cultural and historical insights about social identity and reflects the ideals of the buried and their descendants. Students will be introduced to cemetery analysis, iconography, and the significance of cemeteries and their notable ‘residents’ to their surrounding communities through a guided virtual tour of selected cemeteries and a related independent assignment.

Day 1: Orientation
What is anthropology and what do anthropologists do?

  • Course and discipline overview – four fields, cultural relativism
  • Qualitative and quantitative research methods
  • Introduction to college-level reading

In-class activity: Pile sort

Day 2: Cultural anthropology & ethnography
Readings: Excerpt, Argonauts of the Western Pacific – Bronislaw Malinowski
Excerpt, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society – Lila Abu-Lughod

  • Cultural variation
  • Discussion: rules and rituals, norms, taboos, and traditions (e.g. food, holidays, life stages)

In-class activity: Kinship chart

  • Ethnography - positionality, context, access, hallmarks

In-class activity: Consider the history of Orientalism and “the Other” within anthropology and write a “best practices” guide to thoughtful ethnography

Day 3: Archaeology and Material Culture – Museum “field trip”
Readings: National Geographic Space Archaeology video and article
“A Guide to Object Biography” – Christina Hodge
“An Introduction to Archaeology” video
Optional Readings: “Interpreting Objects and Collections” – Susan Pearce
“Mind in Matter” – Jules Prown

  • Studying material culture: benefits and limitations
  • How might archaeology help us think critically about heritage, history, and who owns the past?

In-Class Activity: Virtual museum tour and Object Biography exercise

Day 4: Biological Anthropology
Assignment in lieu of readings: Field Journal Activity

  • Human biological variation and environmental effects (e.g. sickle cell and malaria, epigenetics)
  • Evolution and understanding our family tree
  • The concept of race
  • How do we address the materiality of race without reifying it as a biological truth?
  • Case Study: Albinism’s biological and social effects

In-class video: Race: The Power of an Illusion pt 1

Day 5: Urban Anthropology, Space and Place
Reading: Chapter 2, The Death and Life of Great American Cities – Jane Jacobs

  • Chicago School
  • Maps
  • Native Land website exploration

In-class video: West Philadelphia Landscape Project “The Buried River”
In-Class Activity: Observation activity
Time built in to discuss students’ ethnographic research projects in more depth
In-Class Activity: Room map analysis

Day 6: Linguistic Anthropology and discourse analysis
Reading: Selection from Language Myths – eds. Laurie Bauer & Peter Trudgill
Suggested listening: The Allusionist podcast

  • Linguistic Variation and Change
  • Language and Power
  • Language History and Mysteries

In-Class Activity: Dissecting the media

Day 7: Cemetery analysis – Cemetery “field trip”
Reading: Alpha to Omega: Introductory Field Guide to Decoding Cemetery Symbols – Kurt Kohlstedt
Listening: 99% Invisible podcast episode 258: The Modern Necropolis

  • Cemeteries as cultural landscapes
  • Death ritual and symbolism

In-Class Activity: Virtual cemetery tour and analysis

Day 8: Applying Anthropology! – Featuring Guest Speaker from Penn Anthropology Dept studying applied anthropology if possible (2020 guest: Sara Rendell, MD PhD candidate)
Diverse anthropological jobs, applications, ethical issues, and case studies

  • What is applied anthropology? (e.g. forensic anthropology, medical anthropology, business anthropology, technology applications such as user experience research)
  • How do cultural value judgements and colonialism continue to shape our lives? (e.g. what counts as “art,” beauty standards, representation)

In-Class Video Medical Anthropology, Measles and Vaccines or similar about COVID-19
In-Class Activity: Ethical issue case studies

Day 9: Presentation of projects, reflections, wrap-up
Students will have 7-10 minutes to present their “ethnographic vignette” to the class