Spending a morning as an anthropologist

This morning I sat in on a seminar about research and anthropology intended to get Danish high school students interested in anthropology. My mother, who is high school teacher, brought her students from Aarhus to Copenhagen on a couple of days of excursion, and in-between seeing the parliament, the foreign ministry and bunches of other important stuff, they also had time to swing by and hear more about what social science research is all about.

The reason that the anthropologists are interested in having these students visit is that with the new Danish high school reform, a new inter-disciplinary subject called “Cultural Analysis and Understanding” has appeared, and this opens up the anthropological project to a new group of potentially interested students.

Some of the researchers at the department of anthropology are writing a textbook for the new subject and naturally, they’d like to write about cultural issues that may interest the pupils. So, naturally, they took this opportunity not only to tell about anthropology, but also ask the students to answer the question “how can anthropology be interesting for high school students?”

It is always fun to hear anthropologists explain what anthropology is. And I think the three chosen anthropologists, Kirsten Becker (whom the department have hired as a “development consultant” to engage in exactly this kind of activities, promoting anthropology not only to prospective students, but also to businesses of various sorts), Cecilie Rubow and Mikkel Rytter, did a decent job explaining.

So what does an anthropological researcher do?

She can examine just about anything, just as long as she looks at it with regards to social relations and cultural values. It is in some way the quintessential cross-disciplinary subject, since any research field that is based on social relations and cultural values (whether directly or indirectly) can be studied anthropologically. It all emanates from a basic sense of wonder: “What ARE they doing?”

The central element of anthropology is operationalizing that wonder into questions that can be asked and answered through specific methods, and the creativity of the anthropological practice is closely related to inventing good questions to ask and finding creative ways of answering them. The central anthropological methods is participant observation – the tricky position of both being distant, observing and taking notes while actively participating and learning.

It requires living with and among the groups of people that you want to study. As Mikkel Rytter put it: “You develop and answer the questions you’ve asked yourself by hanging out and hanging on.” You attempt to “stick” to the group of people you’re interested in.

And he told the story of how he had heard about a wedding in the community of Pakistani immigrants in Denmark (the group he was studying), but since he didn’t know the lucky couple well enough to receive an invitation, he then had to ask his friends to invite him to the wedding.

So basically he invited himself, and that’s what anthropologists do all the time. We are, as somebody once quite elegantly put it, “professional strangers.”

Rytter also had fun elevating the stereotype of the annoyingly inquisitive child to a hero figure for anthropologists. Constantly asking “why is this?” “why would you do that?” “how would you prefer it to be it?” “when was this?” “can you help me understand?” is quite characteristic of the anthropologist. In essence, we are extremely rude though we try to avoid appearing that way. That’s what anthropologists mean when they talk about strategy: “how can I present myself in such a way that will allow me to ask tons of questions without getting kicked out for being nosy?”

With this semi-brief introduction to the subject, the anthropologists asked the students to go into smaller groups to perform the first three steps of anthropology: Wonder, question, and fret about methods.

They did so under the cool guidance of the three anthropologists, each with their special theme: Ritual and religion (Rubow), Integration (Rytter) and the Body (Becker). And each group would then turn in a coloured piece of paper containing their wonder and ideas on how to use it.

Generally, the students came up with big questions over big areas, and there was a clear tendency to be as inclusive as possible: as many age groups, as much geographical diversity, as broad a context as possible. And it became the task of the anthropologists to show the students how the empirical ambition of this wondering could be tuned down by focusing the questions a bit more and still keep most of the wonder.

Naturally, most of the questions the students came up with were close to questions and experiences that they themselves have had and considered.
Most of the groups discussing religion had focused on the conflict around secularity and religion, and how it seems that most young Danes today are semi-atheist, yet still go through confirmation. How does tradition and faith interact? What does it mean to believe in something? What about creationism – how can you believe in that?

The groups discussing the body asked questions which very much related to themselves: How do people start smoking? Why do some people work out all the time? What kind of bodily ideal do they have? What meanings do people attach to body hair? Is that another generational thing considering how “all our parents found it cool to be totally hairy”? How does body hair affect sexuality? How does the way we play as children affect how we act when we grow up?

The groups discussing integration found themes containing no small matter of reflexivity: What does material possessions and their influence of quality of life mean to immigrants in Denmark? How does Danish party culture segregate immigrants from the ethnically Danish youth? When are you Danish? Is it possible to be “well-integrated” in Denmark while keeping your cultural and religious roots? And what does integration even mean?

The anthropologists then asked counter-questions in order to show how trickily complex the anthropological undertaking can be: How would you study Danes’ relationship to body hair? Study them at the pool? It is actually difficult to go up and initiate a conversation with people when you’re swimming or showering. How would you figure out what role secularization plays between first and second generation Muslim immigrants in Denmark? Do you have hypothesis that you want to confirm? If so, you better make that clear in advance as well.

Curiously enough, the three anthropologists were so caught up with all the wonder, the questions and the methods that they almost completely forgot to talk about the analysis and the knowledge that they actually produce. Maybe that is the less sexy part which the students will have to figure out for themselves…

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