Anthropology: An eternal journey for deeper understanding

While reading Lily King’s eloquent novel, Euphoria, I found myself frequently trying to discern which of the characters had the ‘best’ anthropological research style. I do not come from an anthropology background, so my reasoning was primarily based on what felt the most ‘right’, the style that respected the native peoples most and was most likely to lead to sound, lasting results.

I noticed that Bankson, a typical Englishman, seems to draw on his background in biology when conducting anthropology research. He prefers to observe, as if trying not to disturb the waters, and maintain as ‘objective’ as possible. But, it seems inherently futile to try to be an objective onlooker because our own experiences shape the kinds of things that we notice. On the other hand, Fen’s anthropological research style reflects his desire to live more like the people he is studying and so he fully immerses himself in the native cultures. In essentially throwing himself into the different cultures, Fen does not treat the local peoples’ way of life with respect. Perhaps from the local people’s perspective, it could feel as though a foreigner is intruding in their customs. Nell’s approach seems to be in the middle between Bankson and Fen’s styles. Not only does Nell assist in childbirths and invite local women into her house, but Nell also shows Sanjo and the other local men how to use her typewriter. In doing so, she develops relationships with the local people and teaches them about her own culture and way of life. In terms of anthropological research efficacy, on the one hand, it is good that Nell is engaging with locals and learning their language because she gains a deeper understanding of the people. However, on the other hand, in developing relationships with locals and introducing them to Nell’s own culture, there is a possibility that her results may contain some sort of bias or skew. That being said, if it is impossible to be completely objective when studying people, how does an anthropological researcher ensure that his or her results are valid? What does it mean to have valid anthropological results that accurately portray a community? Even more, what right does an outsider have to tell a community’s story?

Still, most startling about the characters’ anthropological research styles is the treatment of culture as a possession, a sort of ‘prize’ one can obtain. For instance, when Nell describes her experience after the first two months of research in a community she says, “at that moment the place feels entirely yours” (p. 50). Later in the novel Nell mentions that she is trying to “piece this culture together” (p.181). A culture is not a commodity. It is not a single entity that one can somehow ‘obtain’ or ‘possess’. In reflecting on this section of the novel, I thought of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s, author of the novel Americanah, TedTalk “The Danger of a Single Story”, in which Adichie describes how troubling it can be when someone thinks they know all there is to know about a subject from the information they have. I believe there is tremendous power in humility and appreciating that there is always more to learn on any given subject.

This being said, I do believe that Anthropology as a discipline is incredibly important and studying cultures around the world has tremendous value. However, as we discussed in class, it is also crucial that anthropological researchers conduct their work on the terms of the people they are studying, accept their own personal bias, and appreciate that their work will never truly be ‘complete’ since one can never truly fully understand the intricacies of a culture. Rather, anthropologists are fortunate enough to be on an eternal quest to learn from their peers and people around the world.

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