why anthropology?

They say “start as you mean to go on.” An apt phrase for the start of a new year, but never quite accurate. After all, don’t many of us spend New Year’s Day hungover and eating all manner of bad food? Therefore, I find it best not to attach too much significance to the date. As I said in my last post, I don’t make resolutions. In the past, I’ve thought of the academic year more than the calendar year, and I prefer to use my birthday (31 October) to think of what I’ve “accomplished” in the intervening months.

That’s not to say there isn’t some value to setting a beginning and an end to a year using the traditional calendar year. Even people who have no intention of keeping a New Year’s resolution make them. It can be symbolic, or at least a starting off point. With that in mind, I do plan to do my best to make 2012 a memorable one.

Most of this year will revolve around obtaining my master’s degree, and that is where I’d like to focus this post. Ever since I decided I wanted to study anthropology, I’ve gotten a lot of mixed responses, mostly confused and/or blank expressions. What is anthropology, and why am I studying it?

It’s easy to go onto, say, wikipedia and look up what anthropology is, but that won’t tell you really what I’m doing studying it (for the first time) at the postgraduate level, and why I gave up everything to go back to school in pursuit of it. Perhaps it is indulgence on my part. Knowledge is power; knowledge is privilege. To receive an education for education’s sake or to pursue a discipline simply because it interests me is a luxury not everyone has, and I understand that. I do. But I don’t think what I’m doing has no value or merit.

There is something to be said for wanting to use what knowledge you do acquire to simply be a better person. And I honestly believe this degree will put me one step further in that direction. Will this set me on the path to a lucrative job? Chances are, not. Will it even assure me a job at the end? Debatable, especially in this economic climate. And yet when I feel the frustration from people who do not understand why I can’t go to school and learn something “useful” like business, accounting, medicine, or the like, I would like to point out a few things: that no jobs are certain anymore, and that anthropology is the kind of discipline that can inform all of these areas.

Do I want to become a professional anthropologist? To be honest, not really. Although the field has become broader and inward-looking, I still don’t have much of a desire to conduct fieldwork and take 10 years to get a book of my findings published. Nor do I particularly want to stay in academia, when I feel like so much good can be done with the tools I have honed as a student outside of universities and peer-reviewed journals. For a long time I’ve wanted to work in either the government or in an NGO doing policy research. I’d still like to, though most of these positions are in development work, and I am admittedly rather wary of the outcomes and motivations of many related agencies and aid work. I also don’t feel like this type of work is where my strength lies.

It took me a while to understand what really inspired me as an undergraduate and what continues to interest me in my own work, and that is the concept of collective or social memory. I find memory itself fascinating, on the individual level, but so much of what is behind our understanding of other cultures and behind politics is access to knowledge, which I see as related to memory. I wrote several papers on this as a double History & International Studies major with earnest (and rather pretentious) titles such as “The Algerian War in French Collective Memory”, “The Vichy Syndrome in Contemporary French Debate”, “The Dismantlement of Soviet Repression in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita“, and “Cicero As Defender of the Roman Republic”, the last one being the keystone of my studies as a History major. Historiography drew me to study ancient history, just as my work in political science courses often centered on the way memory played into identity. I see the two as inextricable — memory creates identity and vice versa. They play into each other.

How this led me to anthropology is not as obvious. Collective memory is not the first topic one thinks of in relation to the discipline, but it has a role to play. Some of the more interesting works I’ve read by ethnographers deal with the production of knowledge amongst different groups and the way this relates to heritage and identity. As I’ve said, memory is not explicitly named, but it’s implicit to a full understanding. In studying the discipline itself, I’m fascinated by its Victorian origins and the way certain anthropologists are portrayed to — and therefore remembered by — students such as myself.

I’m hoping to do my dissertation on the museum as a physical space for the production of collective memory. It’s not a groundbreaking idea — see, for example, any work done on memorialisation in war museums. I actually took the idea from prior visits to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Upon entering, visitors are given identity cards for people who experienced the Holocaust — not all survivors. These are mini ethnographies about individuals, and the booklets are integral to one’s emotional experience of the museum. Museums are linked with anthropology mostly through studies of ritualisation and religion. I want to focus my research locally, in the North West of England. At first my idea was to study an industrial-themed museum, as the legacy of industrialisation is so present where I live. However, I changed my mind and thought it would actually be just as interesting to study sport as identity — something I first touched on in a Sport & Globalization course I took as an undergraduate, when I wrote my final paper on “Globalization and the Paradox of English Football”. With the National Football Museum’s move to the Manchester city centre, in itself controversial, I believe I have my answer. Whether it will open in time for me to actually do my research has yet to be determined (in which case, I would most likely move my research to another theme). But sport is ripe for the production of collective memory, and museums are the space to perform what is created by visitors and curators alike.

The further along I get into my degree, the more excited I am by the prospect of all of my research. It hasn’t been easy, but the hard work only makes the outcome more rewarding. I will try to speak more regularly in this blog of my progress in my courses and my own research, so stayed tuned if you’re interested!

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