Continuing with the last post, I’ve decided to share this Prezi from the last iteration of my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class. The topic of this one is Culture—I put it together to use at the beginning of our second week of class, as a point of departure for a discussion of this key anthropological concept. “Culture” carries a lot of baggage, and there have been many not unreasonable arguments for abandoning it as a conceptual tool in our research methods. However, I don’t think that an introductory class is a viable place for resolving those arguments. For better or worse, “culture” has become anthropology’s most widespread contribution to popular discourse. One of my goals in this class meeting was to provide students with a more historically-grounded yet up-to-date perspective on “culture,” its role in contemporary anthropology, and how our use of the term differs from vernacular / mass media glosses in fundamental ways, despite the occasional appearance of similarity. Ultimately, this is one of those intro-level topics that is easier to address in a seminar-style conversation than in a purely lecture format, because it’s extremely helpful to be able to gauge the students’ background knowledge and their reactions to the ideas that I’m presenting. It’s one thing to encounter blank stares in a lecture hall, and another entirely to have a student ask a question or make a remark that provides an opening for re-presenting the material in a way that may be more accessible. Some of the best breakthroughs are spontaneous, that way.
Anyway, this Prezi helps set the stage for that discussion, but it is not at all a stand-alone presentation. Some notes:
- The first video, now missing, was a shorter clip I prepared based on an already-existing YouTube clip of the film Cosmic Voyage, which is itself a sort of remake of an older film called Powers of Ten (also available on YouTube). The clip introduces interstellar distance and scale in a more intuitively understandable way than naked charts or numbers can manage—also it features Morgan Freeman as narrator, which offers some measure of reassurance in the face of dawning awareness of the sheer enormity and emptiness that surrounds our fragile planet (and no, I’m not being overly dramatic. You’ll have to watch the video to see for yourself).
- That whole first section is intended to set the human experience in perspective. Yes, anthropology is about humans, but I think it’s helpful to remember that the natural world we inhabit existed for a long time without us, and that all we have ever experienced or explored is but an infinitesimal fraction of the universe. Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar does a fine job of showing how humans are still noobs at this whole existence thing, but I recently discovered this fantastic resource and I’ll probably incorporate it next time around–perhaps as an “assigned reading.” My inner nerd just loves this stuff.
- The next section continues to contextualize the human experience by asking that old riddle: what sets us apart from other beings? I assigned a couple of readings that dealt with this topic in greater detail, specifically by presenting updated research from biological anthropology about the amazing intellectual capacities of non-human primates. These four short video clips help to drive the point home—it’s one thing to read about a bonobo playing games, and another entirely to see it handle Pacman better than I could when I was a kid. The students reacted pretty strongly to these videos—they prompted more discussion than the preceding section.
- Culture as collective memory — this idea for an analogy sprang from some other writing projects I was working on at the time, but I think it’s a useful thought exercise. One of the things that does set us apart from other beings is the enormous reserve of knowledge that we gain from social life. Language, for example, is incredibly powerful and useful, and we get it from being always already embedded in society. In a simple, off-hand way, we can imagine culture as being the accumulated, often anonymous, collective memory of our social group(s). Just as our individual subjectivity is largely shaped, though not entirely determined, by our individual memory, so are we shaped by the knowledge we gain from social belonging. We discussed both the instrumental and symbolic/meaning-focused aspects of culture at this point. Note that I’m not setting these up as contrasts/opposites: meaning is intrinsically ‘instrumental’ in its own way (this harkens back to the previous week, locating anthropology within the academy, and the discussion about the value of humanistic knowledge or a liberal arts education, more generally. The question could just as easily be: what’s the value of economics or “making a living” if life has no greater meaning or joy?)
- From this point on, the presentation draws more heavily on outside resources—assigned readings and questions that I sent them before our meeting, to prompt them to start thinking about. We talked a bit about earlier conceptualizations of culture within anthropology, and the more recent shift to practice: not so much on what people believe, but on what they do.
- Final note: The odd table of images here is the product of a sudden inspiration to search Google images for “beauty” in multiple languages, and then posting the top result. As you can see, almost invariably the results were images of women—often apparently from makeup advertisements or for similar products. I only had about ten minutes to put this experiment together, but I think the results were interesting. It gave me a point of departure for talking about the impact of globalization, e.g. the ubiquity of fashion and the overbearing influence of Western social norms on local ideas of beauty elsewhere. At the same time, there are noticeable differences between the results, corresponding to local linguistic-identity markers. (I attempted a similar experiment with searches for “dinner” in different languages, seen in the second matrix of images)
Altogether, this was a fun class meeting to put together. The Prezi is embedded below, or available here.