How to be an anthropologist in everyday life
This is a reflection on what I have learned from four years of studying at two different institutions, in two different countries, in the field of social and cultural anthropology. However, its main points are not supposed to be particularly academic. Instead, I am using my own interpretation of what I think ‘being an anthropologist’ means, in everyday life.
You can find practical tips, thought experiments, general advice, and my own musings in the text below. I hope you find it slightly educational or insightful. Not all anthropologists will agree with everything I say here, I’m sure, and that’s OK – I will be the first to admit that this is based mostly on my own personal ideas, from my first stretch of fieldwork, my general life experience so far, and, occasionally, a bit of academic referencing. I am definitely not an expert – I am still learning, and I hope that never changes!
If you can think of anything I’ve missed, or something else you would consider necessary in order to be an anthropologist in everyday life, please let me know in the comments section below.
Seeing the world with fresh eyes
This is a fun mind experiment and can also be useful if you want to refresh your perceptions of a familiar place – it could be your hometown, place of work or the city you’ve lived in for the last year (or four.)
Try to imagine you’ve just arrived.
Perhaps you’ve just got off the train, or the bus. Take a moment to collect yourself, your thoughts. Look around. Look at the faces moving around you. Look at the ceiling, or the sky. Listen to the soundscape.
Is there anything new? What’s the weather like?
Is there birdsong, or an interesting scent in the air?
Taking a moment to soak up the rays under a tree in Amsterdam 🙂
Perhaps you notice a street you’ve never walked down before. Explore it!
Maybe there’s a hidden garden, or a new monument, or a door asking to be opened.
You can also gain this feeling to a certain extent if you are living somewhere and a friend or relative comes to visit you for the first time. They will notice things you had forgotten, or overlooked. Try and see things through their eyes for a day, and you may gain a new appreciation for things that seemed commonplace or boring. Be a tourist for the day!
Googly eyes: Not required to see things with a fresh gaze, but a lot of fun!
Talk to strangers
Now before I get sued for encouraging you to make friends with a creepy stalker, I want to make one thing clear – you should always use your common sense and trust your gut feelings over anything you read on the internet when it comes to meeting strangers.
Now that disclaimer is out of the way – try it! Perhaps you’re shy, or feel awkward. We all do, sometimes. But imagine that you have to talk to people to figure out the answer to a problem. You need to investigate local reactions to the government’s latest policy, or a new advertising campaign, or public transport.
If you give yourself a mission, then it might feel a little bit easier to approach people. And if they don’t react well, then try again! The more you try this, the easier it will become. If you’ve travelled before, you may have noticed that sometimes, people are less scared to do this in less well-off countries than in our modernised, individualist, dog-eat-dog world. (OK, I know I’m generalising, which is exactly what an anthropologist is NOT supposed to do – but hey, I am basing this on my own personal experience, and that’s what I ‘ve experienced!)
That doesn’t mean that that is always the case though – and in fact, when you try talking to people around you, you might be amazed at who talks back!
I think that we have something we could learn from everyone we meet. It’s just whether we (and they) are receptive to it at any given moment, which sadly might be the only moment we get. The more we try to talk to each other, and the more we listen, the more we have the potential to learn. A great place to talk to strangers in a safe environment, where it’s seen as more socially acceptable and ‘normal’ is at music festivals. There’s something about being in a field with a lot of like-minded people with the sole purpose of enjoying yourself that makes it that much easier to open up to strangers, regardless of age, gender, etc. My friend Tom has written about extending the festival spirit into everyday life, and I would really recommend the read.
I would also like to add a caveat to this point, which is to learn to really listen. I read recently in Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages that we only listen to someone else on average for 17 seconds before we interrupt. Bear it in mind the next conversation you have, and really take a moment to listen – you may learn a lot more!
Everyone’s got a story, if only they had someone to listen. Sometimes you might not even be able to talk, but you can still share and communicate. I stayed in this family’s guesthouse in India and they invited me to share their meal despite having just met me, a memory I will cherish forever.
Try new things
This again is more apparent when you are travelling, but applies anywhere – there are always new opportunities around, if you really look.
Obviously sometimes we are limited by money, and time, and circumstances, but when the opportunity IS there – take it!
From a new genre of film, to a new food, to a different drink at the pub on Friday night – you might just find your new favourite, and if not, then you will at least learn a bit more about what you don’t like.
This particularly applies to experiences, by the way. And even if things go spectacularly wrong – you will have a new funny story to tell later down the line… Which brings me to the next point…
I completely understand that not everyone can go traveling for months at a time. Commitments, jobs, families, money, can all be barriers to that. However, even going to a different city in your country, or a different state, or neighbouring country for a weekend trip can bring you new adventures, new perspectives. Take any opportunity you can to go somewhere new and see something you haven’t seen before. And, my advice? Do it alone. You will almost never regret it, you will feel braver, and you will learn things about yourself, and the world at the same time. It is also easier to meet new people when you’re out of your comfort zone and not with friends already. So if the world presents an opportunity to go somewhere new, go for it! You don’t have to spend loads on hotels – try couchsurfing, put out some feelers to see if you have friends of friends who could put you up or show you around, or try Airbnb for a different experience!
Carry a notebook
And don’t just carry it – use it!
Write down tidbits from books, films, conversations. Recommendations, favourite quotes, your feelings on a particular day, doodles, scribbles. Use it as another thinking space.
This is a good tip too if your memory is bad, and helps with the ‘learning to listen’ point – if you write down what someone says to you, they know you are taking what they say on board – as long as you aren’t writing the entire time they are talking to you!
This can be a hard balance to get right, particularly if you are writing a lot down, as you would if you were carrying out an interview. Unfortunately the balance is something you just have to practice – and is something I definitely haven’t perfected yet by any means! For everyday purposes though, this is unlikely to be an issue.
You may also inadvertently look more professional/interesting if you always have a notebook… but that’s just my opinion 😉
This is similar to the previous point in terms of function. Documenting things is great for your own memories, and may also come in handy later if you come to write an article, want to demonstrate a point to a friend, or make a birthday card for someone special.
Maybe photography isn’t your strong point – that’s OK! Make mistakes, take more photos, develop your own style, and if you can, get prints too. They make photos much more interactive than being kept in a computer folder somewhere.
Even if you are just posting things to Instagram occasionally, it can be a great way to share memories or insights.
Another fun experiment is to take a photo a day, for a week, a month or longer. These snapshots can really evoke a powerful memory when you look back at them.
Respect others’ points of view
We are all products of our own experience and the biggest takeaway lesson I have learned from anthropology is not to judge someone before you know their story. (This can be hard when we as humans have evolved to make snap judgements to survive!) But before you act on a feeling, or shut down your capacity to listen, take a step back and try and situate things in their correct surroundings: Understand that people have different outlooks to you. Ask questions and try and change your own perspective, just for a second.
Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements puts this way better than I ever could:
“The way to keep yourself from making assumptions is to ask questions. Make sure the communication is clear. If you don’t understand, ask. Have the courage to ask questions until you are as clear as you can be, and even then do not assume you know all there is to know about a situation. Once you hear the answer, you will not have to make assumptions because you will know the truth.” (page 71)
Even if you cannot understand their reasoning, you can try and understand, on a base level, that people are not all the same, that people have their own understandings of the world, and that you can’t always reconcile two points of view. That’s OK, and that’s kinda what being an anthropologist means in the everyday world, to me at least. To appreciate that people are different, that you won’t always understand something straight away. That there is a wide world out there, and there are things to learn from everybody in it, if we only give them a chance.
- If you were actually looking for something a bit more academic than this about the anthropology of the everyday, this paper by Mahi Khan may answer more questions than I can (and it’s free to sign up to academia.edu if you haven’t already.)
- The aforementioned “The Four Agreements” by don Miguel Ruiz.
- The American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) ethical guidelines are an interesting read – in some ways they are open to interpretation and kind of vague, but they are good principles to live by, particularly if you are going to be travelling with, interviewing, writing about, meeting or dealing with people in general!
That’s it for now! I have thought of a couple of other points, but I may make a ‘Part II’ post at some point when I have got a better idea. Thanks for reading!