It’s something you’ll recognize

I was always told that an anthropologist needs to be a good listener. So we note what is said, gather it together with other bits, observe, participate and then analyze. Eventually, you write a dissertation and then go into teaching or applied anthropology.

The standard expectation is that you go someplace exotic and foreign. But some like me stay at home and study “us.” I assure you that home can be different  in its quiet way.

Now the tricky part of working at home is that it’s easy to assume. And making assumptions without proof is not what you are supposed to do. It can be easy to assume, for instance, that in our American “society,” because the community you work in may speak English and has the usual assortment of churches, restaurants, insurance agencies, and such, most of the rest will also be the same. Bad assumption.

I discovered how subtle but critical the differences were in both coastal Maine and the urban ethnic communities in the greater Boston area. While I never discovered an entirely new system of kinship, I did find an interesting survival of an older form of kinship which had not previously been reported. While studying Saint’s societies, I learned much about social and religious ties that are invisible to the surroundings outside. Coastal Maine almost absorbed me, and I learned that the observer is not immune to the lure of what they study. 

So there it is. To be good at this game, you must be sympathetic, a good mimic, an observer, and interested in getting drawn in. In other words, you have to let your cultural immune system down. This means you might walk away permanently changed. Because culture is an infective virus.

As I said, Maine almost absorbed me; it gave me a trade and an attitude. My work with Saint’s societies changed my perspective on faith and relationships. Working with Italian, Polish, and Portuguese gardeners left my horticulture a hopeless blend of what I’d learned from them. I also learned my ethnobotany and some folk medicine from the gardeners. I don’t even try to make some accord between these bits and pieces; just accept them as part of me.

We are a sort of rebus, not in the form of words and symbols that spell out something, but in the sense that we are the results of the additive process of living an interesting life. So it may not be the sort of thing that is flashy and stands out with a chrome-like glare. Instead, it is a bit quieter. Less likely to get you all excited.

I’d never claim that my experiences were universal to my tribe ( anthropologists). But I’ve seen the look come into the eyes of colleagues as they talk about the Solomon Islands, India, Toronto, and even South Philly. It’s similar to that cast of eye you note in seamen who put a bit of roll in their step when discussing the African ports they visited or the sweet ships they crewed on.

It’s something you’ll recognize when you see it.

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