The Exchange Program

Working as a practicing anthropologist led me down many dark alleyways looking for or trying to develop work. The late eighties found me working as a freelance consultant, and I’d talk to anyone if I thought there was a contract in the offing. As a result, I had some surreal experiences.

One was the not-for-profit group in a wealthy community interested in bringing children from impoverished African communities to the USA for cultural exchange. I was very excited about this program until midway through the interview.
The interview took place in a high office overlooking Boston Harbor, and the group of interviewers was less interested in what I might bring to the fruition of the project than my academic connections with my grad school anthropology department. They had a marquee letterhead and wanted someone with a degree from a prestigious school. Over the interview, I became appalled by their casual colonialistic expectations for the program. It was a sort of one-way deal where the American youth would study the culture of the Africans, and the Africans would be astonished by the generosity of the Americans in lifting them from the mire; while working as sort of domestic servants.
I politely extracted myself from candidacy. But as a parting shot, I observed that cultural exchanges typically had something substantive in the exchange part of the equation; that the exchange part of things was integral.
I didn’t expect that my comments would squash their program, but I hoped that enough other candidates for the job might offer similar observations and that they would realize that there was something out of kilter with their ideas.

Poll any group of people in my trade, and you’ll find us working for supermarket chains, hi-tech, marketing companies, candy manufacturers, and many other situations where it can be a bit of a stretch to fit in. wherever we go, we often find that we create our own job descriptions over time. I do not know which poor colleague got the job at the not-for-profit, but I am grateful that it was not me.

What is Culture?

If I recall correctly, one anthropological author categorized some 254 definitions of the term culture. I think I read the first dozen or so and stopped. But, of course, it would not have mattered if I had all of them at my beck and call the night I wound up discussing culture with ‘Chaales” – Charles for those who don’t speak with an affected accent.

Charles only believed in culture with a capital C, not lowercase. He had no fondness for the affectations of the common lot. “Culture” was created. Design was involved, not the obtuse scratchings in the dirt of the proletariat.

I might have abandoned the evening early if the other company at dinner had not more than compensated for the boorish behavior of one pseudo-Brahmin. But Charles finally did get to me. At last, he demanded that I define culture as I understood it. So I began rattling off three or four definitions. I went through it being shared behavior, attitudes, goals and beliefs, etc. I rattled on for great length because, in those days, all of that stuff was at my mental fingertips. I would soon sit for my Ph.D. Comprehensive Exams: There always was a culture definition question in it, a freebee giveaway that no one could miss.

After all this he gave me a slight pouting smirk and asked, “Yes, all of that is fine. But what is Culture?”

I was more than a bit exasperated, and realizing that I was being baited, I snapped out a sarcastic line I had used in a vulgar little song I had written about our anthropology department. In it, a grad student tiring of continual queries about what culture is snapped out that, like True Love, culture is a many splendored thing.

That seemed to stop him, and before he could recover, I turned my back and walked into another knot of people having a more mundane discussion about the dinner we had just finished. But since then, I rarely go beyond basic definitions of what culture is, and then they tell them that like true love, it’s a many splendored thing.

And that’s my definition of culture, and I’m sticking with it.

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.

In Appreciation

I remember in grad school having a raft of papers to write each week. But, unfortunately, one pestiferous British Social Anthropologist in our group of ne’er do well profs insisted that we consider each of his assignments to be either a mini-dissertation or an orals proposal. It was sterling preparation for our orals and dissertation work. Each a unique exposition in the corpus of anthropology – he maintained.
Over the year, I developed the thesis that each paper was both a lot of spilled ink and a salve to his vast ego, being that he rarely commented on or marked the pieces. The format was always the same between ten and sixteen pages of introduction, text, and conclusions. Annotations, tables, and bibliography followed this. He maintained that in less than ten pages, you couldn’t demonstrate an adequate grasp of the subject, and over sixteen, you were just padding and perhaps trying to hide your lack of understanding.
This was a good bit of work considering that we were conducting research, preparing other papers, attending lectures, and sometimes working in labs in addition to his course load.

My attitude about this professor’s take on anthropology was mellowed in my first job as a practicing anthropologist. I found that all that “idiocy” about Human Social Organization functioned in “advanced” societies. But the real change came a few years later when I found myself quoting his maxim of ten to sixteen pages and mini-thesis.

Of course, having produced so much verbiage over time, the result was an ability to blather about any topic extemporaneously.

Then I started this blog…thank you, professor S. You taught me better than you knew.


In the 1980’s I taught as an adjunct professor of anthropology at a small college not too far from where I lived. I taught introductory classes in the subject, and lectures could become dry exercises in textbook repeats except for an open-ended discussion group I ran every week. The group’s purpose was to focus on our week’s lectures and readings. I tried to relate what we were studying to current USA events and culture as much as possible. Some topics were more straightforward than others.

We discussed Cargo Cults following World War II in Melanesia during one discussion session.
Massive amounts of equipment and supplies were flown in and air-dropped during the war to provide the supplies needed to support troops. Inevitably, some of this largesse found its way into the hands of the locals. To them, it was a wealth of a sort that they had never before imagined. However, when the war ended, cargo flow ceased, and locals who had become accustomed to the wealth of foodstuffs and manufactured goods faced a problem: bringing the cargo back.
The cargo cults attempted to lure the planes with their valuable cargoes of goods back. Cult adherents built control tower and airplane mockups. Others drilled on the abandoned airfields to give the appearance that soldiers were still there. But of course, the cargo never returned.

After reviewing the topic, I asked several people to point out movements, or trends, in current American culture that mirrored the Melanesian Cargo Cults. Dead silence. After looking around, I noticed that one of my students was eating a health food bar from a major diet food company. The company regularly used celebrity “Evangelists” to promote its products. I pointed out that emulating soldiers’ behavior at the old airfields had been considered paramount to attracting cargo. Wasn’t emulating celebrities and expecting to lose weight and reshape your body similar?

This comparison did not win me any friends among a particular class segment. Off to one side, I noticed that Chuck was laughing at the discomfort of others. Knowing that Chuck was, like me, an avid woodworker, I asked him if he were so different buying tools touted by famous woodworkers. The ads in the woodworking magazines certainly seemed to suggest that owning Hugo Slemp’s chisels and gouges would ensure that your work too would win prizes. Did he see any similarities?

I had made my point that Citizens of the States were not too different from the Melanesians. I had also dented my popularity with my students. Deciding to go for the gold, I mentioned that they might expect a question on Cargo Cults on the final. Be prepared.

My class was not pleased. But, in my defense, I have to say that I believe as Margaret Mead did that “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”

Only With Time

Working as a practicing anthropologist meant following threads in people’s lives and their community. I worked for about a decade in one community that a historian friend of mine friend described as a “three-generation community.” At least three generations of many of the families lived there. After looking at the census records, I found that the generational depth was sometimes much more profound – I found families in the 1880 census whose descendants I knew.
One bitter-sweet result of this was finding the household records of a close friend’s great-grandmother. Her husband walked out in 1884, went west, and never returned. He left a family of around eight to fend for itself. One day I was able to lay the 1880 census page in front of him to see an 1880 snapshot of what his family had looked like before it had been sundered. It was a poignant moment watching him touch the page with the record of ancestors. The sundering happened almost a hundred years before. But it had echoed down the years. Family members recalled the stories of how life had been hard for gran, how they had wondered where he had gone and why. One recurrent theme was, “Is there another family out there?” Sometimes there is no reprieve from the past.

Working in that community wasn’t just about families. It also was about the persistent links and institutions they had developed there: churches, religious societies, social clubs, businesses, and generations spanning friendships.
After a while, you begin to hear the stories that don’t go past family or community bounds. These are about generational disputes, feuds, family successes, and humor.
Stories about the local undertaker who, eager to win a city election, “voted the graveyard.” This got discovered when the relative of a man the undertaker buried noticed the ballot for his uncle – dead twenty years. His wiles failed, but he acquired a sort of local fame for doing what is only rumored about elsewhere.

Being embedded in a community for so long means that your life becomes entwined with the community – you do not simply walk away from it at the day’s end or the end of a job. My ties to that community have endured for forty years and only now fading as most friends and associates have died.

I’d ask that you consider how different the meaning of the word community is today. Today we use the term loosely for any aggregate to which we feel linked. In contrast, the community I worked in had deep historical depth and recognizable geography. Members were residents or connected deeply with the community, families, and social institutions.
There was a sort of solidity that many places today lack or are rapidly losing.

I’d get asked by students and other people how you build community, as though it was some formula you could apply. My answer was only with time.

The Committee

This time of year always takes me back to my first professional job after grad school. I worked in a city near Boston known for its intellectual, cultural, and ethnic diversity. The city library system was enlightened enough to have an anthropologist on staff, me. But while I was on staff, the boss, nicknamed Joltin’ Joe, limited my role to one square mile-sized neighborhood; Eastie.

To be fair to Joltin’ Joe, I was not the only one singled out for lockdown. The entire staff was locked down in their branch libraries and departments. But it’s lonely at the top. And it’s especially so when your immediate cronies are known as such and not trusted. So much time got expended on periodic exercises in control and terror. The problem with such a leadership style is that it became as predictable as wanton; wherever the cronies weren’t looking, individuals would pop up some innovative program or initiative almost to spite Joltin’ Joe. His anger was truly wrothful within his organization, but politically, it was ineffective. The city council members considered themselves sponsors of their local libraries, and Joe’s fear of their reprisals could keep him in check.

My job was to run a special collections library and create regular programming featuring the cultures of my neighborhood’s ethnic groups. Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, and Portuguese, were within the square mile. Being that Joe did not get along well with the inhabitants, I think he suspected that I’d chewed up and spat out in concise order. He assumed that I’d be seen as encroaching on perceived inter-ethnic prerogatives, and my presence would not be abiding. ” It’s a tough neighborhood Louie, they’ll chew you up and eat you alive.” was the warning.

Lucky for me my first visitor was Mrs. Gelowtsky. In a three-hour late afternoon meeting, she laid out the geography and history of the neighborhood. It wasn’t five separate groups. All the groups had intermarried over several generations, and there were only a few small areas with significant concentrations of one group. After that, the conversation turned to food.

Over the following days, I was visited by a number of the communities spark plugs, the people who ran local organizations, sponsored events, and were generally influential. They suggested others that I should call or visit. As they shared with me, I shared with them. They were interested in my being an anthropologist but amazed that I wasn’t someone’s relative. City Hall relatives frequently got these sorts of jobs. An analysis by the local Franciscan Priest suggested that in a showdown between two favored candidates, they got forced to pick someone qualified for the job.

Over a few months, a group merged to form what I called the Brain Trust, but they called it the committee. I’d love to say that every committee meeting was full of trust, cooperation, and beautiful ideas. Not so. Not too many Kumbayaw moments. But many naive ideas got hammered into doable form. For example, programs that later expanded into a new life at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife ( 1988) got banged into shape in the heat of committee meetings.

Early on, a pair of themes emerged: 

  • First, while the city beyond the borders of their little neighborhood saw them as distinct ethnic entities, they viewed themselves as one community with varied traditions. A few generations of co-inhabitation and intermarriage had helped this along.
  • Second, despite internal divisions, they perceived that they were at the bottom of the city’s hierarchy for services and status. There was a perception that our activities could raise the esteem and status of their community.

As an anthropologist, I feverishly took notes, made recordings, and was excited at the possibilities.

Meanwhile, at the other side of town lurked Joltin’ Joe, who decided to jerk the chain and cut off my funds for programming. I was scared. The committee got pissed and began to call in favors. The First Annual Harvest Festival was wholly funded and supported by community members. The committee made sure to invite Joltin Joe to the festivities and broadly smile as he ground out praise for the Eastie community from between clenched jaws.

Like most of the programs, articles, lectures, celebrations, videos, and more that followed, the committee adhered to one principle – as much as possible, it was about the community as a whole, even when one element took the lead in a particular event or the content of the program. For example, have an evening of Portuguese songs and dance. Many folks in the audience were Italian and Polish. They were there for a good time, supporting friends, or watching a grandchild dance.

Joltin Joe never figured it out. He, like many people, expect failure based upon the things that split people into competing groups. They don’t understand that cooperation is a fearsome way to unite despite competition.

Allowing outsiders to divide you will not ultimately improve your community; it’ll just marginalize you further. The committee understood this.


Although I was an anthropologist, few of the people I met knew what I did once I left the university. If I mentioned that I studied culture, I’d get a knowing wink and this reply, “Yes. But with a big C or a little c?” Others making veiled jokes about the sort of work I did would ask me where my pith helmet was. One woman who, I guess, had taken a survey course in anthropology asked, “who are your people? Where in Africa did you go?” 

When I replied that she and others like her “were my People” and that I studied American culture, She looked distraught, put her arms akimbo, and stated that she did not require study. Then, off she walked highly insulted.

I’ve run into this sort of “Colonial” attitude towards anthropology not from my peers in the field but the well-educated well to do layperson. It’s Ok if I am studying Native- Americans, Hispanic or other groups within our nation, but not them. The intimate details of other people’s culture are open to voyeuristic examination, but not how they behave at work or play. I find this amusing because neither the coastal community nor the urban ethnic communities I worked in seemed to mind. One Saints society I studied possessively claims me as “their anthropologist” a sort of role reversal of the “my People” trope.

I see it as an elite sort of thing. Everything is fair game for examination but not the Country Club, the concept of “legacy” admissions at universities, or the kind of privilege that opens doors to political and economic position. As Deep Throat might have said, ” follow the influence.”

The patterns of privilege and power in our society may be one of the best areas for future doctoral dissertations. But these days, I’d barely have to go too much farther than the pages of the Washington Post, New York times, or the cable networks to see the bones of privileged patterns laid bare for examination. It’d hardly be research, would it?


In the field, an anthropologists notebook is a friend. Yes, you may have a recorder and a camera. But there is still something about notes written in a quiet corner that cements your observations. Unfortunately, I’ve had tapes and videos meet with accidents or get misplaced. But I still have all the notes.

The notes are a path of crumbs through the forest of your memory.

A few months ago, I was sorting out junk for the dumpster when I came across one of my notebooks from a summer research visit in Maine. Reading one entry, I got transported back to the tiny post office in coastal Maine, where I learned that people in that community were as curious about me as I was about them. It was the moment of turnabout in which the observer became observed.

It was a bountiful summer for learning all sorts of things that I thought would help form a solid foundation for my doctoral research. Instead, they are a kind of cadre of experience that I draw upon for my stories. As author Carl Hiassen said – you can’t make up stuff like this.
Not that everything I write is true, by the way.

One of the principal research methods, while you are in the field, is called participant observation. Simply put, you observe, but you also participate. Years later, reading my notebooks and reflecting on some of the stories I write, I see how I was shaped – not just as the practitioner but also as the person I became.

In the field

Suave, elegant, cultured; that’s never been me, but thanks for implying it. No, by the time I’d developed the proper social camouflage, I was out of grad school and working as a practicing anthropologist. So it had become a professional disguise.
I was not in academia but almost continuously on projects for various long-term and short-term clients.

In the field, anthropologists put forward aspects of our personality to enhance our role as participants and observers in a community. This field persona is eager to learn and interested in what people tell you.
You can’t fake this for too long. Most people who wind up in anthropology will tell you that being in the field can be a drug. It juices you, and after my first year in “practice,” I was thrilled that my only academic involvement was an occasional adjunct position.

For academic anthropologists, it’s not the same – catch them in their native setting roaming the departmental offices, the lecture halls, or browsing in the faculty lounge, and you’ll see personalities vastly different than you saw when in your community. Those rivalries over tenure look more like ritualized combat sequences from bad ethnographic documentaries.
Most spend a year or two at most with you. Then talk and write about it for decades. A sabbatical year will allow them to return and do the long-desired follow-up study; if they are fortunate.
Their long arc from adjunct professor to tenure begins with some pithy dissertation and terminates with a sappy rewrite of old data. With any luck, they’ll wind up an emeritus professor with a horde of former grad students hurridly writing a book in honor of their contribution to the field.

Of course, things are changing. For decades academic programs took on more students than there would ever be full-time positions for. The interim solution was to hire on short-term contracts, dangle the possibility of tenure track positions, and then pull out the carpet and send them on their way to the next alluring college or university.
Ph.D.’s have gotten wise to this tactic. Some have decided to leave academia and go into marketing, cosmetics, urban planning, and other areas. I’m prejudiced enough to think that wherever they go, they’ll contribute positively to that enterprise.

But every once in a while, just before bed. We’ll get visited by an apparition of the bold tenured professor we once thought of as being our future. Some dreams don’t die quickly.

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