Romance is where you find it. For an anthropologist, it’s the places where you do fieldwork.
It’s like an old love, in the past but not entirely forgotten. Then, years after the separation, you find an old love letter and are transported on a wave of sentiment. That happened to me just yesterday.
I was sorting through a box of old paperwork and found some material I thought the local historical society in the coastal community I worked in years ago might like. I made the mistake of opening the folder and suddenly felt a wave of nostalgia rush through me- places, names, silly things, recollections of kinship relations in the community, and a specific boat swinging at its mooring.
Then I decided I was not emotionally ready yet to donate yet. Most of the stuff in the box was worthless junk and could go out in the recycled paper, but not that folder with the field notes badly typed, the pamphlet on the town’s history, or the newspaper clippings. So I’m justifying all this as material I’ll use in more stories about life on the coast. But actually, it’s the same reason we store old love letters away in the attic; some things we can’t easily be parted from.

Family Traditions

Write about a few of your favorite family traditions.

Humans have a prodigious ability to create and destroy. The very concept of culture ( big C or little c) is something that we are continuously developing and eliminating. So traditions exist as a process; we continually reshape them even as we celebrate them. I’ll have to beg the reader’s forgiveness; although I no longer work as an anthropologist, I’ll never shake the orientation.
Family traditions offer a look into the processes of development and loss. In October of 2023, I’ll initiate the 50th anniversary of the Carreras family fruitcakes. Were fruitcakes a Carreras family tradition before then? Nope. And I honestly do not remember why I settled on making fruitcakes that fall fifty years ago. But every fall since I start on the family fruitcakes – which after baking, settle in for a long rum-soaked gestation before being shipped off for family eating during Christmas.

I was looking for something to replace my grandmother’s Poppyseed bread. Grandma had died years before without leaving a recipe and without taking apprentices. So her tradition, dating back generations in her family, effectively died with her.
Replace a traditional Hungarian treat with fruitcake? As a family, we tried to duplicate her recipe without luck. She had always been elusive on her secrets, a sort of “pinch of this, a pinch of that” description of the process that guaranteed it could not be duplicated. So as a family, we eventually threw in the towel on reproducing it. A family tradition lost.

That was where we were the year I first made my rum-soaked fruitcakes. The first year I only made two; one for myself and my wife and one for my parents. Things evolved. Over the years, the recipe evolved; ingredients were added, quantities changed, and the rum-soaking technique matured. Eventually, I reached about twenty cakes and distributed fruit cakes in early December to any family member who appreciated them. There is a bit of drudgery involved in making that many. but commitment is part of tradition.

At fifty years, I can look back and see how the tradition started, developed, and is being passed on. A few years ago, my oldest son apprenticed, transcribed the recipe, and can now make the cakes. I fully expect that, over time, his cakes will vary from the ones I made. That’s part of what makes traditions alive; they change and develop while staying steady parts of our expectations in life.

About seven years ago, I was able to replicate grandma’s Poppyseed bread. I now bake this for the family at Christmas time and tell the story about how she rewarded and punished family members by giving them loaves with more or less filling. After all, it’s not only the food that makes the tradition; it’s the telling of the stories surrounding it.

Families are microcosms of culture, and family traditions connect members across generations leading back to the past and forward to the future.

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?

%d bloggers like this: