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?