Dude Guardians of the Galaxy is TOTALLY A METAPHOR FOR ANTHROPOLOGY

As I get older, I have less and less in common with my students and every fall I try to think back to movies or TV shows I’ve seen that might serve as a common reference point for us. I was walking to the library the other day wondering “What movies have I seen recently?” And the only thing that came to me was “Guardians of the Galaxy” And I was all like: “Ok, so how can I make Guardians of the Galaxy relate to anthropology?” And then I realized: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY IS ALREADY A TOTAL METAPHOR FOR ANTHROPOLOGY.

You know that little purple stone that is on the bad guys hammer? THAT IS POWER OF ANTHROPOLOGY? And what does it take fully harness that power? Four brave heroes who EACH REPRESENT ONE OF THE FOUR SUBFIELDS OF ANTHROPOLOGY. They even have to temporarily kill off Groot — who represents the maybe-fifth-subfield of applied anthropology — in order to make it work.

I’m still up in the air on who is what subfield. Right now my thinking is this: Peter Quill is cultural anthropology: The most important but also the spaciest hero. Why is he in charge, other than some sort of default assumption that white guys are the lead hero even when they don’t even do ethnography any more and are just charming con artists. Gamora represents linguistic anthropology: overly-professional, uptight, kinda corky, but actually has much better fighting skills than cultural anthropology. Rocket is archaeology because material culture. Also sometimes he does cultural survey work with Groot. Drax represents bioanth because the guys is super-effective but sometimes you’re like: dude, get up out of the weeds. Some things are social constructs. TO me, Drax seems like the kind of guy who doesn’t understand why you didn’t include a p-value in your abstract.

But I could be wrong. How do you think that metaphor works out?

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

8 thoughts on “Dude Guardians of the Galaxy is TOTALLY A METAPHOR FOR ANTHROPOLOGY

  1. “Dude get up out of the weeds” haha.

    Maybe Groot can be philosophy? Kinda stern, austere figure, not really sure what he’s doing but somehow related to the cause of the team (I guess he’s hanging out with Quill more), but you have to kill him off sometimes. Kind of in his own world, etc…

    I think this needs a spoiler alert at the start btw ;)

    Best,
    Theo

  2. Rocket certainly has the personality type of a certain kind of surly, late-in-his-career archaeologist. I don’t know so much about the others.

    The members of the Nova Corps gave off a lot more of a professional anthropologist-y vibe to me. Like, they’re all obsessed with differentiating themselves from civilians by constantly referencing their institutional affiliation and by by proudly having colleagues instead of coworkers. Plus Glenn Close looks and acts like she should live in the deanery. But they have real power and are apt to cooperate, so the metaphor pretty much breaks down there.

  3. I’ve fallen prey to such comparisons myself, once comparing the cultural encounters within reality television to the early stages of fieldwork, but I am increasingly impressed by anthropologists feeling the need to describe anthropology through saying it is “like” something else but different. Few disciplines have to explain itself through discussing other things. Do sociologists look for and see mirror reflections of themselves and their work in the most surprising locations? Do they feel the need to draw attention to themselves by showing subliminal and submerged elements of their cherished values in the most popular of cultural forms?

  4. Hilarious comparison, mostly because it’s not exactly an obvious one and because the movie was surprinsingly good. (Plus what cultural anthropologist doesn’t like poking fun at colleagues from other subfields?)

    If such comparison were to be made in science-fiction or comics, several characters fit more closely in my opinion with anthropology and its subfields. In Star Trek TNG, Picard has a keen interest in archeology but adopts in several episodes the attitude of a cultural anthropologist doing fieldwork. In Star Trek DS9, Sisko replicates an ancient Bajoran ship to attempt to prove that Bajorans had travelled in space much earlier than was believed by Cardassians. The whole ”Explorers” episode reminds me of Ben Finney’s involvement in the reconstruction of the Hokule’a.

    A note on sociology: I was discussing representations of anthropology in scifi with a colleague who is a sociologist recently and we found that while anthropologists are rare in science-fiction, sociologists are even rarer. We couldn’t come up with one example of a sociologist character or even a mention of this science. Perhaps anthropologists are drawn to comparisons to better explain what their discipline is because they feel strongly about the importance of making their discipline public, better understood. Sometimes the representations we see of ourselves on television do not correspond to our reality, and we want to correct them.

    Could it be that sociologists are less drawn to making their discipline public and understood, or perhaps that they have very little comparisons available to them to work with?

    Great post!

  5. A note on sociology: I was discussing representations of anthropology in scifi with a colleague who is a sociologist recently and we found that while anthropologists are rare in science-fiction, sociologists are even rarer. We couldn’t come up with one example of a sociologist character or even a mention of this science.

    That is an interesting observation. Maybe it has to do with a public perception that links anthropologists and exploration? After watching Prometheus I was thinking both of how bad the archaeology portrayed in the movie was, but also that it would make perfect sense for a real world version of the crew to include at least one archaeologist.

    Your comment also got me to thinking of how one particular type of sociologist—the criminologist—must be vastly overrepresented in fiction more generally. That says more about the quantity of crime fiction out there than anything else, I guess. There is also a frightening paucity of board-certified forensic pathologists in the U.S., but you would never guess that by watching American TV!

  6. Perhaps, as you say, anthropologists are seen more as explorers, adventurers than sociologists are. While analysing scifi with my colleagues, we found that archaeologists win the popularity contest in that regard: we found a lot of representations of archaeology and few of general anthropology and of its other subfields. Archaeologists, more than other anthropologists, are represented as cool adventurers.

    An interesting remark on crime fiction. The TV series Bones showcases forensic anthropology and while it can’t be said that such type of anthropology is overrepresented in pop culture, the show’s popularity certainly makes a remarkable impact on popular perceptions of our discipline.

    Just like archaeology is not always, if ever, described as a subfield of anthropology in pop culture books, movies and TV, criminology is not generally described as a type of sociology as far as I know. Popular knowledge about a subfield of a discipline does not guarantee a clearer popular understanding of the broad discipline then.

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