An Exercise in Recognising Cultural Assumptions

Rex’s “recent post”:/2006/05/02/seminal-juxtapositions/ has led to an interesting discussion in the comments section about the ways in which teachers and professors expose students to cultural practices that deeply threaten their assumptions about morality, propriety and the nature of life itself. The Sambian practice of male initiation through insemination via fellatio is used as an example of something that best be kept for when students have been exposed to practices that are less threatening to the average North American (dare I say Western?) or North American-raised (ibid) student so that there is a gradual exposure to cultural variation in worldview and practices. In other words, it is suggested that it would be wise to move slowly from things that are “different” but that do not break taboos to things that challenge hardcore, unquestioned assumptions about values and morality so that we don’t A) scare them off completely and B) reinforce racist stereotypes.

I think this is an extremely interesting and valuable discussion to have and would like to share how I deal, at least partially, with this issue in my intro courses. When I started teaching, I had a hard time getting students to recognise their own ethnocentrism. They understood the concept intellectually, but would usually think that they were immune to it because they had gone to high school in Montreal with people from all over the world, or because they “just aren’t like that”. I felt that I had to find a way to get them to recognise that they were not immune to the effects of enculturation and all the assumptions that come along with growing up in a particular cultural framework.

I therefore developed an exercise in recognizing cultural assumptions in which I try to make students see the difference in their own reactions to things that fall along the spectrum of practices that is mentioned above: from mildly “different” but not morally challenging to highly morally challenging. Basically, I get them to experience ethnocentrism right there in the classroom so that we can work on examining their assumptions. I have a chart that I put on acetate. The first column has a list of three cultural practices or behaviours. I start with a description of the technology of a foraging society such as the Ju/’hoansi, then I discuss the Navajo Nadleeh. Finally, I tell them about Tibetan fraternal polyandry. In each case, I give a bit of background on the people in question, their way of life and so forth and then I describe the practice in question.

The second column has empty space to note their gut reactions. I tell them to be honest in telling me what their reactions are. What do they think of these people? The third column is for recording how they would feel if I transported them over them and left them there so that they had to live there.

Every time, the reactions go from fascination to mild disdain to extreme disgust. With Ju/’hoansi technology, they tend to say that the people in question are either primitive or that they’re very smart for being able to survive in their environment. Most of them would freak out a little bit if they were trapped there but mostly out of boredom (No cell phones?!? No cars?!?) In the case of the Nadleeh, I get some raised eyebrows, mildly homophobic comments (since a Nadleeh might marry someone of the same biological sex) but also some comments such as “well, they’re like us . . .we have transsexuals and stuff.” Reactions to being trapped there range from fascination to the resolve to avoid these particular individuals. Now, fraternal polyandry gets some interesting results. Once in a great while, I’ll have a sexually assertive female student who’ll grin and comment on how cool it would be to have sexual access to several men. But for the most part, both male and female students react with disgust and comments about how this practice is an affront to the value of love and marriage. Many are quite indignant and comment about the violation of human rights, particularly women’s rights and so forth.

When we’re done, we talk about cultural assumptions, where they’re from, how they’re shaped and why their reactions were so different from one case study to the next. This is when I bring up the idea that they are more outraged about things that call into question the moral values with which they’ve grown up. We talk about how many assumptions about what is right, natural and normal such as gender categories or marriage based on love between two people are never questioned unless we are confronted with something that challenges them.

In the end, this all leads to discussing the idea of ethnocentrism with the basis that the exercise has forced them to admit that they, like everyone, are ethnocentric. Having experienced ethnocentrism in a very real way helps them internalise the concept at a deeper level and allows them, in some cases at least, to see the purpose of learning to use cultural relativism in their approach to learning about cultural practices that differ from their own. I think this is very important because if they don’t see the value of learning something, they will either not learn it at all or they will only learn the definition. This, as we know, is not conducive to an adequate understanding of any of the anthropological material they will learn later nor is it conducive to them being able to catch themselves having judgemental attitudes toward people that they encounter in their daily lives or read about in the news. In my case, since I teach general social science students in a Cégep and very few of them will go on to student university-level anthropology, the latter factor is where I put most of my energy. If they graduate from my course being able to recognise how their own ethnocentrism can be a hindrance in their future careers or social lives, I’m happy.

2 thoughts on “An Exercise in Recognising Cultural Assumptions

  1. I did something similar when dicsussing ethnocentrism and cultural relativism in discussion sections (I’ve only been a TA for for large courses but each professor gave the TA’s considerable leeway in conducting there discussion sections). However, I don’t think that fraternal Polyandry is that “out there” for people as ingesting adult male semen. When discussing marriage, the main reason some people usually thought that Polyandry was “bad” was more based on gender. Men usually saw it as problematic because it limitted there sexual access to their wife. In other words they had to share (whereas they saw polygyny as a sort of fantasy fufillment). Women on the other hand had a problem with it because they saw it as inevitably causing more problems for the wife (i.e. increased chance of domestic abuse, rape, etc.).

    However, the vast majority of people fell into the indifferent middle. They didn’t really care either way whether or not polyandry existed. For some this meant that as long other people practiced polyandry, it was ok (i.e. not Americans). For others, this meant that they only cared about the practice if it directly affected their personal lives. (People in this group also didn’t care about cases where women married “trees” [actually spirits represented as a particular tree, can’t remember who practiced this though].

    This was not the case with semen ingestion (I think the particular professor used an example from a different group than Herdt). There was definitely an almost universal condemnation of the practice. This, I would argue, has more to do with certain “Western” or “American” taboos about sex than anything else. Certain aspects of sex or sex like behavior are seen as so abhorrent by some that it is impossible to get them to see the larger context in which they exist. There’s also a heterosexist element of this (as Ozma noted in the other thread). Students often have no problem with younger girls (or boys) marrying older men (or women in the case of boys) in other cultures but have problems with practices that could be labeled gay (though not lesbian in the case of some men).

    Of all behaviors, I would argue that sex (as in intercourse) and sex like behaviours are the practices in the “West” that have the most baggage attached to them. I’m not necessarily sure why this is the case (perhaps having to do with the influence of certain Christian factions) but it is something that intro level classes have to deal with. I personally think an entire course on sex and sexuality would be the only way to deal with sex in a meaningful way (these tend to be popular because of their course titles). One or two lectures in an intro class just doesn’t cut it.

    If sex doesn’t work then what typse of practices or beliefs work for intro classes? The assumption challenging practices that seemed to work the best were those that challenged peoples understandings of biology. These would include race, gender (especially dealing with intersex births), pregnancy (“You mean women don’t necessarily have to make noise during birht.”), and other topics which might seem to be biological universals but aren’t. Many students are shocked to learn that behaviours which they believe to be instictual are not in fact instinctual.

    A second category of practices that seemed to work well were those practices that challenge assumptions about the “primitive” nature of certain groups. This mainly include practices in supposedly “primitive” groups that were far more complex than those of people in the “West” (e.g. religious ceremonies, naming, kinship). These practices make it less likely that people will see a certain group as “simple.”

    (I apologize for any typos. This post was very much stream of concsciousness.)

  2. “However, the vast majority of people fell into the indifferent middle. They didn’t really care either way whether or not polyandry existed. ”

    Interesting difference. I should add that my intro students are probably younger than yours: in cégep, students start at around 17. So to them, the marriage thing is a big deal indeed. I rarely discuss the whole semen thing unless the discussion meanders that way and I need it to make a specific point. Teaching Culture and Sexuality was a whole different ball game though.

    About intersex births . . . for the most part, I haven’t had many serious reactions to it. Many of my students have already learned about it and when I raise the question of the reflection of a binary gender mindset in the medical practices associated with the birth of intersex babies, many of my students actually get angry at the lack of choice and discrimination that these people face.

    So . . . .looks like we are teaching quite different populations in a few ways.

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