Toward Living with (not Under) Anthropology, Pt. 1

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Takami Delisle. Tak currently works as a medical interpreter for Japanese patients and helps run an organization for anthropology students of color. You can find her on Twitter @tsd1888 and she also has her own blog. If you’re interested, please contact her.


Toward Living with (not Under) Anthropology

by Takami Delisle

I have spent most of my American life doing anthropology. I think about and with anthropology when I observe the world around me, whether watching the news or listening to friends’ conversations. It’s not that someone is forcing me to do so with a knife right at my jugular, but it’s that anthropology has been one of the biggest passions I have ever had in my entire life. Coming home after my very first cultural anthropology class, I felt as if I had just been awakened by something magical. I still remember the sense of thrill when I declared my major as anthropology at my first U.S. university. I sat in the very front row in every single cultural anthropology class like a little kid watching a cartoon right in front of the TV.

What drew me into anthropology is that it opened a door to a wide-open space where I was encouraged to ask questions that I had never felt allowed to voice – like Japan’s appalling gender inequalities, Japanese corporations’ socioeconomic exploitations overseas, and the central government’s ill treatments of Okinawa. Anthropology gave me opportunities to critically and objectively reevaluate the country where I was born and raised, the place I often took for granted. It’s not that anthropology gave me answers to all of my questions, but it did bring me closer to the answers.

My first anthropology graduate program did not betray my expectations of anthropology. The seminar “Poverty, Power, and Privilege” was the most instrumental for strengthening my passion for anthropology. It provided me with theoretical and analytical tools to trace social injustices back through history – to see where they came from and how they changed over time. This seminar taught me to look at the bigger picture when it comes to inequality, and to pay close attention to issues of power. Everything about the seminar blew my mind.

I also learned what it means to be a good anthropologist from this graduate program, which had incredible, worldly-minded teachers who were also good mentors. For instance, after I submitted the final draft of my master’s thesis to my faculty committee members, one of them, who was also the department chair, e-mailed me his comment, which started with, “I want to thank you for teaching me about this important community” – his humbleness taught me to be humble, as I also thanked many of my own students for teaching me things I didn’t know. Another professor, who didn’t believe in the value of testing and grading his graduate students, asked us in his seminar to write what each of us found the most intriguing about the seminar, instead of giving us a final exam – his consistent practice of the principle against the standardized education taught me to be loyal to my principles. When a white student in one of my discussion sections complained about the class materials on racial issues and accused me of being a racist toward whites, the professor whom I was a TA for asked me to let him directly speak with the student to defend me, instead of telling me to ignore the incident – his courage to pursue justice taught me to stand up to injustice. When I brought the dilemmas and difficulties that I had encountered during my research fieldwork to my advisor, instead of telling me to figure them out on my own, she patiently listened, worked out strategies with me, and suggested to incorporate these encounters into my research data and thesis – her mentorship taught me to stay motivated, to keep pushing forward. I was entirely impressed, when another professor, who was often quite harsh on me, stood in front of the whole seminar at the first meeting of the semester and publicly admitted that she was wrong for her vehement disagreement with my argument in another seminar during the previous semester. Her honesty and integrity as an anthropologist taught me to be committed to anthropological inquiries. All these professors helped solidify my deeper understanding of what anthropology should be as a discipline.

My confidence in academic anthropology began to crumble when I joined another anthropology graduate program later on. It was drastically different from my previous program, particularly the relationships between the professors and the graduate students. Some of the professors were obsessed with exerting their authority; this hierarchical pressure permeated throughout the entire department, instilling a cold, sometimes hostile air among the graduate student body. Because of this, anthropology started to take over me, to preoccupy my essence. It consumed every minute of my everyday life, constantly making me question whether I grasped what I was expected to in the course materials, whether I was writing the right things in the weekly reflective essays, and whether I was intelligent enough to be an anthropologist. I had no time to do anything else. I never felt I was doing anything right.

I got so paranoid about falling behind. There were days when I didn’t even see my husband because I sat behind books and the computer in our back room for hours on end. I worked hard, very very hard. But the way I spent my life doing anthropology changed. I was no longer doing anthropology because I was passionate about it—I was doing it out of fear. And out of my fear, I lost interest in everything else. Not only did I have few real friends in the department, but also I had no time, energy, and motivation to make friends outside the department. The result was that I turned into this statue-like apathetic thinking machine with “Anthropology” written big on my forehead.

What was it about the fear that was colonizing my life with anthropology? The truth is that anthropology is not a pure knowledge genre, but it is an institutionalized discipline. When knowledge gets institutionalized, the ways in which the knowledge is practiced and disseminated fall into the hands of the people who run the institution. The materialization of the knowledge depends heavily on how these people carry themselves under the authoritative titles. In other words, the remarkable potential of anthropological knowledge gets filtered through authoritative anthropologists. What is truly detrimental to anthropology is, then, that if they can’t embody the ingenious knowledge to their students and colleagues in everyday life, they also turn anthropology into hypocrisy. This is what was rampant in my second anthropology graduate program. The fear, which consumed my life in anthropology, was of getting disapprovals from those authoritative anthropologists. They scared the hell out of me.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

7 thoughts on “Toward Living with (not Under) Anthropology, Pt. 1

  1. Thanks so much. I just had a dreadful experience with a research institute and the ‘hierarchy’ in academia and how academics we look up too can completely fail us. My faith and love of anthropology has been tainted as a consequence. You have helped me perhaps see some light.

  2. Hi Tak. You catch the bipolar nature of the field really well, the power and the liberating nature of the perspective and the way it can be and often is corrupted with ego and ambition. A former student in the Maryland program, where I used to teach, went to med school and now concerns himself with the massive importance and subtlety of medical translation. Incredibly important work and in need of good work. Drop me an email if you want me to introduce you two. He works in the San Francisco Bay Area.

  3. Hi, Mike. Still hoping that you will contribute a blog to Savage Minds. I keep telling people that they ought to read The Lively Science. Would love to see a taste of that argument here.

  4. Takami thank you so much for sharing your story and standing up against the misuse of authoritative privilege, especially by the people we expect to know better. I expect that there is actually a fruitful ethnographic project in compararive analyzsis of the long-term well-being and success of grad students of programs but I’m afraid, or hope rather, that you’d end up influencing your participants and their environment by studying them.

  5. Thanks John. I’m slated for two weeks in the sun early Nov. Working on it now. Calling it “Rewind and Fast Forward.” Free copy of Lively Science to the first five readers (:

  6. Thank you all for the encouraging comments. Sydney, I agree that such an ethnographic project would be very productive, and wonder if collections of short anonymous auto-ethnographies from grad students could possibly work. Part 2 will get deeper into the critiques of authoritative anthropologists, so stay tuned!

  7. Takami, you have reminded me of the medical anthropology literature on the therapeutic value of “writing it out.” Perhaps, writing short anonymous auto-ethnographies could also be therapeutic for the grad students. If the project was designed this way, it could utilize a website built for collecting these short anonymous auto-ethnographies from current grad students at all stages of the grad school process as well as recent PhD and MA graduates. But then how to control the participant selection process …. I am definitely looking forward to Part 2.

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