Doing Anthropology In this short film, Stefan Helmreich, Erica James, and Heather Paxson, three members of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Anthropology Department, talk about their current work and the process of doing fieldwork . Making the Strange Familiar and the Familiar Strange The cultural anthropologist’s goal during fieldwork is to describe a group of people to others in a way that makes strange or unusual features of the culture seem familiar and familiar traits seem extraor- dinary. The point is to help people think in new ways about aspects of their own culture by compar- ing them with other cultures. The research anthropologist Margaret Mead describes in her monograph Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) is a famous example of this. In 1925, Mead went to American Samoa, where she conducted ethnographic research on adolescent girls and their experiences with sexuality and growing up. Mead’s mentor, anthropologist Franz Boas, was a strong proponent of cultural deter- minism, the idea that one’s cultural upbringing and social environment, rather than one’s biology, pri- marily determine behavior. Boas encouraged Mead to travel to Samoa to study adolescent behavior there and to compare their culture and behavior with that of adolescents in the United States to lend support to his hypothesis. In the foreword of Coming of Age in Samoa , Boas described what he saw as the key insight of her research: “The results of her painstaking investigation confirm the suspicion long held by anthropologists that much of what we ascribe to human nature is no more than a reaction to the restraints put upon us by our civilization.” 1 Mead studied 25 young women in three villages in Samoa and found that the stress, anxiety, and tur- moil of American adolescence were not found among Samoan youth. Rather, young women in Samoa experienced a smooth transition to adulthood with relatively little stress or difficulty. She documented 47
instances of socially accepted sexual experimentation, lack of sexual jealousy and rape, and a general sense of casualness that marked Samoan adolescence. Coming of Age in Samoa quickly became popular, launching Mead’s career as one of the most well-known anthropologists in the United States and per- haps the world. The book encouraged American readers to reconsider their own cultural assumptions about what adolescence in the United States should be like, particularly in terms of the sexual repres- sion and turmoil that seemed to characterize the teenage experience in mid-twentieth century America. Through her analysis of the differences between Samoan and American society, Mead also persuasively called for changes in education and parenting for U.S. children and adolescents. Another classic example of a style of anthropological writing that attempted to make the familiar strange and encouraged readers to consider their own cultures in a different way is Horace Miner’s Body Ritual among the Nacirema (1956). The essay described oral hygiene practices of the Nacirema (“Amer-
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