Anthropology is often characterized as a discipline that makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Once a science of the exotic and/or primitive, today anthropology seeks to understand how values and meanings are formed, and why people do the things they do in a social and cultural context, including not only exotic contexts but also our own. A basic premise is that beliefs, practices, and values are all interconnected, and that explanation must seek out those interconnections, which are often marked by tensions and contradictions. No longer looking at cultures as a map of bounded differences neatly plotted around the globe, anthropologists now recognize that societies and cultures are neither internally homogeneous, nor can they be studied as isolated objects. So in seeking interconnections, we must recognize both divisions within a society, and connections between different societies.

 Cultural anthropology is built upon the realization that although people construct experience differently, we are able to learn about and understand the experience of other people because of humankind’s distinctive shared abilities: to communicate and to learn. Anthropology’s approach based on that realization is characterized by a research method called “participant observation.” In this method, the researcher lives for an extended period of time in the community she studies and learns through direct participation, close observation, and open-ended interviews about the meanings of everyday life and activities, as well as about how people interpret and organize ceremonial and extraordinary events. But anthropologists spend even more of their time writing about what they have learned, and are very conscious of choices they make as they go about representing other people. The search for meaning is at the center of anthropology.

In this course, we will look at a number of different societies and cultures, but we will focus especially on Japan and Morocco, with a visit to Brazil as well. As we do so, we will explore some of the different questions that anthropologists ask, and different approaches anthropologists have taken, considering carefully and critically their goals, models, and methods against the evidence that the provide.

This course will explore selected peoples and places on the African continent from a variety of anthropological perspectives. The goals of the course are to appreciate and understand the variety of experiences and ways of life found across the continent; to understand the challenges faced by peoples in Africa today; and to think critically both about and with the models used to understand other people.


Africa is a huge continent, with many countries, each of which contains multiple ethnic, religious, and language groups. Each country also hosts considerable diversity from country to city, and in different ecological zones. This course focuses on Sub-Saharan Africa. Anthropology’s insights come from examining the ways complex sets of beliefs, practices, and expectations come together in specific social, economic, and political contexts, to produce a social field filled with tensions and contradictions that people navigate with varied outcomes. To achieve these insights, we look intensively at certain situations, instead of doing broad surveys of differences. This year we will concentrate on peoples living in Nigeria, Niger, (colonial) Sudan, South Africa, and Madagascar (and beyond).

This course examines some of the philosophical underpinnings of anthropology, and several theories of society, culture, and the person as an anthropological subject which have shaped how anthropologists approach the study of people, cultures and societies.

In this course, we examine the family as a social and cultural form. Students should come to understand the variety of ways in which “family” and relationships within families are constructed and understood; how “families” are situated in broader social relations; and how “the family” and its relationships serve is a point of creative reference for social action. In addition, students should learn the variety of ways that anthropologists have dealt with family and social forms and relationships associated with it: household, reproduction, descent, kinship, class, cultural ideas of motherhood, love and intimacy, etc.

The Anthropology of Globalization

This course takes a critical look at globalization, both as a concept we use to understand the current moment, and as a characteristic of the moment itself - how people respond to, and create, contemporary changes. We will pay particular attention to global markets and the flow of people, goods, and ideas; neoliberalism and the rise of nonstate agencies; the work of the imagination; the apparent contrasts between “the global” and “local” knowledge; and the place of intimacy in world-wide change.

Goals: Students will develop a critical apparatus for understanding references to globalization, and will be able to discuss examples of globalization as complex, with multiple, often contradictory, dimensions.

How do objects, such as gifts, money, commodities, art and needed goods become “valued”? How are some things set aside as, in the rather ironic words of the old MasterCard advertisement, “priceless,” and what does that mean? And how do exchanges of valued objects shape relationships among people? The relations between persons and objects, the ways in which values are produced and objectified, and the nature of different forms of exchange and transaction have long been central problems to anthropology, as it explores the different ways that people live in the world. In this class we study classic statements by Marcel Mauss, Karl Marx, and Max Weber on how objects become valued in people’s lives, on gifts and commodities as modes of social interaction and as ways in which people construct “personhood” and selves, and we follow these important statements through in more recent ethnography. We will look, too, at current shifts in analysis from systems of production, to systems of consumption, and try to understand how to understand both processes.