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.