Son of an Anthropologist

Since Barack Obama’s electoral victory, I’ve been saying jokingly that since Barack’s mother (Ann Dunham) was an anthropologist, anthropology has won.

Not a very funny joke and not a joke which seems to carry something very deep. After all, talking about a politician’s mother’s disciplinary affiliations sounds about as absurd as assigning foreign policy experience to somebody who’s been living relatively close to a foreign country.

But I feel there is, in fact, something deeper about Obama’s connection to anthropology. And I say this as a son of an occupational therapist and a Piaget-trained pedagogue.

There’s a difference between experience, expertise, training, and what we call “enculturation,” in anthropology. Put simply, enculturation is the seamless way through which each of us learns how to behave in specific cultural contexts. Typical examples include things like gestures or some deeply-held beliefs. It’s a fairly simple concept to grasp but it has many implications, including in the endless nature/nurture debates, which are an oft-forgotten but still fundamental part of anthropology.

So the anthropological side of Obama I’m alluding to isn’t training as an anthropologist, expertise in the minutiae of current anthropological theory, or experience in the field. But it’s a little “nugget of anthropological awareness.” An attention to diversity which makes him sound, at times, like an anthropologist. Much has been made of Obama’s genes. But his mother also played a major role in his enculturation and Obama has been on the record in terms of his mother’s influence on his political ideas. I would claim that Obama’s “anthropology-ness” runs somehow deeper than even he might realize.

And it’s not so difficult to discuss.

In educational fields, it’s fairly common to talk about second-generation students, at least in terms of university education. The notion, especially in sociological circles in the U.S., is that children of people with a university background get some type of “headstart” in terms of their university career. One reason can simply be that parents with university degrees might value university training more than parents who didn’t obtain such degrees. There’s also a class argument, which runs very well in discussions about fairness and equity. But there might also be something about this kind of informal learning which can prepare people to be accepted as university students. There’s even something to be said about the basic behaviour of the typical university student and how conducive it might be for success in university contexts.

I’ve certainly felt something like this. I was “predestined” to university since: both of my parents and both of my step-brothers had obtained university degrees, my father was teaching in universities as part-time faculty, my mother’s first husband was a university professor, and most of my family’s friends were academia-savvy. Even through elementary and secondary education, I was perceived to be studious even though I only studied a handful of times before entering university. When I did enter university, I finally felt that I belonged. And things were relatively easy for me. The fact that I didn’t have to learn how to behave as a student had something to do with it.

Something similar is clearly at stake in terms of performing arts, where it may be confused with “talent.” The reason that Hollywood has seen so many multi-generational families of actors simply cannot be found in some “innate abilty to act.” In music, the proportion of musicians coming from “musical families” clearly has some social basis but it also has to do with informal training. Research on expertise, at least as it’s described to the outside world, seems to lead to similar ideas. Even without getting direct experience, children may “pick up” certain skills by virtue of being raised in an environment which gives prominence to those skills. Cognitively, it makes a lot of sense. Especially if we think about skill transfers.

A teacher might readily recognize something like “raw skills from enculturation.” I haven’t had many anthropology students whose parents were anthropologists but there’s something about people who already have an anthropological “background” before entering the field which is easy to spot. It doesn’t necessarily make things easier for these students, in the long run. Given the fact that the discipline changes continuously and that it’s already quite broad, “raw skills” in anthropology may even be a hindrance, at times. But something has “clicked,” for those who already have an anthropological background.

The “click” to which I’m referring relates to habits of thinking which tend to happen after some abduction- or epiphany-style moment of realization/conceptualization. In terms of educational theory, this “click” is surely linked to a “position” in Perry’s Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development, But I usually talk about it as “the moment at which everything starts to maken sense, in terms of basic anthropological issues and concepts.” It can’t be forced and it doesn’t seem to relate that directly to the way anthropology is taught. As I tend to say, “learning happens despite teachers.” This kind of learning moment is certainly a case in point.

Because anthropological approaches tend to be quite distinct from approaches typically used in other disciplines, this “clicking moment” is especially prominent in introductory courses in cultural anthropology. It often happens at different moments during the semester, for diverse students. There are some students for whom it never occurs. And there are students who enter such courses after the “click” had already happened.

To be honest, I simply assume that this “anthro click” has happened to Barack Obama a while ago and that if he did take introductory courses in cultural anthropology, things probably seemed to make sense to him without much effort. Not that it implies anything about grades he would have received, how much material he would have retained, or how pleasant he would have thought the course to be. But I can just imagine a young Obama in some kind of ANTH 101 course thinking that much of us is just common sense.

I certainly assume that GBN member (and well-known anthropologist) Mary Catherine Bateson experienced the click way before entering the field. The reason I’m singling her out is that she’s the daughter of two very prominent figures in cultural anthropology: Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Mead and Bateson constituted one of the best-known anthropological couples in the history of the discipline: some discussions they’ve had are a matter of disciplinary discussion (I remember one about the use of a tripod in field recordings). Also, Mead was specifically concerned with enculturation and probably thought about informal learning as she raised her daughter (apparently, Dr. Benjamin Spock was Margaret Mead’s pediatrician). Plus, Mary Catherine Bateson herself participated in her father’s work, even as a child. I don’t know how things went for her when she first entered the field of anthropology but it seems that she received her BA from Radcliffe at age 21 and her PhD from Harvard three years later. I know things were quite fast, in those days, but I’d still venture the guess that Bateson was among the younger people to receive a PhD in anthropology. What I’m wondering, though, is how she felt about her family background. She probably wrote about this in some of her books but I haven’t read them, yet.

Much of the reason I’m writing about this probably relates to the fact that I’ve once been told that I was relatively normal for the son of a psychologist. But I was also thinking about both Bateson and Obama for different reasons, so I took the opportunity to write about the both of them in the same post.

Besides, this is precisely the kind of blogpost I enjoy writing on a RERO basis.

About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

3 responses to “Son of an Anthropologist

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