Editor’s Note: Robbie Blinkoff is a real anthropologist – the kind you only read about in books from the days of Clifford Geertz. He started out researching hunter-gather gardeners in Papua New Guinea and how they don’t own property as we know it.
Robbie Blinkoff is also a real anthropology researcher – the kind that many of us want to be. He helped start Context-Based Research Group, a global company that conducts ethnographic research and consumer anthropology for businesses. We are very honored to have Robbie contribute a personal essay this month. Robbie doesn’t talk about his work with companies in this essay, instead he gives us a deeply personal take of the value of anthropological research for uncovering deep complexity. Robbie teaches courses in cultural and consumer anthropology at Goucher College and plays the ukulele. You can follow Robbie on twitter. – Tricia
I’m an anthropologist. My wife is an anthropologist. I know a lot of anthropologists. I’m not an academic anthropologist, but I do teach college courses on anthropology. My job title is Principal Anthropologist. What I’ve come to realize is that “being an anthropologist” is just something I understand and am sure that’s who I am. As an anthropologist I just know nothing is for certain and that there exist a number of reasons and ways of doing things. I always looked at life this way. So when I found anthropology it just made sense that I was an anthropologist.
I remember the day I knew anthropology was what I was going to study. I had just come back from a term abroad living on a Kibbutz in Israel. It was 1985, I was 20 years old and I was a psychology major. I was taking a psychology course on gender with Suzie Benack – one of my favorite professors. Dr. Benack had worked under Nancy Chodorow who achieved notoriety for putting a feminist spin on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
The class got started. We were sitting at desks in a square around the room. Dr. Benack asked what things show that you are feminine. The women in the class, it was mostly women, started going through a laundry list of things – ear rings, crossing your legs when you sit, long hair and so on. At the time, I had or did all those things and I was getting pretty angry. Dr. Benack, noticing my frustration asked me what I thought.
“The only difference between men and women is that men pee standing up,” I said.
As I remember, I stood up and left the room. I clearly over-reacted. I now realize that Dr. Benack was at the early stage of the class and was likely using me as a foil to the other comments.
But the moment remains critical for me as an anthropologist. Coming on the heels of a life-changing cross-cultural experience, it was clear to me that “cultural” factors separate people the most. Sitting in that psychology class, I just couldn’t accept getting pigeon holed into a cultural category that I knew I did not fit into.
What I was beginning to understand was the essence of the anthropological perspective: humans are the sum total of the social constructions that define who we are and these cultural constructions are not fixed but rather organic, flexible and often fleeting.
So what is the value of an anthropological perspective and how does it work? How does anthropology help us better understand the world? And how does the primary technique used by anthropologists, ethnography, work? At my ethnographic research and consulting firm – Context-Based Research Group, we use a tree analogy to answer questions on the value of the anthropological perspective and how it works.
Think of a tree, its roots, the trunk, the leaves and limbs, and metaphorically think of the whole of human behavior and how humanity works as this tree. As anthropologists approaching this tree, the goal is to understand the ROOTS, or the underlying attitudes and motivations for what we do and why we do it.
What’s important about the roots of trees is that they are broad and expansive and even bigger and more extensive than the leaves and branches of the tree. More importantly, you cannot see the roots of a tree – they are below ground (for all intents and purposes). In the tree analogy of human behavior and why we do what we do, the roots are critical because they are arguably the most important part to the tree and they are out of sight. In terms of human behavior, the roots represent our cultural super or DEEP STRUCTURE. The overarching reasons for why we do what we do.
In this tree analogy of how humanity and human behavior works, the trunk represents our observable behavior and emotions in our lives. The limbs and leaves represent the material culture, the “stuff”, that people use in their everyday lives, from driving cars to the tools they use and objects they buy as consumers. The tree analogy therefore illustrates that the observable behavior and the “stuff” we use are manifestations, arise from, are connected to, the roots of the tree, the DEEP STRUCTURE of our culture. The key to the anthropological perspective lies in this understanding of the connectedness between the roots of the tree, the deep structure of our culture, and the rest of the tree or our observable behavior and emotions.
Anthropologists therefore understand that the best way to fully understand the underlying causes of human behavior is through direct participation and observation in the everyday observable phenomena and experience of our lives.
In other words, conducting anthropological fieldwork or what is known as ethnography – means intense observation and participation in people’s lives to understand how people live by living like them. In reality, ethnography literally means to describe (graph) groups (ethno).
Classic anthropological fieldwork involves doing what my wife and I did in Papua New Guinea. Going to a “remote” place very different from your own and living with a group of people for 1 to 2 years. Today, many anthropologists do similar ethnographies in all manner of locations. With globalization and increases in technological sophistication, ethnography as a technique continues to grow as well.
The beauty of the anthropologist’s craft is that it builds on something we all do all the time – just living our lives and watching and listening to what people are doing and saying and using. Another way to think about what anthropologists do is to think of it as a meditative process. Anthropologists immerse themselves in people’s lives to observe without, or with as little, judging as possible. Like meditation, insights often emerge from the anthropological process as if by magic and you start to see “more” than just what’s in front of you. Patterns emerge as you see connections and glimpses into why and how things work the way they do – across time and space. What you’re seeing in these moments are glimpses of the tree’s roots.
After careful observation and after patterns and insight have begun to come together, then anthropologists apply social theory to what they see. It’s in this application of anthropological or cultural insight that ethnography done by anthropologists is different than ethnography done by others. Through this iterative interpretive approach, the deep structure, those roots, the cultural underpinnings, begin to show themselves. As the roots emerge, the puzzle pieces start to come together as the anthropologists begin to marry the deep structure with the behaviors and attitudes and objects that people use, that make up the culture under observation.
Simply put the anthropologists craft amounts to uncovering the cultural narrative structure and illustrating it with stories, examples, and images of people’s lives – to fully describe what they do and how and why they do it. But the larger model for how anthropology and ethnography work together, as the tree analogy attempts to show, is much more complex.
In other words, when I said in that psychology class that the only difference between men and women is that “men pee standing up,” I was also saying that even our most basic and simplest acts have deeply complex roots. I was also making the case for the value of an anthropological perspective on all that we do.