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Cultural Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology

by Vera Mehta, Ed. D.  |  January 2001

A few days ago I attended a meeting of the Anthropology section of the New York Academy of Sciences. There was a dinner followed later by a panel discussion on the topic ‘Anthropology and the New Reductionism: A Discussion in Search of Possible Responses’. I thought it would be interesting to share some of my thoughts following the meeting with Chronicle readers in the Yaffe/Ruden community-a group probably as sophisticated, intellectually savvy and professionally varied as any in the country.

So it was, on a chilly Monday evening, I found myself seated at one of four tables each elegantly covered by a white table cloth and table settings for eight, tucking into a soothingly bland dinner of salad, baked salmon and potatoes, along with the appropriate accompanying wines. My companions were all distinguished full-time professors of anthropology or at least retired emeritus professors from various illustrious colleges and universities around New York and other parts of the country. As a lowly Adjunct who must, alas, keep a daytime job to pay for the joys of teaching undergraduates two nights a week, I was a little out of my league. (The only reason I was at the dinner at all was because the person in charge of organizing these Academy events is a very kind hearted man with a soft spot for underpaid adjuncts. He insisted I should attend at the special discount rate available to students, the elderly and the handicapped. I like to think I am not yet in the ranks of the last two, though getting perilously close.)

At any rate, the nice thing about the dinner was how young I felt. At my table, the average age of my fellow diners was about seventy. The first topic that seemed to absorb everyone was the comparative merits of retirement communities, what a cultural wasteland Florida is, the problems with different health insurance alternatives, and, how foolhardy it is to let one’s children make one’s decisions about where and how one wants to spend one’s twilight years. I have not yet given retirement much thought, but I must say I did experience some fleeting twinges of alarm at the prospect of one of my children deciding its time we put dear old Mom into a “home” and then she can play Bingo on Saturday nights with the other old dears or go on a bus trip to Atlantic City when she gets the urge for some excitement.

Next, we moved on to the more typical, upper West Side, opinionated, leftish, witty, often savagely funny dinner table conversation you only get to hear in New York or a Woody Allen movie, critiquing everything, from the state of the healthcare system, to the Clintons’ exit from the White House to Andrew Cuomo’s prospects for becoming Governor of New York, liberally sprinkled with references to the New York Times, the New Yorker, the New Republic, etc. Naturally, in this circle, TV was viewed as a medium no one but the most callow would turn to for either education or entertainment. Oprah and Jerry Springer were equally dismissed as representative of the degenerateness of our times.

My contribution so far was more or less zero. Mostly it consisted of swinging my head from one side of the table to the other so as to be sure not to miss a dazzling riposte here, or a ferocious thrust and parry there, between such suave combatants as the retired Chair of the Barnard Department of Anthropology and her counterpart, Professor Blank, Distinguished Professor of Slavic Culture at the University of Blank. If my dinner companions gave me any thought at all, it was clear they were puzzled (though too polite to say so) by who exactly I was and what I was doing amidst such a distinguished gathering. I didn’t feel like an interloper exactly, but I definitely didn’t belong either.

After dessert (chocolate gelati) and coffee we adjourned to the room where the talk was to be held. More people, some younger, but still vaguely academic looking, started to fill the chairs. (An intriguing exception was a very young girl in very tight jeans and sweater and a jaunty wool cap who seemed to have come by herself, and who fell into a deep and peaceful sleep thirty seconds into the speech of the first panelist.) One woman, who came late and settled herself next to me in the last row, promptly pulled out a bunch of papers from her tote bag and went rapidly through them with a red pen. I couldn’t help surreptitiously peering over her shoulder to see what she was doing, and discovered she was correcting essays submitted by her ESL (English as a Second Language) students.

The panel “discussion” was actually four individuals who read aloud the papers they had written out in full beforehand, each addressing a different aspect of the topic of the evening: how do anthropologists respond to the new challenges to their field posed by geneticists, sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists and others who argue that “culture” is not sufficiently “scientific” as an explanation of human behavior. All four made cogent points and arguments which can be more or less summed up as a plea to the anthropological community at large to look for ways to popularize anthropology, demonstrate its methods as just as valid if not superior to the pseudo-scientific claims of these other “upstart” disciplines, and examine more carefully the implications of their views on civic discourse and public policy.

My problem was not with what our panelists had to say. Obviously, as someone trained in anthropological thinking, I am very much in sympathy with this lament about the mounting attacks against anthropology and anthropologists, the latest being Darkness in El Dorado, the journalist Patrick Tierney’s accusations concerning the veracity of the “findings” of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon during his fieldwork among the Yanomami of Venezuela. Not to mention attempts to discredit all the old giants like Boas, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Malinowski and others who more or less defined the field in the first quarter of the last century. Whoever wants to rise to the challenge of a counter-attack has my wholehearted support. No. What troubled me was the disjunction between messenger and message.

A lot of people today have only the vaguest idea of what anthropologists do. Mess around with fossils? Decipher Mayan hieroglyphics? Watch elephants copulate? Draw elaborate kinship charts? Tramp off to the jungle to observe little people in loincloths shoot bows and arrows at each other? In college, unless they decide to major in it, most students acquire all their knowledge of the subject in one required social science course which is usually a mishmash of BOTH Sociology and Anthropology. Thus, when opportunity arises to spread the gospel of cultural anthropology and its very special virtues over other more “trendy” sciences to the public at large, it should be eagerly seized with both hands.

So what DO anthropologists do? They do ethnographic fieldwork. As Cliffford Geertz puts it in the way only he can: “What we do that others don’t, or only occasionally and not so well, is…to talk to the man in the paddy or the woman in the bazaar, largely free-form, in a one thing leads to another and everything leads to everything else manner, in the vernacular and for extended periods of time, all the while observing, from very close up, how they behave”. Anthropology is about the hurly-burly, nitty-gritty, vulgar, mundane everyday life of a society, how to observe it, how to think about it and how to write about it. My experience at the dinner table and the sight of this very articulate, clever, but somewhat supercilious, rather watery-blooded group, almost a stereotype of the ivory tower intellectual, did not inspire much confidence as the most compelling advocates of the profession.

I could not help feeling that if anthropology is to survive as the science of understanding human interaction, the daily small and large collisions between representatives of different cultural groups, we desperately need popularizers, missionaries who will spread the word in ways that appeal to people OUTSIDE the Academy. We need people like me and my fellow Adjuncts, who harried as we are, and underpaid by the schools where we teach, nonetheless feel passionately about the uniqueness of our field and rack our brains every semester to see how we can pack a 12 to 15 week course as excitingly as possible so that our students will never again look at human behavior in a simplistic way, no matter if they never take another anthropology course in their lives. We need in-house ethnographers in industry, the corporate and business world, the different professional practices like law and medicine, the arts, the media and education, to hold up the anthropological mirror as it were, and let people see their own actions and interactions reflected, so they gain a better understanding of how the whole social machinery works, and when it doesn’t, why it doesn’t. And we need the Oprahs and Jerry Springers-dare I say it-the Margaret Meads of our own time, who can “connect” with millions at the click of a button and make “ethnography” a household word, just as she did in the sixties.

To understand how to train people in acquiring this “popular”, workaday sort of anthropological perspective, lets look at one example closer to home, right here in the Yaffe/Ruden community. Managed Care is now old news. Ninety percent of the patients, or more, are in some kind of Managed Care health plan. By now most have grown used to the elaborate rigmarole of steps they must go through in order to battle their way past an irritatingly long voicemail menu in order to get an appointment, cancel one, get a Referral, talk to the doctor, ask for a prescription, get medical clearance for life insurance or do any other business with the doctor’s office. Some have mastered these steps amazingly well. Others continue to feel frustrated, angry and bewildered by the perception that the staff is unresponsive, inefficient or indifferent to their needs and that if only they could afford it, they’d go elsewhere where they felt less “impersonally” treated and things were more “like the old days.”

The above presents a classic scenario for an anthropological analysis. What is the real significance of questions like the following? Am I being short-changed because every time I come in I always get a Physician Assistant and the doctor only comes in for three minutes?  Is it reasonable to expect that if I don’t want to come in, the doctor should spend 15 minutes on the phone with me as I describe symptoms I’ve had for the past two weeks? And after that does it continue to be O.K. to insist that an overworked secretary has to call my pharmacy to order prescriptions and be put on hold for another 15 minutes because I haven’t got time for this but I assume that she does? How “accessible” do I make myself to patients calling on the phone all through the day without making patients in the office feel that I’m encroaching on their time?  From the standpoint of the individual, aggrieved questioner these are all valid questions deserving of a response. However, if simply viewed as annoyances that can be “fixed” by the application of simple, easily dispensed, topical remedies-”O.K., I’ll spend 4 minutes with you instead of 3″, or, “Fine, we’ll get one of the secretaries to call in a prescription for your sick uncle in Hawaii during her lunch hour”, or, “Yes I’ll tell the Referral ladies to fax over your referral to the doctor’s office where you are right now, because you forgot your referral at home or the dog ate it”-then we have totally missed the connections between all these individual “problems”. To fall back on an old cliché, we’re missing the forest for the trees. It’s not just a few stones that have moved from one site to another. It is that the entire landscape of private healthcare has been altered.

How does a community or group deal with change? Do they resist with every means at their disposal or do they try to adapt as best they can? Who is “right”, who is “wrong”? These questions must be asked by the community as a whole-doctors, patients and staff alike. There are no quick and easy answers, but questions like these come up every single day, hundreds of times a day, and are inevitable whenever a society or subculture is grappling with a fundamental change in structure and people have to let go of the old order, the old expectations of how things “ought to be”. And make no mistake. Managed Care in our time is to the Healthcare System what the Feminist Revolution was to The Family in the 70s or what the Internet Revolution continues to be to Global Communication since the mid-90s. Can an anthropological approach be of value in setting about the long, slow, laborious but necessary task of rearranging the mental coordinates by which we orient ourselves in the world? I believe it can.

The truly extraordinary thing about cultural anthropology is that it can teach us to step back a little from the scenes where we enact our daily dramas, watch ourselves as disinterested observers would at the same time that we are very “interested” participants/actors indeed in how the plot unfolds and what its ultimate outcome will be. I believe it is necessary to train ourselves into becoming “ethnographers” of the same societies in which we also happen to be the “natives”.

That’s my pitch for the month folks. If you managed to get to this point, thank you for your patience. Some of you have been very encouraging in your feedback to the Chronicles. I know everyone is very busy with work, family and other commitments, but I would love to get your suggestions, comments and ideas about topics YOU want to see on these pages or viewpoints you want to share. You could dash off an e-mail the next time you pick this up in the patient waiting area, or if you happen to click on it on the Yaffe/Ruden Website when you get bored reading how to prep for a colonoscopy!

-Vera Mehta