Friday, September 27, 2013

Anthropology out of context

I learned so much while I was in Portugal and some of it even had to do with anthropology!

First, no one there is a "cultural" anthropologist - they are all "social" anthropologists. The distinctions are fuzzy, even for someone inside the discipline, but part of it derives from the American tradition handed down from Boas focusing on cultures as coherent wholes, hence "cultural anthropology," whereas European anthropology tended to focus more on structure and institution, therefore "social anthropology." Most people use the terms interchangeably, or at most as a marker of origin. It was neat to see it in action.

I was there, as you may recall, for a class on Sexuality and Morality: Intercultural Perspectives and Mediations. I have a feeling that I'll be working through ideas I encountered there for a while yet, both via blog and in my more scholarly writing.

The class was hosted by ISCTE_IUL (the Lisbon University Institute) and taught by two postdocs at CRIA (the Center for Research in Anthropology), Anna Fedele and Valerio Simoni . Anna is from Italy and Valerio is from Switzerland. Each researches different topics that intersect one another at the area of sexuality (or eroticism, but more on that in another post). Anna, in a nutshell, works with religious groups (particularly Marian cults and pagans) and Valerio, equally briefly, has worked on sex tourism. After a week, I don't feel I know their work intimately enough to represent it fairly in a blog post, but it seems fascinating. I look forward to learning more about their work through their written corpus and personal correspondence.

One of the most immediate effects of this course has been the drastic expansion in my personal network. Anna and Valerio are both social anthropologists. The class, however, was not limited solely to anthropologists, but instead drew on a number of disciplines and professions. Religious studies, psychology, social work and secondary education were all represented and in most cases by professionals rather than academics. People came from Belgium, Canada, Italy, Norway, Poland, and Greece. They are all doing incredible work. Once I get their permission, I'll share a link with you to the cool things going on.

The class consisted of people in different phases of their career, from one woman considering grad school, to a man fresh back from his preliminary fieldwork, to another who was just about to dive into his dissertation. The professional members of the class kept us grounded in praxis (although sometimes the theoretical nerd rage just couldn't be contained). I felt like, yes, I have passed through these trials. It made me feel old but also accomplished. Some days, I feel like I got my Ph.D. by mistake, that I will be revealed for the impostor I am. This class reminded me of how much I love anthropology and that I am pretty good at it.

During the course, I was lucky to be able to present on my work. Morality has been a sticking point for me in the past. I'm still processing my epiphanies, but I forgot how important it is to have a community of scholars or otherwise engaged people to toss around ideas with. Fieldwork is always a lonely time, but my choice to remain in Texas to write afterwards rather than return to my university shaped a lot of my analysis. I don't know that it was necessarily better or worse; it was simply how things had to be. However, this class has made me nostalgic for the intensity and drive elicited by too much theory and not enough sleep caused by grad school.

My current work is very engaging, but sometimes I feel like such an focused perspective on the local tricks me into a provincial mindset. I work with historians and sociologists and other social scientists; their attention is very much on an American context for social justice issues. Going to Lisbon, even if only for ten days, reminded me that I am part of a global community, that people from around the world (not all people and not all the world, of course) find interesting and salient the same topics I do. I needed that.

I was able to attend the class through the generous support (I always thought that was a cliché, but the individuals involved were very generous; they didn't have to do anything for me, but they found some room in their budget for a random research assistant) from several sectors of my institution, including my home institution, the LGBT center at the university, the international office, and the local/community LGBT center. Now I have to process everything I've learned in order to share it with these different audiences.

Next time, I promise more sex and anthropology. I just wanted to say, if you have the chance to do something like this, take it! Networking, theorizing, workshopping, all of it. Conferences can give you these things in small doses, but an intense class forces you into participating in ways that watching a panel seldom does.

And if you're still in grad school, I know this will sound insane, but try to enjoy it. What I wouldn't give for the chance to discuss the limitations of Judith Butler and queer theory over a coffee (or a beer, or more likely, several coffees followed by several beers) with people who give a shit about it.