Anthropology

Related disciplines

The study of anthropology traditionally covers four fields: sociocultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, biological anthropology, and archaeology. At Sarah Lawrence College, we concentrate on sociocultural and linguistic anthropology.

Behind almost every aspect of our lives is a cultural realm, a shared construction that shapes assumptions and determines much of how we perceive and relate to the world. Sociocultural anthropology is the study of that realm—its extent and its effects. As students learn to approach with an anthropological eye what they formerly might have taken for granted, they gain insight into how social forces govern the ways in which we relate to ourselves and to each other: how we use words, how we define ourselves and others, how we make sense of our bodies, even how we feel emotions. Through examining the writings of anthropologists, viewing ethnographic films, and discussing these and other materials in seminar and conference sessions, students develop a comprehensive and multipatterned sense of the cultural dimensions of human lives. By studying the underpinnings of language, symbolic practices, race, gender, sexuality, policy and advocacy, medical systems, cities, modernity, and/or social organization across a range of Western and non-Western settings, students come to understand better how meaning is made. With seminar dynamics and content characteristic of graduate-level work, Sarah Lawrence’s anthropology courses take students in often unexpected and challenging directions.

2015-2016 Courses

Anthropology

The Anthropology of Images

Open , Seminar—Fall

A few cartoons lead to cataclysmic events in Europe. A man’s statement that he “can’t breathe” ricochets across North America. A photograph printed in a newspaper moves a solitary reader. A snapshot posted on the Internet leads to dreams of fanciful places. Memories of a past year haunt us like ghosts. What each of these occurrences has in common is that they all entail the force of images in our lives, be these images visual or acoustic in nature, made by hand or machine, circulated by word of mouth, or simply imagined. In this seminar, we will consider the role that images play in the lives of people in various settings throughout the world. In delving into terrains at once actual and virtual, we will develop an understanding of how people throughout the world create, use, circulate, and perceive images and how such efforts tie into ideas and practices of sensory perception, time, memory, affect, imagination, sociality, history, politics, and personal and collective imaginings. Through these engagements, we will reflect on the fundamental human need for images, the complicated politics and ethics of images, aesthetic and cultural sensibilities, dynamics of time and memory, the intricate play between the actual and the imagined, and the circulation of digital images in an age of globalization. Readings will include a number of writings in anthropology, art history, philosophy, psychology, cultural studies, and critical theory. Images will be drawn from photographs, paintings, sculptures, drawings, films, videos, graffiti, religion, rituals, tattoos, inscriptions, novels, poems, road signs, advertisements, dreams, fantasies, phantasms, and any number of fabulations in the worlds in which we live and imagine.

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Global Adoptions: An Anthropology of Kinship

Open , Seminar—Fall

We tend to assume that family-building involves deeply personal, intimate, and “natural” acts in making a relationship (marriage) and in becoming parents (sex). But in actual practice, the pragmatics of forming (and disbanding) families are much more complex. There are many instances where a desired pregnancy is biologically impossible: infertility or gay parents, for example. Conversely, there are children born to individuals who will not parent them for a wide variety of reasons. This seminar examines the meanings and processes, cross-culturally, of adoption—defined here as the placement of children to be raised permanently by others. We will explore this process anthropologically in countries and cultures across the globe, including the United States, Australia, Hawaii, Tanzania, China, Argentina, Sweden, Chile, Nigeria, and Korea. As well as looking within particular ethno-local sites, we will pay considerable attention to the global movement of children to adoption. There is great variety in the circumstances of transnational adoption from Swedish people seeking adoptive daughters in Chile to the Kindertransports at the start of World War II and to the North American Orphan Trains of the 19th and 20th centuries. Questions we will examine include: What is the difference between fostering and adoption? Why do people talk about “giving up” a child for adoption? Why is adoption welcomed in some cultures and hidden in others? When and why do adoptive parents attempt to expose their children to their cultures of origin? Why is adoption discourse more about parents getting children than children getting parents? Why are the legal records of an adoption sealed? How do race, class, and gender play out in adoption scenarios? The materials for this class include literature, scholarly articles, ethnographic accounts, historical documents, and film. Conference work may be done on any aspect of the class, as well as on other topics in the anthropology of kinship or in the ethnographies of cultures and places encountered in the course materials.

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Language, Politics, and Identity

Open , Seminar—Spring

This course will ask how words do things in the world, exploring the complex linkages between language, politics, and identity in both past and present contexts. We will pose a range of questions, such as: How does language enable powerful regimes to take force, and how do linguistic innovations constitute a creative means to challenge oppression? What role do the politics and poetics of language play in broader social movements and cultural revitalization efforts? How do particular political configurations produce language shift or constrain the possibilities for verbal expression in specific social groups? How does language take shape through specific narrative forms like testimonio, and how do such forms constitute or enable acts of political resistance? We will look at such topics in a range of ethnographic contexts, with a special focus on the Americas. Our readings will address case studies including: the emergent Zapotec language and music revival in the highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico; the lexicon of terror that shaped the political kidnappings and murders of Argentina’s Dirty Wars; the legacies of secrecy, silence, and creative resistance among Pueblo nations in the US Southwest; the challenges and joys of bilingualism among transnational migrants; and the acts of narrative witnessing employed by a range of activists including political prisoners, indigenous rights leaders, and undocumented youth. Students will be invited to draw upon original linguistic research as a central part of their conference work.

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Telling Lives: Life History Through Anthropology

Open , Seminar—Spring

Through studying life-history narratives (one person’s life as narrated to another), autobiographical memoir, and more experimental forms in print and on screen, we will explore the diverse ways that life courses are experienced and represented. Throughout our readings, we will carefully examine the narratives themselves, paying attention to the techniques of life-history construction and familiarizing ourselves with ethical, methodological, and theoretical challenges. We will consider a number of questions about telling lives: What is the relationship between the narrator and his or her interlocutor(s)? How does a life-history approach inform debates about representation? What can the account of one person’s life tell us about the wider culture of which he or she is a part? How can individual life narratives shed light on such issues as poverty, sexuality, colonialism, disability, racism, and aging? The selected texts attend to lives in various parts of the world, including Australia, Great Britain, the Caribbean, East Africa, and the United States. Students will also analyze primary sources and create a life history as part of their work for the course.

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Colonialism, Anthropology, Politics

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

When Jomo Kenyatta’s ethnography of Gikuyu (Kenya) society was published in the 1930s, the forward to this nationalist, anticolonial text was provided by Bronislaw Malinowski, a “founding father” of British social anthropology. This apparently unlikely alliance is just one example of the many paradoxes and contradictions to be found in the political history of anthropology. Over the past two centuries, anthropology has been the site of liberation and antiracist activism on the one hand and of studies that justified colonialism and slavery on the other. The course will explore the ways in which this intellectual discipline has formed in various social and political contexts both within and beyond the academy. Our questions will include the following: How have the practices of anthropologists contributed to interrogation of the concept of race? Why have particular theoretical approaches arisen in specific geographical locations? How have the subject positions of anthropologists—in terms of their nationality, class, race, gender identity, and sexual orientation—informed their anthropological research and writings? What have anthropologists done in wartime? What have been the relations between anthropologists and their funders (both large foundations and individual patrons)? We will study the writings and images of anthropologists, historians, novelists, and activists in many parts of the globe. This class may be of particular interest to students wishing to examine questions about diversity.

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Spaces of Exclusion, Places of Belonging

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

How do people construct meaningful places in a favela in Brazil or in the hill farms of Scotland? What should we make of “placeless” spaces or states, such as those instantiated through technologies like social media or Hindu yogic and meditative practice? How should we understand notions of displacement, transborder identifications, or longings for homeland as they play out for Sierra Leonean Muslims in Washington, DC, for Ecuadorians in Italy, or for indigenous Latin American migrants in California and Wyoming? This course explores issues of identity and difference, locality and community, in the context of transnational mobility and the globalized flow of people, ideas, values, and things. Engaging with recent scholarly work in the fields of anthropology, cultural studies, sociology, geography, architecture, and literature, we will seek to decode sociospatial arrangements to better understand structures and processes of exclusion and marginalization. At the same time, we will observe how people’s navigations through space and their efforts at placemaking create sites of collective identity, resistance, belonging, and recognition. Posed in a wide range of ethnographic contexts, our efforts to puzzle through these issues will require attention to the ways in which space and place are, for instance, embodied, gendered, racialized, and (il)legalized. We will likewise attend to the politics and ethics of postcolonial scholarship on space and place and to the meanings of an engaged anthropology that leans toward social justice.

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Queering Africa: Gender and Sexuality Across the Continent

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Spring

South Africa and Zimbabwe abut each other, both were colonized by white settlers, and each won its independence through civil war. Despite these similarities, in this postcolonial era the security of self-identified Queer Africans in each polity are in striking contrast with one other. How that has come to be will be just one of the questions that we explore in this anthropology seminar. We will begin our studies with accounts of the varied experiences of gender relations by different African populations and individuals within their own cultural and political settings. These will include colonial era phenomena such as “Sitting on a man” in Nigeria, the politics of female circumcision in Kenya, and discourses of masculinity in Tanzanian pastoral communities. Following that, we will briefly study European descriptions (often those of Christian missionaries) of “deviant” sexuality before turning to our primary text, The Queer African Reader, edited by Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas. From these African writers, we will learn about the phenomenal diversity of “queerness” on the continent in terms of gender identities and objects of desire. We will look at discourses of “traditional” homosexuality and transnational connections in a global gay rights discourse. While this seminar is about Africa, students are not confined to that continent for their conference work and may research anything they choose that is in some way connected to the course.

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Hauntologies: Specters of the Subject Cultural Formations

Intermediate , Joint seminar—Spring

"The future belongs to the ghosts,” remarked the philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1996. As his interlocutor Bernard Stiegler phrases the main idea behind this statement, “Modern technology, contrary to appearances, increases tenfold the power of ghosts." With the advent of the Internet, various forms of social media, and the ubiquity of filmic images in our lives, Derrida's observations have proven to be prophetic such that they call for a new field of study, one that requires less an ontology of the real and more a “hauntology” (to invoke Derrida's punning term) of the spectral, the virtual, the phantasmic, the recurrent. In this seminar, we consider ways in which the present is haunted by a condition of spectrality. Topics to be covered include: ghosts and hauntings, figures and apparitions, history and memory, trauma and political crisis, digital interfaces, visual and acoustic images. We will be considering a range of films and video, photography, literary texts, acoustic reverberations, Internet and social media, and everyday discourses and imaginings. Through these inquiries, we will be able to further our understanding of the nature of specters and apparitions in the contemporary world in their many forms and dimensions. Students will be invited to undertake their own hauntologies and thus craft studies of the phenomenal force of specters, hauntings, and the apparitional in particular social or cultural contexts.

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Ethnographic Research and Writing

Advanced , Seminar—Year

Javanese shadow theatre, Bedouin love poems, and American ordinary affects are but a few of the cultural realities that anthropologists have effectively studied and written about. This is no easy task, given the substantial difficulties involved in understanding and portraying the concerns, activities, and logic of lives other than one’s own. Despite these challenges, ethnographic research is generally considered to be one of the best ways to form a nuanced and contextually rich understanding of a particular social world. To gain an informed sense of the methods, challenges, and benefits of just such an approach, students in this course will try their hands at ethnographic research and writing. In the fall semester, each student will be asked to undertake an ethnographic research project in order to investigate the features of a specific social world such as a homeless shelter, a religious festival, or a neighborhood in Brooklyn. In the spring, she or he will craft a fully realized piece of ethnographic writing that conveys something of the features and dynamics of that world in lively, accurate, and comprehensive terms. Along the way, and with the help of anthropological writings that are either exceptional or experimental in nature, we will collectively think through some of the most important features of ethnographic projects, such as interviewing others, the use of fieldnotes, the interlacing of theory and data, the role of dialogue and the author’s voice in ethnographic prose, and the ethical and political responsibilities that come with any attempt to understand and portray the lives of others.

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Related History Courses

From Medina to Metropolis: The City in Middle Eastern History

Intermediate , Seminar—Year

The Middle East has a long and rich urban tradition, boasting some of the world’s oldest cities. At the same time, the cities of the region have undergone profound changes over time, particularly as a result of the range of global forces, patterns, and linkages that are intrinsic to the process of “modernity” (a conceptual category that will be examined at great length). This course explores the lived experience of urban space as a lens through which to view broader transformations in the social, political, economic, and cultural history of the Middle East from late antiquity to the present. The course will also introduce students to some recent developments in urban theory and different methods that scholars have adopted to capture various aspects of city life, particularly in the modern period. To this end, the approach of the course will be interdisciplinary, drawing from such fields as art history, anthropology, sociology, geography, comparative literature, film studies, and political economy to explore the historical development of Middle Eastern cities through a variety of frames. In our effort to think beyond the “hard city” of bricks and mortar, particular attention will be paid to the cultural imagination and expression of various Middle Eastern cities in literature and film—our main “primary sources” in this course. Throughout the course, we will examine what cities have meant for Middle Eastern society and culture in a variety of contexts; study how various individuals and social groups across the region have experienced and used urban space; explore how writers, artists and filmmakers have attempted to imagine and render their urban milieus; and consider the extent to which the Middle Eastern experience of urban modernity has paralleled others around the globe. Cities to be covered include: Cairo, Istanbul, Damascus, Mecca, Baghdad, Tehran, Isfahan, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Aleppo, Alexandria, Beirut, Algiers, Marrakesh, Aden, Izmir, and Dubai.

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The Promise of the City: Urbanism and Black America

Advanced , Seminar—Year

In 1992, Los Angeles erupted in violence. African Americans took to the streets to protest the verdict in the Rodney King trial and to express their frustration over a system that they believed had failed them. Twenty-three years later, African Americans and their allies took to the streets once more—this time in Baltimore—to protest police violence against Freddie Gray and the larger issues of systemic discrimination, political corruption, and, as one activist explained, “the heartbreak of broken promises.” This yearlong seminar will explore urbanism with a focus on African American communities. Of central concern is how city life is shaped by race, class, and gender. This course asks how urban life, from the Great Migration to current times, creates both opportunities and obstacles for African American men, women, and children. Drawing from history, sociology, and anthropology, we will look at the ways in which cities have structured the lives of African Americans and how African Americans and other minority groups have left their mark—economically, politically, and culturally—on American cities. In the fall semester, we will concentrate on structural features such as the built environment, housing, transportation, political participation and representation, economic development, segregation, policing and crime, social services, and the education system. In the spring semester, we will turn our attention to cultural production, identity, language, sexuality, religion, leisure, the arts, and consumerism.

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