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Addressing important and timely topics, including global climate change and the #MeToo movement, Through the Lens of Cultural Anthropology is a fresh and contemporary textbook designed to engage students in the world surrounding them. The book offers a sustained focus on language, food, and sustainability in an inclusive format that is sensitive to issues of gender, sexuality, and race. Integrating personal stories from her own fieldwork, the author brings her passion for transformative learning to students in a way that is both timely and thought-provoking.
Beautifully illustrated with over sixty full-color images, including comics and maps, the text brings concepts to life in a way sure to resonate with undergraduate readers. Through the Lens of Cultural Anthropology is supplemented by a full suite of instructor and student supports that can be accessed at lensofculturalanthropology.com.
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This book is an adaptation of the four-fields anthropology textbook, Through the Lens of Anthropology: An Introduction to Human Evolution and Culture (2016), that my colleague and friend, Bob Muckle, and I wrote. As an adaptation, I have creatively titled this book Through the Lens of Cultural Anthropology. Snappy title notwithstanding, the book further develops the cultural and linguistic sections of the previous text with additional chapters and room to flesh out ideas that existed there in a shorter form. Several chapters on new topics have also been added.
This text focuses on the key themes of food, language, and sustainability. The importance of language to human culture is discussed in detail in Chapter 4. Issues of language are highlighted in a box feature (“Talking About”) in every chapter. An anthropological approach to food and culture is woven throughout the text, with Chapter 5 devoted to food-getting practices. It is also, like language, included in a box feature (“Food Matters”) in each chapter. Examples focusing on sustainability of the economy, society, and the environment are provided throughout the text, with Chapter 12 devoted to sustainability.
Like many of you, I’m primarily a visual learner. Seeing images often allows me to connect to a topic in a way that I might not with only text. For that reason, I’ve tried to include a diverse series of graphics in this book, including the introduction of several comic panels. Anthropology is in a visually creative period, in which ethnographies are being produced as graphic novels, especially for use in the classroom. The field is beginning to value the ways that storytelling with both images and words can engage us in an emotional way. I’ve included some of my favorite graphic panels in hope that you will also connect with them.
I’m primarily a teacher of anthropology. My years of teaching have allowed me to present the ideas in this book in what I hope is a clear and engaging way. The text includes a number of personal stories relating to the topics being discussed. As I wrote these anecdotes in the text, I realized that I’ll have to come up with a whole new set of stories to tell in class.
In addition to teaching, I’ve also been fortunate to do cultural research, or ethnography, in several different countries. For instance, I’ve taken several research trips to Mexico. I worked with a publishing house in Oaxaca to understand how Indigenous participants were revitalizing their language through self-publishing. I’ve spoken to young men preparing to run alongside bulls in the Pamplonada, a bull-running fiesta in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. I have also spent time in Mumbai, Maharashtra, India learning about modern arranged marriage practices from young women. These field studies—living and working alongside people very different from myself—have enriched my teaching and anthropological thinking in ways I couldn’t even begin to count. For this reason, you may notice slightly more examples about these places than others.
Traveling to places all over the world with very different ways of thinking and acting also has caused me to reflect on the privilege I have been given. I’m a White woman of European ancestry (largely unidentified because I’m adopted, but most certainly European) who grew up in a safe community with a supportive and loving family. I identify as heterosexual and also cisgender. Aside from my nose ring, you might make the assumption that I’ve never questioned anything at all about my mainstream life. Fortunately, because of anthropology, you would be incorrect.
I learned to observe as an outsider from a very young age, always feeling on the periphery of the middle-to-upper class White environment in which I found myself. I felt more comfortable seeking out people diverse in both ethnicity and class to talk and spend time with. Finding anthropology as a major was a shock. “You mean I can major in people watching?” I asked my advisor. I was hooked from my first class. A career in anthropology has allowed me to validate those initial feelings and try to understand others who have such different lives and worldviews than mine.
Today, as an anthropologist and teacher, I am an advocate for marginalized people, food security, and social justice. Every day in the classroom, I encourage my students to use cultural relativism to understand others, to limit their ethnocentrism, to see that race is not a biological category, to explore the idea that gender roles and sexuality are far from universal and are on a spectrum, and to see that the way we do things in North America is just one of the world’s incredibly diverse and exciting cultural patterns.
One of the phrases that has always stuck with me is the idea that anthropology “makes the familiar strange, and the strange familiar.” If, through this process of deconstructing what we think we know, we can all develop just a little more empathy for others, then anthropology can make the world a better place. Consequently, this book is full of examples that illustrate aspects of social, cultural, or political inequality because I believe that knowledge leads to compassion, and compassion is essential to being human. I agree with Sarah Shulist (2018) when she argues that anthropologists must be “aggressively human,” meaning that we must advocate for and with others and openly renounce anthropological work that exploits, dehumanizes, or undermines the ability of Indigenous or other groups to speak for themselves. We adopt empathy, collaboration, and support for one another, for students, and for the people with whom we work, in all of our behavior.
On my campus, I am an active ally for the LGBTQ+ community with a special research interest in the experiences of gender non-conforming and transgender students. For this reason, you will note in the book that I use the singular pronoun “they” to refer to people rather than he/she. The pronoun “they” is inclusive of all genders, and in fact, the Oxford Dictionary says the singular “they” has been in use since the sixteenth century. For the same reason, when I refer to people of other ethnicities with gendered a/o endings, I use a non-binary “x” such as in Chicanx and Latinx.
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