Feminist Anthropology

The first article in my two-part series on feminist anthropology featured by Lady Science.



Playing Along: Fieldwork, Emotional Labor and Self-Care

My reflections on fieldwork in Fiji during my service as a Peace Corps volunteer and the emotional considerations of living in another culture.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

For any practicing or aspiring anthropologist, fieldwork is the defining, almost qualifying practice of the discipline. As an undergraduate studying sociocultural anthropology, we read the seminal journals of Bronislaw Malinowski, followed by foundational ethnographic research from around the world. Even though the field has ostensibly moved beyond the “exotic”—no longer wholly consumed with discovering new indigenous communities or uncovering a culture untouched by capitalism and globalization—students are still encouraged to conduct their fieldwork in remote, isolated, and, yes, tacitly exotic locations. As my professor lectured during my Anthropology Senior Seminar at Vassar College, you have to conduct your first fieldwork abroad if you want to be taken seriously as an anthropologist. The implication was that if you don’t go somewhere distant and strange, you won’t experience the same level of cultural difference, linguistic estrangement, physical hardship, and existential negotiation that molds the student into a consummate…

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Aliens Among Us: Extraterrestrial Anthropology

I want to believe.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

I’ve always been something of a science fiction geek, but it wasn’t until my senior year at college that I realized the synergy between the science fiction genre and anthropology. Part of the reason why science fiction has been such a boon for anthropology, and why so many anthropological science fiction stories are written, lies in the fact that science fiction is a useful tool to think about culture from an outsider’s perspective. Quite apart from the world building aspects of the genre, the presence of aliens provides readers and audience members with figures, indeed, whole populations, with which to think through alternative notions of humanity. As Slusser and Rabkin write, “The alien is the creation of a need—man’s need to designate something that is genuinely outside himself, something that is truly noman, that has no initial relation to man except for the fact that…

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Anthropology Is Here: National Anthropology Day

Why anthropology matters more than ever.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

Given that the American Anthropological Association has designated today as National Anthropology Day, it seems apropos to reflect on why anthropology matters and why we should even have a day to celebrate the discipline of anthropology. I spent four years of my undergraduate education immersing myself in the study of culture and almost two years out of school negotiating the professional world, trying to figure out what anthropology means outside of academe. Despite the general misunderstanding and misapprehension of what anthropology means and does, I’ve found the discipline absolutely necessary and indispensable to my jobs, as well as prescient issues in public affairs.


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Anthropology & Literature

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

When I was an undergraduate at Vassar College, I double majored in Anthropology and English. Even though I saw myself following in the tradition of fellow Vassar alum Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), my major advisors were frankly baffled by the combination. It seems apt, therefore, that my first panel at the AAA 2014 Meeting this past year was on “Anthropology and Storytelling”.

Convened by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, Carole McGranahan (University of Colorado), Coralynn V. Davis (Bucknell) and Gina Athena Ulyssse (Wesleyan) each presented papers on the importance of narrative in fieldwork and ethnographic writing. Indeed, part of what initially spoke to me about anthropology was its emphasis on studying the storied aspects of human lives. As a fledgling anthropologist, I necessarily studied Clifford Geertz’s theories about culture as a series of texts that anthropologists read and interpret over the shoulders of their informants (Geertz 1973)…

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The Weekly Geekout: Reflections from #AAA2014

My take on this past year’s American Anthropological Association meeting.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

They are an unusual tribe: gathering in small, clandestine clusters, hugging or kissing over common cohorts and academic rituals, speaking in a discourse particular to the profession, yet full of insider jokes, misgivings and idiosyncracies. As I wended my way through the throngs of anthropologists swaddled in shawls and theoretical quandaries, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed, thinking about all the panels and presentations I wanted to attend. Although I missed out on presentations by Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das, Emily Martin, Lila Abu-Lughod, Vincent Crapanzano, Thomas Csordas, Mary-Jo Delvecchio Good, and Didier Fassin, I did get to see Summerson Carr, Charles L. Briggs, Judith Farquhar and have a minor fan-girl moment over Nancy Scheper-Hughes. I was summarily impressed with the variety of panels that put different groups in dialogue with one another, attended to incipient digital communities and methodological strategies, and confronted the new political and…

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So You’re An Undergraduate and You Need to Edit Your Final Paper

The Geek Anthropologist

We all know the drill: you’ve spent more hours in the library than you’d care to admit, hopped up on coffee and anxiety surrounding a final paper for your class. You’ve already submitted an initial draft, which has been returned covered in indecipherable scribbles and red marks necessitating a major editorial overhaul. Whereas revision can mean a set of changes that correct or improve something, editing usually means making changes in preparation for final publication. Editing goes beyond correcting comma splices or parallel structure, and involves looking at your manuscript as a whole to appraise the larger rhetorical, structural integrity of your piece to ascertain whether there are ways to tweak your argument, logical development and expressive approach that would ultimately benefit the essay and its reception. Sometimes we are too close to a paper to be able to approach our work with the sort of dispassionate, editorial distance needed…

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Barthes & Buggers: The Death of the Author & Orson Scott Card


Speaker for the Dead Ender Wiggin & Human, the Pequenino

The comic book world has been buzzing ever since the recent hire of renowned science fiction writer Orson Scott Card to pen the latest Superman digital comic. Most famous for his Ender’s Game series—the first book published in 1977, which won the 1985 Nebular Award for best novel and 1986 Hugo Award for best novel—and the current adaptation of the novel into a movie, which was released on November 1, 2013, Card is also infamous for his homophobia and the exploitation of his fame to further his anti-gay agenda. A Mormon by faith and a member of the board of The National Organization for Marriage, which has worked since 2007 to oppose efforts to legalize same-sex marriage, Card wrote an article in 2008 for Deseret News stating, “No matter how sexually attracted a man might be toward other men, or a woman toward other women, and no matter how close the bonds of affection and friendship might be within same-sex couples, there is no act of court or Congress that can make these relationships the same as the coupling between a man and a woman. This is a permanent fact of nature.” He has also argued that individuals become gay as a result of sexual abuse and that sodomy should be a punishable crime. His vituperative and offensive comments are so discriminatory and ignorant that the comic book industry ignited into an uproar over his new position in DC, especially given the number of LGBTQ characters in the DC verse, including Alysia Yeoh, Alan Scott (Green Lantern) and Kate Kane (Batwoman) to name a few. Comic book stores have threatened not to sell Card’s Adventures of Superman issue and Chris Spouse, who was slated to illustrate the comic, decided to drop the project due to Card’s problematic political views. Due to all of the negative backlash, the story has been put on hold.

Yet Orson Scott Card’s books don’t read as disrespectful or biased diatribes. Indeed, many of his novels explore the importance of empathy and work to unpack notions of humanity. Though the Formics, or Buggers, of Ender’s Game are perceived as a vile and murderous alien race, Ender’s heroism ultimately lies in his ability to commiserate with and love the very enemy he has been recruited to destroy. The ultimate tragedy comes at the end of the novel, when it is revealed that an inability to effectively communicate and understand one another results in the extermination of the Buggers, except for the Hive Queen, whom Ender rescues. In Speaker for the Dead, Card grapples with ethnocentric and blinkered conceptions of humanity, progress and primitivism. While visiting Lusitania, ostensibly to fulfill his role as Speaker for the Dead, Ender upbraids the xenological methods and attitudes of Miro and Ouanda, critiquing, “‘You’re cultural supremacists to the core. You’ll perform your Questionable Activities to help out the poor little piggies, but there isn’t a chance in the world you’ll notice when they have something to teach you.’” ImageThis work of anthropological science fiction is an exercise in empathy and cultural habitation, unpacking the biases and presumptions people impose on those that seem strange or foreign to them. The formerly opaque behavior and beliefs of the pequenino culture is subsequently elucidated through Ender’s willingness to believe and allow the Piggies to discuss the internal logic of their life-world. Their conceptions of death and morality are thrown into sharp relief once the ecological phenomena that inform them are revealed. Card does not dismiss alternative life worlds or approaches to religion and sexuality in Speaker to the Dead, but rather acknowledges the multiplicity of cultures that can simultaneously exist and retain their own truth.

How, then, can we reconcile Card’s homophobia and intolerance with the messages of empathy and understanding that implicitly inform both Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead? In 1968, the esteemed literary critic Roland Barthes published his now canonical article “The Death of the Author,” which argued that a text has no singular interpretation or reading that can be sought out and understood by examining what the writer “intended.” Rather, to truly appreciate and critically analyze a text, we must divorce the piece from the author, move away from the historical impulse to look for the personal touches in a book, and rather “liberate” the text from its presumed source—that of the author. Not all of Orson Scott Card’s books are infused with a message of hate and Card’s political beliefs do not necessarily determine the quality or ideologies of the Superman verse, but we must tread lightly when it comes to issues of intolerance and basic human rights. One would hope that in spending so much time inhabiting the minds of strangers and aliens, Card would have learned how to suspend judgment, interrogate his own preconceived biases, and embrace the same spirit of empathy, respect and understanding his protagonist demonstrates.



2013 Student Anthropologist

The 2013 edition of Student Anthropologist has been released today, featuring my paper on “The Aesthetics of Deformity and the Construction of the Freak.” The Journal of the National Association of Student Anthropologists features a variety of insightful, eloquent and thought-provoking discussions on ethnography, representation and anthropological methodologies.

Baobabs & Briars: Plucking Anthropological Essentials from ‘The Little Prince’

I was raised on the story of a young boy that took advantage of a flock of birds for his prodigal departure from Asteroid B-612, a fairy tale penned by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Throughout my childhood and young adult years, each time I reread The Little Prince, I felt I had peeled back another layer from the deceptively acetic story. Throughout college, the flaxen-haired youth followed me. As I delved deeper and deeper into my chosen major of Anthropology, I mulled over how much the book is related to the anthropological field and taught me some of the most essential lessons about the discipline. I’ve come to realize how much the Little Prince prepared me for a profession in anthropology.

the little princeThe book begins with a pilot confronting a young boy from a different world (and thusly a different culture) in a desert. The pilot is frazzled by his unexpected crash and desires only to fix his plane, but the boy inquires for a drawing of a sheep. The pilot acquiesces in the hope that the boy will be satisfied with a simple sketch. The first three drawings are deemed too sickly, too old or too farcical. The pilot reconnoiters himself and eliminates the horns, expecting the child to be content with the changes. But the boy is distraught, mentioning a precious flower that could be gobbled up if the sheep were left to wander. He provides the pilot with the environmental context of his home, as well as the cultural or social valuation placed on certain forms of vegetation, establishing a hierarchy of value that does not necessarily equate to typical market standards or Western concepts of worth. So the pilot again begins to sketch, suggesting he give the sheep a muzzle, explaining that it will prevent the sheep from eating the precious flower. The boy, however, is not pleased, noting that the issue is far more complex than can simply be muzzled. So the pilot draws a box with three holes in it, to represent a space for the sheep where it is protected from the outside world and the flower. The sheep, in this illustration, remains hidden, though it is implied by the pilot that the sheep rests inside, a truth that the Little Prince accepts and celebrates. This interpretation of the sheep is exactly what the Prince had hoped for—not so much an actual creature, but an epistemological symbol. It was only through an engaged conversation that the pilot was able to glean the meanings and social contexts that Prince yearned to express. Throughout the exchange, Clifford Geertz’s metaphor of a web of signification ran strong and invisible, imprinting itself upon the conversation.

As the Little Prince travels from world to world, he attempts to understand the cultural reality and relativity that orients the people he encounters. He increasingly remarks how strange the adults are that he meets, yet is never disrespectful—he merely asks questions and inquires after how they perceive the universe. He is baffled by several of the men’s fascination with numbers and figures, an arithmetic dimension they say they need to understand the world. The pilot articulates this need with a sense of irony: “Grown-ups like numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: ‘What does his voice sound like?’ ‘What games does he like best?’ ‘Does he collect butterflies?’ They ask: ‘How old is he?’ ‘How many brothers does he have?’ ‘How much does he weigh?’ ‘How much money does his father make?’ Only then do they think they know him”, but he remarks that children must be understanding of grown-ups and their absurd preference for numbers. The pilot quite simply explains the necessity of understanding the habits, likes and dislikes, and idiosyncrasies, all expressed in detailed, precise and sometimes poetic description. This textured narrative—which provides a deeper, more penetrating and discerning observation of a people and culture, and thusly a better knowledge of who they are—is what anthropologists know as thick description.

Arriving on Earth, the Prince meets a fox, who asks him to be tamed, or “to create ties”. The fox establishes the dynamics of the relationship and controls their interpersonal development. Each day, they slowly move close together, until gradually, building up their mutual trust and respect, they sit side by side. This relationship requires patience from the Little Prince and illuminates how much anthropological inquiry is dependent on the openness of informants. We may covet their secrets, but the natives are the ones that determine who divulges them. Establishing rapport is not always easy and there may be days when you move backward, research stymied by an accidental transgression in social decorum. Even when the fox and the Little Prince are facing each other, the fox speaks metaphorically, so that it’s still up to the naïve boy to translate what is meant by, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” It is a riddle that could be unpacked and rearranged a hundred different ways, just as cultures have no single, coherent narrative or interpretation, no expert or unitary explanation that draws a society into a discrete, categorical bundle. We must fumble with our eyes closed in the search of the proper questions, and sometimes our quest can only begin in the darkness.

Before the Prince departs at the conclusion of their taming, the fox imparts one last epithet: “’The only things you learn are the things you tame […] You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.’” With a history of armchair anthropology, the central premises of the discipline have become fieldwork and ethnography, practices that set anthropology apart from the other social sciences and establish the validity of our claims. We can only learn about a culture from the people that inhabit it. But in forging these relationships, anthropologists must respect the boundaries and privacy of our informants, adhering to certain ethical principles that ensure their security and cultural safety. We may continue to travel the galaxy, untangling kinship schema or sacred rituals, but we remain responsible to those we’ve worked with and gained the trust of. There is the duty of telling the story right and making sure that the native’s perspective is appropriately represented, which may require a certain child-like wonder and willingness to explore the unknown, learning their world while we unlearn ourselves.

(First published on American Anthropological Association’s blog February 7, 2013: http://blog.aaanet.org/2013/02/07/baobabs-and-briars-plucking-anthropological-essentials-from-the-little-prince/)