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How I Discovered My Passion for Anthropology

A year ago, if someone had asked me to define ‘anthropology’ I would have struggled to come up with a confident answer. Truthfully, I really had no idea what anthropology was until last summer when I began investigating every unexplored field of study offered at my university-to-be.

I’d put international relations on the “intended major” line of countless applications senior year, but I wasn’t 100% sure it was what I wanted to study. I love learning about culture, I want to help solve social issues, and working abroad is ideal—IR had to be the best option, right? I wanted to be certain. So I read through all the majors offered at Rochester to make sure I wasn’t overlooking something better fit to my interests than the politics-focused field of international relations. What I found was anthropology.

 

The American Anthropological Association defines anthropology simply as “the study of humans, past and present.” Anthropologists work to understand “the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all human history,” relying on knowledge of a variety of other fields (in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences) in their effort to find solutions to social problems.

The AAA identifies the four main fields of anthropology as “sociocultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics,” but there are many subcategories under these divisions, as anthropology—being the study of people—can relate to pretty much anything within the human world.

 

In anthropology, I’d unexpectedly discovered a field that encompassed a remarkable variety of my interests—culture, sociology, travel, social work, writing . . . a field that relies on analytical thinking and emphasizes cross-cultural understanding to produce well-informed and relativistic knowledge of the society. In short, I’d found precisely the place for me.

When it came time for fall registration, my top priority was ANT 101, Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. While Rochester offers a range of anthropology courses open to all majors and class years, 101 seemed the most logical place to start in order to get a more concrete feel for what anthropology is all about (plus it’s a required class for anthro majors). I was fortunately able to register for the course, and so began my enrollment in the best class I’ve taken thus far in college.

 

As a 101 class, Intro to Cultural Anthropology reflects its title, introducing students to the unique and captivating world of cultural anthropology. Students read everything from ethnographies (books produced from anthropological fieldwork) to articles published in The New York Times, touching on classic anthropological theory as well as contemporary studies of modern issues. Class sessions are a combination of lectures and student discussions as the professor (in my case the absolutely fantastic Prof. Doughty) pushes the class to discern what the course readings are getting at and how these different arguments relate to our understanding of society and culture.

On top of weekly response papers and a few exams, ANT 101 is beloved for its ethnographic assignments—projects that give students a taste for anthropological fieldwork. During the semester, I spent two hours taking field notes in a coffee shop, observing and analyzing the world of Java’s Café on a nice day in late September. I attended a religious ceremony—a Jewish Shabbat service at the Interfaith Chapel—that I’d never been to before as a way to experience “participant observation” in an unfamiliar culture. For my final project, I analyzed data about cell phone usage after interviewing several adults on their experiences and combining my findings with three of my classmates’.

While I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed much of the work in my other classes this year, these assignments in 101 have by far been the most interactive and exciting. By the end of the fall semester, I was thoroughly hooked. I’d found my major (in addition to English, that is) and my confidence in this fact hasn't wavered since.

This past semester, I took a class on the anthropology of illegality/legality and am registered for Modern Social Theory and Intro to Linguistic Analysis next fall. These classes represent only a few of the diverse options offered by the anthro department. Topics range from medical anthropology and gender studies to post-conflict justice and environmental issues. I have additionally been involved with the Undergraduate Anthropology Council all year and was recently elected to be a member of the e-board as secretary. UAC meets once a week to watch documentaries, view private presentations by professors, attend anthro-related events/lectures, and discuss social issues.

While I don’t plan on becoming a professional anthropologist (few anthro majors do), I’m very excited about the places that my degree will take me: the Peace Corps, international journalism, NGO social work, who knows? I didn't apply to Rochester with anthropology in mind, but it has since become one of my greatest passions and an extremely prevalent part of my academics and life in general. With anthropology, I've found my place and I couldn't be happier.

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