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Anthropology of Everyday Life

Ling, M. 1999. The Anthropology of Everyday Life: Teaching about Culture in Schools. In R. Case & P. Clark (Eds.), The Canadian Anthology of Social Studies: Issues and Strategies for Teachers, pp. 51-58. Vancouver, BC: Pacific Educational Press.

One of the most important conclusions of contemporary anthropology is that any cultural expression should always be considered in the context in which it is expressed. Which is to say, we need to be sensitive to the situation in which cultural values and beliefs are expressed instead of simply passing judgement on these expressions. p.53

Ling argues, correctly I think, that researchers ought to reserve judgement about cultural expressions (the examples used were tattooing and body-piercing, cultural practices that were quite significantly more outside the mainstream than today) until they have understood those practices from within the context of the culture. It might seem odd to a Canadian that it is rude to rest their chopsticks across the edge of their plate, like we often do with a knife that has been soiled but will be used again during the meal. Within Japanese culture, however, it makes perfectly good sense that you wouldn't do this because it is so similar to a funeral rite that is widely practiced using bones.

There are two ways (at least) to get this wrong. The first, according to Ling, is to presume ethnocentrism, or the idea that your own culture is the correct culture. The other way is to commit cultural stereotyping by viewing other cultures superficially and negatively. This is difficult to do. Ethnocentrism has a powerful adaptive effect on groups of people, so the tendency is very strong, and cultural stereotypes are just as adaptive in feeding our ethnocentrism. Back when these tendencies led to the survival of a particular group, they were critical...now they just lead to unnecessary conflict and misunderstanding.

The antidote is to develop the habit of mind that anthropologists call reflexivity, or the ability to be self-aware, neither too critical nor too lenient of one's own culture in relation to others.

Anthropologists, among others, use the term reflexivity to describe this practice of reflecting on one's own social and cultural ways in light of others . The ability to be reflexive,-we might say, is the ability to critically, reflectively engage with others and oneself-to be observant, aware, and to cultivate a habit of mind which is neither self-aggrandizing ("my culture is better than, more interesting, more valid than others"), nor self-denying ("my culture is not as rich, or as interesting, or as 'authentic' as others"), but self-aware. As a feature of anthropological practice reflexivity is essential. It emphasizes the 'relative' nature of culture, and encourages a sensitivity to the wide range of cultural expression.

The idea that reflexivity is a habit of mind is important. It must be practiced as a cognitive skill. It isn't natural.

What the anthropology of everyday life is involved with, then, is simply an examination of the seemingly commonplace, the usual, the taken-for-granted aspects (including objects, roles, attitudes and actions) of our everyday lives, revealing that there is often greater meaning in even the most simple cultural expression than we are sometimes aware of. p. 55

I appreciate how Ling provides two examples of activities that can be used to make everyday cultural expressions either more or less mysterious (depending on whether you are examining something inside or outside your own culture). The example of the Nacirema has been discussed previously here, and the other example is that of the shrine project which challenges students to write about how we invest common objects and practices with significance beyond what one might expect.

I might add another example of a way to make the familiar strange. The Thing Explainer is a book by Randall Munroe, creator of the web comic XKCD, which describes complicated things with simple words. Actually, only the 1000 (ten hundred) most common words in the english language. From the website:

Explore computer buildings (datacenters), the flat rocks we live on (tectonic plates), the things you use to steer a plane (airliner cockpit controls), and the little bags of water you're made of (cells).

Photo by Alexis Chloe on Unsplash