Getting Real and Making it Relevant: Teaching Introductory Anthropology

back to blog
  • posted bySarah Mahler
  • dateFebruary 27, 2014
  • commentsNo comments
Lifting a Textbook

In my blog posts earlier this week, I’ve emphasized taking an approach to teaching anthropology, and in particular Introduction to Anthropology, as a truly extraordinary opportunity that we should not miss. The overwhelming majority of our students come to our introductory classes with no prior exposure to social sciences, let alone to anthropology. They may come in with vague notions of anthropologists who study exotic peoples, Indiana Jones’s archaeological adventures, and/or forensic work in Bones.  I survey my students on the first day of class to find out why they’ve come and from that data I know to treat their arrival as a gift. I’ve got just one chance to make anthropology relevant to their lives. If I try to treat them as potential colleagues—as anthropologists-in-the-making—I risk alienating them. That risk rises if I require them to read textbooks thick with hundreds of pages of abstract or alien information. Will all that “stuff” survive a few months’ brain storage let alone a lifetime? If not, then it might be better to get something anthropological to stick for their lifetime. In this blog post I provide a few concrete examples of the choices I make and the pedagogical approaches I use.

Let’s focus on linguistics, but any topic will do. A typical textbook will describe morphemes and phonemes, sociolinguistics and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Will those terms and ideas stick? I seriously doubt any of them will, even though they are valuable. So why teach them? As I see it, the value of linguistics for this audience is the angle it brings to fundamental questions I address throughout the course: How do babies who are born with little to no cultural imprint grow up to express such wide cultural diversity? How do we become culturally distinctive? What answers to this question does learning to communicate provide?

To prepare for this linguistics section of the course I have students read an article or two on cross-cultural variations in communication (such as the classic article by Maltz & Borker on gendered communication). I also have them watch short YouTube videos before class on how gestures vary cross-culturally and on the wide array of accents in English (I also provide optional videos about accents in other languages). “If we all speak the ‘same’ language how do we learn to speak it so differently?” I ask students. “Do you recall how you learned to speak?” In their teams (I use team-based learning, which is an active learning pedagogy) they debate their own folk theories about how babies learn language. [It is important to recall from my previous blog post that knowledge sticks best when students engage it several times and when they actively participate in the acquisition.]

Then I show them one or more short videos of researchers who study how babies learn to tune out sounds that are not used in their “native” language(s) toward the end of their first year of life. They find this fascinating. “This is how culture works overall, not just in how we learn to communicate,” I emphasize, repeating a central approach to the course: “All people learn culture but until recently we’ve not really understood much about how they learn. We are born infinitely flexible in our ability to acquire any cultural practices/patterns,” I continue, “but we quickly become specialists in those practices/patterns that people around us perform and value. Without realizing it, all babies trade cultural flexibility for cultural competence in a more narrow range of cultural possibilities. We all do this; it’s just part of being a cultural species.” If I have time, I have them try to stump each other with accents just to enliven the class a bit and to drive home the key lesson: To be human is to acquire cultural comforts that make us belong with “our” people but simultaneously differentiate us from others. Ethnogenesis begets ethnocentrism….

For my coverage of “linguistics” I also emphasize how body language is culturally inflected and how being able to read others’ body language is of tremendous value to them whatever career paths they choose. Again, I expose them to basic ideas outside the course by having them watch engaging productions such as “The Secrets of Body Language.” (1) I underscore the lessons I wish to stick with them by involving them in some simple, fun research. For example, I have students do elevator ethnographies and Garfinkel’s “breaching” experiments to help them understand proxemics at the same time as they learn some basic ethnographic data collection techniques. Students enter elevators and record observations of others’ behavior in the elevators. They also experiment with distances between themselves and others while speaking: breaking understood distance rules by moving away or closer during conversations. They record their findings on individually graded worksheets where they also must discuss how the research relates to the other course materials on “body language.”

In class, students compare their findings with those of their teammates. To promote their understanding of how social scientists might analyze this data, I have each team discuss its top three findings for each experiment and record them on the class’s white board. Then I have all the students do a “gallery walk.” They get up from their seats and examine all the teams’ data on the board, working to identify what social scientists seek: the range in the data, its patterns, and any outliers or “anthropological nuggets.” I assist this analysis by applying “codes” to their data—such as labeling findings with a “G” for gender and so on. We then discuss how much variation in the data they perceive when they examine it first as “raw” data versus coded data. I always end such a gallery walk exercise by saying, “This is a good example of how people don’t behave in random ways. What we say and do is patterned but we’re not born knowing those patterns. Social science is about identifying these patterns AND explaining them. What theories explain the patterns we’ve uncovered?”

Typically I conclude a topic by relating the material to careers. “How might what you’ve learned be valuable to you in a career?” I ask them to discuss in their teams. They later share teams’ ideas with the whole class. In the course materials for that week I also offer weblinks called “Career Connections” to good examples of how the course content relates to work real people do. With the material for “linguistics,” I reference the jury consultants in “Secrets of Body Language” as well as how the documentary illustrates the importance of understanding body language for politicians and beyond. Occasionally I supplement these links with guest speakers—cameos by real people who come to class or attend virtually via Google Hangout, Adobe Connect, etc.

To summarize, my mantra is “make it relevant and interesting.” Otherwise I should expect students only to tune in through the exam and then hit their mental “delete” keys. I’m sure morphemes and phonemes end up in the trash bin for 90+% of our intro students. Only time will tell if elevator ethnographies stick longer. I’m betting that they do because every time my students enter the “lift” in the future they might be reminded that space, like so much else in human experience, is culturally inflected.

Sarah J. Mahler is an Associate Professor in the Global and Sociocultural Studies Program at Florida International University. She is author of the book Culture as Comfort.


(1) There can be more scholarly materials than the ones I often choose, such as the documentary series “Do You Speak American?” by PBS instead of the History Channel’s “The Secrets of Body Language.” These can be less engaging. The bottom line for me is to find accurate and sticky materials. You might have different selection criteria.


Garfinkel, Harold. 1964. “Studies of the Routine Grounds of Everyday Activities.” Social Problems, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Winter 1964), pp. 225-250.

Maltz, Daniel N. and Borker, Ruth A. 1982. “A Cultural Approach to Male-Female Miscommunication” in John J. Gumperz (ed.) Language and Social Identity. Cambridge University Press.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published.