Anth 179-2
Reading Culture
Thursday 2:45-5:30


Professor Marianne de Laet
Office Hours MWF 10-11
Parsons 1259

Course description
“… man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun.” (Geertz 1972, 5.)

According to Clifford Geertz, a leading figure in anthropology for the past 40 years, “culture is those webs [of significance], and the analysis of it [is] therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.” (1972, 5). Practicing anthropology is thus different from doing chemistry, high energy physics, or psychology: rather than systematically manipulating an environment and recording variations in behavior that ensue, anthropologists immerse themselves in a cultural environment and “read” meaning into the phenomena they observe; they “inscribe.” That is, they observe, interpret, calibrate, and gauge – and then, when they are confident that their objects may “recognize something new of themselves” (Helmreich 1998, 26) in the anthropological narrative, they write it down. Observing, reading, writing, suspending judgment, discussing, and critically engaging one’s own thinking and writing – those are the tools of the anthropologist’s trade. Anthropology is thus an exercise in critical thought.

In this course we will learn how to “read” culture: the texts of cultural anthropology and the texture of culture, itself. Our leading questions are the following: how do we learn about culture? What does it mean to "read"? What enables us to understand culture? And why is such understanding important? By the end of the semester I would like all of you to be able to make a reasoned, informed and specific argument for the importance of understanding culture; more specifically, I would like you to be able to argue this with the HMC audience in mind: how would you make a case for the importance of understanding culture to those who live in an environment that is defined by the pursuit of innovation in science and technology?

The first few weeks of the semester will be devoted to methods of learning about culture and to the exploration of a culture we think we know: our own. Halfway the semester you will begin to research independently a culture of your choice, while we continue our class activities around the exploration of cultures unfamiliar to most of us (snapshots of Africa). In the last two weeks each of you leads a session on your culture of choice, providing the class with viewing or reading materials in order to help us understand the cultural realm that you have chosen to investigate.

Required Texts

Please purchase the following books through Amazon
Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart
Keith Basso Wisdom Sits in Places
Juanita Diaz-Cotto Chicana Lives and Criminal Justice
Adam Hochschild King Leopold’s Ghost
Paul Stoller Jaguar