The Usefulness of the Anthropological Approach: Deconstructing and Contextualizing Caricatures

Posted on April 8, 2013 by


My Story into Anthropology

Many many many many many many times I have been asked and ask myself why I’ve gone to graduate school in Anthropology and for “just” an M.A. at a state school.

Well, I’ve had a pretty romantic view of Anthropology and scholarship dating back to my sophomore year in college in 2004.  Everything just seemed to “fit.” It wasn’t law, political science, or history;  but it could be any at any given moment.

I love learning ideas, especially after having experienced a History of Consciousness class with Donna Haraway. It was in that class I learned that anything could be “deconstructed.”  Science, standards, race, everything were “just” human inventions.  By being “just” human inventions, I could see how powerful things could easily be criticized and dismissed, just like the non-powerful things.  Anything could be brought down to size.  I thought there was something very valuable, and truthful to what these people were saying.  I continued my pursuit of History of Consciousness-type classes at UCLA with the History of Science classes, which were quite a bit of a departure from what I’d expected, save for the existence of one class from History of Consciousness alumnist Sharon Traweek.

Upon my exit from undergrad, I entered the working world always with my eye on A grad school.  I’d continued my like of deconstructing of things powerful, which in my opinion, at the time were the ideas of objectivity, and what I felt was a hegemony of scientific disciplines.

But what was my career going to be?  I’d wanted to do museum studies.  Going to New York wasn’t something “other” people would do, I thought, which upon a mid-afternoon glance at my Facebook feed today is a laughable idea in retrospect.  Everyone’s fucking doing that shit now.

I know that I wanted to “become” whatever it was I studied.  I wanted to throw myself into the discipline, without worrying about things like getting money.  I just wanted to spend my day writing, thinking, teaching, doing good when I could.

After undergrad-uation, I’d liked urban planning and threw myself into GIS and cartography. I even got myself a grant-writing gig doing something community development-ish.

Then one day I stumbled unto a blog site called Neuroanthropology.  I was hooked about the discussions of the brain and how it related to human behavior.  I read a book by Neuroscientist Eric Kandel about memory.  From reading that book and frantic blog-hopping onto such sites such as CognitiveDaily, the Situationist and Culture and Cognition, I gradually discovered that my interest wasn’t so much in neuroscience, brain, and Anthropology, but more so within cognition and Anthropology, how people thought.

There wasn’t really any logical progression or evolution to my interest, just gradual bits of discovery from reading blogs and reflecting on the papers.  My reading spanned George Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By to Tor Norretranders’ User Illusion to Godel, Escher, and Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. My interest in Anthropology wasn’t formulated just within the canonical works of Anthropology;  I just thought Anthropological approaches offered the most flexibility to accommodate my multiple wide-ranging interests.

One of the wide-ranging interests was posting on an online sports message board.

Being on an online sports message board, a relatively “mature” one, in which members “know” each other”, I’ve learned to appreciate the many ways people can think and disagree over any topic.  I’ve learned how polarized factions can get, I’ve learned the subtle ways in which posters can distinguish their opinions.  I’ve learned that in all things, it’s that if you’re ever to get a truth especially about people and what they think, you can’t depend on caricaturizations of their ideas or beliefs.

Using the Caricature in Everyday Contexts

It’s come to me now that I’ve heard a lot more conservative rhetoric.  It’s come to me now that I’ve read and listened to the rhetoric of those who call themselves traditional Catholics.  Caricatures. Of people who do not agree with their points of view.  And yes, progressives, the tribe I mostly identify with are prone to do the same.

Something irks me every time I watch a TV and see a ubiquity of white folk in leading roles, juxtaposed with the absence of people of color in leading roles.  Caricatures.  Is what people of color are reduced to.  And yes, people of color, the tribe I mostly identify with (if I’m not placed there by default) might just do the same if given the opportunity.

Caricatures, caricatures, caricatures.  According to wikipedia, caricatures are “simple image[s] showing the features of a subject in a simplified or exaggerated way.” By caricatures, I don’t think they are simply just the physical images, but Caricatures may shine a light on what a contingent of people think is “the truth”:  occasionally they may reveal how a public thinks of something. I’m reminded of a Family Guy clip of a face with literally jut a pair of legs in a skirt walking by while generic sleazebag in convertible asks “do those legs go up all the way?”

A lot of the time caricatures can be amusing. We’ve all seen the big dumbo-eared Obama or a cross-eyed George W. Bush within the context of political cartoons. I love jokes as much as anyone.

However, within more “serious” contexts, like arguments for or against an opinion, the use of a caricaturized image of an individual or group can be offensive.  The welfare mom.  The redneck trailer trash.  The right wing nut.  The hippie liberal.  No one, white, black, red, brown, yellow, gay, straight, Catholic, atheist likes to have their opinions simplified and caricaturized, especially if it makes them look bad.

In argumentation, the caricature is the equivalent of a strawman argument.

The Usefulness of Anthropology:  Contextualizing the Caricatures and Taking “Better” Pictures

What I’ve come to realize in dabbling in studies from neuroscience to physics, each academic discipline is run by people informed by their life experiences and training, aiming for nothing less than “truth.”

Everyone in their respective discipline attempts to model a reality, whether its in their numbers, their words, their images, their new media projects.

Coming into my program and up until recently, I’ve honestly wondered what “truth” Anthropology could unearth that Journalism couldn’t.

In ethnography, the method of inquiry most used in Anthropology typically we spend lots and lots of time with people, talking with them, watching what they do, and then perhaps doing what we do.  With journalism, the interviews can be quick and to the point.  Investigative journalism can be close to what ethnography does, but the objective in the unearthing of fact, whereas the Anthropologist aims to unearth a reality.

The way to unearth a reality: show it. Pictures, pictures, pictures. Pictures in sequence. Panoramic pictures.  Moving pictures.  And “showing it” doesn’t have to be strictly limited to visual pictures, but you could show it in the words you write or speak to represent a person, scene.  You can also have people experience the reality by being engrossed in an aurasma film.

Nowadays with digital photography, cameraphones, social media, the picture, the photo is more ubiquitous than before.  Your profile picture is the representation of you, in whatever way you choose to define it.  You could be a picture of you and your niece, you could be an event your promoting, you could be a symbol of equality, you could be that picture of you as a baby, you could be your mom.

The photos of you online can sometimes hurt you as well;  an image of you appearing to be drunk or scantily clad can be grounds for you being told to stay away from volunteering.  It could mean you losing out on a job.  Image, no matter how fleeting or lost amongst a couple of halo and angel-wing photos, can be a defining line.

I think it is in this context that Anthopology and its methods can and has been useful:  overturning the crude “images” of individuals, groups, entities by showing, making, painting complex pictures of those individuals, groups, entities be it through writing, filmmaking, and/or photography.  “Complex” meaning showing people in their range of emotions, and range of situations. “Complex” meaning showing people in their various interactions with individuals, groups, physical spaces, other beings, objects.  “Complex” meaning showing how any little or event affects individuals and groups.  “Complex” meaning that people are more than what is seen in a snapshot or, a caricature.