Dr. Agustín Fuentes argues that it is human creativity that is the defining characteristic of our species ( see my review of The Creative Spark here: Book Review- The Creative Spark). I agree with his position and there is no better way to see this than to focus on one of the most stark expressions of our creativity, storytelling. I would even go so far as to state that our species name would be more descriptive if it were changed from Homo sapiens (wise human) to Homo narrans (storytelling human). I am not creative enough to come up with this alternate nomenclature (I believe it to be first coined by Henning Mankell in “The Art of Listening”) but I find it a much better fit.
We narrativize everything. We think in narratives. We convey our experiences in narratives. We understand cause and effect as narratives. We see the consequences of our choices and behaviors as narratives. We understand and present the world in narratives. As Misia Landau argues, we should utilize narratives when conducting and presenting science as we can then test our narratives against the evidence available and reality1. Now the copious use ‘narrative’ aside, storytelling is an important facet of being human. This is my story and how I came to an anthropologist.
I grew up in a Working Class family in rural North Carolina, in a small town called Broadway, in the smallest county in NC: Lee County. I learned to read at a very young age and it quickly became my favorite thing. As I aged, I got into sports (baseball and soccer), Modern Arnis (a Filipino martial art, founded by Grand Master Remy Presas), and played in various bands. All the while, I read and achieved my narrative fix by incorporating film and video games into my repertoire.
When people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would answer “an author” (although I also bounced between other potential careers as well). I eventually ended up in college as a psychology and biology major but I found both incredibly unsatisfying as in psychology, I was being taught that Western values and personalities were normative and that all life could be boiled down to their genotypes (along with a psych of personality prof that taught us about Intelligent Design nearly every class meeting). I was fortunate enough to take an anthropology course with Dr. Linda Wolfe and this was the first step on my journey to anthropology. However, I chose to leave university for a well-paying job. I eventually made my way out to California where I lived for a couple years, still dreaming of being an author.
After my time in CA, I made my way back to NC where I lived and worked in Raleigh, NC. While there my daughter was born but I made a promise to myself; before she turned two I would go back to school. I emailed Dr. Wolfe on a whim and she told me that she was preparing to retire but she would like me to come work with her and complete a B.A. in anthropology; so I did.
I went on to complete a B.A. in anthropology and philosophy. From there, I went on to complete a M.A. in anthropology under the tutelage of Dr. Jon Marks where the value of narrative was further corroborated. Understanding how the stories we tell ourselves and the stories handed down through our cultures informs our experience of the world and contextualizing these stories is an necessary part of reflexivity in anthropology.
See, anthropology was my opportunity to be a storyteller. I could write the real stories of real people (and primates) and those stories could do more than simply entertain or compel; they could be employed to solve real human (and primate) problems. By talking to people, anthropologists get a peek into the subjective lives of other people and use those people’s stories to make some kind of sense out of the social world in which we live. As David Graeber asserts in Bullshit Jobs2 (a book that I am not finished with but am already in love), anthropologists “tell people what they already know but don’t realize that they know” (p. 7). I was able to work on a project with a Drag community in Eastern NC, performing ethnography and trying to understand social integration within the community.
When it comes to primates, I get to observe the social life of primates (play behavior in chimpanzees or female social relationships and agonism in rhesus macaques) and interpret it in some context3 . I am telling their story, albeit with no input from them (ethnography is really hard with non-human primates… they don’t talk much).
Now I have to get back around to the value of anthropology. I hope that I’ve made it clear that anthropology has a lot of value to me. Graeber lays out his theory of bullshit jobs, defined as:
a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that is not the case (Graeber 2018, p. 10)
I don’t think I have one.
However, how does it apply to society in a broader sense. Does anthropology contribute anything to society? Let’s think about it context. Fields like biology contend with human concerns by studying and/or diagnosing that which ails humans as biological organisms. Cancer and infectious disease are two easy examples. Anthropologists address the issues listed above but anthropology is a dialectical approach to understanding who we are and where we come from and so anthropologists can also study and diagnose that which ails us socially as well as biologically (and get a handle on the relationship between our social and biological lives). Inequality, discrimination, structural violence, hegemony, etc. are all ills that befall humanity in some way or another an anthropologists are uniquely positioned to provide insight into these. I think the difference is when we interrogate inequality or structural violence, we are simply telling people what they already know but we give it a name.
Every semester, I teach students about structural violence or hegemony and at the end of the semester I have them reflect on the ideas that they see as most important to the semester. These two are always at the top of the list and the students recognize that they already knew them at some intuitive level but to have names attached to these processes and to show the students their reverberating effects in gender, race, class, etc.
We anthropologists tell stories and I love it! Those stories, whether they are ethnographies of Drag Queens in North Carolina or the dialectical construction of rhesus macaque social organization in a swamp in Florida, can (and do) change the world.
- Landau, M. (1984). Human evolution as narrative: have hero myths and folktales influenced our interpretations of the evolutionary past?. American Scientist, 72(3), 262-268.
- Graeber, D. (2018). Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Simon and Schuster.
- For rhesus macaques I’m interested in how human behavior and anthropogenic climate change affect social patterns in groups for the purpose of understanding how their behavior could potentially track with rapid ecological change. If they aren’t modifying their behaviors in the face of ecological upheaval, there is much hope without some kind of intervention.